Emergence of non-traditional technologies

The use of Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) by today’s armed forces is increasing rapidly. Land forces are moving away from the heavy battle tanks that dominated combat vehicles for the past half century, and towards lighter, more agile armed tracked and wheeled vehicles.

26th May 2010


The use of Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) by today’s armed forces is increasing rapidly. Land forces are moving away from the heavy battle tanks that dominated combat vehicles for the past half century, and towards lighter, more agile armed tracked and wheeled vehicles. These have the ability to increase the survivability of infantry troops while providing high fire power and force flexibility along with fast-deploy capabilities.

Within the Asia-Pacific region there are a number of ongoing programmes underway to meet the emerging IFV requirements of various armed forces. Several nations are carrying out comprehensive upgrades of their land forces, creating a multi-billion dollar market for IFVs. While a certain amount of this will be filled with European and US foreign technology imports, the region is quickly becoming a hot spot for indigenous production - with more than one country likely to become a major player in the defence export market in the next decade.

Down under developments

Australia has a number of promising projects underway as part of its programme to meet the future close combat requirements identified by the government. The Australian Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) is in the process of augmenting the country’s land force assets in order to create a more survivable, capable and interoperable range of combat options. Through this, the DMO hopes to reduce operating costs, address deployment and mobility issues, and streamline the systems operated in what has become a highly complicated network of products with limited interoperability.

In many ways, Australia’s armoured vehicle requirements are unique, with any prospective vehicles needing to be able to operate in some of the most extreme conditions on earth. Maintaining a range of tracked and wheeled mobility capabilities is a central requirement of the Australian Army’s capabilities; and overcoming the issues associated with the high temperatures and rugged environments is an ongoing issue for foreign technology imports.

The three projects that concern the acquisition or upgrade of IFVs are the Land 106, Land 112, and Land 116 projects. The Land 106 project concerns the Army’s ageing fleet of M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), 350 of which are being upgraded under the contract. A total of 7 variants are being produced, with enhancements including increased protection via the addition of external armour kits, internal spall liners, and hull reinforcement to improve mine protection; improved mobility, the introduction of heat mitigation measures, new electrical and fuel systems and new land navigation system. Firepower is being enhanced through the addition of an Australian designed and built electrical turret, hosting a .50 calibre weapon; suspension and road wheels are also being upgraded. Although fraught with delays caused by problems encountered in extending the hulls of the vehicles, the programme is expected to be completed this year.

Under the Land 116 Bushranger project, Bushmaster mine-resistant wheeled vehicles replaced the remaining M113 fleet that were to be retired rather than upgraded; giving Australian mechanised formations depth in fielding both wheeled and off-road vehicles.

The Bushmaster 4x4 is produced by Thales Australia (formerly ADI ltd), and has been in service with the Army since 2004. It has since been exported to the Netherlands, and is being marketed in North America under a contract with Oshkosh. The vehicle is armour-protected against anti-tank mines, mortars, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), as well as a wide range of armour-piercing ammunition. They carry Raven R-400 remote weapon station (RWS) and sensors including thermal imager, CCD TV and eyesafe laser rangefinder. In addition, the Bushmaster is fitted with a weapon mount for 5.56 mm or 7.62 mm machine gun.

Australia’s IFV capabilities are rounded out by the Land 112 Australian Light Armoured Vehicle (ASLAV) project. Under this project, the Army’s fleet of 8x8 wheeled light armoured vehicles underwent upgrades to enhance offensive, defensive and communication capabilities, giving land forces a more capable and survivable range of combat vehicles.

Singapore ingenuity

Singapore has taken great strides towards self-sufficiency in the defence arena, and is leading the Asia-Pacific region in indigenous armoured vehicle production. The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Technologies Engineering (ST Engineering) have carried out a number of successful indigenous production projects. These have gone a long way towards positioning the country as a future hot-spot for defence export.

