'For just over a century, the tank has been the key symbol of land power. Today, tanks no longer enjoy the same level of battlefield supremacy that they used to. So, what’s next? Do they still have a role to play? If so, how do they need to evolve and what will the next generation look like in terms of features and capabilities?'  Nicholas Drummond, https://uklandpower.com/2020/04/05/where-does-the-tank-go-from-here/ 

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The 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan stated that: 'Defence will develop options for a system to replace the current tank capability when it reaches its end of life. This new system will integrate with reconnaissance and infantry fighting vehicles to ensure the land force retains a decisive land combat capability into the future.'

The fact that Defence has committed to developing options to replace the Abrams, indicates that the tank capability is recognised in terms of its importance for the ADF (and its contingency plans). This is exactly the foresight that is to be expected of our Defence staff.  The US is examining the same circumstances (and has been for many years).  The Abrams tank is adequate today and can be improved to meet the needs of tomorrow.  But what about the day after and the day after that?  What will the replacement for the Abrams tank capability look like?

The answer has to start with the role that the tank fulfils on the battlefield.  Is it possible that future wars will not involve infantry?  There will be all sorts of autonomous machines, but will any be able to take the place of a soldier?  The answer is certainly ‘no’ in the timeframe under consideration.  It follows that there will be a need to provide direct fire support, aka the tank capability, as part of a combined arms force underpinning land operations. The fact that the next ‘tank’ may not be anything like the Abrams, is without dispute. 

What does such a direct fire capability need to provide?  The answer is, as it has ‘always’ been: lethality, survivability, and mobility, under all extremes of climate and terrain. This is self-evident.  What is unknown is the way in which advances in technology will influence the solution.  There are advances in mobility such as hovercraft and hydrogen fuel cells; however, this is not the breakthrough science.

Direct fire support can be provided by a manned vehicle, a robotic vehicle, or an optionally manned vehicle.  The US Army is considering the last concept.  One imagines that this is because it is too soon to bank everything on robotics.

Many arguments have been advanced that, whether crewed or optionally crewed, the weight of direct fire support has to be reduced to enable it to be deployable in all contingencies.  This is especially so in terms of ADF planning.  How can this be achieved, while maintaining requisite protection levels?

Volume under armour is the biggest impost on the weight of an AFV.  Reducing the size of the crew by incorporating an autoloader was the answer at one time, but the lethality of anti-armour weapons is now so advanced, that this is not enough.  The current Russian T-14 Armata MBT is one solution.  The crew is within a ‘cocoon’ in the hull of the vehicle, below the external gun and autoloader. Considerable weight is saved without having to protect crew members in their own turret. 

As well as the provision of an Active Protection System (APS) for certain vehicles, the Strategic Update (above) also made reference to: 'A future program to develop a directed energy weapon system able to be integrated into ADF protected and armoured vehicles, and capable of defeating armoured vehicles up to and including main battle tanks'.

Such a weapon is suggestive of a laser, but is unlikely in terms of defeating AFVs in the foreseeable future.  Another possibility is a ‘rail gun’.  Neither of these technological breakthroughs; however, will resolve the main challenge facing the replacement tank capability.

The APS; however, might be part of the solution. Such systems have been demonstrated to be capable of defeating attack by ATGM and RPGs. But what about kinetic energy penetrators?  Can an APS counter these, thereby enabling the weight of armour to be significantly reduced?

A recent press release suggested that this is feasible: 'Elbit Systems’ Iron Fist active protection system (APS) has successfully engaged a 120 mm armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS) projectile under test conditions'.  If this was to be substantiated, it would really be revolutionary.  BUT…what about attack from above?  It has been proposed that low cost drones could be employed en mass to attack AFVs from above.  Will an APS be able to counter this?

If protection is able to be increased and weight reduced will this mean that a direct fire capability can be provided on the future battlefield? One argument is that a new grouping of complementary force capabilities is needed to capitalise on future capabilities, rather than relying on traditional organisational structures. But this is may be a discussion for another time. 

Conclusion

As stated, the challenge is how to provide a future direct fire support capability which is; lethal, survivable, and mobile.  There are numerous options as far as mobility / engine power are concerned, as there are in terms of firepower.  The crux of the design challenge is to decrease weight, while increasing protection against both ground and air attack. The role of APS (especially against `top attack') is crucial to the survivability of any future armoured vehicle; as is the need to structure future operational units in such a way that direct fire support can be provided in a deployable ‘all arms’ context.