Despite mixed operational success over recent years and in light of ongoing fiscal constraints, there remains a number of promising modern soldier upgrade programmes which could significantly enhance the capabilities of the next generation of soldiers.
However, despite such efforts to optimise lethality, mobility, protection and situational awareness for dismounted and mounted soldiers on the battlefield, concerns continue to linger regarding potentially overburdening the soldier with the addition of body armour, reconnaissance technology and weapons. Programmes in this regard include the French Direction Générale de L’armement (DGA/General Armaments Directorate), the country’s defence procurement agency, Fantassins à Équipements et Liaisons Intégrés (FELIN/Integrated Soldier Equipment) effort; the US Special Operations Command’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) and the US Army’s Nett Warrior; the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Future Soldier Vision (FSV) concept; Canada’s Integrated Soldier System (ISS) project; as well as numerous other efforts across Europe.
The DGA’s FELIN programme, designed in collaboration with Sagem, has proven to be one of the most successful soldier modernisation efforts globally following extensive operational use with the Armée de Terre (AdT/French Army) during recent and ongoing deployments to Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and Mali. The first version of FELIN is due to complete the delivery of close to 19000 systems to the AdT in 2019 with more than 17 regiments currently equipped and operating the technology. The DGA is already considering future-proofing the technology, and in April 2015 awarded Sagem a contract of an undisclosed value to upgrade existing FELIN systems to the Version 1.3 (V1.3) standard following operational feedback from the armed forces. A Sagem spokesperson explained to AMR that this work would be centred around software improvements with particular emphasis on optimising FELIN’s utility in fire support roles such as enabling the system to support indirect fire systems including mortar teams, as well as sniper teams. These improvements will be performed as part of the AdT’s next generation Scorpion Information and Combat System (SICS) programme, which is rolling out new Command and Control (C2) systems through the army by 2020.
Additional work will focus on reducing size and weight parameters, with Sagem claiming this could amount to as much as 40 percent in reductions to the soldier’s burden. Deliveries of FELIN upgraded systems are due to be made to the French Army throughout 2016. This initiative will take existing FELIN ensembles and upgrade them to the FELIN V1.3 status. “The FELIN V1.3 version will feature a new configuration designed to optimise the system’s observation and combat functions. Software upgrades will provide new services for specialised sharpshooter and mortar support units. It also offers a new carrying structure, along with lighter and more modular protective gear, thus improving soldier mobility while decreasing their visual signature,” the company spokesperson explained to AMR.
Furthermore, the DGA and Sagem are considering options to develop a new-build FELIN Version 2 (V2) which, according to industry sources, will concentrate on the integration of enhanced reconnaissance systems as well as optical weapon sights, Image Intensification (I2) and Thermal Imaging (TI)/Infrared (IR) systems. The French armed forces can expect to begin to receive operational variants of the upgraded system by circa 2020, the spokesperson added.
Elsewhere in Europe, the BENELUX (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) countries have joined forces to collectively enhance the capabilities available to their respective armed forces with regards to so-called ‘smart vest’ technology. Smart Vests include a soldier’s communications, torso ballistic protection, computers and accompanying battery packs in a single garment. On 2 July 2015, the countries signed a $150 million contract with Israeli company Elbit Systems for the delivery of 5500 smart vests featuring integrated reconnaissance and C2 technology including End User Device (EUD: these can encompass anything from a smartphone, a head-up display or any electronic tool which a soldier would use to view data); batteries and a Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitter; all of which can be connected to a vehicles’ electronics and C2 systems as and when required.
A spokesperson for Elbit explained to AMR that an initial tranche of 80 vests will be delivered to the BENELUX armed forces for an evaluation programme expected to be initiated in 2016 and completed in 2017. The smart vest is based on Elbit’s Dominator integrated infantry combat system which is currently in service with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the Australian Army. The company spokesperson explained that “asymmetric warfare, low-intensity conflicts and special operations have redefined the modern battlefield for the dismounted soldier. Complex urban and underground terrain, the threat of friendly fire and the brief lifespan of targets all require a superior level of situation awareness.” They added that, “in order to achieve a clear and accurate understanding of the battle space, all systems and units must have continuous connectivity. Enhanced C2 processes promote improved real-time decision-making, minimising the time from event to reaction. The appropriate use of selected information by the various echelons, along with proper coordination, significantly improves the lethality, survivability and manoeuvrability of the fighting force.”
