Armoured warfare in the first two decades of the 21st Century has been somewhat different to those envisioned for, and conducted, during the second half of the 20th Century – effectively the ‘Cold War’ era. Then, operations were conceived as principally involving the main battle tank (MBT), being principally of a tank-on-tank or tank-on-APC (armoured personnel carrier) nature, with light armoured vehicles (LAVs) as a reconnaissance screen. Since then, however, the threat has changed substantially and the age of Expeditionary Warfare emerged.
This has seen the concept of massed, national armoured formations going head-to-head replaced by small or individual actions against an enemy that is rarely uniformed but sometimes wearing body armour, attacking from ambush, often in an urban area or from behind cover (natural or pre-prepared and fortified), using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or LAWs (light anti-armour weapons), sometimes mounted on civilian vehicles (referred to as “mechanicals”).
‘Cold War’ armoured vehicles have had to be adapted to improve their situational awareness (SA) both at medium- and close-range. Fortunately, the technology, too, has changed, allowing development of existing vehicles or new, improved LAVs, many with a wheeled rather than tracked configuration, to emerge.
Such vehicles have enhanced lethality and survivability, provided by new weapons ad sensors, the latter providing situational awareness in immediate area around the vehicle itself. They feature electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) systems capable of rapid, efficient searching, tracking and targeting of enemy, providing data to the fire-control system (FCS) and, also, close-in SA. These features should ideally come in a compact package that can easily be fitted on any vehicle, can be customized for specific roles or missions and, in terms of sensors employed, be easily upgradable.
Traditionally, such armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) systems have performed their roles via periscopic technology via ‘windows’ through the armour. This tends to limit their flexibility, despite the addition of thermal imagers and laser rangefinders, image stabilisation, and FCS. These complex systems do, however, take up vital space within the vehicle hull, while future upgrade is limited by the architecture, volume, and the attributes of their optical parts.
The solution to the limitations of such ‘under armour’ systems is to place such turreted EO/IR systems outside the vehicle armour (either on the vehicle topside or next to the weapon). Such ‘above-armour’ systems providing fully-stabilised, digital sensing in place of direct optical sighting, use fibre-optic cabling in place of the complex optical chain, making internal connections to crew displays and controls inside the vehicle.
New modular turrets can be configured with most sensor and laser systems available on the market, thus making upgrade and maintenance more straightforward. It also permits easy integration of sensors of various sizes and shapes, while maintenance entails less intrusion into the fixed structures of the vehicle’s hull. As noted, the use of fibre optics also eases integration with other sensors and weapon systems, and the sharing of imagery and video. This enhances the crew’s ability to detect and track multiple targets, while use of a gunner sight or second turret can provide hunter-killer capability.
The use of digital sensors allows electronic processing to enhance the image and provide features such as automatic target detection and multi-target tracking. Some above-armour systems are able to track targets while they scan around the vehicle (offering a near-real-time full panoramic view), enhancing hemispheric SA.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the ‘above-armour’ system is its large panoramic profile compared with a periscope, thus presenting an attractive target for enemy fire. Currently, the highest known protection levels applied to such systems is STANAG 4569 Level 2, making them vulnerable to weapons larger than 7.62 mm in calibre. The use of multiple turrets could mitigate this by increasing redundancy, as could the addition of external turret armour (at the cost of increasing weight). From the operational side, some AFV crews may find the lack of a pure optical daylight channel problematic: the author has been told of instances where an optical channel is broadly preferable to a digital camera, as it generally offers higher resolution and a more immediate man-machine interface than displays.
So what exactly is out there in the marketplace? An example of the new vehicles being developed is the British Army’s new Ajax family of Specialist Vehicles (SV) which replaces the CVR(T) family of tracked reconnaissance and other vehicles, which is being equipped with sighting systems from Thales. The company is supplying some 245 vehicle sets under a GBP125 million contract. The equipment includes the ORION primary sight, DNGS-T3 Stabilised Day/Night Gunnery Sight, local situational awareness (LSA) cameras and ancillary equipment.
