Obituary for the Main Battle Tank – or its Future
A guest post by Monty…
TD’s excellent series of articles on the future of armour under the title of ‘The Tank is Dead, Long live the Tank’ prompted a wide and interesting collection of responses. Some of the ideas presented deserve more ‘air time’ so I thought I would try and synthesise some of the key thoughts that emerged as well as adding a few of my own. In particular, many comments seemed to reflect a pessimistic crisis of confidence in modern armour, often for good reasons, while others defended tanks vigorously, presenting some convincing ideas for improving the breed.
What does a future tank look like?
According to recent RUSI estimates, there are about 108,000 main battle tanks currently in service across the globe. Of these, 10,000 are M1 Abrams belonging to the US Army, USMC, Australia and various ‘friendly’ Arab nations.
There are about 4,800 Leopard 2s in service with the armies of Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Singapore and Chile. (Holland is presently trying to sell all 400 of its Leopard 2s).
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are trying to buy 1,000 brand new Leopard 2s, which is fine so long as they remain allies.
Japan has 1,000 tanks consisting of Type 74s and Type 90s, plus 200 of the newer Type 10. South Korea has more than 1,000 K1 tanks. Israel can muster around 1,000 Merkavas of various marks.
France has 400 Leclercs and Italy has 200 Arietes. Britain has a mere 250 Challenger 2s (albeit with a further 200 in mothballs). In total, NATO and its allies could mobilise around 18,000 tanks.
That leaves more than 90,000 tanks that could potentially be ranged against us. The vast majority of these are older T-55, T-62, T-64 and T-72 models belonging to Russia, China, North Korea and various Arab states including Iran (which has a mixed fleet of 2,000 tanks including old American M-60s and British Chieftains).
In addition to substantial fleets of older tank models, China has recently deployed its new Type 99, adding to a formidable line-up of Type 96s.
The former-Soviet Union and its satellites have the newer T-80/ T-84 and T-90 at their disposal.
Of the total, it is estimated that Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have around 40,000 third-generation battle tanks. Approximately 20,000 are capable of matching the West’s best.
It isn’t clear how many potential enemy vehicles are fully serviceable, but allowing some adjustment for inaccuracies and unknown factors, the large number of tanks that could potentially be used to attack NATO and its allies cannot be ignored.
It is highly unlikely that the old Cold War scenario of massed armoured divisions roaring across the north German plains will ever become a possible risk again.
But we don’t know what kind of war we will have to fight next time: who could have predicted the Falklands Campaign, for example?
So even though massive armoured thrusts directed against NATO seem unlikely, we would be wise to say never say never. Who knows where North Korea’s posturing will lead us? When the people in charge are not rational human beings or, more commonly, hanging onto power at any cost, like Assad, all bets are off. Anything can happen. Of course, should large-scale armoured warfare ever be directed against NATO, the most effective response might be a tactical nuclear weapon as was envisioned in the 1980s.
What was true then remains true now: we would want to delay a nuclear response for as long as possible, if only to buy negotiating time.
That requires us to maintain tanks in our arsenals. In any event, what kind of future tank versus tank scenario is realistic? North Korea invading South Korea? China invading Taiwan? A Middle East war involving several Arab states and Israel? Pakistan attacking India? China making a land grab?
It doesn’t matter, the tanks remains a major engine of war, not because it may or may not be obsolete, but simply because so many are still in service. Like the US Navy’s behemothic battleships, we would use tanks because we have them and because our enemies have them too.
If the ongoing need to neutralise enemy tanks has been established, we need to decide what weapon system best fulfils our requirements.
History seems to suggest that the best means of eliminating a tank is another tank, but the ongoing development of simple to use hand-held systems, as well as increasingly powerful long-range ATGWs may have already shifted the balance.
Dismounted troops operating NLAW and JAVELIN are likely to be highly effective in neutralising large armoured formations. In short, modern anti-tank weapons have become a great tank versus infantry equaliser.
