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Boxer: Showing AFV modularity is more than a gimmick

The Boxer has a pretty neat party trick - in under 15 minutes you can swap the entire rear portion of the vehicle out for an entirely different one, totally changing its role and capabilities. Its a fairly extreme example of modular design, which is something the community espouses constantly, but never seems to have much of a tangible demonstration as to why its useful. An exploration of the Boxer case study to show why this sort of radical modularity can be hugely beneficial, if made use of properly.

Australian Boxer CRV showing the CRV Mission Module separated from the Drive Module

Many people brand Boxer's drive and mission module design a party trick, a gimmick that has no value in real terms. But contractors and customers don't spend millions developing vehicles for fun, so what are the actual benefits of this unique capability?

Boxer's Modularity

But first, a brief introduction to the Boxer design and what that big modularity USP that this whole post is talking about at is all about.

For a detailed history of Boxer, go take a look at Think Defence's fantastic long read. The contemporary vehicle is a so-called 'medium weight' (variously meaning 25 to 45 tonnes GVW) wheeled AFV with an 8x8 driveline and available in a wide range of combat and combat support variants. So far, pretty standard in a congested market space.

However, Boxer has a big trick - the vehicle is divided into two core assemblies; a Drive Module, and a Mission Module. The Drive Module houses the driveline, the engine and the driver, and in broad terms resembles the offspring of a pick-up truck and a traditional military 8x8 AFV. The Mission Module is then a standard sized and shaped container that sockets onto the back of the Drive Module, houses the specific to role systems and equipment, as well as having a hatch at the front right to allow the driver to access their position from the mission module.

Attachment of Mission to Drive Module is via connection of power supply and CAN-bus connectors, an air supply hose, and then six or eight securing bolts (depending which version you're looking at) that bind the two together, and that s it.

The physical act of swapping the modules requires only a handful of tools for the bolts and a crane with a c.7,000 kg capacity. If no crane is available there are a set of four jacks that can be used to lift the Mission Module enough to drive out from under it and reverse under another. A neat capability and something no other AFV offers. In theory, you can transform your Boxer into any variant you want in under 15 minutes.

But is anyone actually going to do that? Is it really just a gimmick, as they say, and in reality, people will receive one as an APC and thus it will remain until it gets scrapped? Below are a few examples of how this kind of modularity delivers a selection of very significant capabilities. It is of course true that a user may choose not to do these things, and if so, the modularity has little benefit. It also has very little drawbacks, so is by no means a reason to oppose the concept. One would hope though that users will have the intelligence and if not that, the financial pressure and thus incentive to make use of these capabilities.

Benefit: Upgrades

It goes without saying that vehicle operators and manufacturers should continue to spirally develop their equipment over its life, inserting new capabilities and mitigating obsolescence and peer developments. Some of these will be via large Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) type programmes, but a more agile approach is to conduct smaller component or variant-specific capability insertions in a more responsive and continuous manner. Those systems that have championed this approach have had huge commercial success, which feeds back to the users as more affordable continuous capability increases.

Such an effort could be a new transmission across the fleet or a new set of optics for just the reconnaissance vehicle. In either instance, when the upgrade comes along you have an expensive and time-intensive process to take the whole vehicle and conduct a prequalification and certification of a staggering number of often notionally irrelevant components and systems simply because of their adjacency in the vehicle. Literally moving a single bracket or replacing a screen like-for-like can result in dozens of requalifications and checks to ensure compliance. This leads many users to be reticent to touch too much in their vehicles, because the time, cost and risk of doing so is significant.

With the Boxer approach, any elements that are variant-specific are isolated to the Mission Module and so avoid prequalification of the Drive Module and vice versa. Say the transmission is being swapped - simply receive new Drive Modules and add the existing variant Mission Module to continue. The recce vehicle sights can be upgraded without having to requalify major automotive components because of a bizarre dependency on adjacent components. It radically simplifies the situation.

The impact on time, cost and risk of being able to quickly conduct incremental upgrades over the life of a vehicle is a big win.

Benefit: Market accessibility

Continuing the line of argument from the first benefit, there are many, many specialist companies in the defence market, and in adjacent domains, that can do wonderful things and offer incredible capabilities. However, almost none are seasoned AFV manufacturers or integrators that are capable of building, upgrading or integrating equipment directly into the hugely complex ecosystem of a modern AFV.

A normal AFV upgrade requires that the contractor integrate the equipment if they are the prime for the upgrade, introducing substantial risk and cost, and more often than not dissuading SME businesses from attempting to join the AFV domain where they are not experienced in AFV integration efforts. As a result, their only option is to partner with a suitably equipped OEM or another prime that can help them integrate their equipment to the vehicle, adding risk, time, loss of profit and putting them beholden to the prime's direction and schedule. Often the prime may be one of the bidders, and so the SMEs are left unable to do anything, even if they had a great idea to offer.

