Technical and tactical advances are in a seemingly never-ending spiral between offence and defence. Logistical advances are different; they're technology- or demand-driven, but they lack the competition element because there's no direct contact with the opponent.
One of many interesting technical advances in high-end armies is the deployment of multi-spectral smoke munitions that block infrared (thermal) sensors just as well as sensors in the visible wavelengths (at least for a short time). It's in use with tanks (example, DM55 with red phosphorous smoke can block infrared vision for about 30 seconds) and indirect fire weapons. Other countermeasures degrade thermal sensors as well (mostly with too bright IR emissions).
This has become a good idea because imaging infrared (IIR) sensors have proliferated since the 80's. It began mostly with main battle tank gunner sights and proceeded up to practical hand-held or helmet-mounted sights. Sensor fusion night sights with low light/thermal sensors are in the process of introduction into the infantry as well.
These infrared sensors de-valued traditional smoke (and some natural atmospheric conditions) as concealment on the high-end battlefield. The introduction of practical multi-spectral smoke agents is a promising yet also limited countermeasure.
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It would be an exception to the rule if the spiral stopped at this point, of course. So what's next? The usual suspect for the next step can be characterized as
- on the offensive side
- first to be introduced in high-payoff applications
- likely a technical response
There might be tactical responses as well (such as provoking the waste of smoke agents to lower the probability of their use at the really critical moment. A technical response holds more promise and fits better to the Western mind set, though.
A technical response to multispectral smoke and other IR countermeasures could be the evasion into another wavelength band, one that the multispectral smoke doesn't defeat. This would be an analogy to thermals which avoided the effective concealment effect of classic smoke agents (in addition to many other advantages of infrared wavelengths) by working outside of the visible band.
This alternative wavelength band could be in the realm of radars.
The high payoff application for the introduction of the countermeasure could be a tank gunner's sight.
Battlefield radars have been in use for decades and usually use centimetre or millimetre wavelengths (such as Ka, J, G and X bands). Radar technology has already been introduced into service in smart munitions (such as SmArt155) during the 90's. This indicates that at least short range/short use radars can be produced at an affordable price IF the procurement agency accepts a limited functionality.
A tank gunner or commander decides to lase a target to feed the range info into the ballistic computer immediately before the shot is being fired. This triggers a mini radar mounted near the muzzle of the tank's main gun. The radar determines sends relatively few pulses to generate an adequate range info itself and to "lock on" the target. The first shot may not have disabled the target and its crew pops its smoke dischargers in response, seeking the relative safety of concealment in the hope that friendly tanks will return fire effectively before the opponent can aim at them.
The mini radar would keep track, though. It would enable a follow-on shot with a high hit probability based on radar data only.
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This could be escalated up to a full battlefield surveillance radar with high cost, but that would likely be the wrong path for normal combat vehicles.
A small and probably worthwhile extension of functionality would be to use the radar instead of lasing at all - to avoid the reaction of laser warning receivers. Another extension of functionality could be the addition of a tiny monitor to help with target identification if the target silhouette has been disfigured by visual camouflage (vegetation) too much (it depends - maybe the wavelength is unsuitable for this).
The uneasy feeling in my stomach
This was a small excursion into a small imaginable step in future main battle tank evolution. It would add just another electronic component that might cost about as much as paying one soldier for a year. It could make the difference in tank vs. tank combat and may be well worth its price, but it adds to the complexity of tanks, which are already approaching Rube Goldberg machines with their radios, ballistic computers, lasers, thermal sights, laser warning receivers and at times electromagnetic mine countermeasures, radiation detectors and active protection systems.
The price of new high end armoured fighting vehicles in halfway reasonable production runs already approaches € 10 million per copy. It might well go close to € 15 million (year 2010 Euros) by the time when we replace the current inventory of main battle tanks (by about 2020-2030 or earlier if the shit hits the fan during the new decade).
Such a high complexity and price of armoured fighting vehicles keeps posing the question: Are we following the right path in AFV development or does the spiral lead us up a blind alley?