The Agenda: Affairs / Global
Up in arms
Andrew Mueller surveys the military hardware that will reshape modern warfare in the years to come.
1. The ship
In November 2022 the French navy took delivery of Lorraine, the eighth and final ship built under the Franco-Italian Frégate Européenne Multi-Mission (Fremm) programme, a joint effort of France’s Naval Group and Italy’s Fincantieri. The ship has also been a successful export. Indonesia has ordered six of them, Egypt has three and Morocco one. And the US navy – no slouch when it comes to building warships – is awaiting 20 Fremm frigates, though they won’t be quite as lithe with their additional 300 tonnes of protective steel.
The €950m Fremm has a number of selling points. It’s versatile, designed for anti-submarine, anti-ship, anti-air, anti-surface and electronic warfare. It can also launch helicopters for small-scale or special-forces missions. A lot of thought has been given to the comfort of the frigate’s crew, most of whom can enjoy its four-person staterooms, which are relatively roomy compared to the usual naval standards. One of Italy’s Fremms, the Alpino, has no fewer than five espresso machines onboard.
2. The weapon
Last November the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory of the UK’s Ministry of Defence tested a new laser weapon that it claims is capable of hitting and neutralising a small drone at a range of 3.2km. The Dragonfire is not quite the laser weapon of Star Wars, obliterating enemies with bolts of lurid neon: instead, it works by focusing intense light on targets and keeping it there until the heat disables their components. The weapon has been developed by a consortium that includes missile-builder mbda, Italian aerospace manufacturer Leonardo and UK defence technology company Qinetiq.
“The Dragonfire is not quite the laser weapon of ‘Star Wars’, obliterating enemies with bolts of lurid neon: it works by focusing intense light on targets”
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the effectiveness of modern military drones. They can be cheap, easy to use and incur little risk to those who operate them. Dragonfire seems to be a congruent defensive response. It has the potential to track and eliminate targets automatically and be operated remotely, and it will not consume expensive ammunition. It is not yet known when Dragonfire will be deployed but it, and all such systems, will have to tread carefully around the law. Under a 1995 addition to the Geneva Conventions, it is illegal to deploy potentially blinding lasers against human targets.
3. The tank
Hyundai Rotem’s k-2 Black Panther tank is not exactly showroom-fresh: South Korea’s army has been using it since 2014. What is new, however, is its value as an export. Last year Poland concluded an arms purchase from South Korea that included 980 k-2s. That followed an earlier agreement under which Turkey can produce its own tank, the Altay, based on the k-2’s design. Norway is also putting the k-2 through trials.
The k-2 is no bargain. Indeed, at about €8m a unit, it is one of the most expensive tanks ever built. But there are several good reasons why Nato nations might prefer the South Korean tank over the US Abrams and the German Leopard. The k-2 is fast, versatile and well-defended: it boasts nuclear, chemical and biological protection systems. It can fight in any weather and even underwater, with the aid of an extendable conning tower. It is also equipped with the ingenious Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition (more commonly known as the kstam), a smart weapon that deploys via parachute over enemy tanks and launches penetrator warheads.
sport ––– cambodia
Below the belt?
Thailand and Cambodia have a rich history of disagreements about who owns what. The latest ding-dong surrounds the origins of muay thai – a style of kickboxing involving a lot of knees and elbows. It is a national sport in Thailand and a muscular part of its soft power but Cambodia also lays claim to what it calls “kun khmer”, pointing to wall carvings at ancient temples in Angkor.
This dispute has entered the international arena ahead of the Southeast Asian Games, a regional multi-sports event taking place in Phnom Penh in May. Hosts Cambodia have changed the name of the sport to “kun khmer” in the official programme – a kick in the face to its larger neighbour, which has subsequently threatened a boycott.
Standing firm, Cambodia has vowed to go ahead with the competition even if fighters from Thailand don’t turn up and countered with its own threat of a no-show when Bangkok hosts the competition in two years’ time.
Cambodia is used to seeing Thai fighters dominate the medals table. This latest display could be an opportunistic attempt at gaining a competitive edge on home turf.
politics ––– germany
Rarely has the appointment of a new German defence minister been as closely watched as that of Boris Pistorius. Historically, the post has been a thankless job: decades of pacifism (for understandable postwar reasons) and underfunding have left the military without a clear mission.
This changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ukraine’s calls for arms – coupled with German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s promise to give the Bundeswehr a massive jolt in funding – have thrust the defence ministry into the spotlight. And yet, Scholz’s appointment of a relative unknown to the post suggests that key decisions will not be his to make.
Pistorius is a Scholz loyalist; the two men even hail from the same town, Osnabrück. A former military reservist, he is viewed as an effective administrator who whipped his state’s police force into shape as interior minister of Lower Saxony. He should be viewed as more of a technocrat, confronting the bureaucracy that has prevented Germany’s run-down military from effectively spending €100bn in additional funds.
But beyond spending money, it is Scholz who must declare whether Germany is willing to command a military leadership role on the world stage. He was behind Germany’s initial reluctance to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in January; delivery was granted only when the US agreed to send tanks as well. In doing so, he was effectively channelling decades of public scepticism about German military might. It’ll take a bold leader to steer the Bundeswehr out of the shadows.
ILLUSTRATOR: Jesús Prudencio.
Image: Getty Images