Highlights From the Showroom Floor at the Army’s Biggest Arms Expo and Conference
Companies from around the world showed off armored vehicles, weapons, and other equipment at the annual gathering.
Every year, the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) holds a series of meetings, panel discussions, and other talks, combined with a huge trade show, in Washington, D.C. American and foreign military personnel descend on the event to get the latest information about the service, as well as take an opportunity to see the latest military technology, including vehicles large and small, all matter of weaponry, and other equipment, that vendors from around the world are offering.
The major themes Army leaders espoused at the 2017 AUSA conference, which began on Oct. 9 and ended on Oct. 11, 2017, centered on the service's long-standing desire to expand its overall size, streamline stalled modernization plans, and improve overall readiness and capabilities in the face of transforming threats from opponents such as North Korea and Russia. The modernization work in particular would revolve around improving capabilities in six core functional areas: long-range precision artillery fires, a next generation combat vehicle, the Future Vertical Lift aircraft program, a new mobile and expeditionary communications and information sharing network, air and missile defense capabilities, and overall soldier lethality. The Army is in the process of establishing six so-called "cross functional teams" of senior officials and subject matter experts who will report directly to the Army's top leadership to manage these efforts.
"This is going to be a banner year. Our objective is to get these organizations stood up by summer of 2018," U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said during an opening speech at the AUSA gathering on Oct. 9, 2017. "This is necessary, it’s important and I absolutely believe that unless we do this we will be increasingly losing ground against potential adversaries."
Unfortunately, 16 years of fighting limited conflicts against terrorists and insurgents without advanced weapons or air forces meant that preparing for conventional ground combat against a near peer opponent with high performance aircraft and other advanced capabilities hadn't been a major priority, even for the Army, for more than a decade. One particularly glaring gap in short range air defenses appeared across the U.S. military. After Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014, began actively supporting separatists against the government in Kiev, and otherwise began to adopt a revanchist foreign policy around the world, this attitude slowly began to change.
Still, Congress' inability to routinely pass full budgets, instead relying on temporary spending bills known as "continuing resolutions," along with the Budget Control Act's spending caps, a process known as sequestration, haven't helped matters, either. The Army had also suffered a number of costly missteps, including the abortive Future Combat Systems (FCS) vehicle project and its Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) successor program, as well as the struggling Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T).
As such, many of the service's major modernization requirements remain much the same as they have been for years and companies are still eager to sell what are in many ways simply updated versions earlier offerings that never made it into service due to mismanagement or budget cuts. Many firms are simply offering upgrades or new configurations to existing vehicles, such as BAE Systems Maneuver Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) version of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The M-SHORAD has many similarities to the older air defense version of the Bradley, the M6 Linebacker, notably the four-round Stinger surface-to-air missile pod in lieu of the vehicle's usual two-round TOW anti-tank missile launcher. The updated version features a new turret with additional sensors, including an infrared sighting system, the shorter range "perimeter" version of RADA's three dimensional Multi-mission Hemispheric Radar (pMHR), and a jamming system to take out small unmanned aircraft with its own short-range targeting radar on top.
In addition, BAE Systems made it clear that the turret design was modular and could accept various weapons and sensors to take on other roles. At AUSA 2017, the M-SHORAD display also featured a launcher with two millimeter radar-guided Longbow Hellfire missiles that could attach to the Bradley's turret instead of the Stingers of the TOWs.
BAE's other big draw – and I mean big, with people constantly gathering around it, making it so hard to get a clear shot I gave up – was the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV). This heavy tracked vehicle is the remnants of the failed FCS and GCV programs and the Army ultimately intends to replace its aging fleet of M113A3-based vehicles with new design.
The new AMPVs, which are essentially turretless Bradleys, will take over a variety of support roles, including general purpose carriers for combat support troops such as engineers in mechanized formations, armored mortar carriers, protected ambulances, and command vehicles. The version BAE brought to AUSA 2017 had both slat, which can "catch" small shaped charge anti-armor rockets and set them off early or prevent them from going off at all, as well as explosive reactive armor tiles.