Boxer's module-based approach instead sees a standard Mission Module shell with a few mandated components and connectors that a contractor can take as a standardised blank sheet and then fit out with their proposed capabilities without the time and enormous expense associated with integrating and qualifying, or requalifying, and entire armoured vehicle design, especially automotive and structural elements. It allows smaller suppliers a lower risk and barrier of entry to the market, and in turn, opens a range of capabilities and suppliers to users that would otherwise be entirely absent.

There are of course some specific requirements around how the Mission Module is balanced, fitted and configured, but they are clear and in broad terms very straightforward and in most cases prequalified so long as they are adhered to.

Take FFG's ARV (Armoured Recovery Vehicle) Mission Module as an example. FFG make their own vehicles, but not many. Looking at their portfolio, how many specialist ARV conversions have they invested into for existing AFV families? Two. One on Leopard 1, and one on Leopard 2. Even widely fielded vehicles like CV90 have not been sufficiently enticing to elicit the expense and risk of offering a bespoke ARV derivative.

But the Boxer premise is a much lower cost and risk proposition, and so they've had a punt. The next stage would be for a company to offer pre-built Mission Modules for fitting out by specialists, but even without this it will be quite simple for a supplier to find someone to make them in their respective region.

Boxer offers the ability to make a module to a static, defined architecture, and bingo – a neat self-contained capability is on the market. Perhaps your company makes a cracking EW vehicle suite, but you cant afford to go down the road of making an EW vehicle without a vehicle prime to partner with and a specific programme to fund it's development. Well making an EW mission module is pretty straightforward and means you can access the sizeable Boxer user community easily.

Likewise the user is now able to be pitched new and novel capabilities that are often not going to emerge for other platforms without much more direction and expenditure, if at all. Its much like the CV90 / Leopard 2 user communities concept but taken a step further through standardisation. From an accessibility angle it sets up a Boxer user with a compelling concept of potential spiral development over time at much lower cost and risk to a traditional AFV fleet, and already there are a range of interesting ideas being explored speculatively by suppliers.

In short, the modular approach significantly lowers the risk, cost and commercial complexity barriers to entry for new suppliers including those in adjacent capability domains who might otherwise not be offer anything at all.

Benefit: Logistics

Moving AFV is a big workload. Whilst Boxer can go places itself, you want to move it on transporters where you can - less wear and tear, lower odds of breakdown once operating at destination, and things like trains and ships are vastly more efficient for moving massed equipment.

Be under no illusion that Boxer is a very big bit of kit. 38 tonnes GVW, and the dimensions are enormous even by AFV standards, so transporting them isn't easy. Boxer's modularity offers some opportunities in this space - by splitting Drive and Mission Modules you can reduce size, weight, cost and general hassle of moving these things around.

Keeping on the theme of upgrades from the last benefit, most upgrades are going to be to the Mission Module or the Drive Module, but not to both. So why send a whole AFV away just to have the sights worked on? Instead you detach the module and send it away in a much smaller form with commensurate improvements to the logistics involved. If you time your schedules well, you can have a like for like swap. Take off 5 old modules, and immediately fit 5 new ones that have arrived from upgrade. Seamless and much simpler.

A big benefit for logisticians is the reduced costs, sizes and weights involved. Drive Modules without their Mission module will be much lighter and often smaller, and Mission Modules can be loaded onto any truck within GVW, with flatracks and hook lift frames all available.

The logistical implications also extend into fleet management and deployment, covered in the following sections.

Benefit: Deployment

As mentioned, moving AFV in bulk is a challenge, most significantly when moving by air. Few air forces operate heavy lift aircraft like C-17 or C-5, and so most users that require air lift have to lease commercially owned Antonovs, borrow flights from allies, or get in the queue for NATO strategic airlift, if a NATO member. None of that is particularly agile.

A good number of forces do operate medium transports like the A400M, the loading limits of these aircraft can be an obstacle. Boxer as a specific example is, at GVW, beyond the ramp limits of an A400M, so on paper cannot be transported. With the modular approach, the Drive Module can be loaded alone in an aircraft, with the Mission Module in another (typically 2x A400M with one Drive Module each, and then a third A400M transporting the two Mission Modules).

Two flights for a vehicle is not ideal, but it is better than no flights. The same approach is true where dimensional limits are reached, with turreted vehicles often being too high to load in smaller aircraft. Remove the module mounting the turret, and you open possibilities that would not otherwise exist.

