Years of deployment abroad to combat terrorism forced innovation in many combat engineering areas. The question is whether these developments are sufficient to meet the challenges of the new geopolitical context and of future warfare.
The conflicts of the past 20 years have demonstrated that warfare is unpredictable. Moreover, several types of conflict can quickly succeed each other or worse, coexist. For the first time in many years, Europe is witnessing high intensity conflict at its borders, but hybrid warfare, actions below the threshold of conflict, or insurgency have not disappeared. Today, combat engineers need to respond to rapid changes in conflict intensity and conflict type. Resources are typically taken to include personnel, facilities, equipment, and supplies, though more subtle aspects such as processes and interoperability could also be considered resources, especially in a coalition setting where multinational readiness is key.
From a materiel perspective, combat engineer resources generally fall into one or several of the following broad categories: mobility, counter-mobility, support and survivability. The last two decades have seen improvements and innovations in all these areas, often forced by operational circumstances.
Route Clearance: An Established Asset that Should not be Lost
A serious and highly dangerous impediment to freedom of movement in Afghanistan and Iraq, was the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Expertise on route clearance (RC) and related technology have significantly developed during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, which have shown once again the importance of adapting equipment and techniques to different terrains. Some of the most sophisticated RC equipment has proven its critical role in saving lives, like the vehicle-mounted mine detector (Husky), the mine-protected clearance vehicle (Buffalo), and the medium mine-protected vehicle (RG-31).
Recently, several European countries have updated their combat engineer vehicle capabilities. In 2021 Germany ordered 44 Kodiak armoured engineer vehicles (AEV) to be delivered between 2023 and 2029, and Belgium ordered four JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavators (HMEEs), referred to as ‘Armoured Combat Engineer Vehicles’ (ACEVs) by Belgium. Sweden ordered two new variants of the CV90, a Forward Maintenance vehicle and a Combat Engineer vehicle between 2023 and 2027.
To be able to clear roadside bombs and other obstacles remotely in counterinsurgency efforts, significant investment and innovation has been poured into robotics and vehicle autonomy. This need also stimulated cooperation among NATO allies in the form of a ‘Smart Defence’ project to support the identification and joint procurement of the best remote-controlled robots for route clearance operations.
In the meantime, the market for Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) has significantly expanded beyond bomb disposal tasks. However, these initial achievements have likely contributed to the development of more sophisticated combat engineering applications, which today tend to be increasingly multi-mission and multi-role. For example, Milrem Robotics and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) have signed a contract to deliver 14 THeMIS UGVs to Ukraine, seven of which to be configured for RC and seven for casualty evacuation.
With the progressive withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of intervention in the wider region, RC has lost visibility and even interest. It may be deemed that there are many solutions available now to do the job, if needed. Two questions arise: the first, whether all the lessons learnt from using individual or combinations of such solutions have been integrated into well-structured concepts; and secondly, whether these solutions will still be there in a few years (including from a manufacturing capacity point of view) if we disinvest now.
Area Access Control: A Bridge between Past and Present
The signing of the Ottawa Convention and the related ban of Anti-Personnel Mines (APMs) also meant that alternative obstacle solutions had to be found for counter-mobility and area access control (AAC). Significant technological improvements have been made since the convention entered into force, for instance in the field of non-lethal effectors, and various sensors.
In the beginning, these advances were not necessarily integrated within a fully-fledged ACC concept. However, such a concept has been progressively defined by NATO countries to address the gap left by the ban of APMs, and to overcome the indiscriminate and often terrible consequences of their employment. As such, NATO member countries stated to integrate compliance with NATO’s concept of Area Access Control in their procurement plans. For example, the announced Future Acquisitions for The Norwegian Defence Sector 2022–2029 include “procurement of a modern, state of the art deployable system for area control” that “must be based on NATO’s concept”. Acquisition will be in two phases: the first between 2024-25, with an initial system to be procured based on existing equipment and COTS, and the second between 2026-28, to include further development and procurement of new equipment.
