The need to rethink the ideal balance between mobility, protection and firepower
Historically, the best tanks have always been those that provided a balanced mix of firepower, protection and mobility. The most successful tank designs of World War 2 were arguably the Soviet T-34/85 and German Panzer V, Panther Ausf. G. Both tanks offered excellent mobility, superior firepower and good protection. Whereas the best tanks that the Allies could muster, the Sherman and the Cromwell, had good mobility, but their armour was weak and they had inadequate firepower. Thus, the Allies needed a ratio of 3 tanks to 1 to defeat Axis forces. In the end, quality was not be enough to overcome quantity. As the quest to give contemporary MBTs increased protection results in dwindling numbers of lumbering behemoths, perhaps the time has come to develop a new formula?
Russian T-34/85 and German Panther Ausf. G – arguably the best tank designs of WW2.
If the disadvantages of traditional tanks are accepted, then developing a new generation of smaller, lighter AFVs that are faster and more agile, but with unchanged firepower makes sense. A perspective on what future vehicles might look like was provided by the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the last major conventional conflict where the combatants had a parity of equipment and resources. The use of antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) resulted in a considerable number of tanks being destroyed on both sides. In particular, Egyptian and Israeli units mounted in light vehicles achieved an asymmetric effect out of all proportion to unit size and cost.(16) This led many military planners to envisage small independent units equipped with potent antitank weapons mounted in small 4×4 vehicles. Indeed, the US Army subsequently acquired a large number of HMMWV (Humvee) vehicles with TOW missile launchers.
Die-hard supporters of traditional armour operating in combined arms formations are quick to point out that any tanks that encountered concentrations of infantry with antitank weapons weapons would simply bypass them. In any event, there would be a significant reliance on artillery to support an armoured thrust. Land-Rovers, Toyota Landcruisers or other civilian-type 4x4s that might be pressed into service would have zero armoured protection so could easily be neutralised by an artillery bombardment.
As recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows, the use of IEDs has become a defining tactic of contemporary warfare. In other words, whether heavy armour is redundant or not, all military vehicles now need to provide a minimum level of protection. This has led to a new generation of lightweight protected patrol vehicles (LPPVs) such as Foxhound, Jackal or the US M-ATV. Weighing less than 10 tonnes, they can easily be transported by air. As an increasing number of protected wheeled vehicles are used by NATO armies, it has become clear that they provide a number of important advantages versus tracked AFVs:
- Strategic mobility. Wheeled units can deploy long distances quickly, easily and independently using existing road networks or tactical transport aircraft
- Tactical flexibility. Once a wheeled unit is deployed within its area of responsibility, sub-units can be rapidly redeployed to counter unexpected threats providing greater operational utility.
- Increased reliability. Wheeled combat vehicles are much more mechanically reliable and generally require much less maintenance.
- Reduced cost. Wheeled combat vehicles are approximately 50% less expensive than an equivalent tracked vehicle.
Although light patrol vehicles tend to have a COIN focus, there is no reason why they could not be used in a conventional conflict to deploy dismounted infantry equipped with organic antitank weapons. The ability to reposition 4×4 formations rapidly would enable them to counter major armoured attacks, to dominate large areas or set-up a defensive line that would force an advancing enemy units to either stop or divert their line of advance.
If the disadvantages of traditional tanks are accepted, then developing a new generation of smaller, lighter AFVs that are faster and more agile, but with unchanged firepower makes sense
In contrast, once tracked vehicles arrive in theatre, they need wheeled transporters to get them to forward edge of the battle area (FEBA). Long distance deployments by road can quickly wear out tracks. While new banded tracks (continuous rubberised tracks) can aid mobility, heavier AFVs still need to use traditional steel-linked tracks. These can soon heat-up on hard road surfaces which makes them expand leading to vehicles ‘throwing a track’ or other mechanical problems. Steel tracks also damage road surfaces.
Even the most modern tanks are mechanically complex and need constant preventative maintenance to ensure they remain battle ready.
