Tactical and Technical
Signature Management in Accelerated Warfare | Close Combat in the 21st CenturyBy Dan Skinner January 29, 2020
Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.
Captain Lord Blackadder:
Ah. Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy?
How could you possibly know that, Blackadder? It's classified information!
Captain Lord Blackadder:
It's the same plan that we used last time and the seventeen times before that.
Exactly! And that is what is so brilliant about it! It will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard! Doing precisely what we've done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they'll expect us to do this time! There is, however, one small problem.
Captain Lord Blackadder:
That everyone always gets slaughtered in the first ten seconds?
Apologies to Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Lawrie and Stephen Fry
Why is it that the Australian Army utilises Image Intensification (II) and Thermal Imaging (TI) sights at the tactical level, and multi-spectral sensors at the operational level, but seems to operate as if our adversaries will not have the same, better or more of the same capabilities? Why is our tactical signature management essentially the same as it was in the 1980s despite the transformational advances in sensor technology in the intervening 40 years?
Signature Suppression for Small Arms
In 2009 I wrote a paper on “Signature Management for Conventional Force Small Arms” that proposed signature suppression of all small arms for close combatants. There were four imperatives for this:
- The reduction to the weapon’s audible, visual and IR signature assists in masking the firer’s direction, location and range from observer to firer, particularly at night, in urban operations and close country;
- A supplementary effect of suppression is the reduction in muzzle rise and recoil which provides an improvement in shot placement;
- The suppression of the muzzle blast increases the tactical or local ability to command and control through reduction in localised noise; and
- The use of small arms signature suppression significantly decreases the peak noise impulses which lead to neuro-sensory loss and tinnitus, leading causes of injury to combatants in the long term.
Australian Special Forces have used signature suppression on their M4s for over two decades. In 2010, they introduced suppressors for the Para-Minimi Light Support Weapons (LSW) in response to a requirement identified for close combat in Afghanistan. In 2013, the Australian Army also purchased suppressors for the F89 fleet. In 2019, the Australian Army went ahead with the limited introduction of suppressors for the EF88.
At the present time neither the EF88 nor F89 suppressors have seen widespread roll out, nor does there appear to be an appetite to suppress the MAG58, possibly due to the fact that Australian Infantry have not had the actual sustained engagements in close combat, particularly at night, that Special Forces experienced in Afghanistan, with the hard lessons that these engagements taught.
Tactical Multispectral Signature Management
Tactical multispectral signature management in the Australian Army similarly does not account for the hard lessons learnt in Ukraine and Georgia resulting from rapid advances in multispectral sensors that the Australian Army uses, let alone a sophisticated adversary.
Near Infrared (NIR) combat uniforms; mini ghillie upper body suits that offer visual camouflage; “shaggy dog” ensembles draped over Bushmaster vehicles; and static camouflage nets that are primarily used for shade and visual signature are the standard practice in the Australian Army of 2020.
In 21st Century combat, if the combatant is ahead of the adversary’s observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop, the combatant can take additional protective measures, whether offensive or defensive. Ballistic measures are only one aspect of protection but in the modern warfare context signature management is the primary driving factor for protection, ahead of ballistic measures, due to the extreme lethality of adversary platforms.
The current Australian Army's approach to signature management for close combatants and ground forces assumes that there is no air threat, or at least air superiority. The last time Australian forces suffered an air attack was the Korean War in the early 1950s. To expect this to remain the case in the next conflict would be to drastically underestimate our potential adversaries.
Australia’s current suite of static camouflage nets are ageing, heavy and the technology obsolete for a multispectral sensor/shooter environment. In addition, the various vehicle acquisition projects (Land 121, Land 116, Land 400 etc.) have not included comprehensive requirements for signature management. Land 125 Phase 3, responsible for close combatant capability improvement, did not include personal signature management systems, and Land 125 Phase 4 is not scheduled to consider “Passive Signature Management” until Tranche 3, currently FY 2027/2028 to FY 2031/2032.
