While the most prominent multi-national military campaign that is currently underway, the US-led efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgent movement is primarily an air-led operation, an awareness of what is on the ground below is of paramount important.
Having a higher level of Situational Awareness (SA) compared to one’s adversary can lead to mission success. In an epoch which is witnessing insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and acts of political violence at home, such as the ISIS-led attacks in Paris in November 2015 when threats can emerge from anywhere, robust SA can help militaries better defend personnel, infrastructure and even civilians. While situational awareness can just as easily be human intelligence-based, technology plays its part, and a variety of different sensor types are being utilised to give a better idea to soldiers of the goings on around them.
On the tactical level, these systems need to be mobile and easily deployed, while having the ability to perform at a standard that benefits the operator. One advantage that soldiers can enjoy, particularly over insurgent opponents, is the high-level ability to see in the dark. Operations do not cease at night, and tactical advantages can be made by advancing under cover of darkness, but this tactical advantage is only of use if such an action is facilitated by night vision technology.
The US Army is considered the leading operator of such systems, with the force’s night vision laboratory at Fort Belvoir, Virginia historically defining the standards for NVGs (Night Vision Goggles). The US currently operates so-called Gen-III (Third Generation) NVG technology; a standard that was defined by the US government through its work at the Ft. Belvoir facility: “This is recognised around the world, and this technology (Gen-III) is the latest and greatest, because it requires both an architectural change in the way the (night vision) tubes are constructed, and a significant performance increase in the upper end scale of capability,” Eric Garris, night vision/dismounted platforms product line manager and chief technologist at Harris, told Armada: “Gen-III is the latest, and I have not seen a true Gen-IV capability, or that the US Army recognised such capability.”
Gen-III is distinguished by the performance and lifespan of the systems comprising the NVGs, plus the use of gallium arsenide, a material which boasts a good resistant to heat, and hence can handle comparatively high electrical power levels. Moreover, Gen-II systems are no longer operated by the US armed forces, which sets them ahead of adversaries: “Nobody has written a requirement for what would be called Gen-IV, and we use the US Army as an identifier for generations of night vision goggles, and the standard is still around a Gen-III,” Darrell Hackler, senior director of global business development for night vision at Harris, added: “So we’re doing some development into what we believe may be the Generation-IV, and we will push our own capability and listen to our customers and incorporate (their requirements) into our development programmes.”
Harris launched the latest incarnation of its night vision technology in October 2016, which is a lightweight binocular known as the F5032, that has the increased ability to operate in low-light conditions. The F5032 has a 250mm (0.9 inches/in) close-focus range, that has a fixed and adjustable diopter lenses which removes the need to change static lenses for personal or mission specific requirements. It also includes an infrared illuminator integrated into the binocular, which reduces the need for a separate illuminator to be carried. The F5032 is competing in the sub-0.5 kilograms/kg (1.1lb) category of night vision binoculars, Mr. Hackler added, noting that the close range of some 250mm sets it apart from other competing systems: “There has been a lot of interest since our launch in October, and we’ve proposed the goggles for several large tenders, in both the US and international market, and it’s been a good goggle for us,” he said: “We’re continuing to see a lot of movement in it.”
Harris took the line of systems designed for aviation use and ruggedised the technology for use by ground troops, Mr. Hackler said: “This has transitioned to a lightweight binocular, designed specifically with the soldier in mind,” he added: “Lessons learned on the battlefield over the last ten years is that infantry soldiers facing the enemy head on prefer binocular night vision, so that’s where we’re seeing the transition from a monocular to a binocular, and that is the market we’re looking at.”
The company is also bringing to market a night vision google integrated with both a head-up display and the company’s tactical radio products, in the guise of its Integrated Soldier System (ISS): “The ISS system has been in development for several years, and it is really based around our tactical mobility night vision goggle, which has a head up display that can provide situational awareness capability to the soldier,” Mr. Garris said: “We have now integrated that with a broad line of Harris radio solutions, so that we can send and receive that information securely to the soldier. We have an integrated Android end user device, that allows us to send and receive information to the soldier and back to command, and show that in the head-up display.”