Benefit: Fleet Management

AFVs are not used uniformly - one unit may have a very high usage rate while another does not. Where they are located and used may prove much harsher on the vehicles than others, and specific training and operational tempos of differing units will have substantial differences to vehicle mileage and usage profile.

Beyond this, variants also have vastly differing usage profiles. An APC is a battle taxi, it spends its life racing around moving people and kit, being used and abused. A C2 or ambulance vehicle by contrast spend much of their time parked up, and their usage is quite gentle when they do travel.

The result of this is very inconsistent wear across the fleet. In normal vehicle fleets this means some complex modelling and planning for support and servicing, with predictive maintenance being very uneven in its application as some vehicles are being rebuilt every few years and others run a decade without much happening.

Boxer offers the potential to rotate Drive Modules across the fleet for an even profile, keeping the fleet at a consistent standard and not seeing significant disparity in condition and intensity of use. Having vehicles radically out of alignment on condition is an operational risk - you go to war with what you have, not what you want, so having a mixture of high, mileage and high risk of failure vehicles is undesirable compared to a consistent fleet of maintained systems.

You can be more pragmatic than this. The typical percentage of a fleet that is down for planned and unplanned maintenance can be readily estimated once you have a foundation of data, which for Boxer is well established now. With that you could either procure additional modules to ensure requisite availability of vehicles, or reduce the buy of Mission Modules to accept that if you are always short a number of Drive Modules, you don't need a 1:1 ratio.

As a real world example of where Boxer could add value, see the UK's CBRN vehicle fleet, currently Fuchs based. Last year the UK signed a contract to modernise these vehicles, of which they have nine in yet another disparate small fleet of AFV to support and operate They could have instead looked at building a Boxer CBRN module. The cost would be for the module, not a full vehicle. Recognising that all nine will essentially never be fielded at once, and certainly not at the same time as all 773 other Boxers in the fleet, the Army could have procured Mission Modules alone and had a rotation for two to four Drive Modules to be allocated at any time. If an unexpected event did require all nine, it would be a case of driving a few modules over from the nearest Boxer unit, and mounting the CBRN module, a ten minute job. Money saved, efficiency gained, and probably a British SME business employed to build a neat capability. Alas they didn't do this, but a modular vehicle like Boxer opens a lot of doors in terms of options for efficiency and agility.

It is worth noting however that this approach can go too far the other way, with a desire to put just about anything on the vehicle, even when there are no synergies around capability. A Fuchs and a Boxer in the CBRN example are close enough in mobility, protection and usage that they become a credible alternative to one another for that role. However roles have been proposed that don't make a tremendous amount of sense. Boxer based counter battery radars for example.

The radar is inherently fragile and will not survive any meaningful attack. It is designed to be used at range and not in the direct fire zone, and it is unlikely to be closely located to Boxer formations because of this. Using Boxer raises cost and weight excessively for limited return, where a lighter, simpler vehicle like a tactical truck would do the job just as well, and continue to offer commonality with those vehicle fleets.

Benefit: Redundancy

On a similar vein to the logistical and fleet management angles, greater efficiency in redundancy of systems is another substantial benefit of a Boxer-like approach. If an issue significantly damages a single element of a mission or drive module, a replacement can be swapped in and a return to service achieved much faster.

It is odd that no-one objects to power packs or other modular line replaceable unit approaches to automotive or mission system elements, and in fact they are lauded as the very good ideas they are, but brand Boxer a gimmick when this is just that approach in another application. Splitting the modules offers uses the ability to make a judgement call where they previously had no option.

Say a company is manoeuvring and the C2 vehicle takes a hit that immobilises it - a few lost wheel stations or a trashed power pack. Normally that is it, no C2 now, that might stop the mission or at the least radically degrade it.

But here you have a new option. You could take a call to swap the C2 module onto one of your APCs, or any another variant, and perhaps you can now continue. It is situational, but it offers a flexibility that doesn’t exist elsewhere and may be the difference between success and failure of a mission.

On a more day to day basis the same applies. You have a unit heading out for an exercise and a vehicle breaks down. Like a powerpack, just swap to a fresh module from the vehicle park (on assumption you are not deploying with 100% of your fleet) and crack on, the broken one goes back for repair while the exercise continues. It ensures a return to full capability in a time that a conventional vehicle cannot aspire to in the same manner, and can be carried out organically at the unit level.

Organically meaning either with any crane within capacity, such as most ARV/AEV, or with the standalone jacks that can be carried on some of the vehicles. Tooling is limited to a (fairly big) socket set.

Common objections to modularity at this scale

Despite these benefits, a usual batch of objections arise whenever Boxer's modularity is discussed.