The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and more recently the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, have taken the issues of AAC, and of anti-access and area denial (A2AD) to a new level. It should be noted that Russia is not a signatory state of the Ottawa Convention and that Russian forces have been accused of using APMs in the current war by organisations like the Human Rights Watch.
This conflict has also seen the extensive use of anti-tank mines, a decisive capability in high-intensity ground warfare. Ukraine has received and used German DM22, DM31, and AT-2 anti-tank mines, and reported to have captured the highly modern Russian PTKM-1R anti-tank mine.
These technologies have also seen new developments and innovations. The generic term ‘smart mines’ is being used to label the most sophisticated examples. For instance, the Russian PTKM-1R tends to be presented as a smart mine, since it is capable of striking the top of the armoured vehicle, which is usually the least-protected spot, through the use of a sensor-fuzed submunition. PTKM-1R was announced by Russia several years ago but shown for the first time in 2021. Nonetheless, the ability to ‘guard’ an area and strike a target from the above is not entirely new for mines, with the US M93 Hornet developed in the late 1980s operating on the same principle as the PTKM-1R.
Next-generation anti-tank mines have to offer better discrimination of targets, counter-mobility options against hostile forces but also freedom of manoeuvre for friendly forces. For example, advances in remote control solutions could help to apply very targeted counter-mobility techniques, but also to facilitate advance of friendly forces through remote deactivation. The US Close Terrain Shaping Obstacles (CTSO) programme includes remote deactivation as a design goal. According to the US Joint Program Executive Office “The obstacle created by the munitions will be networked and controlled by an operator using a remote control station. If the munitions in the munition field have not fired or dispensed, they can be turned off and reused.” The CTSO development includes three increments: a top-attack munition, a bottom-attack munition, and development of a full network capability to allow mines to be connected to the Army’s mission command system. The winner of the competition for developments under the first increment, Textron Systems, was announced at the end of 2022.
Other Developments Relevant for the Combat Engineer
Apart from highly visible solutions like the above, in recent years, innovation has occurred in many sub-fields of combat engineering. They receive less media attention but many offer significant capability improvements. For example, an innovative, lightweight and scalable, Multi-Purpose Line Charge, Airboss Defense Group’s ‘Bandolier’ has become available, which is employable across various mobility, counter mobility, and demolition missions.
Power generation and distribution have also evolved a lot in the past decade, in the context of ‘smart energy’ projects supported by NATO or the EU. These have generated knowledge and new solutions for both power generation and reduction of environmental impact, and are likely to be extremely useful in future deployments. The European Defence Agency’s project ‘Smart Energy Camps Technical Demonstrator’ (SECTD) aimed to improve power generation and lessen the environmental impact of military encampments. It was deployed to the EU Training Mission Mali in 2015-16, and in 2021 was transferred to the EU’s Military Planning and Conduct Capability. The Canadian Armed Forces Project ‘Camp Sustain’ was a similar initiative, aimed at achieving significant reduction of field camps fossil fuel consumption, water demand and waste.
A Glance at the Future: Gap Crossing
The return of conventional war so close to Europe’s borders has forced introspection focused on how prepared Europe’s own terrain and infrastructure are to cope with the mobility requirements of conventional conflicts. As already highlighted in the January 2022 issue of ESD, “military bridging is high on the agenda of many allied militaries across Europe, with programmes and projects underway (…)”. Indeed, decades-long focus on stabilisation operations abroad may have shifted the attention away from mobility infrastructure and capabilities like dry and wet gap crossing. However, these used to be very high priorities for armed forces during and before the Cold War. Aside from the requirement of being able to accommodate heavy loads, modern technical solutions in this field need to be easy and quick to install, while also being interoperable.
