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Combat Engineer 2017 – Removing Old Thinking

Military engineers are at the forefront of military investment


Militaries are eager to field improved military engineering capacities, which are seen as a pre-requisite for achieving freedom of movement, area denial, and operational infrastructure in war zones. Integration of the newest technology means that forces can seamlessly manoeuvre in difficult terrain and stay in protected areas.

The three-day conference and exhibition organised by TDN UK and held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 7 to 9 November made one thing clear: Military engineers are at the forefront of military investment. Essential are several fields: operational infrastructure; base protection; energy management and conservation; area denial; IED detection, neutralisation and prevention; mine clearance and route proving; and engineering intelligence. Participants of the conference warned that IEDs will likely remain the “weapon of choice” used by non-state actors like terrorists and insurgents, adding that they can be sophisticated with the incorporation of modern electronic components. The “Focus Day” that was chaired by Lt.Gen. Sir Mark Mans, Chief Royal Engineer, Royal Engineers, UK Armed Forces, made clear that this makes them hard to find and neutralise. The panel discussion also suggested that IEDs’ hybrid nature requires constant innovation in detection, neutralisation, and prevention systems. Industry has a very significant role to play.

In the opening keynote address delivered by Lisa Swan, a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES) and Director of Material Solutions, US Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO), a part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the entire detect-to-neutralise cycle requires the latest C-IED technologies from industry.

Intelligence is also of increasing significance. Panellists noted that sensors often did not provide continuous cover of events in the immediate vicinity of Forward Operating Base (FOB) installations. One conclusion drawn from the panel discussion is that there is a constant need for robust network deployment concepts for exchanging critical engineering intelligence. Readiness for different kinds of completely new threats has to be further improved. Detector technology as found in ground-based radars (GBRs) or thermal imaging cameras can do a lot. Additionally, unmanned platforms – from UGVs to UAVs – can deliver near real-time imagery for C-IED and EOD purposes.

Secure power supply is given high priority too. Drawing from military operations in the past, combusting fuel to produce electricity has been shown to be an inherently inefficient and polluting process. Although this methodology enables electricity to be supplied on demand, it is about to be replaced by cleaner and more cost-effective energy. According to Eric Doro, Environmental Engineer and Energy Manager, US Army Africa, “renewables and low-cost electricity storage are a challenge.”

So, mobile energy systems can be used in remote areas without infrastructure. There is no need to bring in and install diesel generators and fuel any more. In some Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions, as suggested by attendees from industry, this was a time-consuming process; but, in a military conflict, transport routes, when blocked or destroyed, can pose a severe problem. Therefore, mobile photovoltaic (PV) systems can fill a gap here. Additionally, smart camps technology is an issue in the future, as informed by Richard Brewin, Project Officer Energy & Environmental Systems at the European Defence Agency (EDA).

Another issue is protection. Previous requirements often did not match with rapidly emerging threats, chiefly terrorist attacks. Planners must work within today’s realities. So it makes sense to rethink the usefulness of protective measures individually, depending on the threat level. Looking at previous military campaigns, various after-action reports devote a paragraph to how scary and dangerous conflict zones like Afghanistan or Mali can emerge for FOB installations in the event of terrorist attacks. Some reports declared field camp concepts obsolete, given the lack of protective measures like ballistic protection.

In aggregate, most of the technologies that will determine the success of military engineering operations in the next decade are already in play. Some of which, like amphibious bridging and ferrying systems, are gaining increasing momentum. There still is a gap in the adequate numbers of bridging systems in NATO, as noted by General Dynamics European Land Systems (GDELS), manufacturer of the Rapidly Emplaced Bridge System (REBS). Additionally, air-transportable, rapidly deployable bridge systems are playing an important role.
Asymmetric threats in Afghanistan, Mali, and the Middle East sent classic field camp architectures to history’s graveyard and led to the emergence of a new type of thinking, where the modern field camp is modular in character, fed by new forms of electricity, water, and food supply, and less vulnerable to attacks, the latter referring to better sensors and hardening.

Unmanned systems in particular, as found in “Route Clearance” systems now being operated German military engineers, are seen as the direct response to increasing sophistication of landmines, IEDs, and other improvised explosives.

Stefan Nitschke


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