This level of modularity within a design brings "excessive parasitic weight". Modularity is generally something that does indeed come at the cost of so-called parasitic weight - additional material and thus mass that is only there to enable the modular features. For example, racking for rapid installation and removal versus simply bolting items directly to structures. At a mission systems level, common racking and space inferences can mean a modular design is up to 10% heavier than a bespoke integration effort, and larger in volume. However this is not the same with a whole vehicle modular approach like Boxer, where the Mission Module is the bulk of the rear of the vehicle and encompasses structures that would be there anyway. The double skin created by the Drive and Mission Modules interface is used as part of the underbody blast protection design concept, where a more typical vehicle design would either also use multiple floor structures, or have thicker and heavier single structures. The result is that Boxer has no more than 300 - 400 kg of so-called 'parasitic weight', which is less than 1% of the GVW. It could be posited that whilst every kg of weight should be saved if it can, if your argument against Boxer and the high order modularity concept rests on a bedrock of 1% GVW growth, then the argument might be a bit weak.

Modularity means a loss of internal space. Again, this is a valid concern of low level modularity, but not so for Boxer or this approach in general. If you go for modularity at a systems level - requiring that computer and server racks are standardised and accessible, then you do compromise on space, significantly in some cases. A server box could be squirreled away in a distant corner of an AFV, but if you want it in a common rack in an accessible location you don't just fail to use the space it would have taken up, but now occupy valuable space that could have been used for other critical access dependent equipment or personnel habitation.

Boxer though again does the same thing with space as it does with mass - it does not alter the space available internally, it just removes the entire space as required as a single module. Elements that are sometimes criticised such as the double skin belly (formed by the top of the Drive Module and the bottom of the Mission Module) would be there anyway, or exist essentially the same in another form. Any AFV in the requirements space that Boxer occupies is 90% of a Boxer in terms of space, weight and volume in any case. The difference is those gaps and layers have actually been used to offer a new capability – to separate the vehicle at that boundary by some low risk engineering solutions. There is little to no space differential versus a conventional platform.

Its expensive and not worth the return. There is undoubtedly an historic excess cost that has been born to fund the R&D of the modular aspect to Boxer's design - nothing comes free. But that design is decades on from development and finalisation, it is a COTS offering now. A user looking at an off-the-shelf Boxer in 2022 is not paying anything for the modular aspect.

In terms of sticker price, the Boxer comes out at a very similar price point to any other contemporary 8x8 AFV. In some cases Boxer was cheaper than the opposition, and in any case each price bid is unique to the requirement, the support and offset arrangements etc. Having seen a few sets of Boxer contract documentation, I am confident in saying no-one is paying more for modularity.

If you are going to play the costs game, it is also important to remember that the through life operation and maintenance cost of a vehicle meets and usually significantly exceeds the purchase cost. The benefits discussed above bring a substantial opportunity to reduce through life cost that is oft ignored.

Its a gimmick just to stand out from the crowd. See any discussion point in this post, there are significant tangible benefits to the modular approach to AFV design. To suggest the designers, contractors and users are spending tens of billions creating something purely for the fun of it is a gross naivety of the realities of defence budgets, and requirements writing.

No-one will use these features. Nobody can force a user to leverage the potential benefits of this approach, though if your country were to use Boxer and didn't maximise them, you should call that out for the waste of potential it is. If they choose not to use the modular aspects, they still have what appears to be a very capable 8x8 with a good user group for collective development and support. If they do use it, then the vehicle is even better.

Its worth noting that as the prime benefits of the modular design are in areas like logistics, fleet management, and industry R&D, it is likely most of us will not see any outward sign that they are taking place. This objection may be more emotive than factual, and based on outdated opinions around the professionalism of logisticians and fleet/programme managers within modern armed forces. It also places the emphasis wrongly. If you have someone in charge of a Boxer fleet who isn’t practicing smart management using these features to reduce cost and effort, they’re the issue, not the vehicle.

Closing comments

The post is inherently advertorial about Boxer, as its the only vehicle that has really grasped the modular approach in this very high level manner, but the key message to take away is how Boxer is a case study in what modularity can mean, as on immediate casual impression it admittedly can seem quite superficial and gimmicky.

In particular I think you cant overstress the value of the accessibility for new capabilities, ease and low cost/risk of upgrade, and the whole fleet management angles. They’re not exciting, shiny and fighty things, but they are where the real big ticket benefits are found.

Is Boxer a wonder design for all people? No. It has compromises like all designs, and there are things I certainly don't like about it, and usage cases that it is entirely unsuited for. But it does offer a number of entirely unique possibilities for users and industry that offer some huge benefits to everyone. And that's without discussing the immanent tracked platform that accepts Boxer pattern Mission Modules for even more commonality, flexibility and opportunity. More on that soon perhaps...


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