Thursday, June 7, 2012

The many Talismans of NATO

Talisman is the name of the British Army's own solution to the IED problem. It is a "system of systems" used for route clearance, to detect and destroy IEDs and mines and explosive traps and clear the way for the following vehicles.
Of course, Talisman is heavily influenced by the US Armed Forces' own reactions to the IED nightmare.
Now, while Talisman continues to work in Afghanistan without knowing its long term future (sudden death in 2015 when UOR funding from the Treasury dries up, or long life into the Core Defence Budget?), i want to take a look at the many talismans of NATO and allied forces, from the US to Italy, from France to Australia.

United States

The vehicles used by the US route clearance packages have been adopted, in a way or another, by most of the allies involved in Afghanistan. Much of the doctrine for the job is the same, as well, so i suggest reading this extremely interesting handbook, a true "Guide to route clearance in Afghanistan".

A typical RCP has a couple of Husky vehicles for the detection of mines and IEDs, particularly those buried in the road. The Husky is meant to tow mine-detonating trailers, but this is not normally done.
When a possible IED is detected, the Buffalo is sent to investigate with its mechanical manipulator arm. The Buffalo is huge and heavily protected, so it is the perfect vehicle for the job. Most of the time, the eventual explosion of the IED will leave the personnel inside unscathed. 

The Husky system is meant to carry trailers capable to trigger pressure plates and AT mines to clear paths through minefields, but in Afghanistan it is normally used without trailers, only for detection.

The Husky has been very successful on the field, it is popular, it has gained many export orders, and has been acquired in very consistent numbers by the US, with plans to keep it around long into the future as well, and contracts worth hundreds of million of dollars already placed in this sense. But the Husky is also a stressful vehicle to drive: the single man driving it has to look around for threats, drive, and look at the sensors and screen displaying the data. The workload is noticeable, so a two-seat variant has been developed from the Husky III. The new two-seat crew cell is installed on the same vehicle hull and mechanics, but offers the possibily to share the workload, and it introduces the possibility of arming the vehicle for self-defence, with a CROWS remote weapon station. It is a significant improvement.
Husky two-seat with CROWS and ground-penetrating radar with metal detector included.

Escort is provided by RG-31 vehicles, or other MRAPs of the fortunate Cougar series, either the 6x6 (Mastiff for the UK) or the 4x4 (Ridgback for the UK). The US engineer's main vehicle is however the RG-31, which is extensively used for command and control and force protection in the Route Clearance convoys.

At least a M984 heavy expanded mobility tactical truck (HEMTT) wrecker for recovery will also typically be present. It can tow and lift all vehicles (the Buffalo should not be lifted other than in extreme cases, as its weight is actually excessive).
The M916 6x6 tractor, pulling a 40-ton M870 trailer, is used for the transport of additional equipment and the recovery of damaged vehicles.

A variety of add-on systems help the convoy carrying out its route-clearing task: one common addition is the Self-Protection Adaptive Roller Kit (SPARK) which is used to detonate IEDs and mines ahead of the vehicle. In 80% of the cases, repair of a damaged SPARK is done within hours, so it is a very effective and simple way to deal with pressure-triggered devices. The configuration of the roller can be modified to adapt to the vehicle to which it will be attached: normally in a RCP you will find it on RG-31 vehicles, but it can be fitted even to the front of M1114 and M1115 "heavy" HMMWV.    

A UK Buffalo, with RPG armor cage.

The more recent SPARK System II offers the possibility to change distance from the vehicle to the roller, without leaving the cab. The crew can also, in any moment, detach SPARKS II from the vehicle without leaving the protection of the cab, allowing the crew to carry on with their vehicle and get to safety or continue the mission if the roller gets damaged and becomes a hindrance. 

This british Mastiff Protected Eyes is employing a SPARK roller kit. Note the ROTAS mast-mounted sight

Mast-mounted sensors and gyro-stabilized day/night cameras are another very common and very useful addition normally found on RG-31 vehicles within the patrol. It provides full-motion video and on-the-move detection capability, and long-range overwatch when stationary.