BRIG Ian Langford, Director General Future Land Warfare (DGFLW), outlined in his recent Accelerated Warfare presentation some of the Australian Army’s shortcomings (relative to peers) in consideration of electronic warfare (EW) and electronic attack (EA). BRIG Langford also discussed Project Maven and the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify adversaries by mining data that might be derived from UAV, satellite sensors etc.
The US Military is fielding advanced computer algorithms onto platforms to extract objects from massive amounts of moving or still imagery. Personnel and computers will work symbiotically to increase the ability of weapon systems to detect objects, with an immediate focus on 38 classes of objects that represent the kinds of things the US Military needs to detect, initially focused on the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Project Maven focuses on computer vision, which is an aspect of machine learning and deep learning that autonomously extracts objects of interest from moving or still imagery, using biologically inspired neural networks and deep learning, defined as applying such neural networks to learning tasks. Technologies like Project Maven are designed to identify personnel (facial characteristics, weapons, uniforms, equipment), vehicles and facilities for targeting.
Signature management requires comprehensive application, including personnel, weapons, vehicles and facilities. It is of little use having masked vehicles and C3I nodes if unmasked personnel provide a pattern of life (POL) or activity-based intelligence (ABI) in and around the masked items. ABI is the analysis methodology for rapidly integrating data from multiple sources to discover relevant patterns, determine and identify change, and characterize those patterns to drive collection and create decision advantage. Unlike the traditional intelligence cycle, which decomposes multidisciplinary collection requirements from a description of the target signature or behaviour, ABI practitioners have advanced the concept of large-scale data filtering of events, entities, and transactions to develop understanding through spatial and temporal correlation across multiple data sets.
When considering the tactical option of infiltrating dismounted close combatants through rough terrain to gain a tactical advantage, one should also consider the thermal signal of a line of unmasked (limited or no signature management) combatants within the enemy’s area of operation. Thus detected, by a thermal imager on a UAV, the swift application of fires would surely result in catastrophic casualties. Approach marches by night through rough terrain are therefore no different to approaching by day down a highway or “hopping the bags” on the Western Front in 1917.
The methodology of these elements then gathering in an assembly area, before moving forward into a Forming Up Place (FUP) and lining up on the Line of Departure (LD) for an assault, would seem to invite annihilation in any sort of contested environment with any adversary remotely approaching a near peer. Perhaps “Field Marshal Haig's supreme tactical plan (where the men climb out of their trenches and walk slowly towards the enemy...a plan they've used 18 times before)” would be the correct analogy.
Is our current multispectral “nakedness” - the “Emperor with no clothes” - any better than wearing red jackets and white helmets on the plains of South Africa during the Boer War?
A Solution Set?
In 2017 the US Army went to the market with rapid Request for Proposals (RFP) for next generation signature management systems due to changes in their classified threat assessment. This next generation Ultra Light Weight Camouflage Net System (ULCANS) sought a two-dimensional (2D) material, following on from an extensive earlier capability requirement assessment. In 2018, the US Army conducted worldwide, all environment trials before selecting an innovative new material that was extremely light, compressible, flame resistant, and yet exceeded their multispectral sensor defeat requirements. As a consequence, the US Army is withdrawing all of their 3D nets from operational use. Whilst this is a static net system, the US has also commenced development of vehicle and personal systems with 2D fabric.
However, static and mobile vehicle systems are only part of a comprehensive multispectral solution. Managing the signature of static nodes and vehicles will not be effective if personnel moving on, near, or in conjunction with these systems are unmasked; they would nullify a lot of the gains by creating POL and ABI identifiers.
A personal system at the individual level would complement and enhance static and vehicle sets. It would of necessity need to be light weight, flame retardant, compressible and multispectral. It would also need to be adaptable to Australian requirements, yet compatible with our major coalition partner, the US. Other requirements would be to accommodate our own use of II, TI and other digital sensor use from within the cloak.
This system should be adaptive, including a library of colours and patterns; reversible dual environment nature; head to toe (and weapon/load carriage coverage); have compatibility with vehicle operation (crew, ingress/egress); and be environmentally robust.
