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Bear Midkiff is Vice President Sales and Marketing for John Cockerill Defense.The Belgian company, with over 200 years history, presents its modular turrets and weapon systems as a part of a comprehensive solution for customers around the world.

Photos: JCD

ESD: The COVID-19 crisis has caused a great deal of difficulty in business worldwide. How did the pandemic affect John Cockerill Defense?
Midkiff: I am happy to say that we had only a short break in production and that we have adjusted our workspaces and work schedules to be in line with the new safety and health standards. The leadership of John Cockerill took the situation very seriously from the start and made big decisions about how to do business in the COVID world.

There have been additional contracts for both the 90mm LCTS and the Cockerill 3105. The Harimau (BLACK TIGER) programme also got approved and contracted for Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP). We went through a very extensive testing and certification process and aside from the obvious setbacks with transportation around the world, things are going well.

Only a few weeks ago, John Cockerill Defense was also selected as a member of the LynkEU project which is designed to bring advanced capabilities to a Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) Anti-Tank Missile. This one will expand the capabilities of the MMP missile from MBDA. The BLOS programme is under the European Defence Industrial Development Program (EDIDP).

During the so called “Down Time”, John Cockerill executed a complete review of the market and accelerated several development projects. We are very excited about these new products, as we have already seen serious interest in them from different segments of the market. These systems will round out the John Cockerill portfolio and compliment the 3000 series and our traditional 90mm turrets.

ESD: Can we get some details on these new products?
Midkiff: We have been working hard on several new products that we believe have great potential for the defence market over the next 10 – 15 years.

  • The Cockerill Protected Weapons Station Gen II (CPWS Gen II)
  • The Cockerill 1030 light weight 30/40 turret

The CPWS Gen II has passed all testing and the first production prototype is ready for firing trials as we speak. It is a low profile, lightweight turret, with a revolutionary hatch opening.

The hatch can operate in four different modes which allows more flexibility – a key feature modern armies are focusing on. Additionally, the hatch makes it an ideal step in the right direction for optionally manned or robotic unmanned platforms. The CPWS II has been designed from the beginning as an optionally manned system, which can be operated from within the vehicle or remotely. It is designed to fit easily onto 4×4 and 6×6 vehicles. The primary firepower for this system is the M242 25mm x 137mm cannon or the 240LF 30mm X 113mm cannon. There is a COAX machine gun as well and optional ATGM.

We revealed the CPWS Gen II turret on top of the MILREM Type X Unmanned Ground Vehicle last week to an audience from over 40 different countries. There is not another turret in the world right now that provides functional operations for manned, unmanned and unmanned ground vehicles operations.

ESD: What other projects has John Cockerill started?
Midkiff: Our new 1030 turret is something that we feel will reach a highly desired sweet spot in the medium calibre market. It is a lightweight, low profile medium calibre turret which is capable of hosting 30mm x 173mm, or the 40mm x 180mm cannons.

Due to its modularity, the 3000 series turret is the absolute best turret you can have to base an entire armoured force on. You can have tracks and wheels all using the same basic turret, and have medium and large calibre weapons within the structure. But the cost of being able to mount a 105mm cannon in the turret is one of weight and space.

The 1030 reclaims this space and weight by optimising the turret design for medium calibre operations. Out of the box, the turret will be able to accept the MK44S 30/40mm cannon and will weigh less than 1.5 tons. That makes a lot of sense for armies that want amphibious capabilities and or specifically only a medium calibre solution. The MK44S is an Air Burst Munition (ABM) capable system. Our test with the US Government during our CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement) showed that we could accurately hit targets with ABM on the move. We plan to be firing the new 1030 turret in the middle of next year.

The CPWS Gen II turret on top of the MILREM Type X unmanned ground vehicle

ESD: The defence market is changing, what are some of the key principles that will change the way we conduct defense business in the next few years?
Midkiff: If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that the EU has become more important as a unifying organisation, and NATO has become more important as a mutual security guarantor. The last few months brought a significant change to everyone’s lives and to the economies of many countries. I believe we will feel the consequences for many more years, which makes having solid and trustworthy allies more important than ever.

We see strains between several countries inside NATO and an even larger, potentially more critical strain in the traditional “Trans-Atlantic Link”. The EU Post-COVID recovery money is tied to the strategy of encouraging cross boarder projects and initiatives. These projects will also be strongly encouraged to be environmentally friendly and pointed towards “sustainability and future technologies”. I think that the relying on the US military for our security blanket is something that Europe will be forced to put in its rearview mirror. This is not to say the alliance is in any way in danger nor that the relationship between the US and Europe is any less valuable. I am just pointing out that Europe should be looking to find more future cooperation internally.

When I was working issues of NATO Expansion in the 90s, I heard many leaders say “Now my country is safe militarily and we don’t really need to worry about it too much.” I don’t think we can say that today. The militaries of Central and Eastern Europe desperately need modernisation and dropping these modernisation projects due to the uncertainties of COVID, will only exacerbate the situation. The time to modernise is today and several countries are not backing away from their programmes, which is encouraging.

ESD: What types of trends do you expect in the market?
Midkiff: Robotics is an obvious first reply. We see lots of potential in robotic combat vehicles, and we are happy with our cooperation with MILREM Robotics. We believe that robotic vehicles will have a significant role on the future battlefields, and we are making sure that we are on the forefront of this development. We also consider the careful and deliberate development and integration of these technologies to compliment and not detract from our soldiers a must.

It will be several years before we see these vehicles as a normal part of our formations. We have drivers in vehicles today, with co-drivers and ground guides who still drive into or over cars or run into buildings, so making the situation awareness such that an operator will do better than several people on or around the vehicle is still a stretch. That does not mean these vehicles won’t have a role to play in the near future, but we believe their roles will be limited for the near term.

We also see a return to large calibre cannons. The tank was originally invented to conduct infantry support. Then the Blitzkrieg tactics made the tank an almost independent combat system. The mission of infantry support didn’t go away because the tank evolved, it is still necessary and large calibre systems are important on the battlefield. The fact is sometimes you just need a bigger gun. Customers around the world are returning to a 105mm and the Cockerill 105mm high-pressure cannon is simply the best on the market.

ESD: What does that actually mean for ongoing modernisation projects?
Midkiff: It means that today’s world is different than yesterday’s. The world we love in today is different from the world we celebrated New Year’s Day with. It just got a lot more dangerous in the geopolitical sense. We felt the threat of Russia during the 2014 annexation of the Crimea; the continuing conflict in the Ukraine has cost over 14,000 lives and displaced more than 1.5 million people. Look at the election in Belarus, the tensions in the Mediterranean over drilling rights…Taiwan and Hong Kong, no shortage of tensions, which could flair into full blown crisis.

Add to that the economic downturn that is happening as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. What you see is a crossroads of uncertainty that will take strong leaders and also strong friends in order to weather the storm. We are hopeful the European governments will acknowledge all these pressing changes and factors when making the decision for the modernisation of the Land Forces.

John Cockerill believes the solutions lie within the EU. We believe there are accessible and transparent avenues for the Land Forces to pursue in order to put the best equipment into their soldier’s hands. It won’t be correct to give them “just good enough”. We have strong EU partners and we are actively pursuing industry partners and we look forward to working with them and others in order to enhance the ties between our countries and build together a stable EU future for the defence sector.

ESD: Thank you.

The interview was conducted by Stephen Barnard.