The attack helicopter is likely to become an increasingly important battlefield asset, but since they cost around 5-10 times as much as a main battle tank, the economic case for their use might not stack up in a protracted conflict against an enemy able to down our choppers with relative ease.
Similarly, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, strike aircraft cannot be expected to operate with impunity. Air superiority is one of the few strategic luxuries in counter-insurgency operations, but only until insurgents acquire sophisticated hand-held ground-to-air missile systems.
Moreover, as we all know, neither attack helicopters nor aircraft can hold ground.
Some people point out that counter-insurgency tactics may well define the way all future ground combat operations are fought.
As our recent deployment in Afghanistan shows, it can be extremely difficult to hold large swathes of terrain. How often have Taliban insurgents simply melted away when ISAF forces arrived in key areas only to reappear shortly after?
So why try and hold ground at all?
Why shouldn’t we employ the same type of COIN-style tactics used against us in large-scale warfare against an enemy who outnumbers us?
Arguably, the need to eliminate enemy forces is more important than simply holding ground. Let the enemy advance to the end of his supply chain, and then infiltrate him, ambush him, cut him off and systematically destroy his forces.
In modern warfare, there is no FEBA.
We’re talking about a new approach: highly mobile warfare with an abundance of light units moving quickly around the battlefield with light, yet powerful weapons ready to attack the enemy in unexpected places.
What makes this possible now rather than before?
Communication as much as mobility.
The point I’m really making is that the tank was designed for full-frontal, head-on attacks. We couldn’t go around the line of trenches that extended across Europe during WW1, so we protected ourselves from the barrage of shells and hail of machine gun fire and attacked through enemy positions.
This same tactic was used at Kursk and in Normandy. In theory, its what massive protection still allows tanks to do. However, history shows that in every case, the cost of head-on assaults was usually enormous.
Today, when it comes to destroying tanks, we have unprecedented AT firepower at our disposal.
Because our fleets of Abrams and Challengers have not yet been severely challenged in any conflict, we may have been lulled into a false sense of security. But the reality could be that our tanks have become sitting ducks. So the question I want to answer is not whether tanks still have a role, of course they do; but to explore how they need to evolve to be more effective in both defence and attack roles.
To explore at the future, let’s start by reviewing the past.
With the tank’s parentage attributed to both Leonardo Da Vinci and H. G. Wells, who separately envisioned land battleships sprouting guns from all sides, the first person to actually bring the concept to life as a viable battlefield weapon system was Ernest Swinton, a British Army staff officer and later a general, who, in 1916, convinced the British Army’s General Staff that an armoured box housing a field gun mounted on tracks could break the deadlock of trench warfare.[TD interlude: and Sapper, surely!]
At the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, this promise was amply fulfilled when the earliest tanks achieved such a shock effect that a position which had withstood countless assaults and cost thousands of lives, was routed within an hour.
Since that day tanks have been a major engine of war and the currency by which the military potential of every major army is now measured.
The milestones of tank design are easy to trace.
Walter Christie’s suspension system developed between the world wars endowed tanks with a substantially improved cross-country performance. No longer were tanks slow, lumbering beasts that could be used to travel long distances (for the time) and seize ground.
By the time Hitler’s invasion of Europe started, the German Army’s Panzer II set a benchmark standard.
Used by Guderian to perfect Blitzkrieg tactics, combined operations with infantry units mounted in Sd. Kfz. 253 half-tracks keeping pace behind them became the model for contemporary tactics using modern MBTs and MICVs.
By the time the Panzer II evolved into more advanced Panzer III and IV models, the Wehrmacht had conquered most of Europe. The Allied response and Germany’s counter response resulted in tanks with bigger guns and more armour. With an 88 mm gun, the Panzer VI, or Tiger, became a formidable weapon that could allow a single troop of three tanks to stop an entire tank regiment.
The most famous example of this occurred during the Battle of Normandy when German tank ace Michael Wittmann destroyed 30 vehicles within 15 minutes at Villers-Bocage.
