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Situational Awareness (SA) involves a multi-stage process – perception of all the elements that make up the combat situation, understanding how these combine to make a whole, then anticipating how the situation can evolve in the immediate future.

At first, the concept was applied particularly to fighter-versus-fighter air combat. It has long been an axiom that most pilots who survive the experience of being shot down report that they had never seen the enemy aircraft that had attacked them.

Today, SA is seen as a vital factor in ground combat operations. US DoD manual FM 17-96 defines SA as “The ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation including friendly and threat situations as well as terrain.” SA is important not only to individual combat elements such as an AFV, but also to friendly assets such as other AFVs that combine to make up the combat team.

The task of obtaining SA has traditionally been one for the vehicle’s commander. In the past, the commander of an AFV could either observe the external scene via whatever vision aids such as periscopes or direct-vision devices that were incorporated into his cupola, or lift his head out of the cupola hatch and use his eyes, supplemented if necessary by binoculars. In some armoured corps such as those of Israel’s Tzahal, operating “head out” became the accepted practice for decades, but this left the commander vulnerable to snipers or to fragments from artillery rounds bursting nearby. Operating with all vehicle hatches closed maximises crew survivability, but significantly reduces the crew’s SA. But technology offers a potential solution, as the selection of systems and vehicles described in this article will illustrate.

The helmet being worn by this AFV commander is fitted with Elbit’s IRONVISION system, which uses an array of external cameras to provide all-round visibility. (Photo: Elbit)

Vision devices built into the commander’s cupola must serve multiple roles – the observation of the surrounding terrain, the location and identification of friendly assets and enemy forces, and the detection then identification of potential targets. Unfortunately, these roles require different levels of optical capability. While surveillance and target detection require a low magnification and a wide field of view, the identification of targets require a higher magnification.

The classic solution for providing all-round vision proved to be a circular array of unit power periscopes or even direct-vision blocks of laminated glass. Vision blocks are simpler than periscopes, but require the commander’s head to be located within the cupola, where it has less protection than a location under the turret armour.

In some cases, the commander is being given a specialised sensor intended to help him scan surrounding urban terrain. For example, in 2006 Nexter Systems announced the AZUR [Action en Zone URban] version of the LECLERC, a private-venture variant optimised for urban operations. In addition to a remotely controlled 7.62mm machine gun, and additional passive protection intended to counter threats such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and petrol bombs, the vehicle has also received a new panoramic sensor that allows the commander to make a swift visual scan through a full 360 degrees.

This configuration of the LeonardoDRS (ESA) system uses an array of four cameras to provide improved situational awareness. (Photo: LeonardoDRS)

Inevitably, the commander of an AFV requires higher-magnification optics in order to examine specific areas of interest, to identify potential targets, and to assign these to the gunner. A night-vision capability is also essential for modern combat operations. However, these capabilities are largely provided by dedicated sighting systems that form part of an AFV’s fire-control system, a specialised topic in its own right.

Ideally, the commander’s higher-magnification sight must be free to scan in any direction with respect to the turret, but this is not always the case. The commander of the M1A1 version of the ABRAMS MBT has an all-round view via an array of six periscopes. Although he also has a feed from the gunner’s sight, the latter does not rotate, so the commander must slew the turret in order to survey the terrain – a feature that limits his SA.

The sides of the Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé (VAB) wheeled APC are fitted with windows that will give the soldiers within the cabin a degree of situational awareness. These windows can be partially or completely covered by armoured panels. (Photo: via author)

Infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), armoured personnel carriers (APCs), and the lighter vehicles that feature in modern combat operations, all pose potential SA problems. This is particularly the case with many traditional APCs, which served as ‘battle taxis’ intended to carry a team of soldiers close to the point of action. In many cases, the latter had no vision aids, so could not fully understand the combat situation until they had left the vehicle. In the classic M113 APC, the commander has an array of five M17 day periscopes to provide all-round surveillance and SA, but no vision systems are provided the soldiers that the vehicle carries into action.

While this lack of vision aids for the soldiers is not uncommon for APCs of this vintage, many of the more modern troop-carrying vehicles allow their ‘dismounts’ a view of the outside world. For example, while Nexter Systems’ VCI wheeled IFV gives the commander four unitary vision periscopes located around his hatch, plus the ability to see imagery from the vehicle’s turret-mounted Moyen d’Observation Panoramique observation sight, the soldiers can use six periscopes that provide a combined 215 degrees of visual coverage.
For lighter vehicles such as the M114 up-armoured version of the AM General High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), the windows provide a good external view, and offer the same level of basic protection as the rest of the vehicle’s structure. However, combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that these relatively light vehicles are vulnerable to the effects of land mines, IEDs, and small arms fire, even when fitted with additional armour.

