Wednesday, November 28, 2007

COTS beats military procurement every time

Der Spiegel {,1518,519953,00.html} has reported that the 20,000 per Euro per soldier infantry combat system the German Army has been trialling has been a failure. Soldiers complain the ITC is inadequate and the armour too heavy.

Frankly I am not surprised. The problem is military procurement is almost always an exercise in gold-plating. The result is non-standard technology that is expensive to maintain, and ends up far behind the technical facilities of commercial-off-the-shelf in no time. That said I see no problem with a 20,000 Euro per soldier infanty combat system. I assigned US$20,000 per combat soldier system in budgeting for my review of New Zealand defence/civil defence needs. This is a reasonable sum to spend in making sure a nations soldiers are as comfortable and safe as they can be.

In working through the available technology for the review of New Zealand forces {} it soon became apparent that for ITC the technology was moving too quickly for it to be worth developing a hugely expensive solution. Thus all I proposed was a standard top-of-the-line waterproof sports wristwatch including metabolic sensors and GPS and a ruggedised PDA for carrying and exchanging map and mission data. A standard Television Equipment Associates air-link for individual soldiers and Harris radio could be linked into the PDA via the IP stack.

The object is to make the infantry information network simple rather than intensely robust. The principal applications are merely to exchange messages, map data and pictures. New Zealand forces are unlikely to be dealing with opponents who have sophisticated netwarfare systems and, if they are, they should not be so reliant on the technology that they don't know what to do without it.

When it comes to protection the most important aspects are camouflage and armour. New Zealand forces in Afghanistan have tended to borrow desert camouflage from other nations because their own disruption pattern uniform is patently out of place and out of date.

But I have been rather surprised, I have to admit, by the rather odd camouflage being adopted by a number of nations at present. In an era of global peacekeeping it seems strange that so many nations are adopting a woodland pattern when the liklihood of their being deployed in such terrain is rather remote. The German Flecktarn is one example but the Canadian Cadpat is not much better. The US army's new digital pattern seems to be designed to be equally obvious in all terrain settings. Of all the new digital camouflage patterns only the Marine Marpat patterns seem to be the only genuinely global pattern base. In video footage of Afghanistan I have seen the Marpat is distinctly less visible than other uniforms around it - perhaps a survival advantage - when foes have a choice of target!

It seems to me that military camouflage designers could do a lot worse than look to globalised animal species for inspiration. After all they have been evolving for millions of years - far longer than we have even been aware of camouflage.
None of these animals are green - not even the birds. All adopt a grey-brown fleck which blends very well into a wide range of terrain types.

Because the New Zealand Army is very small by world standards my review assumed more money should be spent on making the uniform comfortable and adaptable for climates from -40 to +40 degrees celsius. This is not commercial-off-the shelf but specialised. The benefit of investing in a uniform that can maintain user comfort and safety in a variety of terrains is worth the investment. There is not much of a technology risk associated with clothing as the industry is very good at mass production and scale-up.

When it comes to ballistic protection I concluded that the sensible thing to do was to go where the mercenaries go. After all a mercenaries top priority is survival. Survival means first being quick enough to get out of the way with enough resistance to minimise serious damage. There is no point earning US$1000 a day if you can only spend it from the comfort of your wheelchair. Once again the small size of the New Zealand force meant that it was better value to buy the best than save 20%. The only exception to this was the standard US Army kevlar helmet which is adopted largely to improve IFF - American soldiers not being very good at distinguishing between non-American friends or foes.

When it came to weaponry I concluded that a small force should simply not compromise. Special forces should have the US SCAR while irregular (territorial) forces needed the simplicity and ease of use of the SAR-21. Auxiliaries need a weapon that can be holstered - that suggested the mini-Uzi. These may be more expensive than your bog-standard infantry weapon but the order size was not large as New Zealand rarely deploys more than a company, and almost never a battalion.

The New Zealand force as I envisaged it would have more in common with commercial armies than the bloated public service organisations most countries (including New Zealand) tend to operate. That is it would operate excellent quality survival systems and commercial level infomatics but not get drawn into Quixotic quests for the perfect infantry combat system.

As the German experience has demonstrated in the end it comes down to what the soldier in the field thinks. If he (or she) is wearing a uniform that keeps him (or her) comfortable and safe, has not been compromised by penny pinching, and is as close to what he (or she) would choose for themselves with the same budget, then you will have their confidence. Inflict impractical rubbish on them and you have their emnity. That is not good for morale or retention.

In a world where private armies are rapidly attracting away the best and brightest soldiers it is essential that national armies think less about the needs of the general staff and potential headlines and more about the man or woman on the ground. Infantry combat systems need to be designed from the ground up to be comfortable, safe and simple to operate in demanding environments.