Is the MICV concept past its use by date ?

Warrior MCV-80

A guest post from Jed

There have been a lot of interesting comments made in the various post-SDSR army articles written by TD (and guests), some by serving soldiers, some by us armchair generals, but I am focusing here on the ones about the Warrior upgrade, and the Protected Mobility variants of FRES SV.

Those comments have prompted me to ask my contentious question which provides the headline for this article, is the concept of the Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicle (MICV) or Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) passed its use by date?

You can choose to interpret the question in its most broad sense, but I will attempt to constrain my meandering thoughts and arguments to the confines of a post-SDSR British Army.

History

But first, the potted history of the MICV / AIFV, starting with its predecessor, the Armoured Personnel Carrier:

As is often the case these days, a succinct and reasonably accurate history is available from Wikipedia:

Apparently as early as WW1 the British Army built a “tank” variant with no main armament but designed to carry up to 30 troops, who were provided by armoured loopholes from which to fire their rifles, as the vehicle wadded through the mud, ran over German trenches, and protected said Tommies from machine gunfire. This was news to me, but hey it appears we invented the MICV before the APC!

Move onto WW2 and we have iconographic images of both German “Hanomag” and American M2/M3 “half-tracks” providing “protected mobility” to infantry accompanying tanks formations. Already we are to the crux of the matter, the development of what we call the “combined arms” formations, tanks and infantry working together; each has its strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and advantages.

For example, the Hanomag (Sd. Kfz251) provided protection for Panzergrenadiers (mechanized infantry) from small arms fire and some artillery shrapnel, while also providing tactical mobility close to that of the Panzers.  The infantry could use their personal weapons from within the vehicle, or de-buss to deal with anti-tank guns, infantry with Bazookers, PIAT’s or Molotov Cocktails etc, thus basically protecting the tanks by making up for some of their weaknesses (lack of situational awareness and all-round vision, etc).

Post WW2 and into the Cold War era and the APC got a roof – not only to better protect against shrapnel (and the weather ?) but also as part of the efforts to provide some NBC protection.  This era produced the iconic American M113 tracked APC and its wheeled Soviet counterpart in the BTR series. In the UK we got the homegrown M113 look-a-like in the shape of the FV432.

Vietnam brought the re-learning of old lessons when the M113 went into action – gun shields for pintle-mounted MG’s, and a disturbing realization of how vulnerable these vehicles were to Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG’s) spawning the first use of bar armour.  Of course, we have even more recently re-learnt these lessons again!

Evolution – APC to MICV

And then…… along came the BMP!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMP-1

The Soviet Army thought that allowing the infantry squad in the back of the APC to bring their weapons to bear might be a good idea. At the same time, they added a turret mounting a low pressure 73mm gun, which fired HEAT rounds which apparently were supposed to be able of defeating the front armour of M60A1, Leopard 1 and Chieftain MBT’s and, well just to make sure in case it didn’t, an AT3 “Sagger” wire-guided missile sat on a launch rail just above the main gun barrel.

Although the modern German Army had a small APC fitted with long-barreled 20mm cannon during the 50’s, it had no firing ports for its small 5 man infantry team, so I will go with the conventional wisdom that says the BMP-1 was the first (modern?) MICV.

Western responses included the U.S. Army Bradley, with firing ports, a 25mm cannon and two TOW wire-guided ATGW, and the German Marder, with a 20mm cannon and later on a Milan ATGW launcher. As well firing ports for the onboard infantry, the early versions included a rear MG, with direct optics allowing it to be aimed and fired by the troops, but this was not a Remote Weapons Station (RWS) as we now know them.

In this era, Britain got the Warrior. The main design differences from our allies (and enemies) were that instead of the fast-firing auto-cannon, or large calibre low-pressure gun (like the 76mm of the Saladin and Scorpion) we went with a bigger auto-cannon, clip-fed rather than belt-fed, with a much lower rate of fire. The idea being that well-aimed high-velocity Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) would penetrate the armour of BMP-1’s and other Soviet light armour, without recourse to a big and expensive ATGW. Meanwhile, the co-axial 7.62mm and the embarked infantry weapons would take care of enemy infantry, and HEI shells were available to take on buildings, sangers, soft-skinned vehicles etc.

As can be seen, perhaps the biggest difference between the British Army MICV and those of both our allies and potential opposition is the lack of an anti-tank missile on the standard squad vehicle.

Why not ATGW? It’s just not British old chap………

I have never been able to find a book or scholarly journal that clearly states why British Army doctrine led to this difference. We can of course make our own inferences – in the combined arms battle group, the Warrior would be fighting alongside the MBT’s (Chieftain, Challenger 1 and Challenger 2) which are considered the main weapon system for dealing with enemy tanks and other threats. In a mixed battle group setting with Armoured Recce assets, the British preferred the “anti-tank” overwatch methodology, with the Striker vehicle and its Swingfire missiles.

We can then add on the other elements of the “combined arms” teams – artillery and aviation.  So if the tank-MICV combo come under ambush from enemy tanks or infantry anti-tank teams, we could call in fast air with cluster bombs, or a full battery of 155mm “HE dispensers”.  Although not available in huge numbers, there might have been TOW equipped Lynx helicopters available too.  Finally, the infantry carried in the Warrior can always de-buss and take up their own ambush positions with Milan launchers or their unguided anti-tank rockets.

Non-the-less many other countries saw, and still see the benefit of equipping the standard squad MICV with an ATGW (including Kuwait’s version of the Warrior).

