Defence technology in 2021: our predictions

Despite a challenging year, investment in defence innovations has continued to thrive and programmes long in the pipeline have seen full deployment, potentially changing the face of future warfare. Berenice Healey and Harry Lye examine how the technology themes that have dominated 2020 might progress into next year.

We admit it: previous Global Defence Technology end-of-year prediction articles have been a bit hit or miss, forecasting as they have a military year filled with railguns, lasers, exoskeletons and AI weapons. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that the near future will be shaped more closely by what’s happened during the previous year rather than lofty sci-fi ideas.

With that in mind, this year we examine some key themes and projects we’ve seen emerge during 2020 and round up expert opinion on how they will develop throughout 2021. We look at whether optionally crewed systems will be the tactical and financial solution they’ve been pitched as, what the Biden administration means for the New START nuclear treaty, how the military Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to dominate, whether cyber in space is the new hybrid domain, and how interoperability will shake up armed forces’ strategy.

Optionally crewed everything

Theoretically, programmes to develop optionally crewed systems offer the best of both worlds while keeping budgets down. But practically they can represent an unacceptable compromise for both uses.

Naval and army systems are the poor cousins when it comes to optionally crewed solutions, with most solutions heavily weighted towards one or another. However, some notable optionally crewed naval and ground systems made progress in 2020. In October, the US Army relaunched its Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) programmes, with Rheinmetall, Raytheon and Textron throwing their hats in the ring.

Automation is well-suited for marine operations, not least minehunting, but crewed operations seldom add value. For example, the US Navy’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) programme, still earmarked for construction in 2020 despite cutting it fine, is designed for uncrewed operation but can host sailors if required.

There are notable drawbacks to proceeding with an optionally piloted solution for future combat aircraft, as they promise to retain the downsides of both crewed and uncrewed systems without the main benefits of either approach.

But it is in aircraft where optionally crewed designs offer the most potential. Tempest is the proposed sixth-generation fighter aircraft concept under development for the UK Royal Air Force by the Team Tempest consortium consisting of BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, Rolls-Royce, MBDA UK and the Ministry of Defence. It was launched with great spectacle as part of the UK’s Combat Air Strategy in 2018 and is due to enter service in the mid-2030s, using swarming technology to control drones while in flight.

While a lack of industry events meant that the all-too-familiar scale model wasn’t rolled out in every UK industry pavilion as usual, 2020 saw some optimistic news for Tempest. In October, analysis by PwC, commissioned by BAE Systems on behalf of Team Tempest, found that the project to develop a future fighter will contribute at least £25bn to the UK’s economy and support an average of 20,000 jobs a year between 2026 and 2050.

However, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies fellow Justin Bronk cautions that Tempest might not be the all-round solution armed forces are seeking.

“There are notable drawbacks to proceeding with an optionally piloted solution for future combat aircraft, as they promise to retain the downsides of both crewed and uncrewed systems without the main benefits of either approach,” he says. “An optionally piloted fighter aircraft would have to have extremely complex software capable of high levels of lethal autonomy in flight, whilst also still paying the weight, space and signature design penalties of a cockpit and life support systems.”

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A New START for arms control

President-elect Joe Biden, due to take office in January, has already made clear his commitment to arms control treaties. Biden is set to seek an extension to the New START treaty, which governs the US and Russia’s nuclear arsenals.

Biden, who was in office as Obama’s vice president when the New START treaty was first signed in 2010, is widely expected to seek an extension to the treaty and use it is a basis to negotiate future arms control agreements.

Biden’s election campaign website states: “President Biden would take other steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons. As he said in 2017, Biden believes the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring – and if necessary, retaliating against – a nuclear attack. As president, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.”

On Iran, Biden has signalled his ambition to re-enter the US into the Iran Nuclear Agreement – or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – should Tehran return to compliance with the terms of the deal. With the agreement reinstated, Biden would then push to ‘strengthen and extend’ the deal.

Proliferation of the military IoT

In November, US Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper confirmed that the US Air Force’s ‘Internet of Military Things’, or Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), was ready for its delivery phase.