Given the Army's increasing concerns about conflict with a more advanced opponent who benefits from a well equipped air force, as well as the increasing threat of small drones, the M-SHORAD was only one a number of air defense vehicles on display. Both General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) and Oshkosh had vehicles fitted with Boeing's improved modular air defense weapon station, similar in basic concept to its existing AN/TWQ-1 Avenger system the U.S. Army and Marine Corps use on their High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, better known as Hummers or Humvees.
The version on the GDLS' Stryker featured a four-round Stinger SAM pod and four Hellfire missiles, while the Oshkosh Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) variant had the Hellfires and a .50 caliber machine gun. The existing Avenger has two of the Stinger pods, as well as a .50 caliber machine gun. The new armored turret also features a sensor turret on top.
You can read all about the Army's great need for SHORAD systems in this past feature from The War Zone.
GLDS also had a model of its Stryker Mobile High Energy Laser (MEHEL) variant, intended mainly to destroy small unmanned aerial vehicles. The Army is actively testing this variant, putting the last version through the paces during the annual Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in April 2017.
Northrop Grumman also put out a model of a Styrker equipped with its active electronically scanned array Highly Adaptable Multi-Mission Radar (HAMMR). The company is working with the Army on this radar as a complementary sensor for various short range air defense weapons and has depicted it installed on a Humvee, as well.
Air and missile defense wasn't only limited to vehicle-mounted options, with numerous companies showing off longer range surface-to-air missile types. Raytheon's had displays for its Patriot SAM system and land-based SM-3 ballistic missile defense interceptors, while Lockheed's had models of its Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system and forthcoming THAAD-ER interceptor. Aerojet Rocketdyne, which makes the motors for both THAAD and Patriot also had its own booth.
In addition, Israeli company Rafael's Iron Dome and Lockheed's Miniature Hit-to-Kill (MHTK) missiles were both on display. These systems are both intended to counter small unguided rockets and mortars, but could potentially serve as defenses against small drones as well. The U.S. Army has already tested both as possible options for its truck-mounted Multi-Mission Launcher and is interested in purchasing the Iron Dome system itself, by way of American defense contractor Raytheon.
There were models and full size examples of a variety of other vehicles, including some that appeared targeted toward foreign buyers rather than the U.S. Army. South Korea's Hanwha had one of the most impressive displays with one of its K9 Thunder 155mm self-propelled howitzer and a Hybrid Biho mobile air defense system, which has a turret with two 30mm cannons and four Singung short-range surface-to-air missiles on top of a tracked chassis derived from the K200 armored personnel carrier. The original Biho, which means flying tiger in Korean, only had the pair of cannons.
The South Korean conglomerate also had models of various other products, including the K21-105 medium tank and the Barracuda 4x4 light armored personnel carrier. The K21-105 is a variant of the K21 infantry fighting vehicle, but with a turret armed with an 105mm gun. The Barracuda is in service in Indonesia and Iraq.
Models are a lot easier to get into a conventional hall in downtown Washington, D.C., so many vendors chose to bring them instead of full-size vehicles or mockups. Leonardo DRS, the U.S.-based subsidiary of Italy's Leonardo, had smaller representations of the Israeli-made Trophy active protection system on both the M1A2 Abrams and the Stryker series. The company had just earlier released photographs of a prototype Abrams with the defensive gear to the press. The Stryker vehicle with the Trophy MV variant for medium weight vehicles also had RADA pMHR radars and a mast-mounted electro-optical and infrared sensor suite, as well. Various firms presented similar raised sensor installations at AUSA 2017 as an option for a wide array of vehicles.
For more than a decade, the U.S. Army has been increasingly interested in active protection defenses for its vehicles. Having observed the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and seen the impact of guided anti-tank missiles in the fighting in Iraq and Syria, the service has only become more determined to field equipment like Trophy broadly across its forces.
So in addition to the versions for heavier vehicles, Israeli manufacturer Rafael and other companies made sure to highlight the versatlity of Trophy in particular. As already noted, the system comes in versions suited to heavy- and medium-weight vehicles. There's also an even light Trophy LV, which appeared at AUSA 2017 fitted to a JLTV truck.
Israel Military Industries' Iron Fist and American defense contractor Artis' Iron Curtain, two competing active protection suites, also made appearances. General Dynamics had a number of its Flyer lightweight 4x4 vehicles in various configurations, including one with the Iron Fist system.