The Dominator system is designed to be used at the lowest tactical level, that of the individual soldier, and can be networked up to battalion headquarters for C2. It is designed to shorten the ‘sensor-to-shooter loop’ which encompasses the positive identification of a target through to the delivery of kinetic effects. The Dominator ensemble comprise Coral-CR TI binoculars, a Head-Up Display (HUD) with eyepiece, tactical computer, GPS tracking device integrated into a planning display EUD, a modular load carrying vest, and a radio designed to provide a real-time operational picture, send and receive live target and mission data as well as Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) gathered by the soldier. The HUD can be configured into a helmet-mounted or handheld display, providing access to modular C2 applications including high-resolution IMINT and full-motion video feeds. The Dominator’s planning unit comprises a 203.2 millimetre/mm (eight-inch) display allowing the user to view battlefield maps and accompanying C2 information. The screen itself uses a glare-resistant liquid crystal display with an anti-reflective coating for operation during daylight hours. The Dominator’s power pack comprises a rechargeable and power source equipped with a status indicator.
The Coral-CR TI binoculars operate in the 3-5 micron medium wave IR range, which can be used for day and night operations and in tandem with target acquisition systems including laser designators. These binoculars can also be networked to other Dominator systems for the automatic transmission and receipt of target information and include an integrated compass, GPS transmitter and laser rangefinder. All the elements of the Dominator suite are brought together using its Fighting Load Vest. “The Dominator’s modular approach allows the components to be tailored to a specific doctrine. System variants include senior commanders, team leaders, forward observers, snipers, special weapons operators and riflemen,” Elbit’s spokesperson explained while illustrating how the system can be integrated with legacy tactical communications, unmanned ground vehicles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other reconnaissance platforms.
It is unclear what this decision to acquire Dominator ensembles for evaluation in the BENELUX countries means for the individual soldier system programmes in these nations which include Belgium’s Soldier Transformation (BEST) project, the Netherland’s Verbeterd Operationeel Soldaat Systeem (VOSS/Improved Operational Soldier System) effort, and Luxembourg’s Cooperative Modernisation Programme of the Army for a Soldier System (COMPASS) concept.
Elsewhere in Europe, the United Kingdom’s MoD continues to drive forward its Future Soldier Vision, which aims to provide a conceptual vision of how the soldier will operate on the battlefield in 2024. According to sources within the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), the programme aims to “…provide a focus for research and help plan for future capability requirements and procurement … The British Army’s recent experience in Afghanistan has demonstrated the need for the soldier to cope with a wide range of diverse and complex threats. The future soldier will require a mix of technologies and capabilities to address the situation they face,” an official spokesperson explained to AMR: “While today’s threats are anticipated to remain over the next decade, with a modular system, tactical surprise can be avoided through adaptability,” they added.
The UK’s effort will feature three sub-areas called Vertus Pulse 1, 2 and 3, featuring development of a head sub-system, torso sub-system, wearable communications, smart glasses; a personal role computer, and a weapons concept. Vertus Pulse 1 has already secured an order with Source Vagabond Systems of Israel for the delivery of 9000 system suites destined to equip three high readiness brigades within the British Army, the delivery of which was completed in late 2015. Vertus Pulse 1 will also encompass personal load carrying equipment, an exoskeleton, maxillofacial (protecting the head and neck) protection and a combat helmet with an integrated night vision mount. Follow-on Pulses 2 and 3 will concentrate on protection, C2 and reconnaissance technology, blue force tracking; health monitoring systems, and integration with the UK MoD’s Project Morpheus tactical communications initiative which will field new tactical radios across the British Army by the mid-point of next decade.
DSTL is currently developing a Vertus Pulse Concept Capability Demonstrator and evaluating the potential of this technology for integration and interoperability with the US Army’s Nett Warrior programme which will provide new soldier systems to enhance situational awareness for dismounted squad leaders. DSTL’s Vertus Pulse Concept Capability Demonstrator initiative will be followed by a Concept and Assessment Phase which is understood to begin in 2019, according to British Army sources.
The Vertus head sub-system aims to provide the soldier with a variety of lightweight optronics and the means to share the imagery gathered by these sensors with other soldiers to provide collaborative targeting and engagement capabilities. DSTL is considering introducing a networking capability into the Vertus concept to enable small UAVs to provide commanders with situational awareness. Meanwhile, the torso sub-system will include hard body armour, integrated connectors for the supply of wearable power and data systems, a power supply, and integrated load-carrying pouches for water, medical supplies and ammunition. The wearable communications element is aimed at providing the “real-time reporting of soldier health with sensors embedded in the helmet, clothing and smart watch to monitor their physical health and performance … Wirelessly linked to the soldier processing system, the availability of this data will allow the commander to make informed decisions during combat,” the DSTL source explained. “If the soldier is seriously injured, information will enable medics to act faster during the ‘Golden Hour’ following trauma, when a soldier’s potential for survival can be greatly improved if they reach medical treatment after experiencing serious trauma within one hour,” the source continued. Meanwhile, smart glasses will provide real-time data in the form of a HUD integrated into both lenses. Bone-conducting headphones, meanwhile, will provide the voice communications, with an integrated camera feeding live visual information to the soldier. These same smart glasses can also be integrated into the combat helmet if required and with the Vertus Personal Role Computer, the latter of which enables a soldier to share intelligence and C2 information with their comrades. Furthermore, the Vertus’ “navigation systems will incorporate simultaneous localisation and mapping technology and be capable of operating in a GPS-denied environment,” the source continued.