The most externally obvious feature of the Tank Urban Survivability Kit (TUSK) developed for ABRAMS main battle tanks committed to operations in Iraq was the addition of reactive armour on the sides of the hull, but situational awareness was not neglected. A thermal sight was provided for the top-mounted M240B 7.62mm machine gun, and an exterior telephone that allowed nearby infantry to communicate with the tank commander was installed on the rear of the vehicle. (Photo: US Army)

An array of cameras can improve the SA of combat vehicles when these are operating with the hatches closed. A video databus can distribute the imagery of all crew members of an AFV, and to the soldiers being transported in an IFV or APC. In the MERKAVA Mk 4, SA is increased by Vectop’s Tank Sight System (TST), which uses four cameras in hardened housings to provide 360-degree coverage. An additional camera mounted at the rear of the vehicle gives the driver a good view when reversing the vehicle. A fully digital Maanak system links the vehicle’s sensors, computers, and other electronic systems, and can present data on each crew member’s flat panel displays. The vehicle is also fitted with a Vectop VDS-60 digital data recorder, which stores the imagery collected by the sights and sensors during a mission.

The new AJAX series of tracked AFVs due to replace the British Army’s ageing CVR(T) series offers a Thales ORION periscope able to give the vehicle’s commander a wide-area search capability, automatic target tracking, and a built-in laser designator intended to mark targets for attack using air or surface-launched semi-active laser guided missiles. Each crew member will have a flat-screen monitor, and an array of cameras will provide additional SA.

A situational awareness suite based on cameras mounted around the vehicle is also a feature of the BOXER series of 35 tonne-class 8×8 wheeled vehicles being developed by ARTEC GmbH, a teaming of KMW and RMMV. These should allow the driver to manoeuvre the vehicle in a cluttered or complex environment without having to open the hatches.
Commercial-off-the-shelf virtual reality glasses and augmented reality technology have allowed the creation of systems that effectively make the hull of an AFV transparent, providing the crew with enhanced visibility. Several systems of this type were described in our recent article on AFV EO sensors. Given imagery of sufficiently high resolution, these could provide a high degree of SA. According to the Australian company Tectonica, the situational awareness technology it is developing under a 2016 contract under Round 20 of the Australian Department of Defence, Capability Technology Demonstrator (CTD)

Programme project is intended to create a solution based on its ALTERA vehicle camera system that will provide a vehicle’s crew operating with closed hatches with the level of SA traditionally associated with operating with hatches open.

An important part of SA is knowing that the vehicle is either under attack, or about to be attacked. In the case of AFVs, is information can often be obtained from a laser-warning receiver (LWR), a sensor able to detect incoming laser energy from rangefinders, target designators, and the guidance beams on which beam-riding antitank or air-to-surface missiles must rely.

Several countries are known to have adopted the UTC Aerospace Systems AN/VVR-3 LWR. This consists of a roof-mounted laser detector and a display unit normally located at the commander’s position.

The THIRD EYE laser warning system developed by Moked Engineering (1969) was designed to meet an Israel Defense Force (IDF) requirement, and is known to have been used on some of that service’s MBTs. The mast-mounted component of the system includes sensors able to detect laser and IR radiation, so can warn the crew if their vehicle has been illuminated by the IR searchlight. Even if the threat ceases to emit, the system will continue to indicate the threat type and bearing.

Although LWRs were originally fielded in AFVs as a stand-alone aid to SA, their usefulness in such a basic role is becoming more limited as more sophisticated antitank threats continue to proliferate. Their use as a method of initiating the release of countermeasures proved to be the start of a trend to make them part of an integrated defensive suite that include passive countermeasures and active jammers.

The development and deployment of weapons that use radar seekers or datalinks that operate at millimetric-wave frequencies raises the prospect that specialised radar-warning receivers might be needed in order to alert the crew of an AFV to this relatively new form of attack. Romania’s Military Equipment and Technologies Research Agency has combined laser-warning and radar-warning sensors into a single system, whose RF coverage is from 33-37 GHz. This system seems to have been a bit ahead of its time – no orders have been reported, and it is not currently in production.

Elta’s ELO-5220 OTHELLO uses uncooled short-wave infrared technology to locate the source of enemy fire. Each sensor has a coverage of 96° in azimuth and 60° in elevation, so an array of four can provide all-round coverage. The company’s ELM-2133 WINDGUARD is a phasedarray pulse doppler radar designed to detect and automatically track anti-tank guided missiles, unguided anti-tank rockets, and gun-launched projectiles. (Photo: Doug Richardson)

For lighter and soft-skinned vehicles, acoustic-based sensors can warn of attack. The AAI Projectile Detection and Cueing System has been deployed operationally by US forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. Acoustic sensor units are installed at all four corners of the vehicles being protected in order to provide all-round coverage. Alerts for detected threats are provided to the vehicle’s crew in the form on audio warnings, or data shown on a display. By comparing the acoustic signature of a bullet with that created by the weapon’s muzzle blast, the system can estimate how far away the threat is located.
The French company 01dB-Metravib currently offers its PILAR MK-2w acoustic system in three versions, one of which uses a personal digital assistant, and is specifically intended as an interim solution for vehicles that require temporary protection, either to meet a short-term need or as a stopgap pending the installation of an integrated system. According to the manufacturer, the system can detect small arms fire, 20mm cannon fire, rocket propelled grenades (RPG), mortar rounds, and even anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW). It has a response time of two seconds.