An augmented reality capability has also been added, which fits onto the soldier’s helmet and provides head tracking and overlay of three-dimensional icons to the soldier: “So instead of looking down at the Android or end user device … you have that information relayed directly to that head-up display, so that you can see navigation heads up, target identification, blue force tracking, (and) if on a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) operation, you would be able to track aircraft well beyond line of sight as they’re (approaching the target),” Mr. Garris observed: “It’s so the soldier can keep eyes on the mission, handle the weapon, and have the information coming to the integrated head-up display.”
This is augmented reality capability is currently only available as a night time system, but Harris is looking to add a plug and play daytime capability to it, so that it can be operated throughout the day: “Right now, we have a night time … and we are looking over the next year to develop a daytime capability for that so that we can provide that in a 24-hour capability,” Mr. Garris added: “It’s going to be a plug and play system so that the soldier doesn’t have to change the (equipment) from what they use at night to what they use in the day.” The company hopes to bring this augmented reality production to market over the next twelve months, in line with the availability of the ISS, for which the firm is also completing development.
Controp, meanwhile, has developed a new intruder detection system dubbed Twister, which allows operators to scan for targets and anomalies at a rate of one scan per second. It was developed to be easily deployed, and can be carried in backpacks, detecting human targets at a range of four kilometres (2.4 miles), and vehicles at eight kilometres (4.9 miles): “The challenge that we had a few years ago posed by both customers of ours was a joint effort to develop a new system that takes our scanning and auto-detect capability based on electro-optic radar (see below) and take it one step forward,” Hagay Azani, Controp’s vice president for marketing and sales, told Armada: “The main mission was to make it portable for troops to carry on their back … We utilise electro-optical capabilities into an electro-optic ‘radar’. If a rotating system revisits the same spot in an area once in half a minute, then there is an updated picture once every thirty seconds.” Twister can carry out focused surveillance of particular targets while also continuing to survey the wider area, and can track particular targets as it continues to scan: “Each second the system carries out a panoramic observation of the entire perimeter, 360 degrees, and giving a new detection map,” Mr. Azani said: “It refreshes the entire map of detection, and it also maintains track files on detections that are progressing; if anybody moves it doesn’t tell the operator that it’s a new track when it’s the same track. It enables the operator to record and investigate post-operation what happened, and during the detecting it enables the operator to make an enquiry of detection while the system is still rotating. You don’t have to stop the detection while you want to enquire into something.” Controp launched the system in September 2016, and is in the process of marketing the system to potential customers, and is eyeing a couple of programmes that it will bid the system for.
Rada has developed a family of tactical radars that vary in range, and that came about as a result of a noted gap in the market: “We started about ten years ago, dealing with compact tactical radars, after we realised that there is a need for such radars for active protection systems on vehicles,” Dov Sella, chief-executive of the company, told Armada: “We started dealing with a radar dedicated purely for active protection, but very soon we realised that there is a gap in the radar spread in the battlefield.
Tactical radars are either small, man-portable and can detect people and cars, or there are other smaller ones for active protection, but they are different to the ones for ground surveillance. From there you have nothing until you reach the large (radars for air surveillance and weapons location).”
Rada recognised that in the asymmetrical operations that militaries now find themselves in, such as those involving the US military in Iraq and Syria, it is full of three dimensional threats, including short-range weapons like mortars and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), for which radar was previously overlooked: “Radars were perceived as too heavy and too expensive, and maybe the technology was not able at that time to do what was needed,” Mr. Sella added: “But we have a very sophisticated design in our radars, that make them multi-mission, small and compact, software-defined, and providing any necessary coverage. Our radar platforms can potentially detect every threat, although sometimes not simultaneously.” Now the company is addressing the total range of threats for the manoeuvre force, Mr. Sella added, and they have been designed to be used while the force is mobile. That can also be operated from a stationary position, but using them on the move is more difficult, and they have been designed to meet this harder requirement: “The holy grail today is to develop tactical weapons that will enable to tactical force to protect itself on the move,” Mr. Sella asserted.
For the active protection application, the radars can be put on the whole of a convoy or just one vehicle, depending on this mission: “Then suddenly battlefield surveillance and tactical situational awareness gets another meaning,” Mr. Sella said: The radars can also be used for fire detection, tracking it at the source and locating it: “so you can eliminate the source of fire and then carry on with the mission.” The modern platforms being offered now were brought to market in 2012, but they have naturally evolved to meet new threats, Mr. Sella continued: “When the UAV threat emerged, we immediately adapted our transmitters, and now you can detect the plastic drones that you can buy in the internet, from only a few metres,” he said.
