Generally associated with soldier modernisation and future technology programmes, efforts to reduce the burden on Dismounted Close Combat (DCC) personnel continue to proliferate globally, with a number of companies and armed forces engaged in such efforts.
That said, while reducing the burden on DCC personnel is important, industry sources have warned Armada that such reductions in size, weight and power of equipment must not come at the expense of capacity and capability. Present at the Future Soldier Technology conference, which took place in London between 13th and 14th March 2017, Armada witnessed ongoing national and international collaborative efforts to enhance the effects of the DCC community with participants from within and without NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) including the armed forces of the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, plus the British Army and US Army.
One example of such a concept is currently being explored by Cohort subsidiary SEA which on 13th March 2017 unveiled its Delivering Dismounted Effect (DDE) programme to the Future Soldier Technology conference. Speaking to Armada ahead of the event, Giles Verwey, senior principal consultant and Laurence Bedford, senior principal consultant for ground close combat at SEA, described how the DDE concept was being conducted in response to ongoing requirements from the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to not only enhance lethality but also to increase mobility and reduce the burden of loads carried.
Describing how SEA was contracted by DSTL for the effort, Mr. Verwey explained: “In particular, the (MOD) will look at how to develop the research from technology into capability, as part of a team from industry and academia delivering integrated dismounted soldier systems research to the UK MOD. The new systems considered included technologies for the weapon, helmet, torso and night vision systems using each element to develop an integrated soldier system. In particular, the DDE research investigated the technical feasibility, benefits and costs associated with integrating power and data onto the weapon and helmet.” Mr. Bedford added that: “All the systems were designed to meet the challenges required by an adaptable and flexible force dealing with evolving threats and it is envisaged will be part of the equipment and design of the future soldier,” while highlighting the MOD’s main driver to increase flexibility and mobility across the battlefield without comprising protection.
Mr. Bedford continued to describe how one of the central drivers in the DDE concept remained focused on human factors and ergonomics associated with the integration of growing levels of technology on board the soldier including greater emphasis on females who are now cleared to conduct similar combat roles to male counterparts. For example, in December 2015, the US Department of Defence opened all combat roles in the US armed forces to women.
SEA’s DDE solution was highlighted to the British Army’s Infantry Trials and Development Unit (ITDU) at the force’s Land Warfare Centre at Warminster, western England, on 3rd November 2016 at which SEA’s Managing Director, Stephen Hill explained how there remained “tremendous potential” across the DCC community to further exploit opportunities to reduce the burden and increase the: “capability of weapons and equipment while at the same time improving data sharing and situational awareness between combat forces and their partners … The DDE project will provide a step change in the way our forces approach future combat situations,” Mr. Hill added.
Similar concepts were also considered by the MOD at the Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE) over the course of a six-week exercise which concluded on 30th March 2017. According to a statement from the British Army, the AWE-17 programme provided an opportunity for industry and innovators to “showcase their products to the British Army (in order to promote) systems, technology and equipment … The aim of the Army Warfighting Experiment is to create the conditions where innovation can thrive within the widest possible supplier base. By looking at not only new technologies but novel ways of exploiting existing COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) technologies into a military context, we hope to be able to improve the delivery of affordable yet effective battle winning equipment to the front line,” an official statement from the MOD explained.
The most capable and modern technology solutions remain irrelevant to soldiers across the Contemporary Operating Environment (COE) if they cannot be efficiently integrated into a holistic DCC ensemble. As one British Army source explained to Armada: “If equipment is uncomfortable; difficult to use; or doesn’t look the part; a soldier is likely to discard it.” Hence the reason why many of the leading armed forces around the World are heavily focusing on such areas as they seek to reduce the size, weight and power specifications of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), weapons, ammunition, batteries and other equipment to flexibility and mobility on the battlefield. Currently, much effort is expended on reducing the physical weight of the individual subsystems that an infantry soldier must carry. For example, 3M Peltor and Invisio both produce headsets for soldiers which have a lightweight construction, along with weapons accessories from firms such as Aimpoint having a similarly lightweight design.