GD's Ordnance and Tactical Systems is responsible for the Flyer, which the company offers as an option for light conventional and special operations forces who need mobility, but also require a vehicle that is small enough to fit inside the main cabin of smaller helicopters and aircraft, including the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor. In 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command chose the Flyer as the winning design for its Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1 program.
The U.S. Army as a whole is now investigating the utility of this design and even smaller all-terrain vehicles for regular airborne and airmobile troops. At AUSA 2017, there were Flyers armed with both .50 caliber GAU-19/A rotary machine guns – another GD product – and 30mm M230LF lightweight automatic cannons, as well as various levels of applique armor, sensor suites and the ability to launch and recover a small hex-copter drone from the vehicle itself.
The M230LF-armed Flyer is indicative of another trend, since the U.S. Army has also become concerned about the lack of firepower on many vehicles, especially compared to their Russian counterparts. So, the service recently began fielding a version of the Stryker with a 30mm Mk 44 Bushmaster II cannon in Europe and is considering proposals to add the M230LF, which is a derivative of the AH-64 Apache's main gun, to the JLTV's arsenal. Both of these vehicles were prominent features at the AUSA expo.
There were a number of other vehicles, or models thereof, on display intended for highly specialized roles or which companies seemed to aim at non-American customers. Both GDLS and Caterpillar had models of very interesting combat engineer vehicles at AUSA 2017. In addition a model of its famous D9 armored bulldozer, Caterpillar had a representation of an armored front-end loader with an additional large obstacle clearing blade that folds to the side when not in use. These types of vehicles have become especially important in Iraq and Syria for rapidly clearing improvised explosive devices and other hazards.
General Dynamics had a small model of another unique vehicle, a Piranha III 8x8 light armored vehicle fitted with a small bridge, which is a product its European Land Systems division offers. The U.S. Army's Stryker and the Canadian LAV-III are both derivatives of the Piranha III design. GDLS says that the mechanism to launch the bridge can attach to any Piranha III-based design using the existing tie-downs and lifting points, allowing forces to quickly install or remove the entire system as necessary in the field. The bridge itself is the Rapidly Emplaced Bridge System, which the Army already has in service in truck-launched form and can quickly provide a path for troops and light vehicles over gaps approximately 40 feet wide.
International Armored Group, which builds various 4x4 and 6x6 armored vehicles for military, police, and private security customers, had one of its Ford F550-based Sentinel 4x4 armored personnel carriers at the expo. This is the same company that builds the Guardian light armored vehicles, which the United States has supplied to Kurdish and other irregular forces in Syria.
Israel's Elbit systems also had an example of their Spear Mk 2 120mm soft-recoil mortar system, which is mounted on a light armored 4x4 chassis. Elbit first unveiled this weapon, which crews can program to fire at designated targets automatically, earlier in 2017. A number of countries are building similar systems, which are ideal for providing quick and accurate fire support during limited operations. The United States has sent the Spanish EXPAL Integrated Mortar System (EIMOS) to its partners in Syria.
Beyond vehicles, a number of large defense contractors brought examples of their remote weapon stations or turreted armament systems that could work with a variety of vehicles. Norway's Kongsberg builds the Army's M153 Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station II (CROWS II) remote weapon system, recently working to add an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank guided missile launcher to existing versions that previously only had a single .50 caliber M2 machine gun or 40mm Mk 19 Mod 3 automatic grenade launcher. Another possible version allows for the installation of the M2 and Mk 19 simultaneously. Kongsberg markets these and other different models as options for various land vehicles and watercraft as the Protector series.
Belgium's CMI Defence had a mockup of its Cockerill 3000-series turret, which is offers a a modular option able to accommodate various automatic cannons and large caliber main guns from 25mm up to 105mm, along with additional sensors and other equipment. Cockerill has long been an established name in low- and high-pressure guns, and turrets to hold them, suitable for light armored vehicles.
In addition, CMI and BAE Systems Hägglunds' division have also joined up to produce a prototype version of the CV90 fighting vehicle with a Cockerill turret armed with an 105mm gun. Its the same turret that Hanwha has on their K21-105 vehicle.