In US Army service, the system is designated the M2, and known platforms include the General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada STRYKER (8×8) infantry carrier vehicle and the AM General HMMWV. In mid-2006, Belgium had selected the system for installation on some of its General Dynamics European Land Systems – MOWAG PIRANHA III (8 x 8) armoured personnel carriers, and in the following year Poland ordered systems for PATNA armoured modular vehicles and other applications. In 2011 France adopted the PILAR MK-2w for use on VAB 4×4 wheeled APCs. Other known users include Italy and the UK. PILAR MK-2w has seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rafael Advanced Systems’ Small Arms Detection system are known to have been installed on some IDF High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) in order to meet an urgent operational requirement. This is an acoustic-based system able to indicate the bearing and elevation of small-arms threats. The output information is handled by a ruggedised PC running dedicated software.

Thales’ Vehicle-Mounted Acoustic Sensor System (VMASS) uses a low-profile microphone array mounted in a circular housing, and a processor unit that includes a flat-panel display. According to the manufacturer, it can detect small arms fire out to the maximum range of this class of weapon, mortars out to 5 km, and gun-launched projectiles at up to 10 km. Threat bearing is determined to within 3 degrees in azimuth, and 6 degrees in elevation, and this data can be used to automatically slew the vehicle’s weapon towards the threat.
Some hostile-fire detection systems can combine several types of sensor. When the AN/VVR-3 LWR described earlier is teamed with a MacDonald Detwiller & Associates Ferret acoustic threat-warning system, the combination is designated as the Acoustic Optical Warning System, which is known to have been fitted to some Canadian vehicles deployed to Afghanistan.

Saab Sensis took a non-acoustic route to solving the hostile-fire detection problem when it began development of its Small Scale Radar as a private venture about a decade ago. The system is a C-band active radar that uses a total of four antennas (each covering 120 degrees in azimuth and 60 degrees in elevation) to provide all-round detection of threats ranging from small-arms fire to rocket-propelled grenades. The system has been tested by the US Army, but no orders have been reported.

A modern communications and command (C2) system or battlefield management system (BMS) can improve SA by providing all the vehicles participating in a combat action with a knowledge of their own location, the location of other friendly forces, and the location of the enemy. This data can significantly speed the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) cycle of friendly forces, and provide a combat advantage, particularly against an opponent that does not have effective C2.

Improved SA was one of the goals of the Abrams M1A1SA/ED upgrade developed for use in Iraq from 2010 onwards. Some vehicles were fitted with the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) blue-force tracking system. Operating at brigade level, and interoperable with the Bradley M2A3 IFV, this improved SA by keeping automatic track of friendly and hostile force locations, and helping the user to plan manoeuvres. The M1A1SA also has a rear-mounted infantry phone that allows soldiers to talk to the tank crew.

One of the improvements introduced by the follow-on M1A2 was the addition of a Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer on the left side of the turret. This allowed the commander to independently scan for targets in all weather conditions and in the presence of battlefield obscurants.

A programme that updated M1A2 tanks to the M1A2 SEP v1 standard included installing the FBCB2 system to these vehicles. The follow-on M1A2 SEP v2 upgrade completed the process of replacing older analogue electronics with new digital hardware, while an M1A2 SEP v3 programme begun in 2017 installed third generation FLIR technology in order to improve target detection and recognition.

General Dynamics Land Systems’ STRYKER eight-wheeled APC – the US version of the company’s LAV III – entered service in 2002, and is likely to remain in service until beyond 2035. The commander has a total of seven M45 periscopes to provide all-round surveillance, but also has a display linked to the FBCB2 digital battle-management system. An omnidirectional antenna can be fitted to allow the vehicle to access video data from UAVs or Video Unmanned aerial system Intelligence Teaming (VUIT-2) equipped AH-64 APACHE helicopters. The M1126 Infantry Combat Vehicle variant of STRYKER can also be fitted with the WARFIGHTER Information Network Tactical (WIN-T) increment 2 system, which is intended to provide the mobile broadband networking capability needed to give commanders battlefield SA. But for the moment, there is a penalty to be paid for installing what is still fairly bulky hardware – two of the seats within the vehicle must be removed to make room for electronic hardware.

Ideally, the commander of an AFV should in the future have the ability to extend the reach of his SA by launching a small UAV, but most current examples of the latter need to be hand-launched, so would require a crew member to open his hatch and expose himself to the risk of hostile fire. In 2003, GIAT (now Nexter Systems) proposed a modernisation scheme for the LECLERC that would have included the installation of two pop-up launchers for mini-UAVs. Promoted as the ‘LECLERC 2015’, this ambitious scheme also included a commander’s sight with an automatic target-detection capability. To date, no subsystems of these types have entered service, but they remain an intriguing possibility for the future.

Following an earlier career in engineering, Doug Richardson is a defence journalist specialising in topics such as aircraft, missiles, and military electronics.