The high watermark of German World War II tank design was arguably the Panther, although this copied some of the features of the most successful design of the period, the Russian T-34, both tanks achieved an almost ideal balance of mobility, protection and firepower although reliability was not the Panthers strongest point.
The superiority of German Tiger and Panther tanks lasted less than a year.
Perhaps the most important inflection point in tank evolution was the arrival of armour piercing discarding sabot (APDS) ammunition just prior to D-Day.
With the introduction of the allied 75 mm and 17-pounder tank guns, no tank was invulnerable.
With tank guns growing in size and accuracy, the increase in firepower vastly outweighed any corresponding development in armoured protection.
Recognising the power of tank guns, when Germany developed the Leopard I after World War II, it eschewed protection for mobility. The theory was simple: instead of protecting yourself against penetration, go faster so you can avoid being hit.
The next major development occurred in the late 1970s with the arrival of Chobham armour. This was a honeycomb of ceramic plates applied over the main armour and was believed to be capable of withstanding the Munroe effect of all known shaped charges used in HEAT rounds at the time.
The advent of Chobham armour coincided with the development of 1,000 bhp diesel power units and together with new 120 mm guns (both rifled and smooth bore types) tank designers were once again able to achieve an ideal balance between protection, mobility and firepower.
By the late 1980s, most NATO MBTs used some type of advanced armour, had powerful engines and fired 120 mm guns. Most had also grown in size with an average weight in excess of 60 tonnes.
The parallel development of anti-tank weapons had done much to help infantry operating on foot to successfully engage tanks. The first indication that massed tank formations operating without supporting infantry could be stopped by ATGMs alone came in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. A large number of Israeli tanks were neutralised by first generation Russian-made Sagger missiles.
Since 2002, the presence of older but still effective RPG-7s (together with the widespread use of IEDs) has forced NATO armies to develop a new generation of protected patrol vehicles although some of them have drawn on older concepts like stand off armour plate/bar.
Meanwhile, hand-held systems, such as Javelin, NLAW and RPG-29, have grown in sophistication and lethality.
The emergence of explosive / reactive armour has been shown to further reduce the effectiveness of anti tank rounds. This in turn has led to the development of advanced ATGMs with double charges, one to detonate the reactive armour and a second to penetrate the armour behind it.
Fast forward to the present and cue video:
The tank featured is an older T-72 that was by and large obsolete by the late 1990s. The weapon used against it is a Russian RPG-29. The guy who emerges from behind the vehicle and then runs away is in fact the gunner. Blown clear by the initial blast, you can see that his trousers have been reduced to tatters and he probably suffered quite severe burns in the process. As he runs to cover, small arms fire strikes the wall from the insurgents who filmed the engagement. He is a lucky man, which is more than can be said for his fellow crew members.
This film is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, the ease with which this tank is reduced to a burning hulk by the RPG-29 shows just how effective the latest generation of ATGMs are.
The number of US M1A2 Abrams taken out by direct fire in Iraq suggests that the same weapon is likely to be equally effective against any NATO main battle tank currently in service.
As newer hand-held anti-tank weapons find their way into the hands of potential enemies, the question is whether we have reached a new inflection point where existing formula of mobility, protection and firepower is broken and needs to evolve?
Adding more armour is an obvious possible solution. The question this poses is how big can tanks get? It may be feasible to build a tank that weighs 120 tonnes and that can withstand all current anti-tank weapons. But how long would such an advantage last and what would it cost?
If we have reached an identical situation to the one that existed towards the end of World War II, where no tank was invulnerable, firepower and mobility may now outweigh the need for protection. Let’s not forget that the omnipotent status of the mighty German Tiger was overcome by the sheer number of inferior Allied Sherman tanks directed against it. Today, might we be wise to adopt a similar strategy and build a larger number of lighter and more agile tanks equipped with sufficient firepower to take out all other tanks?
There are a number of recent AFV designs that provide clues as to how we can save weight, increase mobility and enhance protection.