These are the sorts of vehicles that the U.S. Army might be interested in as it proceeds with its new light tank project, known as the Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) program. Defense contractor SAIC, which has partnered with Singapore's STKinetics, has already said it will use one of CMI's turrets in its bid. The goal of MPF is to give additional direct fire capability to the Army's lighter forces. At present Stryker units rely on the much maligned Mobile Gun System variant and airborne and leg infantry formations have no such fire support vehicle at all.
The Army is still interesting in adding small unmanned ground vehicles, either wheeled or tracked drones, that can reduce the burden of troops in units all the way down to the squad level have to carry themselves and potentially add additional, mobile firepower. Various firms brought their designs, but one of the most unique and potentially revolutionary is General Motor's Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure, or SURUS, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered, optionally-manned chassis that can quickly adapt to a host of roles. We've already taken an extended look at this 4x4 platform and the present limits of the concept, which you can read about more here.
Perhaps more interestingly, Ukraine's state-run arms broker, UkrOboronProm, had a display at AUSA 2017 for the first time and brought a heavily armed unmanned ground combat vehicle, called the Phantom-2. Manufacturer SpetsTehnoExport unveiled the updated version of the vehicle, which looks like a pint-sized Russian BTR-series 8x8 armored personnel carrier, earlier in 2017. It released the first version in 2016. The Phantom-2 replaces the earlier design's 12.7mm machine gun with a twin-barrel automatic cannon and removes two of the Barrier anti-tank missiles to make room for a large boxy rocket pod.
In addition to looking for new ground vehicles, the U.S. Army is looking to make big changes in its aviation elements in the coming years, primarily as part of the Future Vertical Lift program. FVL's goal is to ultimately develop an entirely new family of aircraft, whether they be helicopters, tilt-rotors, or some other design, to replace all of the service's existing helicopters. Bell Helicopters, part of defense contractor Textron, brought a full size mock up of its initial V-280 Valor tilt-rotor, which it is pitching for the part of the FVL project aimed at replacing the UH-60 Black Hawk series.
The actual V-280 prototype began low-power ground testing earlier in October 2017. The FVL program will also include other variants to replace the Army AH-64D and E Apache gunships and members of CH-47 Chinook family. Bell had a model of a possible scout/attack V-280 on display, similar to what the company had shown in earlier concept art of the aircraft, as well.
Textron's main competitor is a partnership between Boeing and Sikorsky, the latter of which is now part of Lockheed Martin. Both companies had models of their SB>1 Defiant compound helicopter, also a potential replacement for the Black Hawk being developed for the FVL program. Earlier in 2017, Lockheed Martin released a video showing off both the SB>1 transport and a gunship derivative.
Boeing and Sikorsky, by way of Lockheed Martin, were still pitching their existing helicopter lines, as well. L-3 had a model of its SPYDR-II intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft concept, which uses the ubiquitous Beechcraft King Air 350-series as the starting point. Northrop Grumman had a full-size mockup of its VADER radar pod, which is a component on some of the the Army's own up-coming King Air 350-based MC-12S Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) aircraft.
Unmanned aircraft were another important feature of the 2017 AUSA expo. Textron brought a sleek, gloss black version of its new Nightwarden, which it had earlier shown at the Air Force Association’s 2017 Air, Space, and Cyber Conference. The drone is an expanded derivative of AAI's Shadow M2, featuring additional sensors and the ability to carry small, precision guided munitions. Not surprisingly, the version at the booth had a pair of Textron's own Fury miniature glide bombs under the wings.
Lockheed Martin had its own Fury, a flying wing drone it first revealed in 2015, at AUSA 2017. The company says the catapult-launched unmanned aircraft can stay airborne for approximately 15 hours and has a significantly reduced signature compared to other tactical pilotless planes of similar size, all while carrying electro-optical and infrared cameras, communications nodes, or electronic warfare payloads.
Lockheed had the drone hanging above a separate display with 227mm Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) rockets and the larger Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missile, both of which are Lockheed products. The Army is looking to replace ATACMS with a new long-range ballistic missile from Raytheon, called DeepStrike, but the weapon has come back into view after a number of launches in South Korea in response to North Korean provocations in 2017.