Normally, on unpaved roads the Husky vehicles are always opening the way, followed by a RG-31 with SPARK roller, and then by the rest of the convoy, which has of course to dispose in the formation most adequate to the situation, with the recovery trucks normally somewhere in the middle, where they can be protected.
On paved roads, the Husky vehicles often move in second place, behind the roller, because their false-alarm rate skyrocket because of underground infrastructure, trash, debris and other deceiving factors.

United Kingdom

The Mastiff resembles the american solution both in concept and in composition. When it was first procured, at an initial cost of 97 million pounds, it included Mastiff 2 in EOD configuration (some 23), 14 Buffalo vehicles, SPARK mine rollers, 6 T-Hawk mini drone systems and Talon UGVs, plus High Mobility Engineer Excavators.
The Talisman has been expanded with the addition of a few other components over time, turning it in a very effective solution. It is believed that 6 complete Talisman teams are on operation in Afghanistan at any one time, with possibly the equivalent of a seventh used for training on Salisbury Plain, but of course there's a veil of secrecy over the matter, and details aren't disclosed.

A Talisman system is currently (probably) counting on average 2 Buffalo vehicles, around 4 Mastiff "Protected Eyes", some or all with SPARK rollers, 2 "Project PANAMA" Unmanned Ground Vehicles, 2 Talon UGVs, 2 HMEE and 2 T-Hawk drones, and at least one Mini MineWolf drone.
Numbers are roughly compatible with this interpretation, but it is likely that the composition of a Talisman patrol is far from set in stone, and changes depending on the mission and on the availability of vehicles. Escort is said to preferably provided via Viking and now via Warthog, as these all-terrain vehicles can gain the high ground around the route to clear, avoiding mines and IEDs thanks to their mobility.  

A British HMEE as used in the Talisman convoys.

Project PANAMA has been around for some time, but only last year it was confirmed that it is a conversion of a number (at least a dozen) of Snatch Land Rovers into remotely operated vehicles. It is not clear which sensors PANAMA carries, but it is believed that the suite is likely to comprehend a ground-penetrating radar and/or metal detectors. Already in 2009 a few photos were leaked of a remotely-operated Snatch fitted with what seems to be some kind of radar or metal detector.
If fitted with a good radar and metal detector, PANAMA is undoubtedly a blessing: the initial Talisman came with a serious weakness at the "find" voice, and many have wondered why the Husky vehicle and its radar was not procured. 

Snatch Land Rovers turned into robots: Project PANAMA in action. Is that a ground-penetrating radar on the front?

The Mini MineWolf MW240 is another recent addition. Weighting some 6 tons, the drone is a miniaturized, remotely operated variant of the MineWolf mine clearing vehicle, that uses tiller or, more commonly, flails in order to detonate mines and IEDs. A few photos and a video (in German and relative to the German army, however) show the MW240s in action, fitted with EO turrets and mechanical arms that enable to drone to deploy its flails even into ditches and canals, to clean them from explosive traps. It makes for a safe and quick disposal method, that keeps EOD personnel safe.   
Mini MineWolf MW240: the introduction of the mechanical arm has opened up new possibilities for this drone, even if normally you will see it fitted with flails to cause the explosion of hidden IEDs.

The Mastiff Protected Eyes sports a mast-mounted Remote Optical Target Acquisition System (ROTAS) that incorporates the Thales Catherine Mega Pixel thermal camera, high zoom colour TV camera and the Celt laser. This allows for accurate lased ranges to targets combining with the GNAV sat Nav system for precise target and own vehicle grid referencing.
They are also fitted with the Kongsberg Protector Remote Weapon Station (RWS), armed normally with a .50 machine gun.
The Mastiff serves as a Command and Control platform for the Talisman convoys, and carries the Talon and T-Hawk drones. It is also seen pushing the SPARK roller.

The T-Hawk is a VTOL mini-drone with some 45 minutes of endurance. It was initially operated by Royal Engineer personnel, but was then assigned to the Royal Artillery when the latter became the Army's sole authority for UAVs. it is good to provide overwatch and to scout ahead, and its air downwash is known to be exploited to blast the dust away from suspected IEDs on the road. 