Arguably the most impressive design to emerge from Singapore is the Bionix Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV). Developed jointly by MINDEF, ST, and the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) in response to a requirement to replace the Army’s ageing M113 APCs, the Bionix was the first indigenous AFV to be developed in the region. The Army required a vehicle with high mobility and agility, low weight and high fire power; and with no off-the-shelf foreign technology available at the time to fill the gap, the Bionix IFV, and since then, the improved Bionix II, was developed to meet MINDEF’s specific requirements.

The Bionix II, which has been in service with the Army since 2006, is a network capable platform designed to combine operational readiness and flexibility. In particular it was developed to meet the changing requirements of the Army as it makes the transition into a ‘3rd generation force’, which would see the integration of enhanced technologies into existing infrastructure.

The Bionix II is a highly advanced IFV with enhanced survivability for troops. It is fitted with an ATK mk44 Bushmaster 30mm dual-feed canon and modular armour package, two-man turret, and armament including one 7.62mm coaxial machine gun and one 7.62mm general-purpose machine gun, giving improved lethality. The improved fire control system consists of Day / Night Thermal Sightseeing System (DNTSS) with integrated eye-safe laser range finder and dual-axis stabilising system for enhanced tracking of targets and improved first round hit probability. Even before a consideration of its C41 (Command, Control, Communication and Computers & Intelligence) assets, the Bionix II is a highly capable IFV. Being fully-networked, the onboard Battlefield Management System (BMS) allows the crew to share information with commanders who, in turn, are able to coordinate the deployment of other sensor and strike assets in the battlefield.

Over the past few years the Bionix family has grown to include a number of vehicles for the Singapore armed forces, including the Bionix 25; the twin-weapon mounted 40/50; the Bionix Recovery Vehicle; and the Bionix Armoured Vehicle Launched Bridge for strategic movement of ground forces.

While the Bionix family has yet to see export to foreign armed forces, ST Engineering’s subsidiary, Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK), along with the DTSA, has been successfully producing and exporting the Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier (ATTC) for some time. Developed for the Singapore Army in the late 1990s, the Bronco ATTC provides operators with a robust articulated platform, capable of exceptional mobility across a wide range of terrain and climate, with extensive armour and high survivability. It has been in service with the Singapore armed forces since 2001.

The vehicle’s advantage over other units currently in production is its superior range, payload, internal capacity; and its proven increased protection against roadside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which has led to its growing popularity with armed forces currently engaged in Afghanistan. In 2008 ST Engineering announced a £150 million contract with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) for supply of over 100 ATTCs as part of an urgent operational requirement (UOR) issued by the UK MOD. Designated ‘Warthog’, the deliveries are due for completion this year, and will give UK forces a significant increase in all terrain rapid deployment of troops, combat support, logistics and maintenance. Additional features on the Warthog include Platt MR50 shielded ring mount, external fuel tanks, and UK theatre-entry specific equipment including additional armour, specialist electronic countermeasures equipment and communication systems, to be installed under contract with Thales UK.

Export ambitions

Close behind Singapore’s growing export success is South Korea, whose domestic products are attracting a great deal of interest with a number of world class systems now making inroads into the international market. High technology transfers, offsets, and joint projects have strengthened the quality of military products being manufactured in the country. As a result, several domestically-produced maritime and aerial products have been delivered to the Republic of Korea (ROK) defence forces; and the delivery of land assets abroad has been achieved with the export of XK2 Black Panther technology to Turkey as part of the Altay tank, building on an earlier sale of self-propelled 155mm howitzers to the same country.

The ROK is enhancing and streamlining its armed forces, with modernisation plans being driven by the need to strengthen their defensive capabilities against the ongoing threat of its nearest and most powerful neighbour, North Korea. With North Korea continuing to antagonise the international community with its nuclear weapons programme and growing unease within the Asia-Pacific region as a result, ROK’s defence spending on both domestic and foreign technology has increased significantly over the past decade. While North Korea is the principle of focus of defence planners, it should also be noted that Seoul has unresolved offshore territorial disputes with China and Japan.