One of the leading authorities in this area is the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Toegepast Natuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoek (TNO: Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) which features a dedicated Human Factors Institute focused on military users and reducing the burden experience by DCC soldiers across the COE. Speaking to Armada, TNO senior business developer for human effectiveness, Eduard Winckers discussed how the organisation continued to consider multiple efforts to lighten the loads and increase the comfort of soldiers conducting expeditionary operations with solutions stretching from clothing, human-machine interfaces, thermal physiology and the way in which DCC soldiers are physically loaded: “One of the challenges is the weight,” Mr. Winckers explained: “We picked up this area four years ago with a pressure cooker centre of ideas comprising experts from the military and other environments.” Referring to ongoing efforts to maintain core body temperatures for soldiers operating in extreme environments (Dutch forces are currently stationed in hot environments including the African Sahel and Middle East) Mr. Winckers described new passive cooling technology which did not require additional energy supplies: “We are at a very primary stage in this concept and continue to work with universities and Dutch clothing partners to develop a system to help cool the bodies of soldiers.”
Elsewhere, the TNO is looking into sizing and comfort levels associated with PPE products including head protection: “There is a lot to be gained if you have systems that fit the human head well. We are working on this now as the primary partner for the Dutch MOD evaluating these systems which includes new head protection and a new operational suite,” Mr. Winckers added although he was unable to provide further details at this stage. However, he acknowledged that such technologies could be integrated into the Dutch armed forces’ VOSS soldier modernisation programme, which is also seeking solutions suitable for deployment in cold and wet environments, such as the Europe’s eastern borders as well as other Cold Weather Operation (CWO) theatres: “Looking to the future, research is set to continue into CWO as well as to operating in mega cities. These are the big challenges for the Dutch military,” he conceded: “We intend to support more urban warfare programmes, particularly relating to navigation and positioning in GPS-denied areas of coverage; as well as how the soldier is able to influence the environment, friendly forces and civilian populations.”
One of the TNO’s most innovative programmes designed to reduce the burden on the DCC community is its ExoBuddy concept which relies upon a passive-exoskeletal infrastructure which does not require any power source. Co-sponsored by the Dutch MOD, the ExoBuddy programme is being run by the TNO in collaboration with local company, InteSpring, which specialises in loaded spring technology to aid heavy lifting. Describing the ExoBuddy as a lightweight system which can be strapped to the bottom of a pair of combat boots, the back of a soldier and below their waist, Mr. Winckers explained how the solution relied upon the forward motion of a soldier to create hydraulic pressures which could then be redistributed across two legs: “The moment you stretch a leg forward and land it on the ground, the leg stiffens and takes the weight of a combat load off the shoulders. So far, this doesn’t include any space-age technology,” Mr. Winckers asserted.
The TNO is working in close collaboration with the Royal Dutch Marines in both laboratory and field-based tests with Mr. Winckers describing how the concept continued to be improved having already reached Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) Five and Six. These US Department of Defence criteria state that technology and system prototypes have been validated and demonstrated in a relevant environment. He also claimed that the technology could become commercially available to armed forces within a three-to-five year timescale. Describing how the ExoBuddy comprises an all up weight of seven kilograms/kg (15.4 pounds/lb), Mr. Winckers explained how it could be folded away and carried in a rucksack when not in use. Additionally, he explained how, as a battery-dependent solution, it made no noise, therefore making it more suitable to covert and discreet military operations compared to other alternatives: “We don’t want to make the soldier stronger. We don’t want him to carry more. We just want him to carry the same, not get worn out and operate more efficiently,” he asserted: “The ExoBuddy has been developed for soldiers dropped anywhere between 15 kilometres/km (9.3 miles) and 20km (12.4 miles) from an area of interest,” Mr. Winckers stated: “Before they can do their mission, they sometimes have to tactically insert into an area carrying 60kg (132lb) or 70kg (154lb) on their back. But using ExoBuddy, we have reduced that load to (feeling like they are carrying) just 30kg (66lb).” He continued: “When a combat team reaches their operational area, they will therefore be far less fatigued and more alert to do their job while also suffering less from injuries and the short and long term health risks associated with carrying heavy loads.”
Mr. Winckers described how the ExoBuddy had initially been tested on soldiers using treadmills with additional measurements taken to consider heart and sweat rates; lethargy; and energy loss: “With ExoBuddy, they use far less energy to move with loads,” he explained while warning how the MOD currently lacked any scheduled budget for the programme moving into the future: “The Netherlands has a national technology programme and the MOD part-funds efforts like (ExoBuddy). If it works, we are going to buy at least 100 systems or so to begin testing with. If it makes a big influence, we might purchase more,” Mr. Winckers stated.
