This article first appeared in AviationWeek.com.
Modern warfare -- where the battlefield is a mix of actors, motivations and weapons -- is in part defined by its rapidly changing threat scenarios and multiple layers of high- and low-tech on-the-fly innovations, all of which demand real-time responses.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, this has been especially true of armor protection for ground vehicles, which have been battered by all manner of increasingly powerful pressure plate and remotely controlled improvised explosive devices and explosively formed penetrators; weapons which morph as U.S. armor technology learns how to counter each successive generation of explosive.
This catch-as-catch can approach has produced fleets of hulking Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAPs), intriguing designs for Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs) -- currently hung up in industry protests -- and calls for the Multipurpose All-Terrain Vehicle (MATV), or "MRAP Lite" as some are calling it. But what's next for the armor field? Militaries want lighter vehicles, and despite the hulking size of the original MRAPs, successive generations of the vehicle will by necessity be lighter, and more maneuverable.
Damon Walsh, executive vice president of customer operation at armor and vehicle maker Force Protection, says his company, while always working on new armor solutions, is also focusing on ways to defeat and detect the threat before the vehicles encounter it. "One of the things that we're keen on," he says, "is not just passive armor systems to stop threats, but also more sophisticated active protection systems. The idea is "don't just rely on armor, try and defeat the threat earlier before you get hit."
In reflecting on the last several years, it's not surprising that Walsh says that "we've had one of the largest demands that I've ever seen in the industry...for increased protection levels in real time. The threat changed in the past three years so many times that we were in the labs over the weekends trying to create solutions based on intel given by the customer for real-time changes."
Tony Russell, vice president of vehicle armor BAE, which has supplied over 5,000 MRAPs to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in recent years, sees one of the challenges of the future being the sustainment of the relatively expensive MRAP fleet, now that new orders have waned. But he's also got his eye on the prize that other armor makers like Force Protection are gunning for -- you've got to find "ways to defeat and detect the threat before you even get to it," he says.