In a contemporary operating environment witnessing increasing levels of tension across the Korean Peninsula, the capabilities of dismounted, mounted and special operations units have once again risen to prominence.
On 25th August, Special Operations Forces (SOF) from the Democratic Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) Korean People’s Army (KPA) conducted the latest in a series of offensive action ‘Show of Force’ exercises designed to imitate the invasion of various island chains belonging to its southern neighbour, the Republic of Korea (RoK).
Aired by state media organisations, the exercise provided a glimpse into some of the capabilities of the DPRK’s SOF component with neighbouring state actors closely studying technology and materiel as they consider counter-strategies as part of homeland and internal security campaigns.
However, as defence sources associated with the SOF community in Asia Pacific highlighted to Asian Military Review, the equipment employed by KPA units involved in the offensive action raid appeared limited at best.
One source, speaking to AMR upon the condition of anonymity, explained how the so-called leading elements of the KPA, lacked any visible future soldier technology beyond standard night vision goggles, combat helmet, body armour and assault rifle.
The drills, which comprised maritime, parachute and ground assaults, lacked any observable technology more commonly associated with future soldier programmes around the globe, which can include command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (C4ISTAR) systems; as well as materiel designed to improve mobility and survivability on the battlefield.
Despite the lack of prevalence in such technology, the remainder of the Asia Pacific theatre continues to ramp up the future soldier capabilities as part of wider concerns to not only stave off any tactical interference from the DPRK but also as part of their own counter-insurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) responses.
The Russian armed forces used its annual Army International Military Technical Forum, held near Moscow, on 22nd August 2017 to promote its latest future soldier concepts as it bids to maintain some kind of pace with the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) which is due to unveil a technology demonstrator of the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) towards the latter part of 2018.
With first and second generation Ratnik (Russian future soldier) technology already in service with its SOF and conventional ground units, the Russian armed forces have assisted the Rostec Corporation subsidiary, the Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building, with next-generation solutions capable of assisting the airborne insertion of personnel by parachute; ISTAR-integrated visors for combat helmets; and undisclosed variants designed to assist special operations.
According to Russian Ministry of Defence figures, approximately 50,000 personnel have now received second generation Ratnik ensembles, comprising a total of 10 sub-systems in an ensemble. These include small arms solutions; personal protection equipment including combat helmets and body armour; tactical communications equipment; and navigation equipment.
However, on show at the Army International Military Technical Forum this year was the Russian MoD’s next-generation solution which in appearance at least, looks to be matching the USSOCOM TALOS programme regarding its capabilities.
A mock-up solution of a third-generation Ratnik ensemble, on show at the event, featured an enclosed combat helmet with visor, night vision headset mount, scalable body armour and mandible protection feature; exo-skeleton for assisted load carriage; and futuristic small arms solution featuring polymer-based ammunition cartridges, although industry sources explained to AMR how such a solution might not be witnessed on the battlefield for a further decade or more.
Industry sources described how a visor-integrated heads-up display featured a target acquisition feed including ballistic calculator while the combat helmet itself comprised a built-in respirator for operating in chemical, biological and radiological environments. Sources associated with the Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building also explained to AMR how the display would allow soldiers to manipulate third-party platforms including unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) on the battlefield while also monitoring the biometric data of an individual and networking it back to a headquarters element.
Additional claims made by the company included a camouflage system capable of morphing colours in response to emerging operational requirements; as well as ballistic protection solutions capable of withstanding more than ten direct hits from undisclosed calibres.
Simliar to the TALOS effort, the Russian MoD is planning to unveil a technology demonstrator concept of the Ratnik-3 by the start of 2018
Developments followed calls made by Rostec subsidiary, Rosoboronexport, on 29th May 2017, calling for greater capabilities in the area of weapon systems and future soldier systems.
“Rosoboronexport is gearing up to push to the world arms market advanced individual combat systems and future small arms,” explained director general Alexander Mikheev.
“We are facing growing demand for small arms, close combat systems, sights and ammunition in the world. To improve chances and competitiveness of the weapons that we deliver, Russian enterprises will develop new systems and mount an effort of upgrading existing models through the use of advanced materials and technologies,” he explained while highlighting potential growth in the Asia Pacific and international arenas.