Continued evolution – back from Infantry Fighting Vehicle to Protected Mobility

Updated variants of all the main MICV / IFV vehicles featured improved armour protection, and all of them lost their firing ports because of this. So in some way’s we have moved full circle – the original aim of the IFV, be it the WW1 Mk X tank or the BMP-1 was to allow the carried infantry squad to contribute to the carnage with their personal weapons while remaining behind the armour.

As the weapon versus countermeasure battle moves inexorable onwards, we are now back to a scenario where protection levels mean the squad are back to being somewhat passive passengers, as they are in a simpler APC.  So now the main difference between IFV and APC is the main and secondary weapons, the weight of protection and maybe the tactical (“keep up with the MBT”) mobility.

The most interesting element of this to me, and the of the various comments made on various TD articles, is the evolution of the main armament, the turret versus RWS and the “fire support” vehicle debates.

So while this applies to any modern armoured vehicle, let’s confine this right now to the Warrior update and FRES SV Protected Mobility variants.  Based on the good old British doctrine of accurate, heavy punching, low rate of fire auto-cannon development we have the introduction of the CTA 40mm Case Telescoped Ammunition gun, with its very high-velocity APDS “kinetic energy” rounds designed to take on light and even “medium” armour (and who’s to say it is not going to penetrate the more thinly armoured rear or side portions of some MBT’s ?).

However now it also has an air bursting HE round, suitable for dealing with infantry in defilade cover, or in buildings. As you all know we are looking to standardize this weapon for both the Warrior upgrade (or IFV) and our armoured Recce vehicle (FRES Scout).

Fine –  but now we have the manned turret versus unmanned turret debate.

How much situational awareness do you need?

I fully understand the arguments for a Recce vehicle retaining a manned turret. I am not so sure the same arguments are applicable to the IFV. If an unmanned turret allows all the crew to be lower down, protected by the thicker armour of the hull, we can probably all agree this is a good thing. However, critics suggest that even with modern sights, periscope and TV sensor technology there is a potential loss of “situational awareness” in this arrangement. However, as the most recent example of why “fighting heads out” is a bad idea, the U.S. experiences of Iraq once again seem to suggest that in a firefight, sticking your head up out of the hatch is a bit suicidal!

But, do we even need the unmanned turret? Do we need a medium calibre auto-cannon with co-axial MG (and maybe ATGW ?).  Perhaps we could make do with a big RWS, able (as some on the market right now are) of taking say a 40mm auto-grenade launcher and a 7.62mm MG.

As someone noted in a comment, 40mm HEAT grenades are not really up to much, even against light armour. However, with the right fire control system, 40mm grenades are also available as an air bursting HE weapon, providing a cheaper alternative to the cannon HE round when you want to fill the air around enemy infantry with shrapnel. So if the primary role is to provide cover for the MBT against close-in infantry anti-tank teams and to provide cover for the embarked infantry team as they de-buss to get “up close and personal” – then is this not heavy enough weaponry?

If we look at ASCOD 2 FRES SV Protected Mobility variant, CV90 Armadillo and Israeli Namer vehicles, they all have prominent “cupolas” with direct view armoured vision blocks, as well as the main sensors on the RWS and “situational awareness” enhancing CCD cameras covering the rear, front corners (or the driver) and even providing a panoramic 360-degree view.

CV90 Armadillo – note the much more prominent commanders cupola and vision blocks.

The APC variant of the French VCBI actually puts its RWS on top of a large cupola with a 360-degree direct view “vision blocks”.

Many of the RWS is fully capable of adding a pair of Spike, Javelin or other ATGW to the mix, so does that cover the lack of ability of the 40mm GMG?

Detractors of the RWS approach may point out the reduced ammo capacity, and the inability to reload under the armour – which is a feature of some of the unmanned turrets.  Good points, I guess it just comes down to the cost-benefit analysis.

Adding “fire support” vehicles into the mix

At the same time as the so-called “strategic” review and defence cuts see us reducing our fleet of Challenger 2 MBT’s – the plan for FRES SV includes an element for “fire support” vehicles, and we have had many a discussion in the comment threads about 120mm, 105mm or even 90mm medium / high-pressure guns, and of course my personal favourite the turret-mounted breech loading 120mm smoothbore mortar.

So, if we are going to have the following potential mix of vehicles in an armoured/mechanized battle group, do we still need the cannon-armed IFV?

  1. MBT – 120mm rifled gun, possibly to be replaced by 120mm smoothbore at some point?
  2. FRES SV Scout variant – 40mm CTA
  3. FRES SV ‘Fire Support’ – who knows? Medium calibre gun of some type?
  4. FRES SV ‘Anti-Armour Over Watch’ – specialist anti-tank vehicle

Perhaps we could save considerable money on the Warrior upgrade by dispensing with the turret altogether and fitting a dual weapon RWS?

Is the logical extension of this thought to simply put effort into keeping the Warrior in service just long enough to replace it completely with FRES SV Protected Mobility variants?

Questions

So let me leave you with 3 questions to get the discussion thread heated up:

  • If we have fewer MBT’s available to the combined arms battle group, are we really able to dispense with the turret-mounted 40mm cannon?
  • If we are to have fewer MBT’s should we fit every standard squad IFV with an ATGW?
  • Should we dispense with the idea of dropping MBT numbers, and just use them instead of developing new fire support / anti-tank vehicles on the “medium” weight chassis?
  • Should we think outside the box, and examine a turreted 120mm mortar with extended range, guided and tube-launched ATGW as a truly multi-purpose fire support platform (direct, indirect fire support plus direct and indirect anti-tank fires).
  • Has the time of the IFV gone, and considering both current threats and budgets, is the RWS armed APC or “protected mobility” variant  the way to go

If you go chaps, let’s see how big we can build this comment thread J

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