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“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that is what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’”. Thus spoke Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, in the early 19th century. Since then – little has changed as far as fundamental objectives for surveillance and intelligence are concerned.

The business of winning exploitable advantage – both tactical and strategic in scope – remains centred on achieving intelligence or information superiority, and as US Army General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell once observed, “No matter how a war starts, it always ends in mud.” The approach to achieving that superiority, however, has changed beyond recognition: obviously, since 1808 and 1944 but, perhaps more startlingly, the battlefield surveillance assets in use on today’s and tomorrow’s battlefield would be unfamiliar – baffling, even – to British, American, French, Macedonian or Mongolian troops deployed in Afghanistan just a couple of decades ago.

Technology has driven the great majority of that change. The increasing tendency towards integrated systems – in networks, on vehicles, on individual soldiers – has obliged systems developers to miniaturise, to empower and to ensure seamless collaboration between subsystems. The development of the ‘system of systems’ concept has encouraged such moves. The emergence of enhanced capability empowered by technological leaps forward, such as Gallium arsenide (GaAs) chip technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and hypersonic weaponry, has encouraged doctrinal change that embraces abilities and responses previously not contemplated.

Yet it is also worth noting that those doctrinal changes have, in part, been inspired by or in response to changing mission sets handed down to armed forces by their political masters. For much of the first two decades of the 21st century, the arena of armed conflict has been dominated by expeditionary warfare, counterinsurgency operations and similar relatively small-scale actions. Now, approaching the second quarter of the century, the spectre of large-scale manoeuvre warfare in continental Europe has not only reared its ugly head – it has arrived. The consequences for every aspect of so-called ‘conventional warfare’ will echo for decades to come.

Nano drones such as the Black Hornet personal reconnaissance system from Teledyne FLIR Defense have revolutionised the approach to battlefield surveillance at squad and individual levels.
Credit: Teledyne FLIR

Doctrinal and industrial evolution

The most obvious changes in the landscape fall into two broad categories: operational art and technological capability. As far as the first is concerned, the major theme affecting development has been, still is, and will continue to be integration: not just at systems or platforms level, but also in the sphere of battlespace management. Alongside the vogue in the late-1990s for net-centric warfare, France developed the concept of the Bulle Opérationelle Aéroterrestre (BOA; ENG: Air-Land Operational Bubble) that presaged a revolution in development, procurement, deployment and operational doctrine for combined arms warfare. Much of the thinking behind this and similar radical changes in the last two decades now seems to have been unusually prescient, as rapid technological change dramatically widens the spectrum of available capability: we can now do things on a routine basis that we could only dream about when such concepts were first mooted.

Central to the BOA has been the French Army’s development of its Forces terrestres futures (future land forces) 2025 programme, based on three fundamental capability pillars: operational versatility; synergy in effects; and information superiority. It is tempting to examine only the latter in assessing where surveillance technology may lead us, but the lesson learned by France – and others – and reinforced by conflict in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Sahel and now Ukraine, is that not even sensor technology can be considered or developed in isolation. That in itself has led to some fundamental changes that directly affect our current topic.

A modular approach to systems development is not new. Perhaps one of the most seminal developments in the area took place in Britain at the turn of the century. The UK Ministry of Defence’s Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA) basically mandated industry to ensure that all armoured and utility vehicle platforms were to be developed in such a way that future enhancements, modifications or upgrades could be seamlessly integrated using open systems. Interfaces were to be specified in advance, to be common and to be modular: proprietary ‘front-end’ solutions, ostensibly to protect industrial intellectual property, was to become a thing of the past. GVA also gave rise to a NATO standard (NGVA) which has had a dramatic effect on industrial development programmes.

On the western side of the Atlantic, the US Department of Defense (DoD) mandated well over a decade ago that open systems architecture would be a feature of all future procurement specifications. The Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) and Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) have dramatically influenced industrial development and, it can be argued, has encouraged faster and more effective innovation by forcing ‘outside the box’ thinking in seeking graceful solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Inevitably, the adoption of so stark a mandate by the US government has had a cascading effect on industry globally and adoption of the principles – if not the letter of the protocols – has become more and more widespread. It is highly likely that MOSA and SOSA will be adopted by European industry and sister communities further afield sooner rather than later.

The Challenger 3 programme aims to provide the British Army with a powerful main battle tank suited to a wide range of foreseeable missions requirements. Costly and arguably ponderous, the vehicle embodies the inevitable trade-offs between firepower, mobility and protection on the one hand and the relatively new paradigm of engagement effectiveness on the other.
Credit: Crown Copyright

Simultaneously with the move towards greater operational versatility and tactical flexibility, as empowered, in part, by what might be called ‘enlightened procurement’ developments, the battlefield community has worked at remarkably high speed, by comparison with traditional approaches, to find methods of integrating and exploiting more advanced systems in pursuit of tactical advantage. This applies as much to sensor integration as it does to more advanced weaponry, higher mobility or enhanced protection. The ‘Iron triangle’ of armoured vehicle design trade-offs – mobility, firepower-protection – has now been transformed into a rectangular construct with the addition of sensor capability. There used to be a school of thought in the former British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) that advantage stemmed from a Chieftain or Challenger tank’s ability to detect battlefield targets at a range of up to 8 km. Today, while such an ability may provide some advantage, far greater emphasis is placed on the ability to detect, locate, identify, classify and engage said targets – whether they be ground vehicles or airborne threats – within a frighteningly short (and decreasing) timeframe.

