Digitalisation in the Army
Digitalisation is the number one issue of the 21st century. The German Army is halfway through the digitalisation process as well. What will combat look like on the battlefield of tomorrow? What equipment and training do the servicemen and women of tomorrow need to persevere together in combat?
The Army goes digital
To digitalise land operations, the land forces must evolve. As a user of complex technology, the Army in particular is especially affected by digitalisation. Not only does it require the development and introduction of new technologies within the armed forces, but also new ways of thinking and acting at every echelon. With the German Army in the lead, the land forces, together with other areas of the Bundeswehr as well as international partners from the military, policy-making and business worlds, is facing this challenge head-on. To jointly manage the complexity and speed of the digitalisation of land-based operations and to prepare for future tasks, the Army has developed a strategy and created structures. The Land Forces Digitalisation Strategy provides guidelines. It intends to provide long-term structure to the process of successfully digitalising land-based operations and to synchronise all associated projects and orient them towards the common objective. The focal point of the strategy is a partnership with the Dutch land forces, which is unique within NATO and Europe. This cooperation is reflected in the establishment of 1 German/Netherlands Corps at Münster, in the integration of the German and Dutch armies, and cooperation in matters of digital armaments. It is the driver as well as the foundation of land forces digitalisation.
“Start small, think big”
Concepts such as robotics, artificial intelligence and digitalisation are no longer science fiction, but have already become reality. Rapid technological development and the use of new, innovative technologies in current conflicts impel the armed forces to evolve further.
In the operational scenarios of the future, the Army must be able to act in concert with its partners in a manner that demonstrates lethality and responsiveness, interoperability, flexibility and reliability. The battlefield of tomorrow is transparent and clear as glass. This means that due to the direct interconnection of all actors, such as intelligence services and sensors as well as other military and civilian actors, the activities of friendly forces can very quickly be observed and monitored. In future combat, thus, only those leaders will prevail who make the right decisions quickly and use their forces to achieve the appropriate effect.
Blurring classical thresholds of conflict
The potential adversary of the future has long-range, networked weapon systems with which to fight in all dimensions. That allows the adversary to figuratively throw a blanket over strategically important areas. As a result, the mobility of the land forces is also severely restricted. By means of cyber attacks, adversarial forces attempt to disrupt, falsify or even prevent friendly communications. Classical thresholds of conflict grow blurred. It becomes difficult to determine whether something is a coincidence or already a military operation. The boundaries of conflict areas are lost and the affiliations of the actors are not immediately obvious.
Digitalisation of the land forces – why?
The German Army must in future be networked with its NATO partners and allies to operate multinationally on the battlefield in a manner that is agile and efficient. Digitalisation intends to advance Army compatibility and interoperability. That means connecting the German land forces smoothly and seamlessly with the systems and structures of NATO and other allies. The use of compatible technologies aims to easily integrate and synchronise other capability contributions from additional areas of the Bundeswehr, such as lessons learned from the cyber and information space domain. Networking allows every actor, from the soldier in combat to the commander in the operations centre, to access the operational picture they individually need to make the right decision.
A gradual implementation
Digitalisation is a necessary process that presents a significant challenge to the force during ongoing operations. All vehicles must accordingly be upgraded, personnel must be trained and sequences must be adapted. Retrofitting all 27,000 vehicles of the Army will thus be spread out over a period of several years. Developing a new digital technology and equipping the force will carried out step by step: “We have to build small, manageable islands, fully digitalise them, bring about success, and then carry that success over into other areas by creating new islands. We are not starting with full divisions or brigades, so not with 30,000 or 10,000 people, but rather with a battle group. That is around 1,500 people and 800 vehicles. And those are going to be fully digitalised in the system,” Colonel Frank Pieper explains. In his role as Chief Digital Officer for Land-Based Operations, he is responsible for the digitalisation process of the German Army.
In combat, information superiority may quickly decide who wins or loses. To obtain a current operational picture in real time, humans and machines must be networked using powerful digital command-and-control systems.
Networking military units of the German Army will in future be enabled by battle management systems (BMS). They allow a precise exercise of command and control over military operations by networking vehicle commanders with support units and allies. A digital operational picture is thus created, based on which tactical decisions can be made within a very short amount of time. The new digital command-and-control system for NATO’s rapid-response force is to be fully introduced by 2023. At that time, Germany will assume command and control over this rapid-response force, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF. The BMS is based on the SitaWare software suite, which is widely used in other NATO countries. Following completion of the evaluation, the test unit in Munster submitted an individual recommendation for SitaWare, which is produced by Systematic, a Danish company. The software will initially be run on the already-existing command-and-control systems of the Army.
New possibilities through networking
In combat, the BMS can additionally connect to other sensors and effectors such as cameras and drones, enabling a timely provision of aerial images, for instance. The result is an up-to-date operational picture individually adapted to the needs of the operator, from the soldier on the battlefield to command personnel in the operations centre. At a later stage, the hardware will also be adapted. Another option could be a future use of so-called software-defined radios, a powerful technological basis for an easier exchange of information at all levels. Software-defined radios are more powerful high-frequency transmitters and receivers that use special software to process and encrypt signals.
Out of the lab, straight to the force. With the test and experimental unit created last year in Munster, the Army is choosing a new approach. The idea is to let soldiers realistically test already-available digital technologies with which the force is not yet familiar. Involving the users has obvious advantages.
With the test and experimental unit in Munster, the Army takes a step towards digitalisation. The mission of the test and experimental unit is to test the new, digital command-and-control technologies of the future. User experience is the key word in this context, as the technologies are being tested by the soldiers themselves. Their recommendations and wishes are recorded and taken into account during procurement and product development.
How are the tests conducted?
At the Trauen camp, a garrison near Munster, the soldiers have prepared the test and experimental phases. To find the right system for the Army, a total of 50 combat vehicles are equipped with the required hardware base. Once the vehicles have been fitted with the equipment, various manufacturers place their products at the Army’s disposal – in the case of BMS, a software solution. The systems are then tested under tactical and objective criteria combined with the individual requirements of the force and its materiel. Each product is thus given equal opportunity to prove itself. Using a standardised, normalised and justiciable process, the product is then subjected to exhaustive testing by the force.
Software is tested twice
Once the tests and evaluation have been completed, the force makes its individual product recommendation, which is taken into account during the procurement process. In the case of BMS, for instance, the SitaWare product of the Danish company Systematic was rated highest by the troops. However, procurement itself is handled by the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (FOBwEITISS) in Koblenz. There, the products are tested simultaneously in the lab of the Bundeswehr technical centre. Involving the force, however, has obvious advantages: That way, the soldiers later receive exactly the product they need to accomplish their mission, and their experiences and requirements can also be included during product development.
For the digital, land-based operations of tomorrow, the personnel of supporting units must also be involved. That is why Air Force, Joint Support and Enabling Service, Joint Medical Service and Cyber and Information Domain Service Headquarters personnel regularly visit the training area at Munster. The tests aim to simulate and learn lessons from cooperation with Army elements in land-based operations. On 7 December 2020, the first Digitalisation Day will take place, a kind of digital information and demonstration exercise to showcase the Bundeswehr’s digital endeavours. Two years after the kickoff of Army digitalisation, representatives of the Bundeswehr, policy-making and business worlds will receive an overview of what has already been achieved so far as well as an outlook on future armaments projects.
“We need our soldiers to tell us what works, not some senior government official or colonel. At the end of the day, the soldier needs to able to use the item.”
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