T-Hawk drone

The Talon UGV, from Qinetiq, is then used to investigate and manipulate the IEDs.

The UK has deployed to Afghanistan 3 Trojan vehicles as well, along with a CHARRV "Rhino" recovery vehicle. The Trojan has been used to great effect to clear the way for maneuver during several operations. The Pythoon rocket system for mine clearance was employed. 

Trojan and Pythoon: how it works
Talisman is operated, during each Herrick tour, by a Royal Engineer Squadron, deployed in addition to the 3 Squadrons of the roulement engineer regiment.
As it is an UOR purchased specifically for Afghanistan, its long  term future is still in doubt. Obviously, my opinion is that such a precious capability, and the skill accumulated with years of sacrifice in treasure and blood, should not be wasted. IEDs are here to stay, so the solution must be here to stay as well: the hope is that at least one squadron in one of the General Support Engineer Regiments will continue to use Talisman, brought into the core budget.

This hope is supported by this significant passage of the SDSR:

Capabilities will include:

                    a range of capabilities to counter explosive ordnance and IEDs;

Of course, the credibility of the SDSR is not very high after all what's happened, and the above passage anyway leaves huge margin for maneuver (and for cutting Talisman off), but one can hope.


In the last three years spent in Afghanistan under Operation Athena, the canadian soldiers were assisted by the Expedient Route Opening Capability (EROC) system.
The EROC uses american-built Husky (6) and Buffalo (5) vehicles for detection and manipulation, and includes Cougar 6x6 vehicles (5) for the transport of the EOD teams and their equipment. These were organized in two packages.
The cost, with 2 years of support and training services, was 26 million dollars.

The thick of the Canadian Army's force in Afghanistan was retired during 2011, with their infantry battlegroup being removed and all combat roles terminated by July.
Some 950 Canadians remain in Afghanistan, but they are formally out of ISAF and only work as part of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, preparing the local forces.  

The EROC has not gone wasted, as Australia leased it immediately after the Canadians ceased needing it.


The Australian army's "Talisman" is called NINGAUI and has been announced in December 2011. Four systems are being procured for the army's engineers for some 70 million dollars, with each system comprising:

• Two HUSKY Mark 3 protected route clearance vehicles with ground penetrating radars (GPR) to detect explosive hazards;
• One HUSKY Mark 3 protected route clearance vehicle with interrogator arm to confirm that an explosive hazard has been found from a safer distance;
• Two protected High Mobility Engineer Excavators (HMEEs) to repair damaged routes and create bypass routes;
• Two Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles fitted with SPARK mine rollers to provide a greater level of protection against explosive hazards.

NINGAUI won't be available before later this year, so in the interim Australia has leased two systems Expedient Route Opening Capability (EROC) from Canada.


The French Army put together two Route Clerance Packages for use in Afghanistan, one based in Kabisa and one in Surobi.
Each system is equipped with two american-built Buffalo vehicles, ordered in 2008 in number of 5 for 3.5 million dollars; 2 SOUVIM 2 vehicles and a number of heavily protected Aravis 4x4 armored vehicles from Nexter carrying EOD teams and equipment. 

Souvim 2 vehicle with trailer.

The SOUVIM 2 is a mine-clearance system capable to detonate a wide variety of mines and IEDs, both pressure and IR triggered. The system is composed by two one-man vehicles, highly protected and riding on huge, low-pressure tires capable to move over pressure mines without triggering them. The first vehicle, (VDM) is fitted with the stand-off decoy support frame, with wire-cutters and infrared and magnetic active decoys. The vehicle pulls a trailer (RDM-1) which can detonate pressure mines and mark the cleared path.
The second vehicle (VTR), tows the trailers RDM-2 and 3, which complete the pressure-mine triggering and expand the width of the cleared lane up to 3.9 meters.
The SOUVIM is intended to clear as many as 150 km of roads per day.    


Germany has been developing a national solution to the Route Clearance problem, using Fuchs and Wiesel vehicles. The German Route Clearance Package, which is the most "unmanned" solution currently available/in development.

