Modernisation of military equipment is vital to improve armies’ performances and capabilities; it makes soldiers more efficient, increasing the chances of having a successful mission with fewer casualties. Even though modernisation requires huge investments, it aims at reducing the operations’ future costs and mission-related risks notably associated with service members’ safety and protection.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced the reassessment of defence spending, upgraded or brand-new pieces of equipment are deployed on battlefields: new-generation battle tanks, for instance, the Abrams M1A2 SEPV3 (Keller, 2021) and the Norinco VT4 (Malyasov, 2021) and new infantry weapons. As the French Army is offering a supply contract for new multi-calibres sniper rifles to equip its soldiers (FOB, 2021), the US Army is already selecting the arms that will replace both the M4 carbine and Squad Automatic Weapon. Three contractors are already developing them, as the Army wants to equip its troops with new weaponry starting from October 2022 (South, 2021).
However, the purchase of new weapons is not the only way to be more effective on the battlefield; it is essential to take advantage of all the available resources. In this regard, after numerous trials, the US Marine Corps promoted the use of silencers on rifles. This add-on has several advantages in the short and long term; it allows soldiers to be stealthier, improves communications within the unit, and preserves service members’ hearing (Lagneau, 2021).
The aforementioned armaments are often lighter, more practical and help the user being more precise and efficient. However, they are “simple machines” meaning their efficacy is entirely in the hands of the service members that operate them. The digital world helps the “best weaponry” race go one step further, moving from analogue to technological, enhancing soldiers’ abilities and integrating new systems that improve current equipment.
For example, the Norwegian Army has recently received from Saab the new Carl-Gustaf M4 anti-tank weapon; it is lighter, more accurate, and it will allow the soldiers to be more efficient in different battle environments. Moreover, it is compatible with the latest technologies, such as intelligent sighting systems and future ones, including programmable ammunition (Malyasov, 2021).
The real game-changer, though, is the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in armed forces’ equipment; the weaponry upgrade is revolutionary. It can improve soldiers’ readiness to threats, giving them a better understanding of the situation they have to confront. Moreover, AI can play a vital role in preserving soldiers’ safety, enhancing their capabilities both on and out of the battlefield.
Recently, the French Army implemented AI systems that allow its soldiers to faster detect stationary and moving enemy vehicles. Therefore, this system optimises the retaliation time and improves the units’ safety (The Defense Post, 2021). Moreover, the Ministry of Armed Forces confirmed the purchase of 300 micro-drones; they are light, silent, fast to deploy and even untrained personnel can manoeuvre them. The camera resolution allows to gather clear images in any condition, making enemy recognition easier and immediate. They are also safer in terms of cybersecurity and data protection (Ministère des Armées, 2021).
Equipment modernisation is not limited to weapons and high-tech unmanned systems, it also includes the soldiers’ gear.
To update the equipment of its armed forces, the Pentagon has been developing advanced technologies for years, including special combat goggles (attached to the helmets) named Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS). Based on Microsoft technology, the goggles can project 3D holographic maps in real-time, allowing soldiers to know the terrain and see in any conditions as infrared, thermal and night visions are integrated. Furthermore, this new technology can provide troops with more information about the battlefield, enabling them to know their team members’ exact position and increasing their overall awareness of the mission’s progress (Martinez, 2020). The developers state that the goggles are easy to use. Since they provide more data than usual, they can improve the unit’s communication, reducing it to the strictly necessary and improving combat focus (Martinez, 2020).
Enhancing the soldiers’ sight and awareness of the environment is not the only possible upgrade of their capabilities on the battlefields. As their equipment also includes uniforms, the research departments are working on technologies to provide innovative future textile and to develop a new generation of augmented soldiers.
In 2019, The European Defence Agency (EDA) launched a new project named STILE (Smart TextILEs in Defence) to study smart fabric use in the military environment (European Defence Agency, 2020). The prototype is designed to improve personal mobility and it has different camouflage variants that adapt to the soldiers’ static or moving position. It can detect and inform the service member of hazardous agents’ presence while protecting the soldier from fire, water and mosquitos. Moreover, the fabric can regulate its temperature (heating and cooling) adapting to the environment. Finally, the textile can monitor the vital signs and send them to the service member’s smartphone or the operating centre (European Defence Agency, 2020).
These new generations of materials and systems have undergone field trials since June 2020; the project’s final results are expected by May 2021.
The employment of technologically advanced weapons and AI implementation in militaries equipment raises numerous questions regarding the future of warfare and what is left to improve the armed forces’ performances on the battlefield. Once this kind of weaponry reaches its full potential, only the human using it is what is left to improve. To address this sensitive issue, in December 2020, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces established an ethics committee (formed by 18 individuals, both civilian and military) to discuss the implications of augmented soldiers’ development (Ministère des Armées, 2020).
The term augmented soldier refers to a service member with enhanced physical, perceptual and cognitive capacities, which has improved operational efficiency (Ministère des Armées, 2020). It is possible to achieve these upgrades in two distinct ways; the first one is supplying the soldier with special equipment (for instance, IVAS and smart textile). The second one through invasive chip implants in the body that could, for instance, reduce stress and “improve cerebral capacity” (The Defense Post, 2021).
The Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly reiterated the ethics committee’s importance, which will help define the framework and the limits in which the research and studies of new technologies can operate. As a matter of fact, France rejects invasive body practices; nevertheless, the French armed forces do not reject the idea of augmented soldiers (Ministère des Armées, 2020). At the moment, their objective is to keep developing new technologies that can upgrade the armed forces’ capabilities while respecting military rules, humanitarian law, and French society’s fundamental values (The Defense Post, 2021).
The Minister of Armed Forces stated that augmented soldiers could be a viable option, but only under strict conditions. First and foremost, soldiers’ physical enhancements must not compromise service members’ health and safety. They also have to be reversible, as soldiers will one day return to civilian life (Ministère des Armées, 2020). Addressing the issue through a popular example, the French Minister stated that France would “welcome Iron Man but not Spiderman”, referring to the technologically advanced weapons and equipment opposed to genetic mutations (Ministère des Armées, 2020).
The course from technologically advanced weapons and equipment to augmented soldiers is set and moving. States are already investing in technologies that can enhance their troops’ capabilities making them more competitive. Furthermore, France’s opening to the possibility of having so-called augmented soldiers testifies the European willingness to embrace the latest technological developments in the military domain. However, EU countries have not forgotten to consider ethical and physical implications, prioritising the service members’ safety over an unrestrained arms race. Moreover, any augmentation would need prior consent from the service members, preserving the soldiers’ fundamental rights and prioritising the human being’s health over the AI’s development.
Written by Luca DILDA, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre
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