Defense technologies that made the news in 2021

Despite the crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, the news in 2021 was often marked by certain defense technologies, in a geopolitical context of growing tensions and critical crises. From Australia's surprise cancellation of the order for French-built conventionally powered submarines to switch to US-British nuclear attack submarines, to hypersonic missiles; from underwater drones to China's new fractional orbital bombardment system; these defense technologies, long in the background of the world media scene, found themselves in the news, and sometimes in the headlines during this year. In this two-part article, we will present the technologies that have had the most impact in the year 2021 in the field of Defense, in order to understand their challenges and applications.

1- Nuclear-powered submarines

Cancellation of the Australian contract for the design and manufacture of 12 conventional Shortfin Barracuda-type submarines from the French Naval Group, was undoubtedly the most significant event in the defense sphere in France this year. But Canberra's choice to turn to American or British-made nuclear-powered submarines was the most important event on the world stage in 2021. Indeed, for the first time, the taboo resulting from a tacit agreement between the 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to sell nuclear-powered submarines to a third nation was hacked up by the decision of Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. And with it, a door opened on the international scene for many countries wishing, too, to equip themselves with this type of vessel offering unique performances, because having a very important and almost unlimited source of energy. .

the American model of the Virginia class submarines is today seen as the most probably chosen by Canberra for its nuclear-powered attack submarine program

Since then, if the Australian program itself is increasingly under fire from critics, including in Australia, due to additional costs and very important deadlines, obviously, not mastered to date by the Australian government, several countries have stepped into the breach opened by Joe Biden and his two acolytes, by turning in particular to France, which has very suitable technologies and know-how to seize this emerging market. Still, the example given by Canberra in this case will undoubtedly leave marks, because beyond South Korea, India or Brazil, other countries could also seek to endow this capacity, by turning to less observant partners in this field, creating a runaway which could spell the end of international efforts in the field of non-proliferation.

We can therefore wonder to what extent the American decision in this matter had been carefully considered, and if all the undoubtedly negative consequences that will ensue were assessed before embarking on such a project with multiple dangers, including for Australia itself, which could well be deprived of an effective submarine fleet for ten years before receiving its first nuclear submarines "beyond 2040" in the best case, and this while the The prospect of conflict in the Pacific fell on a much more compact schedule.

2- Hypersonic Missiles

In 2019, while answering questions from French parliamentarians, the Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Admiral Prazuck, felt that the announcements concerning Chinese and Russian hypersonic anti-ship weapons should not cause more alarm. that of reason the national representation. According to him, the constraints linked to these missiles exceeding the speed of Mach 5, in particular in the thermal and electromagnetic field, prohibited the use of guidance systems which would make it possible to strike ships at sea and on the move. Only 2 years later, spurred on by major advances from Russia with the Kh47m2 Kinzhal missiles already in service, and 3M22 Tzircon anti-ships which will come into service in 2022, the design of hypersonic missiles has become the priority of most of the world's major armies, including, and above all, across the Atlantic, or no less than 5 programs are underway in this field at the same time, with the objective of entering service from 2024.

Russia has stepped up tests of its 3M22 Tzirkon missile in 2021, from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov as Iassen Severodvinsk submarine

It must be said that hypersonic missiles, particularly in the field of anti-ship weapons, pose serious problems for Western navies, since none of the anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems currently in service, or close to being so, do not. can hope to intercept such a vector. In addition, due to this extraordinary speed which sometimes exceeds 8000 km / h, or more than 2 km per second, the times between detection and impact to hope to implement any countermeasure are considerably reduced. On the other hand, the flight times being very short, the chances of being able to escape a shot by the maneuver or the speed between the moment of detection and the arrival of the missile are also greatly reduced. Finally, beyond the military charge carried by these weapons, which can sometimes be nuclear in the case of the Russian Kinzhal or the Chinese DF-26, the kinetic energy released on impact of the missile on its target is usually sufficient. to dislocate the target, except in the case of very large ships such as aircraft carriers.

Le DF-17 hypersonic missile Chinese was premiered during the 2019 parade celebrating 70 years of the founding of the PLA.