Witness, for example, the Challenger 3 upgrade. At a staggering cost if compared to the original procurement, though not when compared to the cost of designing, developing and manufacturing limited numbers of brand new MBTs, the Challenger 3 will arguably be the best compromise available between protected mobility and effective engagement capability on the modern battlefield. Much of its effectiveness will depend on an advanced sensor suite, whose effectiveness will only be made possible with the accelerated data fusion, analysis and dissemination capabilities inherent in next generation systems. It used to be the case that an armoured vehicle platform costs could be broken down into three roughly equal components – structure (including mobility and protection), firepower and sensors/vehicle electronics. Today, the equation has shifted overwhelmingly in favour of concentration on the latter component. Some analysts view this element as consuming up to 80% of a vehicle’s total unit cost, and in programme development terms, even more in some cases.

The power of surveillance

Despite the costs and challenges involved, surveillance, in all its guises, dominates next-generation development for the battlefield. Whether infantry fights from within the vehicle or as dismounted elements, their capabilities will be tied directly to the parent vehicle in many cases: individual soldiers will swap out or recharge batteries for their own equipment, download analysed data from vehicle sensors for further decision-making and response generation, and contribute to a better situational awareness to be disseminated throughout the unit.

This means that industry needs increasingly to focus on providing much faster and infinitely more reliable data analytics, disseminated to all nodes of the tactical network at the speed of relevance – in other words, in time for a response to be decided upon and enacted in time to counter the threat or address the developing situation. That needs to be done within timeframes that are becoming increasingly compressed, in a densely populated (and hostile) electromagnetic environment and via communications channels that are securely encrypted. Much of this will be done via computing ‘at the edge’ and in using some form of secure cloud capability – though the jury is still out as to whether we have yet answered all the questions of potential vulnerability in the latter environment.

Hensoldt has focused considerable development time, effort and resources to integrating self-protection and surveillance sensors for the next generation of capability – seen here on the Puma infantry fighting vehicle.
Credit: Hensoldt

The industrial costs of development are also rising – exponentially, according to some observers – which is having an effect on the abilities of some industries to respond in an agile and timely fashion. Just as has already happened in the aerospace environment, with coalitions of the willing being assembled to develop sensor architectures for the major future combat aircraft programmes currently in gestation, the same consortium approach is already being mooted for sensor development in ground vehicles, manned or unmanned.

One example worth following to determine the nature of such industrial collaboration will be to watch the progress of the most recent initiative to develop a ‘common’ main battle tank (MBT) for Europe. The current diversity of platforms, coupled with their average age, makes sustainability of the existing fleets moot. The KNDS initiative to form a collaborative entity to address the requirements of potential operators and design what will almost inevitably end up as a compromise solution is worthy of careful examination. Similarly, the US initiative formerly known as the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), now designated the XM30 Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle (MICV) will undoubtedly sprout similar arrangements.

Perhaps the most fundamental change, however, is the expansion of the battlefield. While air warfare has been a component of the ground battle for over a century, the emphasis on the airborne component has grown at a staggering rate in the last two decades. No worthwhile tactical commander at any level above platoon size will now contemplate an operational plan that does not take unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into account, either as a surveillance and intelligence asset or, even more tellingly, as a potential threat and vulnerability. The integration of UAVs onto manned and unmanned ground vehicles, the scale of their issue and their capabilities for providing almost instant actionable intelligence directly address Wellington’s maxim.

The emergence of hybrid powered UAVs is bringing tactical and operational flexibility to battlefield surveillance missions. Steadicopter’s Black Eagle 50H brings autonomous, relevant and reliable capability to smaller units.
Credit: Steadicopter

Neither government nor industry have been any slower than usual to identify, analyse and address the developing battlespace issues. In Israel, for example, the Carmel programme seeks both to reduce manning requirements for combat vehicles and to provide a protected environment for the crew to observe, decide and act at an accelerated rate. Rheinmetall’s Lynx, also addresses battlefield surveillance requirements with sophisticated sensor equipment and systems, including integrated UAVs on demand. UAVs are also available as options for a variety of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) such as Rheinmetall’s Mission Master – again, a vehicle that is enjoying success in a number of arenas, albeit in prototype or evaluation quantities at this juncture.

It seems clear that the solutions being adopted for current and future battlefield use are expanding in scope and capability, as well as being radically different from their predecessors. This is challenging industry to come up with innovative solutions that save space and weight while also featuring reduced power consumption. The power budget for a future armoured combat platform may well become an operationally limiting factor or may militate against the incorporation of advanced sensor suites if they consume too much power too quickly – a major concern for sensor developers.

Closing thoughts

However, battlefield surveillance, as the above discussion reveals, is about much more than sensors. The most capable sensor in the world is of no earthly use to a tactical commander if it cannot provide actionable intelligence in time for a solution to be relevant. At a time that Western governments are concerned about preserving the technological edge against potential peer and near-peer adversaries, who may make up in quantity for what they perhaps lack in quality, is a conundrum that needs careful consideration. On the supply side of the equation, that means industry is increasingly looking towards computing at the edge, cloud processing, AI and faster, more reliable data fusion and analysis. As if that were not enough to be going on with, the vague promise that workable quantum computing is rapidly approaching from the distant horizon it has occupied for the last decade is being grasped by some as a panacea solution for the current bottlenecks.

Rheinmetall’s KF51 Panther MBT exploits a wealth of technological advantages that derive from existing programmes, including the Lynx and Boxer vehicles.
Credit: Rheinmetall

Battlefield surveillance, and all the capabilities that derive from it, rests at the core of effective combat management today and tomorrow. Even more so in the light of the lessons being learned from Ukraine, where small combat unit tactics, techniques and procedures daily demonstrate the exploitable advantage that well-managed surveillance assets engender: sensors, platforms and processes.

Tim Mahon

An award-winning writer and editor, Tim Mahon’s career in defence and aerospace spans four decades. He is currently the publisher of Defence & Security Alternatives, launching in summer 2023.