The next generation: 8×8 wheeled AFVs
The need for AFVs with increased strategic mobility and tactical flexibility became apparent in the early 1980s as NATO armies found themselves deployed in situations where it was either impractical or inappropriate to deploy tanks and tracked IFVs. The US Marine Corps initiated a project to buy an off-the-shelf design for a lightweight wheeled armoured vehicle that was also amphibious. General Dynamics Land Systems of Canada proposed a variant of the Piranha vehicle developed by the Swiss company MOWAG. MOWAG believed that an 8×8 configuration provided the best possible mobility for a wheeled AFV. The resulting LAV-25, which out-performed the UK’s Alvis Scorpion CVR(T), entered service in 1983 and became the first of a new breed of combat vehicles.
With a crew of 3 plus 6 dismounted soldiers and mounting a 25mm Bushmaster Mk 242 cannon, the LAV-25 was the first true multi-role, rapid response vehicle. The 8×8 concept proved its worth during deployments to Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines equipped with LAV-25s discovered that they were just as effective as tracked IFVs. In many situations, they found that they could react faster than tracked units and the supporting firepower provided by their 25mm cannons and TOW missiles enabled them to win firefights against many better-equipped enemies. During Operation Desert Storm, a single company of LAV-25s stopped an entire Iraqi division equipped with T-55 tanks and BMP MICVs. Senior US Marine officers later commented how surprised they were that an off-the-shelf design could become one of their most significant armoured vehicles.(17)
Hell on wheels – USMC LAV-25A2 8×8 vehicle
The success of the USMC’s LAV-25 subsequently led to the US Army developing its own 8×8 vehicle, the M1126 Stryker family, as a replacement for the M113 tracked APC. Again an 8×8 configuration was preferred, with the Stryker platform based on a later and enlarged Piranha variant, which was itself an evolution of the original LAV design. With better protection, an improved suspension and a more powerful engine, the the Stryker M1126 has also shown itself to be a highly capable asset.
The US Army has now fielded 9 complete Stryker Brigades with an extensive range of variants all built on the same common chassis. Larger and better protected than the LAV-25, the M1126 carries an entire squad of 9 soldiers plus a crew of 2. Able to take advantage of existing road networks to travel long distances quickly and easily, the Stryker also has good off-road mobility. This means that even where a section of road has been damaged or blocked, the vehicle can route around obstacles to continue to its desired objective. In counter insurgency operations, wheels were less psychologically intimidating in the battle to win hearts and minds. They were also extremely quiet when compared to tracked vehicles. The ability of LAV-25 and Stryker units to arrive without warning led Iraqi Fedaeen fighters to christen them “Green Ghosts”, a nickname Styker crews were happy to adopt.(17)
The M1126 Stryker DVH 8×8 Infantry Carrier Vehicle.
When the first Stryker Brigade was sent to Iraq in 2004, it made an immediate impression by deploying 500 miles in three days. What was different about this formation was the lack of the usual logistics tail that follows on behind an armoured formation. An entire brigade with everything it needed for 72 hours moved en masse from its arrival point in Southern Iraq to Northern Iraq to relieve a brigade of the US 101st Airborne Division. Once deployed, it was discovered that self-sufficient Stryker units could police large areas and easily redeploy to trouble spots whenever the need arose. Though Stryker units made extensive use of the Iraqi road network, they could also move across more challenging terrain with relative ease. The substantially reduced maintenance requirement and increased vehicle reliability improved combat readiness levels to around 96%, whereas tracked vehicle readiness levels are seldom above 75%.(18)
When the LAV-25 and Stryker designs were first conceived the threat posed by IEDs was not fully appreciated. Although the M1126 was better protected than the LAV-25, a number of vehicles sustained IED and RPG damage in Iraq and Afghanistan suggesting that an increased amount of armour was needed. The US Army has now upgraded its Stryker fleet with increased protection including a double-V hull (DVH). This has increased vehicle weight from 16-17 tonnes to around 18-19-tonnes. Design goals have focused on adding as much protection as possible while keeping vehicle weight below 20 tonnes so that a single vehicle can still be carried in C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
In general combat scenarios, as opposed to counter insurgency operations, it is entirely possible that a wheeled 8×8 formation could be attacked by tank formations. This being the case, wheeled units must be able to defend themselves against main battle tanks as well as other 8x8s. While a typical 8×8 vehicle would appear to be totally outclassed in a wheels versus tracks clash, any wheeled vehicle that mounts a large antitank gun should be as capable of destroying a T-90 as the T-90 is capable of destroying it. Victory of one vehicle type over the other is likely to depend on speed of target acquisition (the fire control system), tank gunnery skills (training) and the engagement range. The level of armour protection would, for the most part, be irrelevant – a hit by a 120 mm AP round on either vehicle is game over. But one key survivability factor for 8×8 vehicles is whether they have sufficient cross-country mobility to outmanoeuvre enemy tanks or at least get into a tactical position where they can deliver accurate, effective fire.