In other words, with a range of several hundred to several thousand kilometers, hypersonic missiles appear, for a time at least, the masters of the air battlefield, as well as the weapon of choice for pre-emptive strikes. To answer this, Westerners have launched two types of programs. In the first place, they also undertook to equip themselves with equivalent missiles, in a logic of reciprocal deterrence. On the other hand, several programs have been launched to acquire anti-missile interception capabilities capable of destroying these threats in flight before they reach their targets, as in the case of the European TWISTER program. The fact remains that, for at least a few years, Moscow and Beijing will have, from 2022, the capacity to push back the Western naval forces beyond an enlarged perimeter, without the latter having the capacity to protect themselves from it. Without a doubt, this is a major tactical advantage conceded by the West to their two great geopolitical rivals, which is likely to have important consequences in the years to come.

3- The F-35 vs Rafale competition

For the past ten years or so, competitions in the field of combat aircraft within the enlarged Western sphere have been reduced to a plebiscite of the F-35 from Lockheed-Martin, the other competitors, whether it is the Boeing Super Hornet, the Swedish Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the French Rafale, being generally condemned to seize the few crumbs left by the American company, and the American State Department. However, this year saw events evolve in a whole different way. In fact, for the first time, export orders for the Rafale from Dassault Aviation exceeded, with 146 aircraft in 5 contracts, those of the American F-35, which only totals 100 on two contracts. It is true that, in the two cases of the success of the F-35 in Switzerland and in Finland, the American aircraft won against the Rafale and the 3 other competitors, while the Rafale contracts were all signed during direct agreements between states. But this does not prevent this year, and for the first time in a long time, it is not the F-35 which is essential in the list of the exports of combat planes on the planet.

In 2021, the Rafale turns ahead of the F-35 when it comes to taking export orders.

The success of the Rafale, after several years of difficult questioning, particularly in the early 2010s, is the result of several concomitant factors. First, the French aircraft are now reaching a high level of technological maturity, and its next F4 version will be equipped with capacities and performance hitherto reserved for so-called 5th generation aircraft, especially in cooperative combat and data fusion. In addition, it is offered in a much less restrictive way than the American F-35 is, in particular as regards the technological choices imposed on the client countries. This is how the American demands concerning the abandonment of arbitration by Abu Dabi in favor of the Chinese Huaiwei for the deployment of 5G in the country, in part generated the suspension of discussions concerning the acquisition of 50 F-35A, while at the same time, the Emirate ordered 80 Rafale planes.

But it is undoubtedly the hardening of international tensions in the world that accelerated the attraction for the French Rafale, an aircraft which has repeatedly demonstrated not only its performance and versatility, but also its great availability, key criteria in a context of tension, as in India, UAE or Greece. On the other hand, this situation does not seem to have benefited the 3 other unfortunate competitors, who did not line up any export order this year, to the point of threatening the very sustainability of the Boeing production and assembly line of the Super-Hornet in St. Louis, Missouri. We can also expect that 2022 will be, if not the same accabi, in any case on the same track for the two Western flagship planes, before the arrival of new competitors like the new very promising Russian Su-75 checkmate and the more hypothetical South Korean Boromae.

4- The Hard-kill Trophy system

The active armored protection system Trophy, developed by the Rafael company, has been in service with the Israeli armed forces since 2011, and had quickly demonstrated its effectiveness in combat as soon as it entered service. At the same time, several European and American companies, including the French company Thales, had also developed equivalent concepts, but for lack of being followed by their line ministries, these programs were put on hold during the first half of the 2010s. At that time, not only was the operational interest of armored vehicles, and in particular heavy tanks, in future conflicts that were seen to be essentially asymmetrical and counter-insurgent, but the defense efforts of Western countries under pressure to be doubted. strong budgets, forcing trade-offs "for survival" and not "for modernization". With the official presentation of Russian T-14 Armata and its Afghanit active system, then that of Arena-M to protect previous generation Russian armored vehicles, interest in armored vehicles as in active protection systems marked a marked acceleration in the second half of the decade.

The Bundeswehr has ordered around thirty Trophy hard-kill systems from Israeli Rafael to equip some of his Leopard 2A7 heavy tanks

Thus, countries such as China, South Korea and Turkey decided to equip their new tank programs with locally produced Hard-Kill systems, in addition to the soft-kill systems already in service. Unlike a soft-kill system which attempts to jam or lure enemy aiming systems to prevent firing, Hard-Kill systems like the Trophy or the Afghanit detect the threatening projectile and then intercept it from a distance. security using dedicated ammunition, thus preventing the destruction of the armored vehicle. Since the entry into service of the Trophy, no tank Israeli Army Merkava Mk IV or Namer Infantry Fighting Vehicle equipped with it was not lost in action, even as the Trophy destroyed several hundred rockets and missiles targeting Israeli armor.