The ORION stabilised independent panoramic sighting system provides the vehicle commander with 360° day/night long-range surveillance and target identification capabilities, independent of the turret orientation. The stabilised system enables on-the-move surveillance and target engagement. It uses the company’s Catherine-MP (Mega-Pixel) thermal imager from Thales Optronics, equipped with a Gen 3 staring focal plane array (FPA). The Catherine-MP is available with a choice of medium wave infrared (MWIR – 3-5 µm) with a 640×512 pixel FPA on a 15 µm pixel pitch; or long-wave infrared (LWIR – 8-12 µm) thermal imager, again with a 640×512 FPA format, and a 20 µm pixel pitch. It also includes two high-definition (HD) colour TV sensors, an eye-safe laser rangefinder, with a gigabit Ethernet (GigE) interface for data sharing and connectivity.
The DNGST3 dual-axis stabilised modular gunnery sighting system provides target detection and engagement on-the-move day and night, and incorporates a choice of MWIR/LWIR imager and two HDTV sensors that provide long-range and wide-angle viewing capabilities. It also includes an eye-safe laser rangefinder, and features video and GigE interfaces for data exchange with the FCS.
The LSA cameras offer 360° day/night close-in surveillance and threat identification using a combination of uncooled thermal imagers and day cameras to provide the driver and platform crew with an all-round platform view.
L3 WESCAM, the Canadian element of L3 Harris Technologies, has offered the MX-GCS (Ground Control System) twin-axis independent sighting system since 2015. It is specifically configured for ‘above-armour’ installation (as a retrofit or on new-build vehicles) to provide full weapon fire-control capabilities. Derived from the company’s mast-mounted MX-RSTA (Recce, Surveillance and Target Acquisition) multi-sensor system, the MX-GCS baseline payload configuration includes a cooled MWIR thermal imager, an HD daylight camera and an eye-safe laser rangefinder. Optional payloads include a long-range optical spotter, laser illuminator/pointer, a cooled/uncooled LWIR thermal imager, a laser designator, and a short-wave infrared (SWIR) imager.
The company used the October 2018 Association of the US Army (AUSA) exhibition to demonstrate the all-digital MX-GCS in four different configurations for short-range air defence: as a Reconfigurable Integrated-weapons Platform (RIwP) in a US Army IM-SHORAD configuration; on a Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) vehicle; as a gunnery sight and Commander’s Independent Viewer (CIV) option for the Cockerill 3000-series turret; and on a 50mm gun turret in support of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (ARDEC).
The BattleGuard Commander’s Independent Weapon Station from Raytheon is another modular system that offers the full functionality of a commander’s sight, but can also be fitted to integrate with a range of lethal and non-lethal weapons. It offers early threat detection and increased crew force protection and vehicle survivability by providing a 360° view of the battlefield through a Gen 2 cooled LWIR thermal imager or Gen 3 HD two-colour (MWIR/LWIR) thermal imager and a colour day TV camera with an integral laser rangefinder.
According to company literature, the system is capable of detecting, classifying, recognising, identifying and locating tracking multiple targets (stationary or moving), guiding guns and missiles to targets, and can also do collaborative sensing and engagement using ‘slew-to-cue’ with on- and off-board sensors. BattleGuard has been demonstrated on the M2/M3 Bradley IFV and is designed to be fitted on a wide spectrum of AFVs.
Also from the United States is FLIR Systems, who have been involved in providing a variety of vehicle-mounted systems since the turn of the century. Typical of the genre is the company’s range of TacFLIR sensors, a quantity of which was ordered in October 2017 by the US Army is support of its EO/IR-Force Protection (FP) programme. Although the particular model was not specified, the TacFLIR 280-HD can serve as an example. The sensor head can be fitted with up to six payloads, including an MWIR thermal imager, with a 1280×720 FPA; a daylight CCD camera with a 1920×1080 FPA; a low-light camera with a 1280×720 FPA; and an eyes-safe laser rangefinder. Optional payloads include a 1920×1080 FPA CCD or 640×480 FPA SWIR imager, a laser illuminator and laser pointer.
