Earlier this year, at the culmination of a four month selection process, the British Army conducted the six week long Army Warfighting Experiment 2017 (AWE 17) in and around the Copehill Down urban training village on Salisbury Plain. A successor to the annual URBEX (Urban Exercise) series of trials of dismounted close combat technology, AWE 17 was undertaken as both a pan-Capability and pan-DLoD (Defence Lines of Development) activity.
At the Visitors’ Day held at the end of the trials, Brigadier I. J. Gibb explained that AWE 17 sought to:-
- Help the Army [and Land Forces in general] develop and refine its capability requirements.
- Help industry understand the Army’s current and emerging capability requirements.
- Provide industry with the opportunity to place their products in the hands of end users and gather feedback to influence potential future developments.
The brigadier went on to explain: “With interoperability in mind, AWE 17 has benefited from the participation of a wide range of Land Combatants, including personnel from 1 MERCIAN, RAF Regiment, Royal Marines and the US Army.” He continued: “AWE 17 has been a great example of innovation and collaboration as a whole force: Industry (large, medium and small sized enterprises), Defence Equipment and Support (Technology Office), and the British Army working together to solve capability challenges.”
The exercise, which was described by UK MoD as being a drive for world-class innovation, saw businesses and organisations, both large and small, and even individual innovators working from their garden shed, invited in September 2016 to submit solutions to a range of problems or questions set by the AWE. From 275 initial submissions a final list of just under 80 individual products made it through to the third phase of evaluation, Level C, and examples of these were displayed at the Visitors Day; items showcased on manufacturers’ stands ranged from lightweight access solutions, to situational awareness systems, to light vehicles etc.
Speaking to us during a lull in the event, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Serle, Commanding Officer of ITDU, the British Army’s Infantry Trials and Development Unit, explained: “It’s about reaching out to industry with some of our capability challenges for the future and saying ‘have you got anything you think can help close these capability gaps?’ We’ve allowed industry to come along with their goods and we’ve trialled them, and experimented with them, to see if we can really derive operational benefit from them”. Asked if this was mainly for dismounted infantry the colonel said: “Not just Infantry. It’s a whole capability area. We’ve looked at everything from generating power, harvesting power, through to unmanned systems through to different sighting systems and also some light role mountain infantry stuff as well”.
Six distinct question sets, each with several sub-questions, were posed by the team from ITDU and DE&S, the MoD Defence Equipment and Support organisation:-
- How can we operate effectively in complex, heavily populated terrain?
- How can we increase our precision?
- How can we provide combined arms communications in a cluttered electromagnetic environment?
- How can we generate understanding in an environment when information overload is a risk?
- How can we sustain our combat power on operations?
- How should sub-units make use of unmanned air systems?
A seventh category, with no specific question posed, was created to allow submission of additional products which did not directly relate to one of the six formal questions. In addition to the 73 products selected as potentially viable answers to the key questions, six additional submissions from four companies made it through to Level C and were also included in the final display and demonstration inside the Copehill Down urban facility.
Possibly unsurprisingly, in the final selection the answers to Questions 1, 3 and 5 were the most heavily subscribed (17, 15 and 30 successful submissions respectively), with the other three questions resulting in just six, one and four products being selected. It is probably safe to say that different aspects of Situational Awareness and new Power Supply solutions, including weight reduction and system integration, were the two areas where the greatest advances were noticeable, though from the average soldier’s perspective the Artificial Shoulder Pocket presented by Ohio-based Asymmetric Technologies may well be the most relevant; using latest developments in magnet technology, this accessory holds the butt of the rifle tight against the shoulder to allow single-handed magazine changes or ladder/obstruction climbing without significantly dropping the barrel from the firing position.