Future developments are also expected to concentrate on optical weapon sights and night vision devices, as well as “state-of-the-art individual combat systems”, he added.
Ongoing efforts are also being supported by significant developments in small arms solutions from companies including the Kalashnikov Group. In July 2017, the company announced how one of its latest assault rifles- the AK-12 – had successfully passed an evaluation programme with the Russian MoD in June 2017, thereby providing it with the green light for entry into service with combat components.
The 5.45mm x 39mm assault rifle has been designated as one of nine selected small arms solutions certified for the Ratnik programme, a company spokesperson confirmed to AMR. However, the AK-12 is also available in larger calibres including 7.62mm x 39mm and standard NATO configuration 5.56mm x 45mm rounds.
With an all up weight of 3.5kg and free-floating barrel, the AK-12 (5.45mm x 39mm) features a thirty round magazine and is capable of providing Ratnik-equipped soldiers with a maximum effective range out to 400m, a Kalashnikov Group company source confirmed. The rifle also features a rail adaptor system for the integration of tactical accessories including laser target designators; torches; and weapon sights, providing scalability and modularity to respond to rapidly emerging operational requirements.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary as a company is Singapore Technologies Engineering which, according to its chief marketing officer, Winston Toh, is now concentrating on providing a more “holistic” future soldier solution capable of supporting both dismounted close combat; mounted close combat; and special operations forces.
Centred around the concept of helping combat troops operate in a hybrid operating environment (comprising both high intensity and low intensity conflict), Toh explained to AMR how ST Engineering subsidiary, ST Kinetics, was offering a series of capabilities aimed at smoothing the transition between mounted and dismounted operations in line with mission demands from across the contemporary operating environment.
STK solutions span lethality, mobility and protection as well as connectivity with the latter concentrating on the shortening of targeting cycles and intelligence chains, leading to increased situation awareness; more rapid decision making; and integrated information pictures down to the lowest tactical level.
“STK is constantly developing and building smart, innovative defence systems for full-spectrum operations and urban warfare,” Toh highlighted. “The modern day dismounted soldier faces even more challenges in the digitised battlefield, requiring a high level of protection and situational awareness in order to be effective.
“Cognisant of these challenges, STK is developing the Army Individual Eco-Lightweight Equipment (ARIELE), which combines the latest in tactical communications, surveillance, and protection technologies in a compact and ergonomic ensemble. Besides enhancing tactical fighting performance, ARIELE exploits information from the C4ISR network to elevate the soldier’s situational awareness,” a company spokesperson confirmed to AMR.
ARIELE comprises a series of modular solutions, any number of which can be integrated with one another to form a mission-specific ensemble for the customer. Options include the Shielded Advanced Eyewear System (SHADES); Adaptive Real Time Core Temperature Intelligence Cooler (ARCTIC); Power and Energy Management System (POEMS) including enhanced wireless charger; Personal Reinforced Outer Tactical Equipment Carrier (PROTEC); Personal Lightweight Armour Technology (PLATE); Portable Watt-HR for Extended Range (POWER) fuel cell; and Bionic Regenerative Active Energy System.
All of these items can be integrated with a central processing hub as well as small arms solution such as STK’s own Bullpup Multirole Combat Rifle (BMCR) which is available in standard NATO 5.56mm x 45mm calibre.
Also featuring a rail adaptor system for the integration of the usual tactical accessories, the BMCR also features the ability to carry an integrated 40mm underslung grenade launcher, including the company’s own STK 40GL.
Central to this technology solution is power management with STK officials highlighting the POEMS technology which offers “a small, lightweight and easy way to draw power from sources such as fuel cells, solar-mats, building power sockets or even vehicle 12 VDC outlets”.
“The power can then be used to charge batteries, directly power military equipment or simply do both,” officials added before concluding how the Enhanced Wireless Charger relied upon electric field induction allowing a deployed soldier to recharge end user devices anywhere in the field.
Meanwhile, Turkish company Aselsan used the IDEF exhibition in Istanbul during May 2017 to highlight its latest effort in the future soldier technology realm with the launch of the Cenker Command and Control solution.