Currently, the ExoBuddy is available in a single variant designed to assist DCC soldiers walking long distances. However, when questioned about how the ExoBuddy could be used during close combat engagements, Winckers explained how the TNO was still considering future options: “Can I still fight while wearing ExoBuddy? Can I cross a ditch or fall down and get back up? These are all questions we are seeking to answer,” he confirmed while emphasising future efforts to design a quick-release system which could also be used by a soldier to adopt every known fire position including the prone, kneeling, standing, sitting and squatting positions: “ExoBuddy must never be an obastacle to the user,” Mr. Winckers asserted.
However, the TNO is also considering multiple other variants designed to be used for other tasks beyond just that of a fighting or reconnaissance patrol inserting into a target area: “There are a number of spin-off projects including logistical support variants for the carrying of rations, weapon systems, ammunition and mortar tubes. But we are continuously aware that our system has to be fail-proof and soldiers must be able to continue to conduct their tasks without dropping gear,” he added.
Looking beyond additional ExoBuddy variants however, Mr. Winckers explained how the TNO was also paying significant consideration to the future COE, one which could see the ExoBuddy solution providing an extension to the DCC soldier’s overall connectivity across the battlefield: “For now, we are focused on the mechanics of the system and we have not yet started working on sub-systems to make it more intelligent and more networked,” he explained, while also referring to conversations conducted in April with military users from the Dutch MOD regarding the ExoBuddy’s ability to support parachute insertion with a suspension system used to break the fall of paratroopers and commandos. Additionally, TNO sources explained to Armada how the ExoBuddy could also be used in support of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) missions: “They are also worried about very heavy suits used during missions. The ExoBuddy could be used to reduce this load and even increase protection levels,” the sources highlighted.
Looking ahead, Mr. Winckers described how TNO aimed to reach TRLs 6 and 7, the latter covering system qualification through test and demonstration by the second half of 2017 with a ruggedised and environmentally-tested ExoBuddy variant: “We are in laboratory tests at the moment as a proof of principle but we are constantly looking for industry partners to militarise components, particularly relating to protection against dust and water,” he explained while describing how Dutch special forces from the army’s Korps Commandotroepen (Commando Corps) and navy’s MARSOF (Maritime Special Forces) component commands were also involved in evaluation of ExoBuddy technology: “There are so many different ways to operate the system. We think it is very important to have the end users involved in its development from the very start,” Mr. Winckers added.
Defence sources associated with Dutch special forces explained to Armada how MARSOF was considering the utility of the ExoBuddy in the maritime counter-insurgency role: “MARSOF is considering multiple concepts of operation in which ExoBuddy could support tactics, techniques and procedures in the maritime environment. This would require a waterproof solution, perhaps capable of supporting operators on fast moving craft such as rigid hull inflatable boats,” the source explained. However, Mr. Winckers admitted that it had yet to be confirmed whether the ExoBuddy would be capable of supporting special forces users in climbing rope ladders during visit, board, Search and seizure operations as well as other maritime interdiction tasks: “Right now, we are focused on the design of the solution but in the future, we’d like to find out whether the ExoBuddy can walk up and down staircases; traverse mountains and cross obstacles like fallen trees,” Mr. Winckers concluded.
Elsewhere in the DCC community, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) appear to be finally gaining traction despite the technology being available for a number of years now. Efforts including Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) have been evaluated by armed forces seeking to lighten the load as well as enhance the command and control capabilities of dismounted infantry and special forces, although many have yet to proliferate in the COE. The importance of such technology is clearly defined in US Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) strategy which was unveiled on 8th March 2017 ahead of its confirmation later in 2017, industry sources explained: “RAS capabilities will also allow future army forces to conduct operations consistent with the concept of multi-domain battle, projecting power outward from land into maritime, space, and cyberspace domains to preserve Joint Force freedom of movement and action,” the document reads: “Because enemies will attempt to avoid our strengths, disrupt advanced capabilities, emulate technological advantages and expand efforts beyond physical battlegrounds, the army must continuously assess RAS efforts and adapt … The army will prioritise investments based on how RAS capabilities contribute to interim solutions to the Army Warfighting Challenges, allowing soldiers and teams to defeat capable enemies and maintain overmatch across five capability objectives: increased situational awareness; lightening the (soldier’s) physical and cognitive workloads; sustainment of the force with increased distribution, throughput, and efficiency; facilitation of movement and manoeuvre; and increased force protection,” the document described.