For vehicle-mounted systems, the company used the Eurosatory 2018 exhibition to launch an interesting spin on ‘above-armour’ sensors. It has integrated its Black Hornet 3 nano-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which can transmit live video and still images back to their operators (and already in soldier use by Australia and the US Army), onto an AFV-mounted surveillance system. Claimed to be nearly inaudible at even close ranges, it allows ground units to expand their visual range, especially in complex and urban environments.
From France, SAFRAN’s Sagem Paseo dual-axis 360° panoramic sight claims to improve the survivability and effectiveness of AFVs by offering increased SA, reduced detection time, and increased firing efficiency. This ‘above-armour’ sensor offers a basic configuration includes a MWIR imager with continuous zoom (1.9° to 15.2°), a day colour HD TV camera, and an eye-safe laser rangefinder.
Of modular design, Sagem offers options that uprate the surveillance and reconnaissance system to a pure targeting and FCS systems. Such enhancements include a cooled LWIR imager, a ballistic computer, line-of-fire management system, panoramic track-while-scan, auto-tracking, and a laser designator or beam-rider laser emitter. A dual-system approach (one for the commander, one for the gunner) has been displayed on a Cockerill 3000 turret.
Offered as part of the MBT Revolution modular upgrade suite for AFVs/MBTs, the Stabilized Electro-Optical Sighting System (SEOSS) from Germany’s Rheinmetall is specifically designed as a compact, stabilised, digital FCS. It comprises a Gen 3 640×512 MWIR/LWIR thermal imager (customer choice), a daylight CCD (charge-coupled device) sensor, a laser rangefinder, an inertial sensor, and a video tracker.
As a stand-alone system, SEOSS comes in two versions: SEOSS Panoramic which functions as a commander’s independent surveillance and fire-control system with 360°azimuth and -15° to +17° elevation coverage, and the SEOSS Sector designed as a gunner’s system with a +7.5° sweep either side of boresight. Rheinmetall claims that the SEOSS can be installed and integrated in all types of combat vehicles and is has been integrated into the Spanish Marine Corps’ Piranha III C.
From Italy’s Leonardo (formerly Selex ES) comes the Janus RSTA (Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition) system, selected for Italian Freccia multirole AFV. This passive panoramic observation system is designed to complement or replace the commander’s sight on AFVs. The ‘above-armour’ sensor unit houses a MWIR thermal sensor (using a staring 640×512 focal plane array with a 16 µm pixel pitch resolution) and a CCD TV sensor with continuous zoom, with an eye-safe laser rangefinder as an option. The system offers a video tracker and can be synchronised with the main gun to provide hunter-killer capability.
The Commander’s Open Architecture Panoramic Sight (COAPS) day/night target acquisition and independent surveillance system from Elbit Systems of Israel is a dual-axis sight with additional fire-control functions for stationary and mobile platforms. The 360° panoramic sight is synchronised with the gunner’s main sight and provides a hunter-killer capability. Sensors within COAPS include a continuous-zoom thermal imager (both MWIR and LWIR are both offered with a 640×512 FPA resolution, with a 1024×768 option for MWIR and 1280×1024 option for LWIR), a daylight colour CCD TV camera, and an eye-safe laser rangefinder.
First shown at the IDEX 2015 exhibition, the PKP system from the Peleng Joint Stock Company of Belarus comes in two versions: the PKP-K commander’s panoramic sight and the PKP-PT platform type panoramic sight. Specific details of the PKP-K payload are sparse, beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of thermal imager (MWIR or LWIR as per customer choice), a daylight TV camera and an eye-safe laser rangefinder. The system offers full 360°panoramic terrain surveillance, target detection and acquisition, and FCS facilities for all the vehicle’s weapons.
While the PKP-K is intended for use on Russian-designed AFVs, such as the T-72B and T-90MS MBTs and the BMP-3 IFV, the PKP-PT appears as the more exportable system as company literature describes it as being suitable for light and heavy AFVs. It offer equivalent thermal (MWIR or LWIR) and TV channels but no laser rangefinder. Its dual-axis stabilized head offers 360°panoramic surveillance, together with target detection, recognition and tracking capability.
The various examples described above are representative of variety of systems available today. ‘Above-armour’ sensors have arrived on the scene and, no doubt, the up-coming IDEX exhibition in Abu Dhabi will see other examples emerge.