Aimed at providing Turkish armed forces as well as international coalition partners with a dismounted and mounted C2 capability, Aselsan’s Cenker concept has been designed to disseminate related situation awareness (SA) across the tactical battlespace, comprising both voice and data.
Launched at the event on 11th May 2017, the solution, according to a company spokesperson from the company, has been designed to increase the individual and team skills of combat teams during “holistic warfare” with a series of modular and scalable solutions capable of being integrated together. Sub-systems include tactical inter- and intra-patrol communications through bone conduction microphone; data and power transmission e-textiles; health, position and activity tracking technology; navigation overlays and aids; day and low light (infrared) cameras; target detection and laser rangefinder technology; machine learning interface; power management module including harvesting technology; as well as organic protection for the individual against electronic warfare threats.
The solution, which also includes an ballistic protected combat helmet with integrated power management system, GPS and Electro-Optical/IR helmet camera, has also been designed to feature integration capabilities with vertical take-off/landing quadrotor UAVs, used for organic over-the-hill reconnaissance duties at the squad/section level.
Technology sub-systems are integrated into a plate carrier with end user device *typically tablet or smartphone), worn as a wrist mounted solution for C2 and SA. Cenker systems have also been integrated with a smart watch, capable of recording biometric data of an individual mounted/dismounted soldier, Aselsan officials also explained. Furthermore, concept designs made available to AMR from Aselsan, illustrated future designs which could incorporate an enclosed combat helmet design similar to those being undertaken by the TALOS and Ratnik-3 programmes in the US and Russia respectively.
Company sources confirmed that the Cenker concept continued to be developed in line with the Turkish Armed Forces with a Technology Demonstrator expected to be made available to combat elements in the short term.
Finally, the Indian Army continues to receive mixed signals with regards to future soldier technology improvements which have long been promised to a currently under-equipped force.
On 30th August 2017, the Indian MoD announced it would be implementing a series of changes by December 2019 following the publication of findings by a government committee. These include the structural reform of the army as well as efforts to adjust and improve the force’s combat effectiveness, defence sources confirmed to AMR.
The army and special operations forces have been seeking replacements for a variety of small arms and support weapon systems for several years with India’s Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) having had rejected by the army it’s own next-generation 7.62mm x 51mm assault rifle. The army had been seeking a total of 185,000 rifles as a next-generation system to replace legacy options.
Similar requirements for 45,000 carbines for SOF have also been curtailed due to indecision following extensive field trials involving offerings from CZ, Colt Defense, Beretta and IWI although in May 2017, the MoD did issue another Request for Information (RfI) regarding a replacement 7.62mm rifle for the Indian Air Force’s Garud Commando unit.
This was followed on 14th June by a renewed effort by the army to field a carbine for the special forces with an RfI for a total of 44,000 5.56mm x 45mm close quarter battle rifles.
However, industry sources suggested to AMR that there appears little appetite for change across the MoD following the news of the cancellation of a three-year programme aimed at equipping the army with a total of nearly 10,000 next-generation light machine gun weapon systems.
The programme, understood to have been cancelled on 9th August, had been considering IWI’s 7.62mm x 51mm Negev NG7 machine gun to replace in-service 5.56mm INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) LMGs.
The NG7 LMG is currently deployed with the Israeli Defence Forcer (IDF) and is also available in standard NATO 5.56mm x 45mm calibre. The belt-fed, semi-automatic weapon would have provided the Indian Army with a maximum effective range of 800m compared to the 5.56mm INSAS which has a maximum effective range of 400m.
However, Indian Army sources suggested to AMR that all competitions would be revitalised in the near term in order to fulfill a series of capability gaps currently witnessed across the combat arms of the MoD.
Armed forces across Asia Pacific now rely upon a mix of indigenously designed and developed technology as well as international solutions, capable of supporting future soldier programmes. However, as is the case with coalition partners abroad, restricted funding continues to constrain progress across soldier modernisation programmes as governments struggle to confirm future funding to optimise the capabilities of dismounted, mounted and special operations soldiers.
by Andrew White