This requirement has led to a second 8×8 variant: the mobile gun system (MGS). To support troops mounted in the standard infantry carrier Stryker vehicle, the US Army developed the M1128 Stryker MGS, which mounts a 105mm gun in a remote turret served by an autoloader. Its primary role is to eliminate other 8x8s and to support infantry units as they seize objectives – just as a normal MBTs supports tracked APCs / IFVs.
M1128 Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS) with a 105 mm gun.
The M1128 Stryker MGS is similar to the Italian Army’s Iveco Centauro B1, which is fitted with either a 105mm or 120mm gun and fires both HE and APFSDS rounds. In contrast to the M1128, however, the Centauro’s hull design has a lower profile than Iveco’s standard infantry carrier, the Freccia, even though it is built on the same chassis. This ensures a low centre of gravity creating a more stable gun platform. Japan recently unveiled its own MGS design, the MCV 8×8, which also mounts a 105mm gun on a low-profile chassis.
What is interesting about both Italy and Japan is that both countries have long coastlines. Adopting 8×8 fire support vehicles allows them to rapidly deploy forces to any region via national road networks – something that neither country can do with its tracked units. It isn’t yet clear whether fire support vehicles are best deployed as organic components of infantry battalions or in separate wheeled ‘tank destroyer’ regiments. Italy has fielded the Centauro B1 in dedicated cavalry units, and attaches them to infantry battalions as required. Such units have been successfully deployed in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 8×8 medium armour concept allows a common platform to be used to create a whole family of vehicles. Each vehicle uses the same core chassis, drivetrain, wheels, and other mechanical components. This reduces acquisition and maintenance costs as well as simplifying training and logistics. The base design is used for the Infantry Carrier, Antitank Missile Vehicle, Mortar Vehicle and Repair and Recovery variants. A lowered-hull version is used for the Reconnaissance Vehicle and Fire Support Vehicle variants. A raised crew compartment is used for Ambulance and Command and Control variants. A further flatbed variant could be developed to mount artillery.
Whether wheeled gun platforms are described as Fire Support vehicles (FSVs), Mobile Gun Systems (MGSs) or Tank Destroyers, they are essentially a new class of medium tank. They provide an important set of new capabilities while being much less expensive to acquire. As well as mounting tank guns, 8×8 platforms can also be used to mount long-range antitank missiles or to deploy infantry with handheld antitank weapons. The other interesting possibility is having an 8×8 with a breech-loaded 120mm mortar to provide both direct and indirect artillery support that can keep pace with advancing 8×8 formations. Heavy mortar vehicles could be fielded organically within infantry battalions or as separate artillery regiments.
In the tracks versus wheels debate, there is a clear consensus that tracked vehicles ultimately remain more agile across rough terrain and provide more stable gun platforms. That said, wheeled vehicle technology has caught up, so the difference is no longer as great as it was. There are likely to be many situations where wheeled combat vehicle formations can substitute heavy armour tracked AFVs, especially when the latter are not available or unable to deploy quickly enough. A decade ago, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, the 8×8 concept was relatively immature. Today, as combat experience has led to improved designs, medium armour wheeled vehicles have evolved into highly effective combat vehicles that complement heavy armour.
In the tracks versus wheels debate, tracks may ultimately provide superior mobility, but 8x8s are catching up.
