One Year On
Colonel Alan Mellier, SO1 Analysis, Diggerworks, looks at recent outputs for soldier modernisation in Australia since the organisation’s formation in 2011
|Many of the changes to Australia’s SCE have been driven by the
need to meet mobility requirements. Photo: © DoD.
When the Australian Army’s Mentoring Task Force (MTF) 3 deployed to Afghanistan in June 2011 coming home in February 2012, the equipment was radically different to what MTF troops wore even 12 months earlier according to Col. Alan Mellier, SO1 Analysis, Diggerworks. He commented, “He has an entirely new uniform and entirely new body armour and load carriage system, only his helmet shell and his boots remain from what was worn twelve months ago.” In addition to the changes in the Soldier Combat Ensemble, the Army has also added two new weapons to the fire team, namely the 7.62mm Minimi light machine gun and the H&K 417 Marksman rifle.
Diggerworks has been critical to delivering these changes but the underlying rationale to change so rapidly has, in part been informed by the transition from operations in Iraq to those in Afghanistan, which while superficially similar were quickly shown to require very different equipment with initially deployed systems that performed well in Iraq, did not perform well in Afghanistan. One example of this was the Modular Combat Body Armour System (MCBAS) introduced in 2008.
Col. Mellier commented, “That armour provides the best possible system and the highest level of protection we could afford to give our people and what was technologically available at that time. It was a significant enhancement in terms of protection but it came at a cost. The vest weighed from 12-16 kg and the average combat loads of our soldier increased to well over 40kg. This led to significant adverse consequences. Our soldiers had vastly and dramatically reduced mobility, reduced agility and decreased endurance.”
When employed with this armour and other additional equipment to Uruzgan Province to mentor 4 Afghan National Army brigade, Australian troops found that they could not keep up with their Afghan soldiers they were monitoring.
Col. Mellier said, “We came to realise that we had to do something. Army drove itself, its own organisation and the Defence Material Organisation (DMO) to institute a change.” The first change was adaptive acquisition which can sometimes be portrayed as buying less more often, a characterisation that Col. Mellier fundamentally disagrees with, “It is much more than that. It is about delivering systems upgrade that are tried and tested. It delivers equipment and systems to our soldiers that we know will work and that we know improves the capability of our soldiers.”
This has presented significant challenges to the contracting process structure with the DMO contracting for the delivery of items that they don’t even know exist at the time that they enter into the initial contract.
Army has also instituted an approach called the tiered approach in which is everyone is no longer to be equipped the same. The Army has a system of three tiers for all of the soldier combat equipment. Tier 1 is specialist equipment, for specific roles and tasks including Special Forces, air crew or aircraft refuelling who require specialist equipment for their jobs. Tier 2 is the Close Combatant. The Close Combatant is the main focus and will receive the most money and the most time in delivering equipment and systems. Tier 3 is General Combatant, comprising the combat support and combat service support soldiers.
The Australian Army is now using a three-year, force generation cycle for its three Brigades. One brigade is the Ready Brigade. That brigade is in high state of readiness and its forces are deployed in operation in the Middle East or as required. They spend twelve months as the ready brigade and then they move into reset. In the Rest Phase, they move into reconstitution and individual training. The Brigade in the Rest phase uses all of the equipment it had when it was the Ready Brigade and receives no new deliveries of Soldier Combat Equipment (SCE) or the main Soldier Combat System items. In the third year of the cycle the Brigade moves into collective training and force preparation for its time as the Ready brigade. In that year, it receives a complete new issue of SCE and upgraded or new soldier combat system components when it is in training. Every soldier in the brigade is outfitted with the latest version of the uniform, the latest helmet and latest soldier combat body armour and load carriage.
In the Ready Phase, feedback is actively sought from soldiers which creates a two year cycle for major upgrades although minor upgrades can be achieved more quickly and is then delivered to the readying brigade.
Col. Mellier commented, “This is a significant change for the Australian Army. Previously and until now, we have re-equipped everyone the same and we have issued equipment out to all of the combat brigades. Now we are concentrating on our force generation cycle.”
To drive through change for the force generation cycle and the delivery of systems upgrades to deliver an integrated soldier combat system, Diggerworks was created. This consists of only about 20 staff and most of whom are engineers or technicians and combat arms officers or soldiers, all of them are either infantry or combat engineers. Additional support is obtained as required by enlisting the aid of outside organisations.