Engine forward configuration
The Israeli Merkava was the first modern tank to eschew that traditional tank layout and to mount the engine forward and the turret at the back. This facilitated the more efficient stowage of ammunition internally but also allowed a rear door to be fitted allowing the crew to evacuate the vehicle quickly and safely in the event of it being hit.
The engine forward configuration worked well with the CVR(T) family and allows a common chassis to be used for both tanks and IFVs.
The disadvantage of this approach is that the tank has an increased thermal signature across the frontal arc. However, since all tanks have a noticeable thermal signature wherever the engine is positioned, a forward-mounted engine should not be such a significant drawback.
Central crew compartment
The UK and US collaborative TRACER / FSCS program was designed to develop a next generation tracked reconnaissance vehicle to replace the CVR(T) and M3A3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle. Ultimately, differences in opinion about the roles and capabilities of such vehicles led to the cancellation of the project, but not until two interesting prototypes had been developed: The Lancer and SIKA.
In particular, these introduced a single crew compartment with increased protection that positioned the driver, gunner and commander close to each other. All three crew members had excellent visibility over the frontal arc. The main armament was mounted in a remote turret above and behind the crew.
Placing the crew in a single armoured cell reduces both the weight and size of the vehicle. This approach provides a simple but effective means of protecting the occupants while enabling them to perform their primary combat tasks from within the vehicle. The major concern is to ensure that rearwards visibility is not compromised. One way to do this is to mount the main armament in between two raised supporting arms that cradle the gun, so that there is a gap below the gun through which the crew can look to the rear beneath it.
The Lancer and SIKA prototypes had a weight of 18 tonnes enabling them to be carried in a C-130 Hercules. Despite their small size relative to existing MBTs they provided a quantum leap in armoured protection.
Autoloaders dispense with the need for a fourth crew member while speeding up the reloading process. In theory, they are an excellent idea, but it has taken a while to produce a simple and reliable system.
The Russian T-72 has had an autoloader since its inception. The T-80 and latest T-90 designs also have autoloading systems, as do newer tank models from Japan, and China the Type 10, and the Type 99, respectively.
In all cases, an autoloader reduces the weight of a tank to around 45-50 tonnes verus traditional MBTs with 4-man crews, which weight 65-70 tonnes.
The French LeClerc tank is the first mainstream western battle tank to feature an automatic loader.
This has 22 rounds ready for firing and can reload within 5 seconds, or 12 rounds per minute.
Future tank concepts
Putting these ideas together, it may be possible to create a new kind of tank that is lighter, more mobile, better protected and less expensive.
Below are four different concepts that seek to define a vehicle that is much smaller and lighter than existing MBTS, but that still mounts a potent 120 mm gun.
In all cases, weight is saved by eliminating a traditional 3-man turret. This allows the crew to be housed either within a central compartment in the hull that offers increased protection or a smaller conventional turret. An engine forward design maximises frontal protection and also allows for a crew escape hatch to be fitted at the rear of the vehicle.
The main armament would be mounted in a cradle that supports it and allows the gun to be both elevated and depressed. In effect, the gun sits above the crew and they have all-round vision by virtue of being able to look out from beneath the gun.
The autoloader would feed rounds directly into the chamber from an armoured box magazine located behind it. This would be counter-balanced with the gun for fast and effortless elevation and depression. Only the autoloader and magazine would be protected. For all concepts, the aim is to ensure main gun and autoloader present the smallest silhouette possible. Magazine capacity would be approximately 25-30 rounds.
With a powerful engine mated to a suitable transmission along with a pneumatic suspension system and banded tracks, very high levels of mobility should be achievable.
Finally, the same chassis with a higher rear compartment could also be used to form the basis of an IFV. This would be able to carry a squad of infantry with the same level of protection as a tank.
This concept is a 3-man mobile combat tank (MCT) with a 120 mm smooth bore gun mounted in a semi-remote turret. The driver and commander are located in front within an armoured compartment, while the gunner is located in a recessed turret. The commander and driver have excellent visibility across frontal arcs, while the gunner has both forward and rearward visibility. The engine is mounted forward. Fuel is stowed in the rear of the vehicle.