A wheeled infantry battalion would adopt more or less the same structure as a tracked MICV battalion. A MGS regiment would adopt the same structure as a tank or reconnaissance regiment. Although similar to tracked units in many ways, wheeled 8×8 units are distinguished by three crucial differences: increased strategic mobility, increased tactical flexibility and substantially lower costs.
Newer 8×8 designs, such as the Nexter 8×8 VBCI, recently adopted by the French Army, take the medium armour concept to the next level. The VBCI offers better protection and firepower than Stryker. Although vehicle weight has increased to 25 tonnes, it can still be airlifted by the Airbus A400 Atlas. Similar to the US Stryker brigades’ experience in Iraq, VBCIs and AMX-10RC gun platforms operating in Afghanistan and Mali showed that wheeled units could respond quickly and reliably across different situations to counter enemy threats. The instant firepower provided by the VBCI’s cannon was often a deceive factor in combat engagements.(19)
In reality, the growing importance of 8×8 AFVs is attributable to fundamentally evolved armoured tactics. Although large concentrations of wheeled vehicles may still be used to deliver an armoured punch, recent experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali suggests that modern warfare is increasingly about small unit dominance. On a fully networked battlefield, we no longer need massive armoured formations to seize and hold territory. We simply deploy appropriately-sized units to wherever they are needed. When they encounter unexpected resistance, they can be reinforced or withdrawn while other assets called in to neutralise stubborn resistance. For example, US Army foot patrols operating in small towns in Iraq were frequently ambushed by snipers. Rapid response companies from Stryker brigades would be quickly deployed to support or extract them.
The arrival of reinforcements with superior firepower soon overcame enemy resistance contributing to the rapid establishment of control over contested territory(18). In high intensity conventional conflicts, 8×8 formations could easily deploy en masse if the situation demanded it. The effect of 60-70 wheeled vehicles arriving unexpectedly and delivering massive firepower is not dissimilar to the Blitzkrieg tactics used by the Wehrmacht in World War 2.
‘The army that arrives first with the largest number of troops wins.’ General Stonewall Jackson. The strategic mobility provided by 8×8 AFVs is simply a modern interpretation of same belief.
Had the British Army been able to deploy several 8×8 battalions in Afghanistan, we might have found it much easier to secure and hold ground within our area of responsibility while better protecting the troops tasked to do this. Despite several long-running 8×8 development programmes, including the ongoing FRES UV requirement, the UK is the only Army in NATO that has yet to field an 8×8 vehicle to create a flexible medium armour formation.
Patria of Finland has developed the AMV which is used by 7 different armies. According to the company, this is now the best protected and most agile 8×8 vehicle in production. The MOWAG Piranha platform is now used by 18 different armies. Germany and Holland have the Boxer. With the benefits of 8×8 vehicles now firmly established and with so many competing designs now available off-the-shelf, the risks attached to acquiring a good medium armour capability are negligible.
Within the last five years, new composite materials have enabled medium armour vehicles to provide a much higher level of armour protection without a substantial increase in weight. The UK’s new Foxhound LPPV, which weighs 7.5 tonnes, is approximately 3-4 tonnes lighter than an equivalent all-steel vehicle. Using the same technology, the FRES SV will provide even higher levels of protection(20). Incorporating composite armour in an off-the-shelf 8×8 design would give the UK a highly mobile, but well-protected vehicle. It would be capable of mounting guns of up to 120mm in size while weighing less than 30 tonnes, meaning that it would be air transportable in an Airbus A400 Atlas.
The future of tracked armour
Notwithstanding the advantages of wheeled AFVs, there will still be situations where heavily protected tracked armour will be needed to conduct direct armoured assaults. Secondly, not all countries have extensive road networks. In many lesser developed countries (where many modern conflicts take place), the terrain may be challenging for wheeled vehicles. For these reasons, we will still need tracked armour, at least until wheeled vehicles can genuinely provide comparable off-road mobility.
