By Nicholas Drummond

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? This comprehensive article looks at what could replace current MBTs. 

MGCS
Artist’s impression of the KNDS Main Combat Ground System (MCGS) being co-developed by Nexter and Krauss Maffei Wegmann (Image: Marcel Adam)

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Contents

01        Introduction
02        State of the Art
03        The Re-categorisation of Armoured Vehicles by Type and Role
04        The Capability Matrix
05        Towards the Next Generation
06        Summary

____________________________________________________________________________________________

01        Introduction

Any discussion about next generation tanks invariably starts with the question: is the future tank even a tank at all? When the US Army started to develop the AH-64 Apache, quite a few people said that attack helicopters would make the tank obsolete. This hasn’t happened. There is no doubting the Apache’s capabilities, but the trouble is it isn’t persistent. It cannot hold ground indefinitely. In fact, it spends a very short time on-station before it has to return to base to re-fuel.

War is still very much concerned with seizing and holding ground. To compete, you have to be present. When you’re trying to prevent vital territory from falling into the wrong hands, you have to be there in person. You cannot sneak-off to rest, re-arm, and re-fuel. You literally have to dig-in and repel assault after assault until the enemy either gives-up or is killed.

If this is true for defence, it is also true for attack. When you want to dislodge a firmly entrenched enemy, you need to physically eject them from contested ground. While you do this, the enemy will be doing everything possible to stop you. As you advance, you will need vehicles that protect you from artillery and small arms fire. Your vehicle will need to be able to negotiate all types of terrain and it will need firepower to degrade enemy vehicles like your own.

This explains the concept of protected mobility provided by tanks, which can trace its origins to WW1 and the need to break the deadlock of trench warfare. The same concept was applied to warfare on a grand scale in WW2 with massive tank versus tank encounters taking place in France, Germany and on the Russian Steppe. Today, the concept of protected mobility remains relevant to contemporary warfare. The threat posed by IEDS in Iraq and Afghanistan mandated mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) armoured vehicles. Casualty figures from WW2, Korea, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, the Gulf War of 1991, and from our most recent deployments, unequivocally show that troops who ride around in armoured vehicles suffer considerably fewer casualties than those who walk around on foot. [1]

We use the “iron triangle” to describe the utility offered by tanks in terms of three core elements: firepower, protection and mobility. The most successful designs have tended to be an equal balance of these elements. Over time, we have seen an enormous variation in concept and design, but the need to penetrate tank armour and the corresponding need to protect against anti-tank weapons are what have most guided the evolution of species.

Iron Trinagle

For as long as we continue to conduct ground operations with the purpose of physically seizing and holding ground, it is reasonable to assume that we will need protected mobility to transport troops from A to B and protected firepower to support infantry in achieving their objectives and to neutralise other armoured vehicles. The next generation of vehicles will still offer an appropriate mix of protection, firepower and mobility. The issue is not that these elements have lost relevance, but that the balance between them may need to be altered. There is also a growing realisation that these elements alone may not be sufficient to define the utility that future armoured vehicles need to provide. This could mean that the tank of tomorrow evolves substantially, while still performing many of the same roles as those in service today.

02        State of the Art

Leopard 2A7 -1
Leopard 2A7V (Image: Krauss Maffei Wegmann)

At the time of writing, the Leopard 2A7V and M1A2C Abrams main battle tanks are the two most capable combat vehicles of their kind. Both offer a compelling blend of lethality, survivability and mobility. Both have recently benefitted from upgrade programmes that have enhanced their capabilities, including active protection systems, revised armour packages, new sensors and electronics, plus new ammunition types. Although there is no escaping the fact that both platforms are more than 40 years old, incremental improvements have kept them relevant (much in the same way that German sports car manufacturer, Porsche, has constantly evolved its iconic 911 model).

In evaluating the capabilities of these tanks, and deciding whether they need to be replaced and over what timescale, we need to consider the following criteria:

  • Relative numbers – The number of MBTs in service with NATO versus number in service with potential adversaries
  • Relative performance – M1A2C Abrams & Leopard 2A7V versus the MBTs of potential adversaries
  • How MBTs will be used in combat and what this implies in terms of absolute numbers

