A British soldier launches a drone during an exercise on the Defence Ministry's training area at Salisbury Plain on Oct. 13, 2020. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The British Army is leaning heavily into robotics, artificial intelligence and hybrid-power technology as part of a new acquisition process dubbed Mercury, according to a British Army leader involved in future procurement planning.
The Army is grappling with how to acquire technologies that it believes it will need in the future, how to spiral in those technologies across its equipment programs and how to cultivate skills in its soldiers to use capabilities as they come online, Col. Christopher Coton, the service’s assistant head for concepts, said at the DSEI defense exhibition in London on Sept. 15.
Driving innovation to achieve its goals, the Army must better identify technologies that will likely change the way the service operates and fights, Coton said. This would be done by drawing on traditional and nontraditional suppliers, the officer added, and the service needs to better articulate what it needs to both small and large companies capable of helping to co-develop technology along the way.
Mercury is one part of the approach, Coton said, and represents “how we will protect our soldiers, our vehicles and our formations in the future beyond 2035.”
The effort is based on two key tenants, he said. The first is the Army expects combat power to be increasingly dispersed across the battlefield. The second is that it expects the increasing electrification of vehicles in the land fleet.
“To retain that idea of mutual support between human entities and that dispersed force, we think we’ll have to off-board protection; protection that has historically and traditionally been integral to the platforms themselves and in that we will harness technologies such as robotics, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning,” and a variety of novel effectors and sensors, Coton said.
“As they emerge throughout this decade and into the next, you will see a bubble of systemic protection that will rely on a constellation of subsystems that will preempt and neutralize enemy threats before they’re able to have an effect on the human element of the system,” he added.
The idea is “deliberately nebulous,” he noted. “In fact, we think one of the strengths of the Mercury idea is that that goal is nebulous because it allows us to shape it over the proceeding decade. It allows us to develop the ideas with industry along this common theme.”
Key to the relationship with industry, Coton noted, will be a commercial framework that the Army is developing with industry. “We don’t underestimate the challenge of this,” he said.
Another aspect of Mercury will focus on experimental activity in the short term that will help the Army realize “long-term aspiration,” Coton said.
For example, at DSEI, the Army ran a technical demonstration where it retrofitted combat vehicles with hybrid electric drives.
“We’re using these vehicles to form then a surrogate for future experimentation, the development of networks, the tethering of drones, [unmanned ground vehicles], [unmanned air vehicles], and of course … effectors and sensors as they mature throughout the decade,” he said.
That experimentation will take place in the Army’s BattleLab in Dorset, according to Coton.
Complementing Mercury is the service’s Army Warfighting Experiment, which “seeks to broaden that aperture of innovation and invention to look at technologies and capabilities, to experiment with them and capture a wide array of technological innovation to better prepare the Army more generally for complex future warfare,” Coton said.
The 2021 experiment will take place next month. In subsequent years, from 2022 through 2024, Coton said, the event will focus on the urban environment and how to exploit technologies and experiment with capabilities pertinent to that environment.