The Strategist

Flexibility, the Next Big Thing For Modern Armament


08/04/2015 - 17:58



The twentieth century has been rich in shifts. When an army’s job was to defeat the opponent, barely a century ago, the number of missions which befall armed forces today has quickly gone from 2 to 4. To defensive and offensive missions, governments have added stability and support operations. This change goes beyond training: it requires for equipment and vehicles to be completely re-thought. And flexibility became a crucial requirement, especially for European countries, where Defence spending is actually falling.



French VBCI / Flickr (cc) - Kevin N
French VBCI / Flickr (cc) - Kevin N
Beyond purely military missions – war, said bluntly – are PKOs (Peace Keeping Operations) under UN leadership. These missions are subdivided into 15 different sub-missions, namely military, police, rule of law, civil affairs, electoral assistance, Security sector reform, mine action, disarmament, etc. Missions must be discriminated, between peace-keeping and peace-enforcing operations. In the former case, the military are in charge of maintaining fragile peace, which requires presence and monitoring, but almost excludes any use of force. In the latter situation, force will be used, but in the most limited and carefully calibrated way. In these missions, the goal is to invert escalation: every use of force must lead to a reduction of violence in the following days. In both these cases, intimidation is key: the antagonistic parties must be subdued with no violence. Scaling the appearance of the military deployment is therefore of the essence. This explains why the UN deploys military vehicles, with deadly cannons and roaring motors, but painted in virgin white and driven by soldiers with sky-blue helmets.

But of course these missions have not replaced traditional military tasks, they have simply added to them. Armies must still be able to scale all the way up to all-out battles, should need be. All the subtle levels of visual intimidation and kinetic violence must be tunable. Now, though modern armies all understand that the next mission may be anywhere on that scale, it is of course out of the question to have an army for each mission. In recent years, modularity has therefore become a key factor in the way Defense Forces have chosen their equipment. Three examples come to mind:

The AgustaWestland AW 101 helicopter, also called the British Merlin, has been in service in the British armed forces over the past 15 years. It has proven reliable and, most of all, able to take a very wide array of missions, from transport, to area control, and from medical evacuations to commando movements. The helicopter has been modified and declined in 35 different configurations. It has been used for area control using the Honeywell HELRAS dipping sonar and the Eliradar, enabling it to monitor surface, underwater and air activity all at once. The 410 model was able to deploy folding rotors for storage on aircraft carriers. The rear loading ramp enables lading the chopper with goods for rapid humanitarian relief or quick military replenishment. Advanced avionics make it fit for Special Forces operations. It has also been used by many armies as a rescue chopper, with a large side bay door, enabling lying-down embarking. Along with naval anti-mine activity, it has been used for every possible mission, except pure combat missions, which are still the reserved playground for combat choppers.

The Franco-Italian FREMM frigate is a particularly modern, and therefore telling, illustration. The weapons program was shared between France and Italy (17 models for France, 10 for Italy). Although the vessel is a warship, it is able to perform a very wide array of missions, beyond traditional military ones. With a large sea-to-land interface, and a powerful SPY-1 or Herakles radar, it can lead amphibious missions but also quickly deploy humanitarian means. With its new generation radar, it can just as well intercept enemy navies as it can monitor illegal immigration (or narcotics) fast boats, something Italy is in dire need of, as it is on the edge of Europe. And the advanced communication systems, it can coordinate or partake to logistics operations, be they military, civilian, humanitarian or security-based. The ship perfectly illustrates the dual necessity of military equipment: it will quite often be used for non-military missions, or security purposes, but must also be always able to perform pure combat missions against enemies of any size.

But the flexibility requirement even applies within military missions. Any military equipment manufacturer knows this: you know what your piece of kit can do when it rolls out of the factory; but you never know what it will have to do, once it is on the battlefield. A simple infantry vehicle can become a command car, if necessity dictates. Just as a reconnaissance vehicle will be used for combat, if nothing else is at hand. In addition, modern armies have considerably raised awareness of the necessity to optimize use of military funds. Using the same vehicle in various configurations greatly facilitates maintenance and logistics, and therefore comes cheaper than specific maintenance lines for each vehicles.

The French have fielded the VBCI, the Vehicule blinde de combat d’infanterie, in their infantry regiments. Two versions are currently available in French army: command post vehicle, fitted with .50 caliber remotely operated weapon, and Infantry Fighting vehicle armed with 25mm gun turret. VBCI is a modular platform that can be adapted to needs: all variants are designed to fit the same base frame and use the same spare parts, in order to reduce the logistical footprints. This supports overall efficiency at the brigade level, with light and flexible logistics, and ensuing speed and agility. The same heavily armored and highly mobile vehicle will be fitted with various modules and become ambulances, reconnaissance vehicles, anti-tank vectors, command cars, engineering platforms, etc.

If the VBCI is basically designed to be an armored personal carrier, it could be armed with manned or unmanned high-power turrets, as a Nexter Systems 25mm gun turret, BMP3 100mm turret in the case of the United Arab Emirates variants, or even the powerful CTA40 from CTA International. The CTA40 was designed to provide IFV with the superior firepower of a medium caliber weapon, integrated in a smaller turret than usual. VBCI variants also include self-propelled mortar carrier, with a semi-automatic 120mm mortar mounted at the rear side of the vehicle and, able to provide heavy fire-support on short notice. The need for those variants reflects the fact that flexibility and modularity are expressly recognized as vital factors by armed forces.

Many things have changed over the past 50 years, in Western armies. From conscription armies, where two enemy formations slammed into each other, we have moved to a more elaborate level, where making the best use of the means we have, and keeping as flexible as possible, as become the way to win the war, sometimes even before it started. When armies are too expensive to maintain and vehicles start falling apart, battles often don’t even need to be waged: the outcome is known beforehand.





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