PARIS Eurosatory --- A stroll through the large and ever-growing exhibition area at the Eurosatory defense show, held here last week and billed as the biggest-ever edition of this venerable event, clearly highlighted some of the paradoxes which beset today’s army equipment industry.
The first is that, despite the show’s record size (1,400 exhibitors) and large number of high-ranking delegations, precious few contracts were announced, and this even though manufacturers generally make it a practice to hoard contract announcements so they can be released during the show. This time, most of the announcements made during the show were rehashed versions of earlier statements, and a glance through the five Show dailies published during the week only finds a single contract announcement: for 31 million euros. Hardly worth writing about, especially as the manufacturer, Selex Galileo, had announced it a fortnight earlier. So, despite the huge turnout, no new business was announced.
A second paradox is highlighted by the vast number of heavily armored, mine-protected wheeled vehicles that were visible on practically every other exhibitor stand. Running the gamut from one to 30 tonnes, these vehicles can meet most current military requirements, but the wonder is that they all – or almost all – focus on protecting the troops they carry against asymmetric threats, while overlooking most other military requirements.
Mines, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are undoubtedly major threats on today’s battlefield – just as long as it’s in Afghanistan - but how would these vehicles fare on others?
Conventional, symmetric threats seem to have been all but disregarded by manufacturers, who have apparently overlooked the fact that a high silhouette is an easy and vulnerable target for wire-guided missiles and tank guns; that high centers of gravity make it easy for top-heavy vehicles to overturn and trap their occupants; and that MRAP-like vehicles are useful when ferrying troops from A to B, much like a school bus, but are useless when fighting the kind of modern combat scenarios that were prevalent before Iraq and Afghanistan became the sole focus of NATO forces.
While MRAP-like vehicles are useful for protecting their passengers, their weapon load is necessarily limited by center of gravity issues; the troops they carry have no firing ports and, because of the vehicles’ height and access doors, do not have an easy time disembarking to fight dismounted actions.
One can legitimately wonder how the armies which are now switching to MRAP-like vehicles will cope when facing future enemies equipped with tanks and anti-tank missiles rather than RPGs and IEDs, and when fighting conventional engagements rather than the counter-insurgency operations that have undeservedly come to dominate Western military thinking for the past decade.
Some products on show at Eurosatory are truly innovative, like for example the Centauro eight-wheeled, self-propelled 155mm artillery vehicle unveiled by Italy’s IVECO, or the Thales RapidFire air-defense vehicle, armed with a 40mm automatic gun and, optionally, six Starstreak short-range anti-aircraft missiles. Industry is capable of responding to what is sees as emerging requirements, even as army staffs remain focused on today’s operations – or yesterday’s.
This is true for main battle tanks, where a quick comparison between the latest Leopard 2 and a Ukrainian T-90 highlight the difference between a large, tall and boxy tank now optimized for urban combat and a low, strikingly small but heavily armed tank optimized for conventional combat. Which one is most likely to be needed five, ten or twenty years from now? Will urban operations be more prevalent than mobile combat, simply because Afghanistan has overwhelmed Western military staffs? Is the ongoing, Afghanistan-fueled race to the heaviest and most-protected vehicles a temporary fad, or is it a lasting evolution?
Wheeled infantry combat vehicles are fast approaching or passing the 30 tonne mark that used to delineate main battle tank country. France’s VBCI, for example, weighs around 25 tonnes and occupies a volume of 68 cubic meters, while the AMX-10P it replaced weighed only 14 tonnes and had a volume of 43 cubic meters, although both carried the same 11 men.
Weight and volume both have costs, in financial and operational terms. The larger the vehicle, the more costly it is to operate in terms of fuel and spare parts, while bigger vehicles are more difficult to transport by air or train, are less agile on the battlefield, and make better targets.
If current trends continue unabated, one can envision a future where large, heavy armored vehicles designed to survive in urban combat will be too large to enter urban centers, and thus prove ultimately useless. This trend has already begun in Afghanistan, when the MRAPs originally deployed by the US Army and Marines proved too wide for local roads, streets and bridges, and led to the urgent development of a smaller vehicle, the MRAP All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV).
In any case, it is far from certain that the protection offered by these huge vehicles to their crews is sufficient, given that insurgents need simply add a few kilos of explosive to make their IEDs more effective against better-protected vehicles. In this kind of race, the winner will not be the vehicle, that’s for sure.
A third paradox comes from the large number of manufacturers hoping to share in the market for large unmanned vehicles, even though what money is available worldwide tends to go to relatively inexpensive mini and small UAVs rather than to the more capable, and more costly, products like Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance models.
While this segment is attracting the most attention in Western Europe, there is little money available in these countries and, even if money was available, there are still many divergences as to how it should be spent. Paradoxically, in the regions where money is available – the Middle East, South-East Asia, some parts of South America – sales of UAVs are restricted by various regulations and restrictions, either self-imposed or mandated by international régimes like the Missile Technology Control Régime (MTCR).
Beyond these paradoxes, Eurosatory was remarkably rich in all sorts of army equipment, ranging from small arms to communications, from soldier equipment to unmanned ground robots, and from optronics and surveillance systems to battlefield communications networks.
The paradox here, of course, is that while these capabilities may be highly desirable, they are by no means indispensable; apart from personal protection kit, well-trained troops can probably make do without the hugely expensive communications, day/night vision equipment, mini-UAVs and high-accuracy aiming equipment for their weapons that Western powers are sinking so much money into.
It is an easy observation to make, but today’s best-trained and best-equipped armies, those of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, are being defeated by barefoot insurgents armed with AK-47s and bags of explosives, and dressed in cotton robes.
If this trend continues, at some point in future the insurgents will win because their Western opponents will have gone bankrupt trying to buy ever-bigger, ever-better and ever more expensive kit to protect their soldiers.
The trick, of course, is to weigh trade-offs and to decide when enough becomes too much, when the necessary turns into the excessive. The question is whether Western army staffs are capable, or willing, to make these distinctions and to act on them.