INNOVATION PLATFORM 2020
Finabel - Army Innovation
BY BRIAN MACDONALD
© 2020 FrontLine Defence (Vol 17, No 2)

By Brian Macdonald (Samuel Associates)
 
The still smoldering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on Europe’s doorstep has shown the world’s armies that they need to immediately integrate technological systems into their procurement, doctrine and tactics.
 
In November 2020, Finabel, the European Army Interoperability Centre, launched a new EU Innova­tion Platform armyinnovation.eu (on Twitter @ArmyInnovaEU) through a webinar entitled “New Trends in Army Innovation.” The following are key takeaways from that virtual event.
 
With innovation come the challenges of integrating emerging technologies across the armies of Finabel’s 22 European member states, and the organization aims to put itself at the centre of that discussion. Finabel brought together a 90-minute online panel representing military, academic and industry perspectives, with panelists Major Jeroen Franssen from the Belgian Army; Research Fellow in Land Warfare, Dr. Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute; Sarcos Robotics CEO Ben Wolff, as well as Finabel’s Director, Mario Blokken.
 
The webinar kicked off with Major Jeroen Franssen, Information and Innovation Manager of the Land Component Command of the Belgian Ministry of Defence. He identified three trends that are impacting army innovation: the increase in mobility; the shift from fossil to electric powered equipment; and adapting technology to the needs and constraints of soldiers on operations.
 
Mobility of people, equipment and sensors has never been more possible. With bomb disposal robots as well-established tools, Unmanned Ground Vehicles won’t be long to reach the battlefield, with potential uses ranging from carrying equipment to direct fire support. Indeed, US Army Futures Command recently outlined draft capability objectives for Robotic Combat Vehicles up to a 30-ton unmanned tank. The affordability and miniaturization of drones means indoor throwbots are now being tested in the field, and swarming micro drones are not far behind. Autonomous and robotic systems have immense potential to increase mobility of soldiers and sensors in ways not yet foreseen, suggested Major Franssen.
 
When it comes to the energy shift, Franssen points out that new technologies are becoming increasingly electricity-based. If electricity could be created directly in the field, it might minimize diesel supply issues faced by the army. Franssen’s third point was that for the sake of the soldiers using them, systems need to be integrated to reduce weight and increase situational awareness. He concluded by suggesting that the innovation function itself could be outsourced to industry.
 
Second to speak was the Director of Finabel’s Permanent Secretariat and Senior Subject Matter Expert in Cyber Defense, Mario Blokken. Finabel aims to be the innovation platform for Europe’s armies, according to Blokken. Since its inception in 1953, Finabel’s mandate has evolved from coordinating the armament programs of its six founding nations, to promoting and facilitating interoperability between 22 European Land Forces. Interoperability has never been more important, and Finabel sees its mandate squarely at the centre of European army innovation integration.
 
It was Blokken's view that although innovation has been incorporated into the vision statements of almost every army across Europe, it will only be implemented if senior leaders perceive it as an advantage. Blokken also reflected on the human element of innovation, and emphasized the need to invest in training and education, saying we need to “train the soldiers to be inquisitive.”
 
Third up was Dr. Jack Walting, Research Fellow in Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in London, UK. Dr Walting spoke about investment in technology, and addressed issues concerning how we decide which specific technology to pursue, and how to develop it at scale. His key point was that to develop a technology you need repeated field experimentation, which requires sustained investment over time. It is a complex and expensive process that requires strategic direction and disciplined choices.
 
Watling also spoke of the need for the national armies of Europe to agree on common interfaces, open architectures, standardized operating processes, and modular systems that can all ease the process of modernization. He sees a strong role here for Finabel to drive consensus on universal adoption of emerging technologies. He pointed to the myriad of pan-European military projects as examples of past successes.
 
The final speaker was Ben Wolff, the Chairman and CEO of Sarcos Robotics. As an experienced businessman, Mr Wolff opened with the classic question, "What defence problems are we trying to solve?" His own company, Sarcos Robotics is leading innovation with the development of exoskeletons. Sarcos' Guardian XO full body exoskeleton can lift up to 200 lbs, is fully powered with hot-swapable batteries, and takes only 30 seconds to don or doff. Alpha units were in trials earlier this year, with commercial units expected by the end of 2021. Such exoskeletons can enhance soldiers' lethality, which is among the U.S. Army's top six Modernization Priorities. Just as exoskeletons are designed to augment human strength, Mr. Wolff concluded by stressing that Artificial Intelligence and automation support humans rather than replace them.
 
How allied European armies integrate their emerging technologies on the modern battlefield is today’s problem. Finabel’s webinar sought to outline some dimensions of the challenges of embracing innovative technology. The pace of technological change, the breadth of new systems, and the need for integration will require some strategic discipline. Finabel’s goal to promote and facilitate interoperability between the Land Forces of its 22 European member states is more relevant today than ever.  
 
Contact Info
 
Finabel 
Address: Rue d’Evere 1, B- 1140, Brussels
Contact: Mario Blokken, Senior Subject Matter Expert in Cyber Defense
Phone: +32 (0)2 441 79 38

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