A German RC Package comprises 5 vehicles: the first is a modified Wiesel light tank, turned into a remotely operated drone, and fitted with a large Ground Penetrating Radar with integral metal detector mounted on a mechanical arm in the back. The Wiesel deploys the radar backwards, and indeed, when in operation, the Wiesel-radar is driven in reverse, and slowly (6 km per hour). So configured, the Wiesel is known as RCDV (Remote Controlled Detection Vehicle). 

The Wiesel RCDV in action: moving in reverse and with the radar/metal detector in hunting position.

When not in use, the Wiesel radar drone is carried on the back of an 8x8 Multi FSA truck. This is a MAN SX45 chassis with DROPS equipment ("Multi" is a german acronym for Mechanisierte Umschlag -, Lagerung -, Trasport-integration”). "FSA" stands for "Fahrzeugschutzausstattung" and refers to the built-in integrated armor and protection features. Differently from normal military trucks, this particular variant is not fitted with modular armor packages for deployment, but is built with integrated protection purposefully designed. The truck can independently load and unload containers (including one armored and fitted for the carriage of 18 soldiers) or flatbeds loaded with light vehicles. Payload is 15 tons.    

The second vehicle is a heavily modified Fuchs 6x6 armoured vehicles, turned into a remotely operated platform, the Fuchs 1A8 KAI. This vehicle, still in development, is to be fitted with a massive mechanical manipulating arm with a reach of over 12 meters. the Fuchs 1A8 KAI reconnaissance and identification vehicle, equipped with a manipulator arm developed by Rheinmetall for bomb disposal. At the end of the manipulator arm is a dual ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction sensor. Manipulation of the stabilized arm is by a center tool control.
The KAI excavates objects through soil or paved roads with an air spade for visual inspection by camera and verification of whether they are mines, IEDs or false alarms. Mines and IEDs can then be neutralized, destroyed with an explosive disposal charge or by mechanical activation of the fuze.
The KAI is also equipped with a multitool consisting of a gripper, ripper teeth and fork. 

Loading the Mini MineWolf on the MAN Multi FSA truck.

The manipulator can be used for visual inspection of bridges, buildings and canals, and the far-reaching arm can also be used for recovering wounded personnel, if a rescue platform that carries two soldiers and is stabilized to prevent motion sickness is installed in place of the manipulator.

Industry is expecting an order for the KAI this year and is saying that the vehicle could also mount a high-power microwave and laser. In Germany, Rheinmetall has demonstrated a vehicle-mounted package comprising a 1 kW laser and an AMBUH TERMINATOR system.
The AMBUSH TERMINATOR, from Rheinmetall, was first presented in 2008. It is a vehicle-borne high power microwave (HPEM) Ultra-Wideband (continuous MHz to GHz coverage) system capable to activate, or disable electronic-controlled systems at a safe distance from the vehicle. The systems can be placed as add-on modules or embedded in the doors for concealed applications.
Laser and TERMINATOR were both shown installed on a TM170 4x4 armored vehicle, and we cannot exclude a future adoption of the system on the 1A8 KAI. 

This Fuchs is being used as demonstrator for the new mechanical arm destined to the KAI.

The mechanical arm is highly automated, and it will automatically maneuver to intervene in the spot that is indicated from the command and control vehicle.

The command and control vehicle is another Fuchs 1A8 6x6, which in the back carries a couple of operator consoles: one is for the control of the remotely operated vehicles and systems, while the other is for a mission analyst and is used to view and study all data coming in from the unmanned assets.

For the disposal of detected IEDs, the RCP has a Mini MineWolf drone. The German Army purchased seven Mini MineWolf systems and a range of attachments for a variety of route clearance tasks. They have procured flails, tillers, dozer shields and the combined gripperbucket tool for the remote controlled robotic arm, which was specifically designed to meet German Army requirements.

The Route Clearance Package started operations in Afghanistan late last year, while the development of the KAI is being completed in Germany. 


Italy is procuring its own Route Clearance solution itself, but it is a project aimed to the future more than to Afghanistan, as it won't be ready before 2014. In Afghanistan, the work will continue to be done by a package of 4 Buffalos and 6 Cougar 6x6 in EOD configuration, procured under UOR.