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) yearbook “The Military Balance 2019” estimates that there are 53,000 active MBTs in service across the globe with a further 20,000 in storage. Of these, Russia has 2,750 active tanks, plus 10,200 mothballed. It is worth noting that the former Soviet Union built close to 100,000 T-54/55 tanks and while this is now obsolete, it still packs a 100 mm gun, is highly mobile, is easy to maintain and inexpensive to operate. An astonishing number are still in service internationally. The Soviet Union has also built 20,000 T-72s and 3,200 of the newer T-90, which remains in production. Russia plans to acquire an additional 900 tanks by 2027, including 500 of the new T-14 Armata and 400 of the latest T-90M. It also wants to upgrade its older T-72s to the T-72B3 standard introduced in 2010. China has 5,800 active tanks, including 250 of its latest Type 99 MBT. North Korea has 3,500 tanks, although these are mostly older model Russian T-34/85, T-54/55, T-62 and Chinese Type 59 models. Iran has 1,513 tanks, of which 480 are T-72S, 150 US M-60A1s,100 British Chieftain Mk3s and 540 T-54/55s. Of the total number of MBTs in service today, around 25,000 belong to potential adversaries, with 13,513 being ready for combat. Although this represents a substantial decline in tank numbers since the Cold War ended in 1990, it still represents a significant quantity that could be set against NATO counties and reason enough to retain credible MBT fleets.

Screenshot 2020-04-06 at 16.52.54
Includes tanks held in reserve storage.
Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2019.

To counter the above threats, NATO and its alliance partners have approximately 12,000 tanks. The USA possesses 2,833 active M1 Abrams MBTs with a further 3,500 in storage. Of those in active use, 786 are expected to be upgraded to the M1A2C (M1A2 SEP v3) standard. Most European armies each have around 200 high quality third-generation platforms making 4,700 in total. Of these 3,500 are Leopard 2, with 1,000 expected to be upgraded to the latest 2A7V standard. There is only a disparity in numbers if Russia re-activates Cold War tanks held in storage. Overall, NATO armies, which have prioritised technical performance over quantity, may have an edge over potential adversaries.

In 2014, Russia expropriated Ukraine territory and precipitated Cold War 2.0. A year later, it revealed the T-14 Armata MBT, the first brand new tank design for a generation. The most significant aspect of the T-14 is that the crew have been relocated from the turret to the vehicle hull, where they are housed in an armoured cocoon. This effectively separates them from the main gun ammunition, increasing survivability. The major criticism of this new configuration is whether the crew have sufficient situational awareness to be fully effective. Should NATO be concerned about the T-14? Although it has many promising features, the T-14 is new with less than 100 believed to have been manufactured at this time. The APFSDS long rod penetrator used by NATO 120 mm smoothbore tank guns is capable of passing right through a T-72 before exiting out of the back, so it may be possible to engineer marginal gains in 120 mm cannon ammunition to neutralise T-14 before progressing to a larger tank calibre. Given the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, analysts have questioned whether it will ever be able to afford to acquire a credible number. However, it is rumoured that Russia may sell the T-14 to India, enabling it to fund domestic purchases. If it does so, this may be the point at which we will need to look beyond incremental upgrades to M1 Abrams, Leopard 2 and Challenger 2. In the short term, we should be more concerned by quantity of T-72 and T-90 tanks that Russia has, not by the inconsequential numbers of the unproven T-14. The performance attributes of the M1A2C Abrams, Leopard 2A7V, Leclerc, Merkava IV, Challenger 3 (if and when it arrives), K2 Black Panther, and Type 10 are likely to be more than sufficient to challenge any Russian or Chinese MBT they come up against.

T-14 Armata 1
Russian T-14 Armata MBT places the crew within an armoured cocoon in the hull of vehicle. This allows for a more compact and lighter turret served by an autoloader. This configuration saves 10-tonnes of weight as well as isolating the crew from the main gun ammunition. 

The need for a next generation MBT also needs to be considered in terms of what kind of future conflict we expect to fight. It likely to be less costly to retain tight economic sanctions on Russia in place than to risk a confrontation. Vladimir Putin is unlikely to withdraw his forces from Ukraine, but the long-term impact of economic deprivations on the Russian economy may be a catalyst for change from within. However, sanctions make the risk of confrontation more likely. An external conflict could divert attention away from Russia’s internal problems. Should Russia attempt to seize the Baltic States, over-running the Enhanced Forward Presence of NATO troops currently stationed in the region, we would need to deploy substantial conventional ground and air forces to counter them. We could simply threaten to use atomic weapons unless Russia withdrew, but this would be a game of brinksmanship that could end badly for all parties. Or, we could do nothing. During the Cold War, the purpose of ground forces in Europe was often described as, not merely to counter the Warsaw Pact, but to buy negotiation time before nuclear weapons were used. This remains true today. If we don’t have credible ground forces, then we move very quickly towards the pressing the big red button. There is also the deterrent effect of conventional forces. If we think there is a realistic possibility of a Russian, Chinese or other peer adversary conducting a land grab, then we must invest in resources that would make such an undertaking risky and dangerous.

