Innovation and Adaptation

The Tank Capability of the Future

By Bruce Cameron January 27, 2021


“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.” (https://www.defence.gov.au/strategicupdate-2020/)

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.  https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/iav-2020-elbits-iron-fist-engages-kinetic-energy-round  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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Portrait

Biography

Bruce Cameron

Bruce Cameron served in the Australian Regular Army for 19 years. After commanding the last troop of tanks in action in Vietnam, his career saw him attend the UK’s Long Armour Infantry Course and Royal Military College of Science, as well as the Australian Command and Staff College. His last appointment involved responsibility for developing the Army’s future ground mobility requirements. He left the Army in 1987 to take up a position with the Office of Defence Production. He is the author of 'Canister! On! FIRE! : Australian Tank Operations in Vietnam' (Big Sky, 2012).

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Armor has always been a determining factor since WWI. Drones and tech can only take the battle so far and in the end it is the rifleman, his weapon, will to win, and a damn big tank to back him up, that always gets the job done. Semper Fidelis.

Is there any interest in the subject ... if not, why not? Surely, today's ADF members are not hesitant to voice their own views?

Nicholas Drummond and the Australian Army share something, a tactical mindset. However, the Australian Government knows the Australian Army is a strategic military service, and expect the operational delivery of strategic options when needed. The 'tank' is merely a small part of the tactical solution-set to the above, but by the virtue of the size and weight, creates operational reach constraints to the tactical mission aim success. The systems engineering design challenge is therefore very different to the 'tank' designers in Australia as opposed to most other countries. Nicholas Drummond fails to address this challenge.

Thanks for your input, Greg. Operational reach constraints imposed by size and weight, equates to the need for a capability that is readily deployable over long distances. I agree. The tank is merely a small part of the tactical solution-set, equates to a need to structure future operational forces in such a way that direct fire support can be provided in a deployable ‘all arms’ context. I agree. As you point out … the Australian Army’s operational requirements are driven by different priorities to other countries. In this respect, developments of things like the APS might benefit Australia to a greater degree than other countries.

While I’ve been great enthusiast for tanks forever, the recent Azerbaijan/Armenia War points to their serious vulnerability to existing drone and missile systems. Like surface ships, manned tanks are already expensive targets for for relatively cheap drones and missiles. Building more countermeasures into manned tanks will make manned tanks a poor investment as drones, missiles and robots become more capable and cheaper.

As mentioned in the article, a fully autonomous fire support capability seems to be too far in the future to concentrate on this alone; hence the US going for an optionally manned capability. If an APS can provide protection against drones etc, then a real 'breakthrough' capability will have been achieved.

The advent of drones, missiles and loitering munitions has now been shown to disrupt, dislocate or defeat armoured forces. Armoured forces have matured to the stage where their designs are relatively stable, well understood and vulnerable to paradigm shifts. This is a classic case of identifing a 'target' that has been 'relatively impervious' to many systems and then developing 'treatment' systems within technological and financial limitations, that change the conventional calculus. The employment of cheap, simple and potentially plentiful 'treatment' systems brings forward the need for the development and deployment of 'counter-treatment' systems. Countering drones, missiles and loitering munition is understood; unfortunately, supporting armoured forces with new protection and lethality systems means that the assumption in our acquisition, financial and combat plans need to be rethought.

The triad of 'lethality, mobility and protection' is a useful idea for design, comparison and decision. However, what is missing is a deep appreciation that 'lethality' is the 'first amongst equals'; given that the vehicles are there to 'apply fire against a range of targets', which might or might not support other systems. The core issue has always been - 'how do we envisage our plan for the 'application of fire' against an adversary', in a particular terrain, to achieve a particular effect (task-conditions-standard). That is we need to consider what the 'lethality need' means to mobility and protection, not the other way round. Since the best protected or mobile systems are nought if they can't deal with the aerial, terrestrial and human targets they will face. As for engaging in discussions, I believe one of the significant reasons there is limited discussion about the use of our capabilities is because we lack a coherent idea of how we'll mobilise, deploy and then fight to achieve what are too often unspecified strategic objectives. The result is the notion that the ADF exists to provide options to a militarily illiterate government, guided by egotistical services and groups. The result is the parochial acquisition of systems, not the development of robust 'kill-action chains' that can actually ensure the prosperity of our people and the sovereignty of our state.

I guess the critical challenge is that of being capable of disrupting and defeating the enemy’s ‘kill-action chains’. In terms of lethality, I was a little dismissive of directed energy weapons being capable of engaging the full spectrum of targets (as referred to in the 2020 Force Structure Review), but I see that such may well be feasible: “… the laser weapon, not just the laser, the whole laser weapon, could now start being made small enough, powerful enough, to now be deployed on Army vehicles, Navy ships, and even on aircraft. So, that's really what changed the game. And as you can see, there's a lot of activity in this domain from our customers, all the services are now advancing capability in laser weapon systems for land, sea, and air. See: 'How The Once Elusive Dream Of Laser Weapons Suddenly Became A Reality (thedrive.com)'.

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