‘We’re coming to the limit of what can be done with what Americans call ’The Iron Triangle’ of firepower, manoeuvrability and protection. To develop new vehicles, we have to take a conceptual leap sideways” Hisham Awad, BAE Systems
The UK’s CVR(T) series of vehicles shows that it is possible to develop light and highly mobile tracked solutions that can easily be deployed to trouble spots. However, where the risk of IEDs is high, vehicles such as Scimitar and Spartan, which have only lightweight aluminium armour and flat underbodies, are vulnerable. While they can avoid conventional roads and tracks to reduce the risk of IED exposure, they can be easily disabled by cannons and heavy machine guns. The UK’s FRES SV programme is intended to create a modern replacement for the CVR(T) family.
The FRES SV concept in many ways mirrors the 8×8 wheeled medium armour concept except that it provides a tracked vehicle configuration. Though it leverages the ASCOD 2’s proven IFV chassis, FRES SV has evolved into a fundamentally a new vehicle. ASCOD 2 was chosen over the competing CV90 design because it offered a superior growth path as well as greater flexibility to build the required family of additional specialist vehicles. (20) A tried and tested drivetrain will offer increased reliability versus legacy tracked vehicles. The new Anglo-French 40mm CTA cannon fires a range of case-telescoped ammunition that will give the Scout reconnaissance variant class-leading firepower for an AFV cannon. The most significant aspect of this vehicle is the level of protection it provides. Although the Army is predictably tight-lipped about the exact specification, it appears that FRES SV’s armour will deliver the best protection in its weight class (and may even come close to matching Challenger 2 across the frontal arc). Though it weighs half as much as Challenger 2, the only penalty is weight. With an all-up weight of close to 40 tonnes, FRES SV will not air transportable in an Airbus A400 Atlas.
The FRES SV programme is intended to create a family of vehicles:
- Reconnaissance variant with a crew of 3-4 mounting a 40mm CTA cannon
- Protected Mobility variant (APC) able to carry a crew of 2-3 plus 8 dismounted soldiers and mounting a 12.7mm HMG /40mm GMG
- Command and Control vehicle
- Repair variant
- Recovery variant with a winch and crane
- Ambulance variant
A Fire Support Vehicle (mounting 120mm gun), Infantry Combat Vehicle, and Bridge Layer Variant are not presently part of the UK requirement, but could easily be added. A Fire Support Vehicle would essentially be a medium tank. Platforms like the ASCOD 2 can easily mount large tank guns. Based on the French Army’s experience with the AMX LeClerc MBT, the addition of autoloader for the main armament is desirable as this would reduce the crew requirement by one and thus the size and weight of the turret. Autoloaders also isolate the gun ammunition from the crew compartment increasing crew survivability in the event of the turret being hit and penetrated. Such a configuration could well define a blueprint for future tracked MBTs, but also wheeled ones.
FRES SV vehicles will equip the three reconnaissance regiments of the Reaction Force. In doing so it will add a worthwhile rapid response capability to standard armoured formations. While cannon-equipped medium armour / reconnaissance vehicles are able to eliminate many older tank designs (e.g. T-54 and T-62), vehicles with large 120mm guns are likely to be retained (certainly for as long as they remain serviceable) to engage other larger, heavily protected MBTs.
In the future, however, tanks are not expected to be used as general purpose combat vehicles. They will be too expensive to risk using in situations where they might be easily disabled by an IED or RPG. Instead, tanks seem destined to become specialist vehicles that will be used when an all-out armoured punch is required to seize key objectives or when a stubborn defence is needed to hold valuable ground. The general purpose role seems as if it will now fall upon wheeled combat vehicles. When Challenger 2 is retired in 2035, It is difficult to predict exactly what will replace it. Common future AFV design themes include advanced wheeled configurations, hybrid electric drive technologies, remote weapon stations, hybrid gun / missiles systems, fully computerised fire control systems, autoloaders, fully networked vehicle architectures and sensors for greater situational awareness, and advanced composite armour incorporating graphene, explosive reactive armour and carbon ceramic technologies.
Challenger 3? The UK MoD, through DSTL, has envisioned what future armoured vehicles may look like through a research programme called Future Protected Vehicle Capability Vision. Whatever the next generation looks like, it is unlikely to look like today’s tanks even though it may still be called a tank.