Over the past year we have seen hotspots of unrest and conflict, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which is likely to continue in 2017. Conflicts are becoming increasingly unpredictable and asymmetric in nature and, in responding to these threats, armies expect their armoured vehicle fleets to provide the backbone of their ground-based fighting capability.

Armoured vehicles provide the protection and mobility for the deployment of troops, sensors and weapon systems, delivering military capability where and when it is needed. And, as the battlefield continues to evolve, it demands higher levels of operational and tactical mobility, alongside protection for soldiers and weapon systems.

While tactical mobility across all types of terrain can deliver a critical advantage, the protection of soldiers remains the highest priority and the most significant trend. With this in mind, NIMR chief operating officer, Major General (retired) Carey Wilks, provided an overview of trends in protected mobility in the modern battlespace at the International Armoured Vehicles Conference.

Preparing for asymmetric conflict

NIMR’s perspective on trends in protected vehicle mobility is very much based on the company’s experience as a defence vehicle manufacturer operating in the Middle East. The conventional structure of land forces – a combination of heavy combat arms systems supported by a range of soft skin utility vehicles – has endured for years and is still in place for some armies around the world today.

However, the rise of insurgent and paramilitary groups, many of which are non-state groups, has changed the nature of conflict. In asymmetrical conflict, the enemy is often highly mobile and soldiers are faced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), for example. “The front line and supply lines of the past have gone,” Wilks said. “Forces are now vulnerable throughout the battlespace, with a range of threats, in particular IEDs.”

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In response to this change in the nature of conflict, land forces are now seeking military grade vehicles that provide greater protection and have a much longer life in service than more traditional commercial vehicles can offer. Manufacturers such as NIMR have had to adapt to this new demand, moving to multi-role protective capabilities with a range of tactical systems, which are mobile across the battlefield.

Global instability changes the rules of conflict

Growing instability and conflict in the MENA region has ushered in a period of significant change and challenge. “The continued asymmetric nature of operations and the blurring of lines between war and politics, competence and civilians, state and non-state participants, can be summarised as 4th generation warfare,” Wilks explained.

There is an increased willingness for regional forces in the Middle East to work together in coalitions, to be able to deploy outside of their borders on an expeditionary basis, as can be seen in Yemen today, for example. But this brings its own set of challenges, in terms of command and control, as well as interoperability – and it is something that both armies and equipment manufacturers must adapt to.

"The recent period of low oil prices has had a significant impact on defence budgets in the Middle East."

The recent period of low oil prices has had a significant impact on defence budgets in the region. This has resulted in a greater degree of scrutiny taking place in the specification and selection of military equipment, as budgets need to be stretched without compromising on protection, firepower or mobility – the ‘iron triangle’ of defence.

Looking further afield to Europe, Wilks highlighted NATO’s defence spending as a key issue. Increased tensions in Europe have led to pressure within NATO for all members to meet their defence spending commitments of 2% of GDP. Currently only four NATO nations – the UK, Finland, Greece and the US – achieve this, so further modernisation of land forces is to be expected.

The requirements of modern battlefield

Against this background of global instability, the key trend is one of ground force modernisation. Legacy fleets must be upgraded or modernised to provide the ballistic and blast protection required on modern battlefields. The industry is also seeing a move away from vehicles based on commercial chassis frames to ones where protection and mobility are designed in from the start, on purpose-built structures.

“Although this can increase cost, with good design there are significant benefits in terms of payload and tactical capability, enabling a variety of battlefield systems to be fully integrated, rather than just bolted on,” Wilks said.

So, what does this all mean for a vehicle manufacturer such as NIMR?  

“We find ourselves pushed by both financial and market pressures,” Wilks explained, “especially given the downturn in oil prices, leading us to look to ways of reducing costs and becoming more and more competitive, and also to providing some localisation for our customers in their own countries, to benefit their economies and to carry out some knowledge transfer.”

These pressures have led the company to develop a common platform with multi-role capabilities. As customers increasingly seek increased levels of protection combined with levels of tactical mobility previously limited only to a small combat fleet, NIMR has witnessed a rise in demand for wheeled multi-role vehicles, which offer savings in cost of ownership, to replace mixed and ageing vehicle fleets.

The iron triangle: protection, mobility and firepower

Essentially, today’s customers are demanding the highest levels of protection, with combat levels of performance. In achieving the iron triangle of military defence vehicles, designers and manufacturers face a dilemma between the conflicting demands of protection, mobility and firepower. However, Wilks noted that of these three, the trend for improvement is on two of the corners: mobility and protection.

"Vehicles now need to be designed with system integration in mind."

“The high levels of mobility will free the vehicle from the constraints of predictable routes, allowing forces to regain an element of surprise and avoid vulnerable points,” he said. “Protection must defeat and overmatch an ever-increasing range of ballistic and blast threats.”

While firepower remains important, however, there is a fourth element that should be added: command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I). The need for improved situational awareness and battlefield management has driven a rise in C4I systems, where information and the speed of decision making have become the keys to success. Vehicles now need to be designed with system integration in mind, with the ability to add C4I capabilities on to the platform.

Designing armoured vehicles for future forces

The addition of this fourth element, however, must not compromise protection. Warning that “the trend towards larger blast threats seems to know no boundaries,” Wilks explained that vehicles must adapt to defend against these new, larger threats.

“The base vehicle must be sufficiently stiff to survive major blast events, whilst also allowing scalable ballistic armour to be added to meet specific threats,” he said. “Overall weight becomes the limitation, leading to the trend towards more exotic, lighter options than the traditional armoured steel. But this comes at a price.”

As insurgents become smarter about defence vehicles and their vulnerabilities, with snipers knowing exactly where to target, critical engine protection is absolutely essential now to avoid the mobility kill. But survivability on the battlefield is achieved by more than just hard protection: it demands a range of subsystems, additional weapons, fire suppression, counter measures – all of which supplement the armour to increase the crew’s survivability and performance.

The regional and international context for land warfare has resulted in a significantly changed set of priorities and capabilities for military protected vehicles. But while mobility and protection remain as the main priorities, vehicle manufacturers must, as Wilks concluded, “adapt and deliver a new generation of combat vehicles configured, as we see it, as crossover vehicles, with multi-role capability, designed and built to meet the challenges of modern conflict, by providing the highest levels of protection alongside a tactical combat capability.”