Hard-kill systems destroy threatening projectiles before they can strike the target armor

This impressive record, and a strict evaluation procedure carried out locally, convinced the US Army to acquire several hundred systems for protect his M1A2 Abrams tanks, as well as Israel competitor Elbit's Iron Fist system for M2 / M3 Brandley IVCs, pending national solutions. In 2021, it was the turn of the German and British armies to decide on the acquisition of the Trophy, respectively to protect their Leopard 2A7s and Ieurs Challenger 3, highly modernized version of the Challenger 2 currently in service. Poland would also have gone to negotiations with Rafael to equip its 250 new M1A2C with the Trophy, which would make it the most powerful and best protected heavy armored force in Europe. On the other hand, the addition of Hard-Kill systems, whether it is an imported equipment like el Trophy, or a system of national invoice, was not retained by the Army for the modernization of its Leclercs to the MLU Scorpion standard. This is undoubtedly a mistake on the part of French planners.

5- Loyal Wingmen and new generation combat drones

While the Europeans are still working together on the subject of the motorization of the Euromale drone, a large number of countries have, for their part, engaged in the design of new generation combat drones, and in particular the concept of Loyal. Wingmen. Intended to accompany combat aircraft on mission, the Loyal Wingmen are combat drones displaying performance comparable to those of the aircraft they accompany, and can carry sensors or even additional armament for the benefit of the piloted aircraft, who assumes control and mission management. Many programs are underway in the United States as part of the Skyborg program with the Kratos Valkyrie and the GA Avenger, in Australia with the “loyal Wingmen” program jointly developed with Boeing (main illustration of the article), in Russia with the S70 Okhotnik B, in China with the GJ-11, all meeting the same specifications, but providing specific answers. Thus, the Russian S70 is particularly impressive with a takeoff weight of 20 tons and a range of 4000 km, for accompany heavy fighters like the Su-57 in their missions. Conversely, the American Valkyrie and Avengers are lighter drones, with less range since the F-35 itself has a restricted range, but with a low unit cost of only a few million dollars, allowing accept destruction if necessary.

Kratos' XQ-58A Valkyrie is one of three drones selected for the US Air Force's Skyborg program. It foreshadows a potentially sacrificial light drone but offering performance compatible with the mission of the Loyal Wingmen

But the field of next-generation combat drones is not limited to Loyal Wingmen-type programs alone. Thus, in the United States, two programs developed by the US Air Force under the seal of secrecy could soon be made public, the RQ-180, a stealth drone dedicated to very high altitude reconnaissance missions, and the SR-72 , a drone capable of reaching very high speeds above Mach 3, and potentially equipped with an ammunition bay, making the perfect teammate for future B-21 strategic bombers. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Turkish Baykar set out to develop a high performance combat drone heir to the TB2 Bayraktar, and therefore available at a particularly attractive unit cost. The US Navy for its part continues to develop its MQ-25 Stingray drone to act as an in-flight refueler and ISR reconnaissance for the benefit of the fleet. UK, the Royal Navy Vixen program aims toincrease the capacities of its 2 aircraft carriers, in particular by offering air watch and intelligence capabilities. Finally, in Europe, the two new-generation fighter programs, the Franco-German-Spanish SCAF and the Italian-British FCAS, are developing airborne drones referred to as the Remote Carrier.

In Europe, the concept of Remote Carrier, airborne drones evolving alongside manned combat planes, has been preferred to that of Loyal Wingmen, which is heavier and more expensive.

Although the move now appears inevitable, with the Turkish, Russian and Chinese navies even considering design drone ships rather than helicopter or aircraft carriers, some countries, like Germany, remain today locked in moral considerations derived from a sterile and fantasized debate on "killer robots", namely the delegation of the decision of the lethal action to a non-human (artificial) intelligence, threatening the development of these systems however essential in the geostrategic competition which is announced. In addition, as in the field of Hard-Kill systems, European companies had a significant lead in the field of next-generation combat drones a decade ago, with Neuron or Taranis programs, but as before, these programs were left fallow on considerations of budgetary urgency, even though even today, they could significantly contribute to re-establishing the balance of power, in particular vis-à-vis Russian military power.

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