Danish Army sees urgent need for digital mortar systems
In an active battlefield, the factor of response time is vital. Digital systems have been taking the effort in calculation out of the hands of soldiers for some time, enabling split-second turnaround from decision-to-action and minimising the risk of error. However, the transition is not without its challenges. Defence IQ caught up with Major Michael Johnsson, Head of Guns & Mortar Branch at the Royal Danish Army Combat & Fire Support Centre, who is overseeing such a transition. For Johnsson, these challenges need to be overcome as soon as possible. A future conflict may well depend on it…
Defence IQ: Major Johnsson, the Royal Danish Army is currently in the process of developing digital mortar systems. Why is there a need for this and what benefits is this expected to bring to operations? Are there limitations?
Major Michael Johnsson: The rise in the demand for digitalization is a direct result of the findings into the rapid increase in fratricides during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The implementation of digital communication on all levels have led the battlefield to be much wider, and for commanders to have the ability to be ‘online’ with all units during battle, using all the modern features provided by networks in order to command and direct the boots on the ground. Furthermore the public has also gone ‘online’ along with the troops, getting information as it happens from media in the combat zone. The impact of this has been a growing reluctance to use tube and rocket fires with the risk of CIVCAS, resulting in massive use of attack helicopters and close air support, and a decrease of the use of tube artillery and mortars.
The change in policy however has not removed the need for fire support to ground units. There was – and is still – a need for the use of mortars and tube artillery to support manoeuvres. Air assets have not always been available due to its high demand, the weather, and other factors. Therefore there has been a demand for tools to integrate and coordinate the use of indirect fire systems in order to provide a more precise and rapid close support with a minimal risk of fratricide or CIV CAS, thereby enabling the use of mortars and tube artillery in a more widespread role for ground forces.
This trend was most noticeable during the Afghan conflict where CAS became the primary platform for direct support to troops on the ground. Artillery became the second choice for ground commanders. In order to better the use of artillery there was a development of precision fires for both tube and rocket artillery. The precision artillery was mostly provided by the larger nations and placed on division level or higher. The use of these systems was complicated by the use of existing analogue systems. It was also during the Iraq and Afghan conflicts that we saw the development of a multination network and an introduction of a LAN/SECURE connection between individual nations’ C2 systems. That became a huge game-changer for digital battlefield nations as they were able to communicate using a LAN connection [originally named the ‘future mission network’; now named the ‘federated mission network’ or the ‘mission partner environment’] and coordinate artillery and mortar fires directly across the battlefield and across different radio systems.
The development of digital mortar systems will enable DNK to integrate systems into the battlefield and provide commanders with the ability to call in fires digitally, which means they can avoid language or analogue misunderstandings that had previously led to those fratricides. The digitalization will also allow deconfliction to be conducted parallel to the call for fire, reducing the time from call for fire to steel on target.
DIQ: Surely there is a significant challenge in integrating (or even overhauling) legacy systems with digital. How are you working towards blending the old with the new?
MJ: The upcoming procurement of 120mm self propelled autonomous mortars is not replacing any current systems at battalion level. When these systems arrive in 2019-20 they will be integrated into our newly developed Digital Aided Fire Support System application (DAFSS) in our BMS and C2IS. The core in our vision is that all indirect platforms should be visible to all decision makers in order to chose the right available weapon for the target.
That being said, our mortar sections at company level will not be integrated into the DAFSS. Our FCS (Fire Control System) for these mortars has just been upgraded and we will rely on MORFIRE (Mortar FCS) for a number of years to come. The vision for our DAFSS is that fire missions at company level will be visible to decision makers, to ground commanders and especially to those who use the air space on the battlefield.
DIQ: What will modernization mean for training mortar teams? Are personnel in danger of losing traditional skills?
MJ: This is an ever ongoing discussion every time new technology is introduced. And in my opinion the answer is: yes, we are losing traditional skills because the ever increasing budget cuts often affect the time we are allowed to spend on training the soldiers. There is very often only time to train him/her on the ‘gadget’, but learning the traditional skills behind new technology is rare. The consequence is that when an error occurs in the ‘gadget’, the soldier often doesn´t know how to do it ‘the old school way’. For example, the extensive use of GPS today is causing soldiers to struggle on the basic use of a good old map and the more technology we introduce the further away we will get from ‘the math behind why the machine is doing what it does’.
With an increasing digitalization of our fire support, the more vulnerable we get if (or when) there is a fall out in the system.
DIQ: One of the concerns with any digitized system is that of digital security. Amid the prospect of a contested environment, how at-risk are these systems to being effected by cyber or EW? To what extent is data security for these systems a priority?
MJ: This is one of the key focus areas of digitalization of the battlefield and it’s a much debated topic. There is no doubt that the cyber threat is important. Based on US reports from the Ukrainian conflict, it is evident that, for instance, Russia holds a significant cyber capability and was to some extent able to hinder the use of digital systems and GPS being used by Ukrainian forces.
While western forces mainly have been training and investing in counter-insurgency, Russia seems to be preparing for war with NATO, returning to the old state-on-state vision of warfare, and it now holds this significant cyber capability. In order to prepare for this scenario it is very important to have a very resilient system and to avoid the dependence of digital systems and withhold the ‘old school’ analogue learnings and at any time be able to switch back and forth between the digital and analogue procedures.
DIQ: At your participation in this year’s Future Mortar Systems conference, what do you hope to learn more about? Is there any big question that you are particularly hoping to have answered by those in attendance?
MJ: I would like to know if any of my international colleagues has any experience with digitized MFCs or if they have a requirement or need to keep the voice communication as the preferred choice in the communication with the FDC (fire direction centre).
Based on several reports from the Ukrainian conflict, it would be interesting to hear how my colleagues counter a modern enemy that uses WLR, UAV/UASs and massive fire power to take out mortars and artillery systems. How do our mortar sections survive on the modern battlefield?
Major Michael Johnsson will be among the speaker panel providing briefings at this year’s Future Mortar Systems conference in London, UK (25-27 October). For more information, download the brochure.
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