Tuesday, August 13, 2019

SAF’s Hunter provides a glimpse into world of unmanned tanks. They could be game changers

By David Boey

The unveiling of the unmanned Hunter a month after manned Hunters were commissioned into service with the Singapore Army shows that the work to adapt the Hunter for remote control probably began sometime during its 13-year development, the author notes.

12 August, 2019

Fifty years after AMX-13 light tanks first appeared at the National Day Parade (NDP), the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) showcased its newest armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) called the Hunter at this year’s parade.

The three 29.5-tonne vehicles which can carry three crew members and eight other soldiers stood out among the 171 vehicles in the Mobile Column as they cruised past President Halimah Yacob and the audience with their roof hatches shut and no one visible.

The crew’s no-show was deliberate. And the symbolism goes beyond simply demonstrating the Hunter’s ability to fight with hatches closed. To some observers, seeing the Hunter move with no crew in sight reminds one that the AFV can operate unmanned.

What looks like another typical tracked AFV belies the Hunter’s potential as a game changer. Unmanned Hunters could prompt the Singapore Army to rethink its playbook when — not if — robotic versions become a reality.

Technological, operational and commercial considerations will decide the pace at which the SAF can introduce battlefield robots with the firepower, mobility and armoured protection of manned AFVs.

It is worth remembering that the SAF, Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA) and weapons maker ST Engineering took 13 years to develop the Hunter, which is the longest gestation period for a home-grown AFV.

Time was needed to satisfy the Ministry of Defence and SAF that technology had evolved to a level of sophistication, robustness and affordability to fulfil the SAF’s vision of an advanced AFV with a superior capability to display battlefield information to the crew.

It is noteworthy that ST Engineering already has an unmanned Hunter concept demonstrator.

It made a surprise appearance when Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen visited the company in mid-July, following the commissioning of the manned AFV into service by the minister on June 11.

The Hunter’s drive-by-wire design, which controls its movements electronically instead of through rods and pistons attached to the driver’s pedals, allow the vehicle commander to drive when required.

Cameras that give an all-round view of the vehicle, an unmanned weapon that can be aimed and fired remotely, a secure data link that shows the location of friendly and hostile units in real-time make the Hunter readily adaptable for remote control.

This is because driving, navigation, weapon guidance and combat management functions can be sent wirelessly to a control console some distance away.

The unveiling of the unmanned Hunter a month after manned Hunters were commissioned into service with the Singapore Army shows that the work to adapt the Hunter for remote control probably began sometime during its 13-year development.

The unmanned Hunter variant is therefore likely to need far less time to mature than its manned counterpart.

To be fair, all AFVs can move and fight with hatches closed. But closed-hatch fighting restricts the crew’s situational awareness because the crew see the world through periscopes, some of which have viewing slits smaller than your mobile phone screen.

The handful of periscopes on an AFV creates blind spots which endanger the crew, especially in urban terrain or thick vegetation.

As a result, many AFVs go into battle with open hatches as the one who spots the enemy first and fires first (and accurately) usually emerges victorious.

The camera-equipped Hunter was designed to increase the survivability and lethality of armoured forces and will change the way armoured forces fight.  An unmanned Hunter may be a bigger game-changer.

A rethink of the army’s playbook on operational matters is needed in order for the army to fully exploit the potential of unmanned Hunters.

With the SAF facing a 30 per cent drop in full-time National Servicemen by 2030 as a result of dwindling birth rates, it is vital that the SAF uses all available manpower prudently.

While unmanned Hunters still require a crew to operate them from a safe distance, they open up many operational possibilities.

They can form the spearhead of an advance to soak up the enemy’s anti-tank fire, be sent into battle as decoys, or be deployed along with manned Hunters, with the latter’s infantry troops assigned to hold ground.

The scope for employing unmanned AFVs in combat is limited only by the imagination of the authors of the revised tactics.  

Unmanned Hunters represent a precursor to the next technological leap to partially or fully autonomous vehicles that use artificial intelligence to move with minimal or no human intervention.

The locally-developed Army Tactical Engagement and Information System (Artemis) that forms the brain of the Hunter already has features that could be adapted on board autonomous vehicles.

For example, Artemis combines map and satellite data to show the crew alternative ways to reach a desired destination.

Using a three-dimensional digital map, Artemis displays the field of view as seen from the enemy’s location and shows the routes with blind spots so that the Hunter can move unobserved.

In addition, the Hunter has an automatic target detection and tracking system that picks up targets even in complete darkness using their body or vehicle temperature. It marks these automatically and boxes in moving targets, like in a first-person shooter game.

As Artemis evolves, it may be technically possible in future for Hunter to use artificial intelligence algorithms to choose the route and drive there by itself.

Combat action will, however, prove tricky to solve. With the danger of friendly fire and the need to watch out for civilians, land battles pose more complications for automatic target engagement than naval battles where quick-firing close-in weapon systems already perform the anti-missile role automatically.

It is clear that efforts to field unmanned/autonomous AFVs must be complemented by a rethink of the concept of operations that outlines how such assets are employed.

Lastly, to keep the Hunter from getting too expensive with all that advanced technology installed, some thought should be directed to selling such vehicles overseas to bring down the cost of the programme.

This month, Israel unveiled the prototype of its future AFV called the Carmel and said it briefed representatives from potential foreign customers, including the United States Army.

From the slick marketing video posted by the Israelis, it appears that the Carmel also has a fighter jet-style cockpit like the Hunter and uses a variety of sensors to display the combat situation.

The key difference is that Hunter is well past prototype stage. Hunter should therefore exploit its first-to-market advantage as it is clear the Israelis aim to market Carmel actively.

Promoting Hunter to potential buyers strengthens deterrence as more and more defence professionals become better aware of its potential. This is especially relevant for Hunter as it has few peer equivalents, if at all.

One cannot expect casual observers to infer or pick up subtle signals, as with Hunter’s closed hatch debut in the NDP show of force. The decision to show the Hunter to heartlanders as part of NDP celebrations is a positive step.

Occasions such as the SAF’s armour-centric Exercise Wallaby war games and the Defence Technology Prize event, both of which take place towards year end and next February’s Singapore Airshow, which traditionally showcases homegrown defence technology, should be used to promote greater awareness of Hunter’s combat capabilities.


David Boey is a member of the Ministry of Defence's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (Accord). A former defence journalist, he wrote the chapters on the development of Singapore’s armoured fighting vehicles and armament for the Defence Technology Community’s 50th anniversary book, published in 2016.

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