Yesterday, a military vehicle was defined by its function: a tank was a tank, a truck was a truck. Today, the explosion in electronics capabilities – from sensing devices to self-diagnostics, from navigation to communications – means any vehicle can be configured to perform a wide and growing range of functions.

Under the stress of battle requirements, those new systems – vetronics – have found their way into combat vehicles in service today. As Mike Greenley, vice president of business development and strategy for General Dynamics Canada, says, “now we have a proliferation of systems that have to be installed, such as jammers against improvised explosive devices (IED), sniper detection systems, remote weapon systems, and local situational awareness systems. From a communications perspective, we need to be able to accommodate sensor feeds from a variety of sources including unmanned air vehicles, satellite communications systems and additional radios to communicate with dismounted soldiers, aircraft or allied nations.”

Customers are looking for off-the-shelf fielded solutions, to leverage existing design and qualification costs, reduce time-to-fielding, and to ensure ongoing availability of units, Greenley says.

Sunanda Jayanth, a research analyst with the Frost & Sullivan consulting group believes “the optimal approach in the industry has been to leverage both COTS and custom design capabilities that build upon pre-qualified platform building blocks, while offering flexibility and ‘configurability’ to meet the needs of specific functionality. Thus this cost-effective platform can be tailored to fit the overall design requirements, rather than either a rigid platform that forces compromises or a full-custom approach that forces both high-cost and extended development timeframes.”

Coming generations of vehicles will be increasingly designed around their electronics. From his perspective as regional manager of international programs for Oshkosh Defense, Jeff Krumrei says the world’s defence departments are now seeing vehicles as both platforms and integrated systems. “Armed forces are certainly looking to acquire fully integrated systems when vehicle RFPs are issued. Requirements for a vehicle platform are not released without electronics requirements explicitly named. However, new program requirements increasingly take a lifecycle perspective. Services want to ensure all vehicles purchased allow for integration of future technologies and advancements. This is especially true in reference to electronics where technological advancements come quickly,” he said.

Do innovative electronics offer OEM’s a competitive advantage in an RFP today? “Absolutely,” says Greenley. “The customer community is increasingly focused on ensuring innovative electronics suites are integrated into vehicle platforms. Comprehensive C4I strategies and solutions are now a competitive differentiator that is shaping decisions on platform procurements.”

Krumrei said customers respond positively when innovation increases the vehicle’s capabilities, but acquisition officials are balancing a lot of factors, including cost, performance and ease of sustainment to decide which vehicle to buy. “No ministry of defence wants to spend additional resources on advanced electronic capabilities that do not improve or enhance a key requirement, such as increased levels of protection, mobility or reduced sustainment costs.”

However, he points out, electronics innovations can greatly reduce the lifetime cost of a vehicle, and defence ministries might be missing that element. “Sustainment cost metrics for making future acquisition decisions are still underdeveloped and MoD evaluations tend to focus on vehicle performance rather than vehicle sustainment,” Krumrei says.

But electronics are already having a major impact in areas like sustainment. Diagnostics programs like the Oshkosh Command Zone integrated control and diagnostics system allow fleet managers to do “just in time” maintenance when vehicles need it, saving time and money.

But the realities of combat can extend those benefits. As Carman Upshaw, a senior sales director at NGRAIN, the 3D simulations company, points out, in many cases, the operator-crew are the maintainers. “Your vehicle is disabled and you’ve got to make a decision fairly quickly because the bad guys are coming at you and that is: either you fix the damn thing so you can get out of there or blow it up when you get helicoptered up.” In that scenario, he says, the onboard diagnostics can tell the crew what’s wrong and point them to a repair procedure, but in most cases, it is just a PDF file. “The reality is, guys don’t do it.”

NGRAIN has been working with the U.S. military to create “job aids” for specific tasks. “There may be 28 mission critical job tasks that they’ve determined are the root of all evil,” he says. “When you understand those 28 you can do lots of other stuff related to it. What we’ve learned is that what they need is ‘just in time’ training in the field.”

To put vehicles and vehicle electronics in perspective, the Canadian Forces first went into Afghanistan with Iltis patrol vehicles, equipped with a bare minimum of communications equipment. Today, as the military is preparing to repatriate or sell off hundreds of vehicles in theatre, those tanks, LAVs and trucks are bristling with antennas and stuffed with navigation, communications and anti-IED systems. Those add-ons and retrofits demonstrate clearly how the recent past has been defined by playing catch-up to the asymmetric threats of the evolving battlespace, in an environment where rules of engagement have become paramount, and lawyers may literally be calling the shot.

A key lesson learned for the future is that threats and the requirements around them will constantly evolve ahead of the evolutionary pressure of counter-measures. Designers can anticipate some changes, but they must be able to adapt to the unexpected remainder. The ease with which electronics systems can be installed and refreshed will greatly determine the safety, effectiveness and affordability of succeeding generations of military vehicles.