Col. Mellier said, “Diggerworks does not buy the equipment we buy one, two, five or maybe fifty of sometimes, for evaluation or trials. The acquisitions are still competed by the systems programme officers in the DMO… Our job is to deliver things now or next year so we do not look at technologies or products that are now at a high Technology Readiness Level and that can’t be fielded in 18 months. If it cannot be fielded inside 18 months we don’t consider it. Our job is to make the soldiers lives better. Whether that means more effective more capable more agile or longer endurance we have to make or deliver tangible benefit to our soldiers. If what we proposed doesn’t deliver a tangible benefit then there is no point including it and Army will not take that option up.”
Diggerworks provides the Army options and it remains Army’s job to make decisions on what to procure. Configuration management is a priority for Diggerworks with the organisation conducting an audit of soldiers’ equipment in theatre in October and November 2011. Col. Mellier commented, “Surprising or unsurprisingly, our soldier configuration and what they use wear and carry was quite different from our user requirement upon which we originally embarked upon the projected Tiered Body Armour System (TBAS). We now have to set in training a procedure for Army so it can gain informed control over its soldier combat system.”
Land 125 Phase 4
Diggerworks is also firmly embedded in future soldier modernisation. The Project Office Staff for Land 125 Phase 4, the defence capabilities plan project for the next major upgrade of Australia’s soldier combat system has been placed in Diggerworks. The project at this stage is in the Project Definition, pre-First Pass. It is not expected to achieve first pass initial approval by government before late 2013. Col. Mellier commented, “At this stage it is still too early to speculate what will go into that project however, we believe it will continue to evolve the SCE as we have been doing and I likely to involve an enhanced C2 SA system, but that really speculation only at this stage.”
“One third of the organisation is the Land 125 Phase 4 project office staff. I anticipate that will remain the same that when Land 125 Phase 4 matures and achieves First Pass, that those staff will go to the systems programme office that is going to do the acquisition and they will be replaced by a project office team for the next upgrade for the next soldier system which will come into Diggerworks.”
Diggerworks has only just been in operation for over a year during which time several major milestones have been achieved focused on equipment for operations in Afghanistan.
A trial is currently going on with Special Forces giving soldier in the Special Operations Task Group have the choice of either ops-core FAST Ballistic Helmet or the Crye Airframe Helmet, the choice of two based on a Diggerworks determination that they provided the optimum level of comfort, stability protection and integration with mission essential items. Col. Mellier said, “The helmets will be used over the next two year be the soldiers in the Special Operations Task Group and before the end of 2013, we will develop a functional performance specification for an open tender.”
Complaints from soldiers in the conventional army have also been received about its Rabintex enhanced combat helmet since its introduction in 2004. In 2011 new helmet suspension and retention systems have improved the comfort ability but more importantly to improve the impact protection from helmets for close combatants.
Another worn item is the new Crye assault uniform, now in theatre. Mellier said, “We didn’t just purchase the uniform from Crye Precision, we purchased the uniforms, the designs the rights to use the MultiCam pattern the engineering and design effort to evolve the design of the uniform to meet the needs of the Australian soldiers and we also purchased the engineering and design effort to produce an Australian version of the MultiCam pattern.
The Australian version of the MultiCam pattern was introduced soldiers in Afghanistan in 2012. It is uniquely identifiable as Australian from distances of 5m but beyond that performs exactly the same as the Crye MultiCam pattern in a range of environments.
The introduction into service of TBAS and other new equipment has reduced the loads as well as new procedures introduced in theatre. Col. Mellier said, “Our combatants have been carrying loads of well over 40 Kg. They no longer carry those loads. They have been reduced to around 30 Kg and lighter in some cases. The TBAS significantly reduced the weight of the combat body armour worn by our combatants. Next the Battle Group Commander in Afghanistan reviewed and rationalised his Standard Operating Procedure for ammunition and equipment carriage. The default ammunition carriage by a rifleman is now 150 rounds of 5.56mm, two Hand Grenades and One Smoke Grenade. The ammunition and equipment carried by soldiers in the Mentoring Task Force are strictly enforced.