Looking first at Question 1, the five sub-questions asked how to: navigate effectively in areas where GPS will not penetrate; detect, recognise, identify and locate the enemy within limited line of sight; increase the situational awareness of armoured vehicles in complex terrain, particularly when operating with dismounts; achieve terrain accessibility and denial in the urban environment and; counter the threat from tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems & Unmanned Ground Vehicles? Some of the solutions proposed in this category, by fourteen submitters, included both technology upgrades to existing equipment and new products as varied as: an integrated hand-held image intensifier and uncooled thermal imaging core to allow troops to see in cluttered urban environments with complex lighting conditions and shadows; a miniaturised thermal weapon sight with integral laser pointer for low light to total darkness operation allowing troops equipped with Night Vision Goggles the additional capability of hands-off observation and target identification; a package of Urban Vertical Access equipment, based on latest lightweight ladder and mountaineering technology, to give a fire team the ability to access or escape buildings in 15 metre increments with no assistance from others; and even an extreme lightweight 17 metre cable-stiffened ladder bridge able to be launched with access from just one side (i.e. from one rooftop or window to the building opposite) created from man-portable components which can be transported on a quad bike or delivered by helicopter on a single 1.2 metre pallet.
Question 3, which saw a dozen different companies propose solutions which made it through to Level C of the trials, posed the sub-questions how do we: maintain DSA [Dismounted Situational Awareness] in areas with poor signal attenuation; communicate further with existing equipment; communicate further with different equipment; establish seamless voice and data exchange between platforms and dismounts; support the [new UK Land Forces] STRIKE concept by providing deployed tactical elements with beyond line of sight rear link communications; maximise our ability to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum at the tactical level (perhaps for comms, but also perhaps for EW/ECM) and; minimise our electromagnetic signature at tactical level. This category included submissions ranging from: full DSA systems from major international suppliers such as Elbit Systems and Rheinmetall; antennae and mast systems, including lightweight roll-up integrated solutions from Rolatube; hand-held and body-worn radios capable of increasing DSA; to the now operationally proven SlingShot from Spectra Group which allows ordinary UHF and VHF tactical radios to easily and securely transmit through commercial satellites.
It was Question 5, however, which inevitably produced the most numerous and varied set of proposals which made it through to Level C. No less than seven sub-questions were posed asking how do we: offload the the burden from the dismounted soldier to allow him to operate further/longer; sustainably generate off-vehicle power for charging of batteries, lighting, heating etc. (not reliant on vehicle or camp infrastructure); produce water for mounted and dismounted troops and can this be done without without access to an existing water source; monitor the health of troops in order to maximise combat efficiency; increase the endurance of light/cavalry forces; make more efficient use of electrical power and share data between head, torso and weapons sub-systems for dismounted soldiers and; achieve power/data exchange between dismounts and vehicles?
Key players in the cable-free power and data body area network field, which effectively sees electricity from a single rechargeable power source integrated with the soldiers load carriage vest into which his range of electrical accessory and peripheral equipment is plugged, were in attendance with their fast-maturing systems. This single power source concept reduces the weight burden as quantities of heavy batteries and spares are reduced and more efficient use is made by sharing battery power across all devices as and when needed rather than having it sitting around in individual pieces of kit until it is actually required, which of course often it will not be.
In addition to innovative developments in the power field, water purification and solar power solutions also fell under the broad umbrella of Q5, and interesting examples of these were to be seen too. However it was that intriguing Artificial Shoulder Pocket magnet, along with the belt-carried DMM Trace vertical access and egress kit from Q1, which seemed to be catching the eye of many ordinary soldiers, marines and gunners.
Mainstream media attention, on the other hand, seemed to be more on the tiny PD-100 Black Hornet 2 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle which can literally sit upon the palm of a soldier’s hand and weighs less than 20 grammes (two thirds of an ounce). This tiny helicopter Personal Reconnaissance System, which UK Forces originally deployed to Afghanistan in an earlier version (BHUAS) back in 2013, now has night as well as day live video feed capability to give a potentially game-saving airborne ISTAR asset at infantry squad level.
Most of the Level C submissions from AWE 17 will be on show at the DSEI 2017 expo being held at Excel in London’s Docklands from 12th to 15th September. Few details have as yet been provided by MoD as to precisely which specific products are being actively considered for procurement.