In terms of actual ground operations, Russian tactics still favour the use of large formations and blitzkrieg-style tactics. Yet the ongoing conflict in Ukraine may change this approach, because it has unequivocally re-established the primacy of long-range artillery and shows how effective it can be in defeating armour. NATO would rely more on artillery than tanks to counter a major Russian assault, not least because we do not have significant high-readiness heavy armoured forces pre-positioned in Eastern Europe ready to respond to an unexpected event. We would respond with medium weight expeditionary forces, such as Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs), to hold the line while more substantial Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCTs) were assembled and deployed. The effectiveness of medium weight formations would depend on the fire support available to them. The increased potency of rocket artillery systems like HIMARS with G/MLRS and PrSM (Precision Strike Missile) would be ideal in halting such an assault. Enemy units that escaped the defensive barrage would then be neutralised with Stryker infantry units using anti-tank missiles like Javelin. These should not be underestimated.

Despite a large number of conflicts post-1945, there have been only two significant tank encounters since the Korean War. One was on the Golan Heights during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. The other was the Battle of 73 Easting during the first Gulf War in 1991. Tanks were deployed in Iraq in 2002 and in Afghanistan after 2007, but most operated as mobile gun platforms supporting infantry, not to defeat other tanks. The other reality of modern conflict is that the tempo of operations has accelerated. Sometimes tracked formations cannot react quickly enough to contribute decisive effect. The tank that fails to turn-up or that arrives too late to influence the outcome of a battle is useless. An Australian officer recently said: “Tanks are like dinner jackets. You don’t need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do.”[2] If this is true, it reflects the challenges of deploying tanks, that major tank-on-tank engagements are less likely, and because we now have other vehicle priorities.

While our current focus is the Baltic States, we don’t know if we will need to deploy to the Middle East, to counter Iran; to the Pacific Rim, to counter China; to Africa, to counter both Russia and China; to South Korea to counter North Korea; or to somewhere else that we never imagined would be the source of a major international conflict. To put it another way, when it comes to predicting future deployments, we have a perfect record: we haven’t gotten it right once. This means we need to be prepared for multiple scenarios.

In 1999, the US Army failed to fully deploy Task Force Hawk (an armoured force designed to support what was primarily an air campaign) to Kosovo quickly enough to achieve an impact before the conflict was resolved, It was too difficult to deploy M1 Abrams MBTS and M2 Bradley IFVs by air while HMMWV-equipped infantry units were too lightly protected and armed to counter the expected opposition. The mission underlined the need for a new kind of potent but rapidly deployable armoured force and precipitated the development of medium weight expeditionary brigades. The same expeditionary focus has now caused the US Marine Corps to question the validity of heavy tanks for use in the Pacific.

As NATO Alliance members modernise their armies, many are being reconfigured around an expeditionary capability. Wheeled combat vehicles are being adopted more widely, particularly 8×8 platforms, because they offer both operational mobility (transiting from a theatre entry point to the area of combat operations) and tactical mobility (moving around within the area of combat operations). But wheeled vehicles cannot completely replace tracked vehicles, because they lack extreme terrain mobility in winter conditions across snow, soft soil and mud. One strategic implication of climate change is that areas of permafrost increasingly become marshlands in warmer summer months. The risk of wheeled formations getting bogged down means that armies need a mix of wheels and tracks. Thus, regeneration efforts are being focused on renewing tracked vehicles as well as acquiring new wheeled capabilities.

03        The re-categorisation of armour by vehicle type and role

The need for for heavy and medium weight forces has seen armoured vehicles categories redefined by two universal roles role and two common configurations. Now and in the future we will need protected mobility to transport infantry safely around the battle area and deliver them wherever needed; and protected firepower to support infantry in securing their objectives and to neutralise other combat vehicles. We need tracked vehicles to negotiate the most extreme terrains, to mount heavier weapons and carry the maximum amount of armour. We need wheeled vehicles to deploy quickly over long distances and to reduce the logistical footprint of expeditionary forces. These definitions give us four primary vehicle classes.

Four Categories of AFV

Heavier tracked vehicles prioritise tactical mobility over operational mobility. They create more stable firing platforms for heavier weapons, and carry more protection. They are more resilient in combat, but take longer to arrive where needed. Conversely, medium weight wheeled platforms prioritise operational mobility over tactical mobility. They get where needed quickly and are more able to operate autonomously, but they lack protection and staying power. This duality of function and type suggests that any discussion about future combat vehicle needs should not encompass a debate about wheels or tracks. There is an emphatic need for both. It is about thinking in terms of a system of systems. 