Finally, the Vertus weapon concept is considering lethal and non-lethal effects with an ability to provide targeting information between soldiers and fire teams. Specific ideas include an enhanced stock design including an integrated power pack for the operation of optronics and weapons-mounted sensors, a digital optical weapon sight giving direct communication to the HUD or tactical radio system, and finally, an adjustable hand grip with communication buttons and a bipod.
Russia continues to drive ahead with its Ratnik future soldier programme which includes solutions designed to enhance lethality, protection and SA. The Russian MoD had initially been considering the procurement of FELIN from the French MoD in 2012 (see above), but selected an organic development path to design, develop and manufacture a total of 70000 soldier systems. Industry sources suggested to AMR that Russian Army units began to receive the first Ratnik systems as early as 2014. The Ratnik includes body armour, a combat helmet, TI-based weapon sight, and a tablet EUD capable of providing mapping and disseminating C2 information across the battlefield in voice and data forms.
Furthermore, the MoD is already considering a next-generation Ratnik-2 ensemble which could contain additional C2 and reconnaissance technology no doubt increasing the current ten kilogram (22lbs) weight of the initial version, although there is no word as to when this may enter service. Scope of work includes a MoD contract with Russia’s United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation for the development of EUDs for the Ratnik-2. Solutions include the TT-E EUD which will be issued to tactical commanders on the ground as well as fire support elements. A second AK-E EUD will be issued to soldiers at the lowest level, providing them with access to GPS and mapping with universal serial bus and Wi-Fi connections.
Meanwhile, the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) continues to develop its TALOS concept which has the potential to revolutionise soldier modernisation and other defence programmes without the need for a designated prime contractor. Instead, the programme has more than 60 industry partners as well as academic and research organisations, working closely with the Tampa-based Command to develop a next-generation operator suit designed to enhance lethality, protection and mobility in close quarter battle.
Details remain classified but sources have informed AMR that the programme continues to press ahead with the blessing of USSOCOM Commander General Joseph Votel. Current plans are scheduled to unveil a technology demonstrator in 2018. Initial variants of TALOS have included powered exoskeletons, a central power system, and body armour based around liquid armour technology with an all-encompassing motorcycle-style combat helmet with integrated C2 and reconnaissance systems including CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) and biometric sensors, target acquisition equipment, GPS and navigation systems, I2 and TI sights, plus countless other modular technologies which could be integrated as and when required.
One of the major areas of interest concentrates on mobility and an ability to carry increased amounts of C2 technology, hence the consideration of exoskeletons such as the Revision Military system put forward for trials with USSOCOM towards the end of 2014. Although not officially part of the TALOS programme, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sharing information with USSOCOM regarding its Warrior Web programme which “…seeks to develop the technologies required to prevent and reduce musculoskeletal injuries caused by dynamic events typically found in the (soldier’s) environment”. According to Major Christopher Orlowski, US Army programme manager for the Warrior Web, the goal of the effort is to design a lightweight, conformal under-suit that is transparent to the user. He explained to AMR, “The amount of equipment carried by today’s dismounted soldier can exceed 45kgs (100lbs), as troops conduct patrols for extended periods over rugged and hilly terrain.”
Maj. Orlowski continued that “(t)he added weight while bending, running, squatting, jumping and crawling in a tactical environment increases the risk of musculoskeletal injury, particularly on vulnerable areas such as ankles, knees and lumbar spine. Increased load weight also causes increase in physical fatigue, which further decreases the body’s ability to perform tasks and protect against both acute and chronic injury,” with structures designed to protect injury prone areas. Running on just 100 Watts of power, a TALOS Technology Demonstrator is expected to be tested in appropriate mission profiles under realistic loads to evaluate performance in 2016, although there is no word as to when, if ever, TALOS will enter service.
After a lull in development and operational utility, it appears that the soldier modernisation market is witnessing some kind of resurgence. However, any acceptance into service will rely entirely on ergonomics when used by soldiers on the battlefield. On paper, such technology can only assist operators but should any of these solutions be cumbersome and distracting, they will be quickly rejected at the tactical end in favour of tried and tested alternatives.
by Andrew White