Specifically referring to lightening the physical and cognitive workloads of soldiers, the document described: “Excessive equipment requirements reduce stamina and endurance. Autonomous systems lighten equipment loads and increase soldier speed, mobility, stamina and effectiveness. Vast amounts of information overload leaders’ ability to make decisions. RAS facilitate mission command by collecting, organising, and prioritising data to facilitate decision-making as well as improving tactical mobility while reducing cyber, electronic and physical signatures.” The document also referred to the sustaining of combat patrols and squads with “increased distribution, throughput, and efficiency,” explaining how logistical support and distribution remained a resource intensive activity on the battlefield: “Soldiers and teams become vulnerable at the end of extended supply lines,” the document reads: “Air and ground unmanned systems and autonomy-based capabilities enhance logistics at every stage of supply movement to the most forward tactical re-supply points. RAS move materiel to the most urgent points of need and provide options for Army logistics distribution to the (soldier).”
According to the US Army, the priority for the short and medium terms will comprise efforts to lighten the physical loads of soldiers to enhance the combat effectiveness of dismounted units; as well as improve sustainment with automated convoy operations respectively, the document outlines: “To reduce the amount of equipment carried by dismounted formations, the army pursues ground RAS platforms of varied scalable sizes and mission configurations. Soldiers operating dismounted for long periods will shift physical burdens to RAS platforms that provide a mobile power source and carry equipment, weapons, ammunition, water, food, and other supplies: “To continue transferring the soldier load onto RAS platforms, the army increases autonomy in medium-sized and larger unmanned ground systems for increased re-supply throughput and movement of squad enablers between dismounted echelons. Medium-sized and larger (UGV) platforms will make one of the biggest leaps in capability when the army adds Modular Mission Payloads (MMPs), such as CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) sensors, lethal capabilities, communications packages and medium UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) platforms,” the document concluded.
However, solutions such as this have yet to proliferate across the battlefield in any great numbers due to issues associated with autonomy, noise levels, accuracy, and development of mature and suitable tactics, techniques and procedures for their utility. Also highlighting ongoing interest in the area of UGVs, Mr. Winckers explained to Armada how much work remained in identifying how best to use this technology type, particularly in populated areas where the presence of robotic support systems might be an unwelcome sight to indigenous populations: “What would it mean mentally to those working with and encountering these types of systems,” he asked?
Similar sentiments were shared during an address to delegates at the SOFINS (Special Operations Forces Innovation Network Seminar) conference held in southwest France on 28th March 2017, by Rear Admiral (RADM) Laurent Isnard, commander of the French Special Operations Command, who also highlighted emerging requirements from across his organisation in relation to unmanned cargo convoys. Providing a general view of the possibilities of the technology of autonomous tactical ground vehicles and UGVs, RADM Isnard explained how such solutions would enable special forces operators to concentrate on decision-making processes while technology could support them in other ways.
Meanwhile, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has released its REX UGV to the market, designed to support DCC squads on a variety of missions. According to company ofifcials, the REX Infantry Robotic Porter comprises a four-wheel drive platform capable of conducting follow-on and autonomous missions: “The modern combat arena presents new challenges to infantry units and pushes soldiers to their weight-carrying limits,” one company source explained: “REX is based on proven robotic technologies with the capability of autonomously following the infantry unit. REX is capable of carrying armaments, supplies and equipment and provides an effective solution to enhance performance in the combat arena.”
Operating at a top speed of twelve kilometres-per-hour (7.5 miles-per-hour), the REX has a maximum payload capacity of 250kg (550lb). The vehicle maintains a low profile so as to not needlessly compromise more stealthy missions associated with approaches to target or reconnaissance missions, company officials added: “The REX platform enables quick and easy mounting of different types of weaponry and equipment in accordance with specific operational requirements,” officials went on to explain while making reference to a logistics jacket and intelligence jacket. The UGV has been designed to enhance the operational effectiveness of an infantry squad by “reducing the soldiers’ load”, while also increasing the quantity and quality of available weaponry, IAI officials explained. Additionally, the officials disclosed to Armada how the REX would increase the time soldiers were able to remain on duty in a combat role while reducing their dependency on external logistical support.