Some additional thoughts
A favourite question is Why? Why do we do what we do, when we do it, and how we do it? How much is based on hard won experience and how much is based on a reluctance to accept change?
Militaries wore bright uniforms (British – red, French – red/blue, German – white/blue) in the 19th century, to denote identity and enable control in the field. In the 20th Century these evolved into khaki, field grey and greens. They further evolved into disruptive camouflage patterns, commencing in the Second World War (for example, German SS and US Marine Corps uniforms). Snipers employed personal camouflage within their role, usually sourced from local materials. This evolution of uniforms sought to defeat visible detection, quite simply because this was the only detection threat.
The 21st Century brings with it the advent of multispectral sensors. Disruptive camouflage patterns struggle to defeat Ultraviolet (UV), Near Infrared (NIR), Short Wave Infrared (SWIR), Medium Wave Infrared (MWIR), Long Wave Infrared (LWIR), Thermal Infrared (TIR), RADAR and hyper spectral sensors. At the moment there is no technology that completely defeats all of these sensors, particularly if the combatant also needs to function in their primary role. How long should the signature management system defeat or delay the sensor/s?
Australia adopted a chest rig style load carriage in the 21st Century, in the most part due to the use of ballistic body armour and extended vehicle use. Australia (and most other militaries) also adopted the Combat Shirt (and pants) style of uniform developed originally by the US company, Crye Precision, who also developed the MultiCam patterns which are also almost universal, to accommodate the chest rig/body armour configuration.
Is the combat uniform in its current configuration now overtaken by multispectral defeat requirements? There is thought that materials will be developed that will allow adaptive transformation and defeat on the move. Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) has envisaged ‘Carl’, the future soldier of 2035, as shown in the video below.
The DST demonstration video shows ‘Carl’ adapting to multiple environments by changing colour but doesn’t appear to adapt to multispectral sensor threats? Given the evolution of detection and lethality systems perhaps a tweak to the “Iron Man” style path could be considered?
What can be done now? If current adversary multispectral sensors can detect combatants using UV, NIR, SWIR, MWIR, LWIR, TIR and/or RADAR, plus recognise facial images, patterns, POL and ABI, why not completely re-examine the role of the combat uniform?
The current combat uniform provides:
- Some physical protection against the elements (heat, cold, insects),
- Limited temperature control through the modacrylic panels under the combat body armour,
- Limited visual camouflage,
- A layer to wear load carriage over to prevent chafing etc, and
- A means of visual identification under the laws of armed conflict.
- A complete coverage undergarment was worn instead? It could be ultra-lightweight and constructed from modacrylic like the under-armour panels on the combat uniform. Modacrylic is inherently flash and flame resistant (FR), has hydrophobic and hydrophilic properties (draws moisture away from the skin and pushes out to evaporate off the body, thus cooling it) and is anti-bacterial (does not smell with extended use). Much like the principle of the Arab Thawb, this undergarment keeps the individual warm when it’s cool and cool when its warm.
- The FR modacrylic undergarment accommodated knee and elbow protection, as well as gloves, a neck gaiter and balaclava
- Combat Body Armour (CBA) was then worn directly over the FR modacrylic undergarment. This would include the helmet and night vision apparatus.
- A multispectral suit was then worn over this ensemble?
Is anyone else taking this course? Not yet.
Will it result in changes to tactics and movement? Yes.
Will the combatant still be able to fight, including use night vision systems from within? Yes.
Will we achieve a significant operational advantage in detection defeat? Yes.
Will this be able to be integrated into similar mobile and static systems? Yes
Does this accord with the threats identified in Accelerated Warfare doctrine? Yes.
Changes to established methodologies and orthodoxies does not come easily or without considerable pain.
The constant and consistent maintenance of comprehensive signature management in a multispectral area of operations is time consuming and can restrict operational flexibility.
Being constantly targeted and attacked for the lack of it is even more time consuming and damaging to operational flexibility.
NATO forces in Europe during the cold war practised signature management as a necessity against the overwhelming weight of fires available to Warsaw Pact forces. Can we afford not to do the same?