The ROK Army (ROKA) currently has a major requirement for a wheeled armoured vehicle in order to safeguard the security of the Korean Peninsula against the threat from the North. The government is seeking a high-tech wheeled armoured vehicle with enhanced firepower capabilities as part of a programme that will see a formal request for proposal (RFP) issued this year. The expected competitors include Samsung Techwin’s six-wheeled Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV), Hyundai-Rotem’s six-wheel-drive AMV KW-1, and the Doosan eight-wheel-drive Black Fox Armoured Wheeled Vehicle (AWV).

Doosan Infracore’s subsidiary, Doosan DST, is already under contract with the ROKA to provide the K21 Next Generation Infantry Fighting Vehicle, known as the K21. The first delivery took place late in 2009, and the vehicle is considered to be the strongest infantry armed vehicle developed and produced with Korean technology, and amongst the most advanced produced anywhere in the world. The K21 is a tracked vehicle, which sits on the lighter end of the IFV spectrum at 26 tonnes, equipped with network centric warfare capabilities; an ‘active defence’ system against incoming rockets and anti-armour missiles; a 40mm automatic cannon and a 7.62mm machine gun as its key weapons, a third-generation vehicle-to-tank missile will be installed at a later date, making the vehicle capable of attacking enemy armed vehicles, tanks and helicopters.

The K21 also possesses advanced protection for troops, being specifically designed to protect against large calibur automatic cannon rounds, including the 50 mm armour-penetrating munitions used by the 2A72 automatic cannon used on the Russian BMP-3. Side armour on the vehicle is capable of protecting against 14.5 mm AP rounds, and the top can withstand 152 mm artillery shell fragments exploding as close as 10 m away. It is also fitted with laser and heat sensors to detect imminent enemy attack.

Doosan DST plans to see the K21 exported around the globe, which will see it competing against IFV products such as BAE Systems’ M2/M3 Bradley, Russia’s BMP-3, and Singapore’s Bionix.

Sleeping giants

Doosan’s hopes for the K21 are high, and understandably so. Establishing a foothold in the lucrative military export market is a goal held by numerous nations within the Asia-Pacific region. Both India and China are pursuing indigenous IFV projects, and are set to field modernised armed forces of serious military might within the next decade with the further aim of putting themselves on the international defence manufacturing map. Both nations are currently carrying out massive modernisation programmes of their armed forces, and domestic development of products has featured strongly in their plans. Through a combination of reverse-engineering foreign technology and working with overseas developers in joint projects they are seeing varying degrees of success in their efforts.

India’s defence requirements alone are set to create an estimated US $100 billion market, and will be a strong influencing factor in the nature of future growth in the military market within the Asia-Pacific region. At this stage two main IFV programmes are underway; the first will see the overhaul of the Army’s Russian-built Infantry Combat Vehicle BMP-IIs; the second will see the acquisition of 500 APCs, some of which will be fitted with missile launchers for firing Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs).

China has revealed a number of new IFVs in the last six months, showing the extent to which the country is placing emphasis on the production of tracked and wheeled assets. The ZBD-04 Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) has recently entered service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), featuring a heavily armed two-person turret with 100 mm gun capable of firing laser guided projectiles on targets within 4 km. The vehicle also carries a 30 mm dual feed canon and a 7.62 mm machine gun. The vehicle was displayed during a military parade in Beijing in October 2009.

China also displayed the PLA’s new 8x8 ZBD-09 ICV, which is fitted with a two person turret, 30 mm cannon and 7.63 co-axial machine gun, and single launcher for the Red Arrow 73 wire guided anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW); and the latest version of the WMZ551 is being marketed for export in both 6x6 and 8x8 configurations. The light AFV has a range of weapon options, including the 7.62 mm or 12.7 mm machine guns, and a variety of turrets. So far within the Asia-Pacific region the only known export customer for the WMZ551 is Sri Lanka.

Conclusion

The traditional dominance of European and North American suppliers will be challenged in the coming years as a number of vigorous expanding Asian nations begin to produce comparable – or better – products at lower prices.

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