We asked a Lockheed representative if the company had been pitching Fury as a means of cuing the rocket and missile attacks. They said they hadn't, but agreed that this would be one of the possible ways the drone could contribute on the battlefield. Much more interestingly, the individual said that there was the possibility for more ATACMs sales to the Army in the near future, as the service has found renewed value in the system. Lockheed has kept the production line open almost entirely on the backs of international sales to countries such as Finland, Romania, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
And, in line with the Army's focus on soldier lethality, what would the 2017 AUSA conference have been without various displays of lighter weapons, machine guns, rifles, and explosives. These includes missiles and suicide drones, such as Israel-based UVision's Hero-series. More technically known as loitering munitions, these weapons can orbit the battlefield for a protracted period of time before dropping down on a target. While in flight, they feed information back to an operator by way of an electro-optical or infrared camera. U.S. special operations forces have already put one of these types of drones into service, AeroVironment's Switchblade.
Saab had both its older M3 and newer M3E1 84mm recoilless rifles on display, as well as the single-shot 84mm M136-AT4. The Army as a whole has used the AT4-series since the 1990s, while the M3 had been a standard weapon for U.S. special operations forces. Recently, the Army decided to begin fielding the newer M3E1, which is lighter weight and has a number of other refinements, to conventional units. The weapon can fire a wide variety of ammunition, make it extremely versatile in various situations.
Norway's Nammo has been similarly expanding the capabilities of the older M72 anti-tank rocket over the years, introducing new versions better suited to use against enemy personnel both in the open and behind cover, including a programmable air burst type. At their display, the company had versions of the anti-structure rocket, able to break through brick and masonry walls before detonating, aimed at the U.S. military and European customers.
The representative explained that the European model was "nicer," relying on blast over pressure rather than shrapnel to kill the enemy, reducing the chance that innocent bystanders might get hurt inadvertently. The company designed the frangible, sub-caliber rocket body to completely burn up when it detonates. Norway and France have both bought this type. The American type is significantly larger, with over a pound of explosive behind a fragmenting shell.
Nammo also makes an interesting modular hand grenade, which the U.S. Army has already tested, but so far not adopted. The idea is that troops can scale the charge depending on the circumstances.
Also interesting was the appearance of numerous vendors offering variants of the RPG-7, including through UkrOboronProm and straight from American defense contractor AirTronic. The Ukrainian offerings were relatively simple upgrades of the basic rocket propelled grenade launcher, while AirTronic has been workings steadily on increasingly lightweight versions using composite materials.
One of the most significant small arms to appear at AUSA's 2017 expo was probably General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems' Lightweight Medium Machine Gun. We've already looked at how this unique .338-caliber weapon could be an important addition for forces in a variety of different situations, which you can read here.
Separately, Textron continues to develop another family of advanced small arms around so-called cased telescoped ammunition, where the bullet sits nestled deep inside the cartridge case with the gun powder, reducing the overall length. The company has worked on this concept as a stepping stone to full caseless ammunition. At present, the Army is still interested in finally replacing its M16 rifles and M4 carbines with a new weapon using new ammunition, but a host of projects over the past five decades have failed to produce meaningful results, as we at The War Zone have discussed in detail in the past.
The Army hasn't given up on traditional weapons firing conventional cartridges, though. At present, it is working through a variety of different small arms programs, including one that might lead to the fielding on a new 7.62mm infantry rifle. One of the contenders for that project might be a derivative of Heckler and Koch's M110A1 Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS), itself a variant of the company's HK 417 rifle, which the company is already producing for the service as a replacement for the older and bulkier M110 rifles from Knights Armament Company.
There were also some oddities that, again, seemed aimed primarily at foreign customers. UkrOboronProm's booth had a curious Kalashnikov AKM derivative, firing the old Soviet-era 7.62x39mm round, but featuring a large sound suppressor on the front, clearly intended for special operations type work. A handout from the manufacturer, Masik, showed that they offered kits to adapt this "Hopak" rifle to a variety of specialized configurations, including the ability to launch a grappling hook to snag booby trap trip wires from a safe distance.
There was much more on display at the 2017 AUSA Expo across large exhibit halls on two separate floors. A number of contractors made announcements during the convention regarding products they hadn't showed off at the event, as well, there's undoubtedly even more advanced weaponry and technology that they have yet to reveal to the public.
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