In the works27 July 2021
Leading the field in dismounted soldier systems, the US had planned to roll out 40,000 integrated visual augmentation system (IVAS) units in 2021 until budget cuts set them awry. At the same time – under the guise of its TommyWorks programme – the British Army is moving forward with its own integrated digital soldier and dismounted situational awareness networks in an effort to match the US and become a technology-led military leader. Andrew Barnett speaks to experts from the British Army to learn more.
The development of future dismounted soldier systems offers an intriguing insight into how armies are balancing the use of new technologies with demands in the field. How can technology be exploited to help soldiers dominate their foes without adding to heavy loads or complicating logistics? If technology raises more questions than answers, it risks becoming a hindrance as infantry spend more time looking at their screens than at the enemy.
The British Army and the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) recognise the importance of technology and are keen to take advantage, while ensuring it represents value and augments capabilities. Enter TommyWorks, a team charged with turning the UK’s future soldier vision into a reality. Integrated soldier systems (ISSs) seek to coherently blend the different pieces of equipment and software that a soldier carries to provide enhanced efficiency and lethality. In the UK, TommyWorks acts as the ISS platform authority, a remit that will pave the way for the army to achieve its long-term goal of a 24-hour integrated digital soldier.
TommyWorks liaises with army units and MoD agencies to explore new concepts for expedited development and deployment. It also looks to exploit the UK’s Generic Soldier Architecture (GSA) and open-system approaches, which are key to streamlining integration and maximising commercial outcomes.
Crucially, the team has significant backing. “For what has been quite a bottom-up initiative, we have some high-level support,” the TommyWorks lead, Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Davies, SO1 Soldier Systems at British Army HQ, told the virtual Future Soldier Technology 2021 conference in March. Such backing includes £10m that the British Army is investing in cutting-edge equipment for the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, its first Enhanced Light Forces Battalion.
Invested in cutting-edge equipment for the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment as part of the TommyWorks programme.
UK Ministry of Defence
Quicker, better and more decisive
Instrumental to the technology and capability pipeline are the annual Army Warfighting Experiments (AWE), which put ideas and kit through their paces before the TommyWorks team matures development ahead of fielding with active units. Speaking at the same conference, Lieutenant Colonel Andy Locke, commanding officer in the Infantry Trials and Development Unit – the dismounted close combat focus for trials, capability investigations and experimentation – said several main priorities are guiding how the army intends to fight over the coming decades. They include robotic and autonomous systems; battlefield power and electrification; and AI and machine learning in conjunction with network sensors, effectors and urban operations. The AWEs see army units, industry partners and academia gather to explore novel approaches to fighting that satisfy these priorities. Such collaborations are “a sign of the future cohesion necessary if we’re to keep the British Army ahead in technology-led operations,” said Locke.
Past AWEs have highlighted the need to understand the cognitive burden on soldiers working with robots, and the creation and exploitation of secure networks. “This year, we’ll be looking at human skills, machine learning [and] enabled mission rehearsal, so really pulling together technology processes and people,” said Locke. “Together, this will enable the army to think, decide and act quicker, better and more decisively.”
AWE21 – dubbed ‘Exercise Dynamic Warrior’ – will also have a heavy emphasis on data. In particular, it will focus on insights that can shape training decisions, and provide guidance on collecting, analysing and synthesising training data.
Locke said various challenges have been issued to the industry to help better understand and manage this so-called ‘synthetic wrap’, or electronic training environment. “Is it through augmented reality? Is it through some sort of virtual platform or immersion? Urban training? How can we get more from the urban systems and facilities that we’ve got at the moment?” he asks. “How can we bring that back into the unit? Can it be done through augmented reality? Can it be done through temporary structures? Complex human terrain is going to be so vital as we move into complex urban environments, so how can we draw on open-source material to create a synthetic environment?”
