When developing any next-generation platform, ensuring that it delivers information superiority is vital. Gone are the days when each platform operated within its own ecosystem and delivered information retrospectively – operators now expect a complete situational awareness picture delivered to them with a live view of what is going on around them.
Technology continues to advance at levels unforeseen even a decade ago. Networking of systems is commonplace, and every node within the operational chain – be it a sensor on the ground, on a vehicle or up in the air – has to be interconnected and fully integrated to efficiently deliver information in real-time with near-zero latency.
Augment this with decentralised artificial intelligence identifying objects in parallel to what the physical sensor is collecting, and the future battlefield looks quite different to the analogue one of the past.
Picture the scenario: manned and unmanned systems across air and land working together seamlessly, pulling information from all of the spectral ranges to deliver to crews a real-time fully-integrated 360-degree situational awareness picture that is augmented by AI for identification and classification.
The sensor-to-shooter cycle is completed with the integration of highly automated self-defence systems, counter-drone technology and advanced targeting systems.
While this might sound like a futuristic vision, this scenario is very much a near-term possibility and will be delivered to troops in the coming years to ensure that situational awareness is optimised, reconnaissance is highly efficient, and target acquisition and transfer of data across the battlefield are carried out in real-time.
Programmes such as the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) that will replace Germany’s Leopard II and France’s Leclerc Main Battle Tanks (MBT), respectively, are driving the requirements that will result in such a scenario.
This project is not seeking to replace the MBTs one-to-one as was the case with new tank programmes of the past, but rather will employ a system-of-systems approach that incorporates manned and unmanned ground vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, highly-integrated sensor fusion augmented by AI, and advanced targeting and self-protection capabilities.
In short, MGCS will be a game changer in combat operations. A completely integrated system like this ensures information superiority and will ultimately make land forces more lethal.
HENSOLDT already has the know-how to deliver an integrated sensor fusion network. Its state-of-the-art See Through Armour System (SETAS) provides a 360-degree view to the crew, even in areas the users are not looking at.
SETAS can integrate and communicate with other systems, for example sharing geo data-based objects to a neighbouring vehicle, and this data can be collected from the different areas of the battlefield and fused together.
“We are merging all of that and providing a common operational picture to each of the vehicles involved,” according to Martin Welzenbach, Head of Sensing Solutions at HENSOLDT.
“We can receive a connection from a small UAV or UGV, and they can feed back video streams that the operator can see, and at the same time the AI in the system is observing and looking at the scene, detecting objects and reporting relevant information to the user.”
Welzenbach added that there are a wide range of electro-optical sensors on the battlefield, so this setup provides the user with the ability to focus on the important ones while the algorithm supports them and guides them to the most urgent object in the scene around them.
“As we connect all of the different sensors, we have a very powerful and unique setup in the market and can give soldiers in the vehicles of the future a very complete picture about the surrounding area.”
Head of Sensing Solutions
This enables the setup to surpass human capability in many ways, including – but not limited to – being able to see through armour, observing across different spectra – especially into the infrared – and seeing in multiple directions simultaneously. This makes the system “very powerful”, Welzenbach said.
Leveraging its experience in sensing, electronic warfare and electronic countermeasures, there are a variety of complementary HENSOLDT systems that could be integrated alongside SETAS, including: the MUSS self-protection system; counter-UAV technology; VADR drone reconnaissance; the SPEXER radar; radio direction finders; EOTS electro-optical system; and command and control software.
But only when information is shared across these different elements can they truly be effective. The MUSS self-protection system, for example, can detect a laser attack and provide elevation data that can be instantly visualised by a tank crew.
The information can also be transferred to a neighbouring vehicle so that its crew can also see where the threat is coming from. This introduces redundancy to the operation; if something happens to one vehicle, a secondary one can receive the information on the direction of the strike and act upon it.
On-board processing makes this possible because it is carried out close to the sensor and does not require data transfer elsewhere – something that is often slow. Moreover, different pieces of intelligence can be communicated to crew members, depending on their role and what they need to see, even if they are in the same vehicle.
Additionally, all of this is scalable, so it can be used in different vehicle types and to different requirements and budgets. There is even work underway to apply this interconnected, fully-networked, multi-spectral smart sensing to other domains including vessels in the maritime domain.
It is important to note that the capabilities being offered by HENSOLDT are not just a shopping list of hardware. Threaded across them all is the sensor fusion, which ultimately is the discriminator and is what is going to disrupt the way ground operations of the future are carried out.
“Our plan is to introduce an easy way to have all of these sensors integrated to a suite, to provide standardised interfaces and to be able to bring all of this data together in a very advanced way with sophisticated methods for fusion,” Welzenbach added.
“This is the future: fully-networked, multi-spectral smart sensing across the battlefield.”
And critically, this is not all just a nice to have. A consolidated view of the battlefield increases situational awareness, speeds up decision-making, and reduces crew workload, ultimately supporting a decision-centric combat operation. Much more a game changer than a nice to have.