Roper said: “We have worked earnestly for a year and [a] half to demonstrate data-centric, internet-enabled warfighting constructs. I have witnessed the birth of ‘IoT.mil’ capabilities in ABMS demonstrations. “We are no longer asking if we can build an ‘IoT.mil.’ We have graduated to how and when [we can give it] to warfighters ready to field and train. Consequently, ABMS is graduating to its next phase with demonstrations run by our chief architect and fielding by our integrating PEO.”

Further development has been placed into the hands of the US Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which helped to field the X-37B spaceplane.

ABMS is part of the US' wider plans for a joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) concept, which aims to connect sensors from the army, navy, air force, and marine corps into a single network.

In the past year, the US Air Force held three ABMS demonstrations and the system was even used to assist the Department of Defense’s pandemic response.

Concepts for a similar system is also being explored in the UK, with service chiefs detailing plans for a future ‘digital backbone’ to connect the UK’s Armed Forces. At the recent British Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE) 2020, command and control technologies were a focus of development efforts.

Cyber capabilities in space

Here at Global Defence Technology, we get very excited about military space stories.

In 2020, the UK followed the US’s 2019 Space Force example, announcing a Royal Air Force Space Command capable of launching Britain’s first rocket in 2022. And when, in November, the US Marine Corps activated a Marine Corps Forces Space Command, we had visions of an Aliens-style expedition eliminating adversarial xenomorphs.

However, the truth is more prosaic and might see more keyboard warriors in action than flamethrower-wielding combatants.

There has been increased focus on offensive and defensive cyber capabilities in the space domain throughout 2019 and 2020, as the latter is increasingly seen as contested by the world’s military powers,” says International Institute for Strategic Studies research fellow and future warfighting specialist Franz-Stefan Gady.

“The US Space Force was established in December 2019 and is exploring AI-enabled cyber defence solutions for its 180 space mission systems. Space-based assets are vulnerable to distributed denial of service attacks or hijacking via cyberspace. Space and cyberspace are intrinsically intertwined.

“Space-based assets like satellites rely on cyberspace links for the flow of data to and from them linking command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance systems. They not only provide crucial cyber ISR but are also capable of delivering offensive cyber effects. Cybersecurity solutions for space are first and foremost software-driven as air-gapped solutions or bringing down a satellite for upgrades is not an option.

“As military powers are standing up space forces and commands, tailored cybersecurity solutions, perhaps AI-enabled, for use in space that take into account the specific nature of this domain (for example, high radiation levels) will increasingly be sought after in 2021.”

Interoperability, interchangeability, interconnection

The UK is putting collaboration between the branches of its Armed Forces and allies front and centre as it moves forward with plans to revamp defence and security, as demonstrated by its impending Integrated Review, the recently announced integrated operating concept and an interoperability agreement with the US.

Across the board, the UK is looking at how it can more closely tie together the arms of the state. The Integrated Review, due to be published next year, is a key part of this, taking a broad look at security, defence, development and foreign policy.

In September, the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced the ‘integrated operating concept’ and a fundamental change to the armed forces’ way of thinking.

In October, during the Atlantic Futures Forum, the US and UK navies announced plans to operate more closely together, aiming for ‘interchangeability’ between the two forces.

Carter said: “This posture will be engaged and forward-deployed – armed forces much more in use rather than dedicated solely for contingency – with training and exercising being delivered as operations. It will involve capacity building and engagement in support of countries that need our support.

“This could include partnered operations against common threats – particularly violent extremism. And this may involve combat operations. It will also place a premium on building alliances and improving interoperability to make us more ‘allied by design’ and thus able to burden share more productively.”

In October, during the Atlantic Futures Forum, the US and UK navies announced plans to operate more closely together, aiming for ‘interchangeability’ between the two forces.

US Navy chief of naval operations Admiral Michael Gilday said: “I am proud to announce that the [UK] First Sea Lord [Admiral Tony Radakin] and I will sign a future integrated warfighting statement of intent that will set a cooperative vision for interchangeability.”

The signing followed the embarkation of US Marine Corps F-35 jets on HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will be followed up by another embarkation of US F-35s on the British carrier’s maiden operational deployment in 2021.

Moving forward, integrated forces between allies and the different arms of the state are set to become ever more important.

// Main image: The teaming of future fighter jets with loyal wingman drones is a growing trend. Credit: Boeing.