AWE20 saw the creation of a deployable secure digital data network that linked more than 100 sensors, communication systems and platforms. Locke described it as a “digital backbone” for the integration, exercising and investigation of multiple industry platforms and services. “This was a real first for army experimentation and this digital backbone – or ‘MANNA’ as it’s being called – will now endure for future AWEs,” he said.
But AWEs do not simply inform the TommyWorks team about the effectiveness of equipment – they also shape logistics and operational ideas. “What we are interested in understanding are the changes to currently held doctrinal and tactical norms, and how transformative the systems are to the way that we operate,” said Locke. “So, we’ll confirm the capability, but it’s in the hands of the users [in terms of] how they’re going to really change the way they operate – and that for us is the real gem here.”
It’s vital that the army keeps evolving. “We must become more dynamic, we must become more agile, and we must become more dispersed,” he said.
One further piece of the jigsaw will provide the real ‘golden thread’ – connectivity. “We must be able to connect all these systems and draw data rapidly in order to make quick decisions and changes,” Locke said. He described the AWE format as an original “catalyst” for TommyWorks and one that has shaped the need for a new dismounted close-combat situational awareness (DSA) system.
Improved awareness on the frontline
The development of a DSA capability is key to British soldier modernisation and will ultimately result in the development of the 24-hour integrated digital soldier, for which TommyWorks will be the platform authority that verifies compliance. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Sheldrick of SO1 Combat Systems and Bearers – the group responsible for the delivery of the DSA capability – told the conference that it will be designed to answer fundamental battlefield questions, including: ‘Where am I?’, ‘Where are my soldiers?’, ‘What are my orders?’ and ‘Where is the enemy?’
“For the dismounted close-combat soldier, DSA will underpin the land digital backbone, setting the foundations to facilitate the future linking of sensors, decision makers and effectors,” he said. Now in its assessment phase, the first ‘lite’ iteration of the capability will be provided to TommyWorks this year for its enhanced light force battalion fielding project. Sheldrick explained that it “will allow dismounted commanders to benefit from the automation of battlefield information gathering, as well as reducing cognitive burden, allowing commanders to focus on analysing more timely and accurate information to make quicker, better-informed decisions”.
This first delivery will include a radio-bearer platform with a waveform that will provide detailed position location information of each individual soldier. There will also be laptop-style devices for dismounted close-combat commanders and a battle space management application to provide mapping and data display, as well as supporting reports and returns between the platoon and the company headquarters. A headset including a tactical hearing protection microphone, and various ancillaries such as power supply, cabling, patches and planning laptops will also be provided.
“DSA will be central in making the dismounted soldier ready to fight in the challenging conditions of the modern-day battlefield – and it will do this by increasing battlefield tempo,” said Sheldrick.
Each DSA iteration will have its own mini life-cycle within the project’s overall procurement process. This will allow capability to be updated on a semi-regular basis to exploit new technologies assessed by TommyWorks. Davies said this process is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. “This is one of the key things that we’ve learned: we don’t need to be just into the delivery of equipment, we need to be into the fielding and training progression in order to understand the benefits that we can get, and whether what we plan to do in the first place with a particular version actually delivers the benefits,” he said. “Now the versions may be small improvements, they may be little ones, but that’s actually how we see it structured moving forward.”
A ‘campaign plan’ has been devised to facilitate these small but vital steps, including vertical integration tools that help quantify how different configurations change the weight and impact on soldiers, Davies explained. “How does this work when we integrate different systems together from different project teams and develop different delivery agents? How do we link that into safety, security and EMC [electromagnetic compatibility]? How do we accept all of that as a combined design rather than a single equipment design?” It also raised questions for procurement. “How do we go about buying kit when we’re not trying to buy for the whole army every single time? What different options are there – how do we get constantly improving kit?”
With UK troop numbers set to be cut following the MoD’s Integrated Review of Security and Defence, teams like TommyWorks will be vital to ensuring that the British Army maintains capability, and that soldiers have the right technology at the right price to maintain lethality far into the future.