Rada’s S-band (2.3-2.5/2.7-3.7 Gigahertz/GHz) Compact Hemispheric Radar (CHR) is part of IMI’s Iron Fist active protection system, which the Royal Netherlands Army has acquired for testing and verification for use on its BAE Systems CV-90 tracked armoured fighting vehicle, it was announced in January. If this is successful, then a full-scale production contract is expected to follow. Furthermore, the CHR is also integrated into Artis’ Iron Curtain active protection system, and integration and testing of this is underway to this end. Mr. Sella said that the company is protection system-agnostic, and is open to integrating the radars with other systems of this kind: “We are trying to stay ahead of market needs,” he confided.
Another significant technology that can help solders increase their levels of situational awareness is a radar system that can effectively see through walls. The Xaver family of systems from Camero are portable systems that can detect the presence of people on the other side of a wall. Using a multichannel and micro-power ultra-wideband sensor that operates at high radio frequency bandwidths, to enable detection and high object resolution. While it can be used to monitor threats the other side of a wall, it can also be used in emergency roles to detect if people are trapped in an area: “Mathematical image reconstruction algorithms are used to cope with cluttered environments resulting in a high quality and intuitive image,” the company said. “Simple operation and compact packaging are key features of the design.” Multiple customers in Scandinavia are known to use the systems, but further details regarding their identity is not available.
BAE Systems, meanwhile, is exploring using cognitive programming algorithms to detect Radio Frequency (RF) jamming signals through a project ran by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): “The Computational Leverage Against Surveillance Systems (CLASS) programme seeks new ways to protect our signals from increasingly sophisticated adversaries and to do so in a way that can be maintained as technology advances,” DARPA says. Through the CLASS initiative, a lightweight, handheld sensor has been developed by BAE Systems, that can help an operator understand local RF signals to improve situational awareness: “By using cognitive processing algorithms, this handheld Electronic Warfare (EW) technology can quickly detect and identify multiple interfering signals, such as jammers or enemy communication signals, across a wide spectrum and in changing and challenging environments,” BAE Systems said.
The new technology is easily transferred, and can be integrated into a variety of EW systems, both large and small, the company noted: “By drastically reducing the size, weight, and power of this new cognitive EW system, we’re making it easier for our (soldiers) to be aware of, classify, and manage a wide range of signals in the battlespace, which is crucial for tactical situational awareness,” Joshua Niedzwiecki, director of sensor processing and exploitation at BAE Systems, told Armada: “Better situational awareness on the battlefield means superior protection for our troops and a greater ability to defeat hostile threats.”
DARPA says that three techniques are being developed for CLASS, namely: waveform complexity, which uses advanced communications waveforms, that are difficult to recover without knowledge and understanding of the signals themselves; spatial diversity, which uses distributed communications devices and the communication environment to disguise and dynamically vary the apparent location of the signal. This is alongside interference exploitation, that makes use of the inherent clutter in the RF environment to make it difficult for an adversary to isolate a particular signal from such background noise: “The objective of the programme is to make modular communications technology that is inexpensive to incorporate in existing and emerging radio systems,” DARPA said, adding that to such systems will have a sub-$100 incremental cost, but will push adversaries to need more than 1000 times normal processing power at “supercomputer” level to electronically outflank such technology: “This new handheld EW capability improves on today’s portable spectrum analysers, which are often bulky, power hungry, and unable to handle interference or classify the RF signals they detect,” BAE Systems said of its new handheld system: “Using advanced signal processing algorithms, BAE Systems radically reduced the time and the computing power needed to process detected signals to such an extent that the new system uses only one low-power chip … The result is a ten-times reduction in size, weight, and power compared to conventional spectrum analysers.” During field tests, the system detected and identified in excess of ten RF signal types across a wide bandwidth, in the presence of interference. The company said it expects to continue to mature this technology for eventual deployment within its EW and tactical communications families of systems.
The range of systems being applied to help operators increase situational awareness is evidently vast, and demonstrates the number of ways this issue is being approached from. Industry is seemingly taking often commonplace sensing technology and adding another layer of sophistication to it, that both increases the range of such systems, but also makes their deployment in the tactical environment swifter and more manageable. If an operator can access just a snippet more information on a situation than its opponent in a timely manner using this technology, that can provide the tactical advantage.