The gun is mounted in a raised cradle and fed by a counter-balanced autoloader. The autoloader features an armoured magazine that sits directly behind it in a raised position. The magazine would be able to be changed quickly and easily. Different ammunition types could be selected, including APFSDS, HESH and HE. No tank ammunition is stowed in the hull. A coaxial .50 or 7.62 mm machine gun would be mounted next to the main gun. .50 tracer could be used as spotting rounds in the event that the main fire control system was disabled. Main gun optics are contained in an armoured box adjacent to it. This could also easily be changed in the event of battle damage.
The proposed tank would weigh approximately 30 tonnes. Protection could be increased via modular reactive armour panels to a maximum weight of 45 tonnes.
The tank would also have an optional bulldozer attachment that enables it to dig firing positions for hull-down engagements. It has a road speed of 100 kph using banded tracks.
This configuration provides an alternative Mobile Combat Tank (MCT) concept. Again, it features an externally-mounted main gun with an autoloader. This time both the commander and gunner sit in the recessed turret, although they are positioned slightly higher than the driver.
Rear vision is possible due to the raised autoloader magazine, which enables them to look out from beneath it. Versus Configuration 1, this option improves all-round visibility, but requires a larger turret ring and more powerful traversing mechanism, increasing weight. As before, the modular nature of all major components would allow them to be easily replaced. As with Configuration 1, the vehicle has a lower height with armour protection focused around the hull instead of the turret.
A slightly larger vehicle might allow a second magazine to be stowed on the rear hull deck. It might also be possible to engineer a second magazine stored in the rear hull (separate from the crew compartment) that can be used to reload the autoloader without the crew exiting the vehicle.
This configuration uses a traditional rear-mounted engine. The advantage of this is a more compact design and reduced frontal thermal signature.
As with Configuration 1, only the gunner is located in the turret. The gunner sits in a slightly raised position to improve visibility. The commander and driver are sat next to one another. This option achieves more focused protection by adopting a smaller crew compartment. The disadvantage is slightly compromised rear vision.
This same configuration could be used with a forward mounted engine. This might provide a more balanced weight distribution. The gunner is positioned in front of the main armament. it might be more expedient to position him to the side of the main gun.
The final configuration uses a conventional turret with a two-man crew and an autoloader. This option provides excellent situational awareness / visibility for the crew, but results in a larger, heavier vehicle.
As with existing designs, main gun ammunition would be carried within the turret so a penetration of the vehicle could result in a catastrophic fire. This risk could be mitigated by creating a separate magazine within the turret bustle for the storage of ammunition.
Each of these designs seeks to balance weight / size / agility with situational awareness / all-round vision requirements.
The key advance proposed by these concepts is the separation of the crew from the vehicle’s armament and ammunition. This allows protection to be focused more around crew safety than vehicle integrity. The design assumes that any tank deployed will be vulnerable to ATGMs and therefore seeks to give the crew the best possible chance of surviving and escaping an ATGM attack.
The other major advantage is a significant increase in the power to weight ratio of the vehicle. The intent is is to create a vehicle that enables armoured units to deploy over long distances quickly, independently and efficiently. The MCT concept equates to a tank that is considerably lighter and smaller than existing MBTs and therefore more agile and better able to react quickly in fast-moving tactical situations.
Situational awareness could be aided by fitting the vehicle with elevated high resolution TV cameras. While technology might not quite be able to deliver image resolution that matches human vision through a periscope, it is perhaps only a matter of time before this becomes possible.
It may be possible to create a vehicle that needs only two crew: a gunner and a driver. Like an Apache Attack helicopter, the driver would probably be the commander. This would further reduce vehicle size.
The ideas expressed above reflect many existing ideas. In evaluating them, we need to ask whether they go far enough or whether the paradigm needs to be completely re-imagined.
The tank of the future may well not be a tank as we would recognise it today…
Anyone old enough to remember the RDF/LT 75mm ARES vehicle from the early eighties?