The solution to come by 2014 is far more complete and interesting. A full Route Clearance Package of the new type will number 5 vehicles, and all five will be VTMM 4x4, 18-tons protected vehicles.

The first VTMM is fitted with Calife 3 pushed decoy with wheels meant to activate pressure plates, wires and rollers, plus infrared, tripwire and tilt-rod activators. It is intended to lead the way and perform the initial route clearance, identifying and detonating any threat at safe distance (the arm's reach is about 3.5 meters). The frontal assembly weights some 750 kg and can be lifted to clear obstacles during vehicle movement. 

The VTMM 4x4 offers NATO STANAG Level 3 blast and ballistic protection. The Italian army is hoping to buy well over a thousand vehicles to cover a wide variety of support roles, from the towing of howitzers in theatre to Route Clearance.

A second VTMM is fitted with a powerful ground-penetrating radar, the Visor 2500 from UK's Chemring (the radar is made by the US company Niitek, which was acquired in 2008 by Chemring. The Visor 2500 radar is used on the famous Husky route-clearance system and on other vehicles). This radar can detect buried mines and IEDs and give to the operator inside the vehicle a 2 or 3D image of the ground, with software working to recognize the nature of objects detected and minimize false alarm rates.

The Visor 2500 radar is considered part of the Calife 3. The Calife 3 is being developed in collaboration with MBDA Italy, building on the experience accumulated with the french Souvim system. The Italian MOD has committed some 199 million dollars to the program, and aims to acquire 16 systems with an option for 10 more. The 16 systems are probably to be intended as 8 radars and 8 decoy modules.  

A third VTMM is fitted with a manipulating mechanical arm, with a reach of several meters, capable to dig to locate the IED and probably fitted with additional equipment to disrupt the bomb's systems.

A fourth VTMM will be fitted with sensors, probably mast-mounted, to provide overwatch and surveillance.
The Italian Army is also going to procure VTMM vehicles in EOD team configuration, to give protected mobility to the disposal teams and their drones. One vehicle in this configuration will complete each Route Clearance Package.
The plan is to procure 8 full RCPs, for a total of 40 vehicles and an option for a further 25. The expense is expected to be in the order of 157 million euro by 2014, including 22 million for 5 prototypes, 80 million for the 40 vehicles on order, 50 million for the option (if it is exercised) and some 5 millions in spares and support. Each of the 40 vehicles will be fitted with an HITROLE remote weapon station, already on order.
16 Calife 3 systems are enough to equip the 40 vehicles of the main order, making up the 8 RCPs currently planned. The option for 25 more vehicles and 10 more Calife 3 systems (5 radars and 5 decoys) would enable the Army to stand up a further 5 RC packages.

There is also a requirement for an active system capable to counter the threat of remotely detonated IEDs, and the solution, while not yet announced, is thought to have been found in the german AMBUSH TERMINATOR system.  

The VTMM is an interesting medium vehicle coming in 4x4 (18 tons) and 6x6 (25 tons) variants and developed jointly by Italy's Iveco (mainly responsible for the 4x4) and the German Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. The Italian army is planning to buy well over 1000 of these vehicles to cover a huge variety of supporting roles. 12 in Ambulance variant have already been ordered, with another order for a further 50 expected soon. The total requirement could be as high as 1400 vehicles, but much will depend on the changes the Army undergoes with the recently announced loss of 2 maneuver brigades as part of budget cuts. 

Comment: the approaches to the IED problem have been similar, but the final solutions have ended up being considerably different under many aspects. Standardization within the Alliance is still often only a dream, and duplication is still way too frequent: the Souvim 2 and the Husky are conceptually very similar, while the Calife 3, while essentially putting together elements of the Husky and of the Souvim, has at least the merit of coming with an installation structure that makes it quite easy to install it on the front of pretty much any kind of suitably mine-protected MRAP. 

The UK's Talisman appears to be one of the most complete Route Clearance solutions available, at this point. Now the hope is that it is retained in the long term, so that the next campaign does not find us all as unprepared as we were in 2001. 

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