Development and procurement of Wide Wet Gap Crossing (WWGC) Solutions appear to now be an important priority, as indicated by the OCCAR Business Plan 2022. The WWGC Programme is a cooperative acquisition between Germany and the UK that covers development, production and Initial In-Service Support for a “river crossing capability that goes beyond actual systems currently on the market”. Its overall timescale is between 2022 and 2036, with total cost estimated at between EUR 1 Bn and EUR 2 Bn. The project originates from two initially national programmes, the UK TRITON planning to replace the M3 amphibious bridge and ferry system, and the German SSB2 programme. Collaboration between the two countries was a natural next step, since their respective capabilities in this area are already interoperable. France has also expressed an interest in joining the OCCAR programme, but it is not yet clear if this has materialised.
Wider Policy and Political Initiatives
At the political level, military mobility is high on the agendas of both the EU and NATO, and is likely to remain so for a while. The topic is a ‘flagship’ of NATO-EU cooperation through structured dialogue on shared priorities. Cooperation topics include transport as well regulatory aspects of military mobility, like border-crossing legislation, regulations and procedures.
Over the past decade, military mobility in the EU has been supported in various ways, for example through the Connecting Europe Facility, EDA activities to support implementation of the 2018 European Commission Action Plan on Military Mobility, or through Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The PESCO project on Military Mobility supports member states in the effort to simplify and standardise cross-border military transport procedures and serves as a “political-strategic platform” where progress and issues identified at expert working group level can be discussed. It is noteworthy that the USA, Canada and Norway have jointed this project in May 2021, and the UK in November 2022. This shows the critical importance of this topic, even before the onset of the current conflict in Ukraine.
More recently, in November 2022, the Commission and the High Representative proposed an Action Plan on Military Mobility 2.0 aimed at helping European armed forces “to respond better, more rapidly and at sufficient scale to crises erupting at the EU’s external borders and beyond.” The new Plan builds upon the achievements of the previous 2018 Plan, and is centred on the need to develop a well-connected military mobility network. A number of actions were announced, structured along four main pillars: multi-model corridors and logistical hubs, regulatory support measures, resilience and preparedness, and partnerships.
More than Technology Alone
The aforementioned initiatives remind us that combat engineer resources are not just about technology, but include factors that are independent of the skills and will of the deployed engineer. Such factors include:
Solutions need to be interoperable, especially when missions envisaged are multinational. While industry can usually fulfil technical interoperability requirements, defining the latter necessitates close coordination between all actors involved. Certain future solutions may require ‘interoperability by design’.
In light of fast-paced technological developments and the unpredictability of future operations, military engineering doctrines may require some adaptation to allow for fast and dynamic responses. While attention is now focused on conventional and hybrid warfare, the conflict in Ukraine itself demonstrates that there is always scope for surprise.
There are never too many engineers. A question that we need to ask is if our armed forces have enough combat engineers for the formidable operational requirements that seem to lie ahead, and the ever growing complexity of technologies that they are required to integrate. If not enough engineers are available, how can we mitigate this?
The success of combat engineer tasks can be influenced by the quality of the coordination with the civilian sector, including in some cases, with civilian actors such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or local structures.
Combat engineers’ success, like that of other forces, also depends on logistics and on the capacity of industry to deliver materiel in time. This brings us to a larger discussion about how we could use existing manufacturing capacity more intelligently, and how we can improve procurement processes to avoid duplication while meeting everyone’s needs.
Each type of conflict comes with its own characteristics, driving priorities and focus, for combat engineering and other areas. Smart investment helps to cope with capability challenges, but divestment coming from a shift in focus is certainly not an option anymore in a word where so many conflict scenarios are on the table. Post-Cold War cuts in defence budgets have stimulated a ‘joint’ model of investment, including procurement, which has increasingly become the norm as a means of managing costs and optimising resources. This model has shown its added value in the current context. The challenge ahead is to scale up investments, not only in defence, but also down the supply chain, in industrial capacity and human resources, though a smart industrial policy.