Elsewhere, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has up-scaled its UGV capabilities with the introduction into service of Roboteam’s Micro Tactical Ground Robot (MTGR), an undisclosed number of which are now operational with the IDF’s Sayeret Yahalom special operations engineering unit. Speaking to Armada, an official spokesperson for the IDF explained how the UGV, designated the ‘Roni Robot’ for force elements, had been introduced at the start of 2017 with multiple other units from across the IDF Special Operations community due to receive the technology over the remainder of 2017. The IDF’s decision to employ the MTGR follows fierce criticism of Israeli capabilities to effectively conduct subterranean warfare by the country’s State Comptroller, whom supervises and oversees Israeli government policies and operations. Citing specific examples dating back to Operation PROTECTIVE EDGE in 2014, which witnessed an IDF intervention into the Gaza Strip to stop rocket fire into Israel by the Hamas insurgent organisations, the State Comptroller published a report on 1st March 2017 announcing: “With regard to the technological effort, as with the intelligence effort and the force build-up and employment effort, the response was slow and ineffective. The analysis by the IDF concludes that the tunnels were an element that would continue to accompany future operations even more intensively.”
Comprising a total weight of 15kg (33lb) the tactical UGV is capable of being carried by a single person. Reliant upon a tracks for mobility across the battlefield, the MTGR can be fitted with multiple payloads weighing a cumulative total of five kilograms (eleven pounds), Roboteam company officials explained to Armada. Options include optronics payloads, which according to sources associated with Sayeret Yahalom, could be used to support counter-improvised explosive device and explosive ordnance disposal operations as well as special reconnaissance missions. The UGV can also be fitted with an integrated loud hailing system.
Elsewhere, the US Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is developing the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) UGV which envisages supporting a dismounted close combat team for up to three days during a mission. The army has already published an information request stipulating requirements for the UGV to carry additional power sources and recharging capabilities as well as kit for infantry squads, ammunition, water and specialist equipment. According to US Army sources, the vehicle could be used for re-supply missions to reduce the burden as well as ISR tasks. The SMET must be capable of carrying a total payload of 454.5kg (1000lb), the document outlined. Additional requirements stipulated how the UGV must comprise an all up weight of 3181.8kg (7000lb) and be capable of self-recovery and recovery of other vehicles.
At the time of writing (early May), the US Army’s Programme Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support was to hold an industry day on 18th May in order to: “accelerate the advancement of prototype manned and unmanned ground vehicle technologies,” with the Department of the Army also confirming that a draft request for proposals will be provided for review ahead of the industry day. Interested industrial participants include Roboteam which is considering its Probot tracked UGV for the programme should it go ahead. According to the company’s chief executive officer, Shahar Abuhazira, the 215kg (473lb) UGV retains the capacity to carry up to 750kg (1650lb) in payload as well as a maximum operating range of 96.5km (60 miles) and a 72-hour endurance. The company is also understood to be considering alternative power sources for control of the UGV including a hybrid electric engine allowing for reduced power requirements as well as more covert operations in a silent mode.
Other possible contenders for the SMET concept include HDT Robotics’ Micro Utility Vehicle (MUV) which comprises an all up weight of 568.2kg (1250lb). The vehicle is capable of carrying payloads up to 340.9kg (750lbs) in weight although it can also transport a trailer weighing anything up to 227.3kg (500lb), company officials explained. Due to its relatively small size the MUV can also be carried as an internally transportable vehicle for so-called ‘Fly and Drive’ operations in the cargo holds of helicopters including the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk family medium lift utility helicopter and Boeing CH-47F Chinook heavylift helicopter as well as Bell-Boeing CV-22 Osprey family tiltrotors and Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules and Airbus C-295 turboprop freighters.
According to company officials, the MUV can be fitted with a variety of systems providing users with a modular UGV capable of conducting mine clearance missions as well as cargo re-supply and ISR if fitted with a sensor mast: “The robot can carry a squad’s heavy logistics: water, food, fuel, and ammunition. With over two kilowatts of electrical power, it can recharge batteries and act as a generator at night. Using only internal fuel, the robot can travel for over 96.5km,” officials explained.
Finally, Lockheed Martin sources confirmed to Armada how it was considering a reconfiguration of its SMSS ahead of its proposal for the US Army’s SMET programme. Speaking from the Xponential exhibition in Dallas, Texas on 9th May 2017, company sources confirmed it would be possible to upgrade the platform in order to meet SMET programme requirements.
by Andrew White