The top down approach to weight reduction has been adopted elsewhere, Col. Mellier said, “We also did something [to reduce weight] that was something of a blunt instrument. The requirement for a Small Pack for our soldiers in Afghanistan was for a pack of 45 litres. We gave them a 35 litre pack. You can’t overload the pack if you have smaller one. It is a blunt instrument but it has been effective. Finally our people operate with our protected mobility vehicles and cavalry support on almost every operation they conduct in Afghanistan. They may be in an eight or ten day clearance operation but they marry up with protected mobility vehicles and their Light Armoured Vehicles almost every day. The soldiers now carry what they need for that day and no more. These strategies have delivered significant reduction in our combat loads and we are happy with them. We are not sure at this stage if they are enduring but they are the best we have and we will stick with them for the time being.”
The new TBAS has replaced all previously issued body armour and load carriage items, vest, pouches and all of the packs except the large field pack. It is tiered and the Army recognises that no single armour systems will suit the needs of all soldiers.
Col. Mellier commented, “We didn’t buy the TBAS because it didn’t exist. When we started the journey, really didn’t know where we wanted to end up. Fortunately, the Special Operations Command provides the initial intellectual effort and delivered us draft user requirements for what they considered to be a tiered body armour system suitable for close combatants and combat service support personnel.”
Soldiers then sat down with the design team to meet their needs as well as technology input from the DSTO, a radical change from anything that had gone before. The resulting design was then independently tested and underwent a final soldier review before entry into service. Studies to support the acquisition included an anthropometric sizing of combatants to size the armour to fit soldiers.
Col. Mellier explained, “We started out with the aim to deliver a Tier 2 plate carrier to our close combatants that weighed no more that 6Kg, exactly the weight of the MCBAS that it replaced. This involved a significant reduction in the area of coverage of the soldier. We reduced the coverage of the vest in the plate carrier we deliver in Tier 2 by 30 percent. This was not without risk but we believed that the increased mobility, agility and endurance of the soldiers justified the reduction in coverage. The Army accepted that risk in light of the knowledge we provided them as a result of the DSTO studies. We have also made significant improvement to the integration of load carriage onto the soldier armour and moving some of the armour onto the soldier’s hip with padded belt.”
Other changes to body armour relate to how it is worn. Col. Mellier commented, “We force our soldiers to wear their body armour vest a lot higher on their bodies than all of our previous armours. We want to cover the whole of the heart and the aortic arch and for that reason the top of our front vest panels are located at the sternal notch and the top of the plates at the rear of the vest are located at the second thoracic vertebrae. That has the downstream effect that the vest scrapes your nose and face whenever you put it on because it is up so high. The soldiers don’t like to do it but the commanders force them to do it and check it rigidly.”
The result has been to provide a number of ergonomic benefits over MCBAS allowing using to achieve the same scores when firing their personal weapon when wearing the armour and when not. Soldiers can now sit in their vehicle seats and do up their seat belts, something that was almost impossible in the McBAS vests with its load carriage pouches fitted.
Australia’s Battlegroup in Afghanistan consists of 750 soldiers with a total of 1150 armour systems, a mixture of 750 Tier 2 and 400 Tier 3 sets.
Throughout 2012, Diggerworks intend to continue to the development of the TBAS, particularly on the area of integration of the pack with the armour. Col. Mellier commented, “We need to be able to get a small assault pack on top of our soldiers and off them quickly without using shoulder straps. That is something we will apply effort to throughout the first half of this year. Helmets continue to be an issue for us. We need a Tier 2 Combat Helmet which offers greater integration with mission essential items through the second half of 2012 and we intend to conduct trials with the Mentoring Task Force in Afghanistan of a new combat enhancement for their two soldiers. We also need to deliver an enduring solution to the upgrade of our Enhanced Combat Helmet so that it is sustainable for all of our soldiers. Finally we need to look at our force deployed on regional operations in Timor and the Solomon Islands and deliver them capability enhancements which are suitable to their area of operations.
In 2012, Diggerworks is also having trials of individual water purification systems designed to reduce the 3Kg of water currently carried with the ability to add individual water purification tablets to water scavenged from rivers and irrigation canals.
Col. Mellier was speaking at WBR’s Soldier Technology US 2012.