It should also be noted that another sub-class of protected mobility has come into existence. This is the armoured command and liaison vehicle that takes the place of jeeps like the HMMWV and Land-Rover, including platforms such as the Oshkosh JLTV, Thales Bushmaster and Nexter Serval. In fact, there are no formal weight classes that define military vehicle categories. Weight classes tend to be defined by the maximum payload capacity of particular transport aircraft used by each NATO country. At the lower end, light vehicles tend to weigh less than 10 tonnes so they can be carried underslung beneath a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Medium weight vehicles need to weigh less than 37 tonnes so that they can be carried by the Airbus A400M Atlas (or 20 tonnes to be carried by the Lockheed-Martin C-130 Hercules). Heavy vehicles must weigh less than 77 tonnes if they are to be carried by the Boeing C-17A Globemaster. 

The Stryker ICV initially weighed 17 tonnes to enable air transportation by C-130 Hercules. Newer 8x8s recognised the need for increased protection and vehicle weight has doubled to 32+ tonnes. The ARTEC Boxer now has a maximum GVW of 38.5 tonnes. Tracked IFVs have also grown in weight to around 43 tonnes GVW. This weight limit allows a vehicle to be carried by the A400M (with appliqué armour removed) but is also a practical maximum to ensure that bridges can easily be crossed. The need for long distance mobility seems to define a GVW sweet spot of 30 to 45 tonnes for both wheeled and tracked platforms. 

In contrast, NATO tanks share a common problem: their weight growth has become unacceptable. Appliqué armour packs were added to NATO MBTs for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK’s Challenger 2 grew in weight to 75 tonnes. The US Army Abrams weighs about 68.5 with TUSK add-ons. A 70-tonne combat vehicle is extremely difficult and expensive to deploy. It is too heavy to travel long distances without heavy equipment transporters. It will not be effective in combat without organic bridging and recovery vehicles to support it. Put simply, modern MBTs have become impractical. This is the No. 1 issue that future tank design will need to address.

Despite the M1A2 Abrams’ weight limitations, it has been a hugely successful MBT that has more than proved its worth in combat. It has worked well with the M2A3 Bradley IFV validating the combined arms concept. Within the tracked protected mobility class (IFV platforms) various manufacturers have mounted large gun turrets. This has created a new class of medium tank, which is more usually called a Mobile Gun System (MGS). For example, the BAE Systems / Hagglunds CV90 mounts a 120 mm gun on its IFV platfrom. The US Army is looking to acquire a dedicated tracked MGS platform to support its Infantry Brigade combat Teams (IBCT). This will mounts a 105 mm gun.

The M1126 Stryker ICV has been a transformational wheeled infantry carrier. The Stryker Brigade concept has become the basis for a new operating model for many NATO members, including the British, French and Italian armies. Although the M1128 Stryker MGS has been less successful, Italy’s Centauro 2 and Japan’s Type-16 MCV show the potential of wheeled mobile gun systems.

Screenshot 2020-04-05 at 20.18.17

Mobile Gun Systems. (Left): BAE Systems CV90120 mounts a 120 mm smoothbore gun on its proven CV90 IFV chassis. (Top right): BAE Systems M8 Armoured Gun System is one of two candidate vehicles being evaluated for the US Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) requirement. It has a 105 mm gun and weighs less than 30 tonnes, making two air transportable in a C-17A Globemaster. (Bottom right): Japan’s Type-16 Maneuver Combat Vehicle also mounts a 105 mm gun. All three systems are examples of a new breed of mobile gun system that is effectively a medium tank or the contemporary equivalent of a WW2 assault gun. More deployable and affordable than heavy MBTs, Their primary job is to support infantry, but they can defend themselves against MBTs if surprised. With lighter armour, such platforms must achieve a first-round kill or risk being destroyed when a tank returns fire. Though regarded as a compromise by some, the wheeled mobile gun system is better than the MBT that cannot get to where it is needed in time to make a meaningful contribution to the battle.   


04        The Capability Matrix

It seems quite a few people, including a number of senior serving army officers, fully expect the Abrams to be replaced by some kind of super hover-tank. They are going to be disappointed, because there is no obvious breakthrough technology on the horizon that is going to offer the step-change in capability they expect. The best we can hope for is a range of incremental improvements across component systems that together make the overall package more lethal, more efficient, and less costly. As noted above, we need to look beyond the iron triangle. The survivability onion has proved to be one of several tools that are useful to do this.

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 14.20.21

The iron triangle is not redundant, but it does need to evolve to encompass other factors that deliver overmatch on the modern battlefield. Firepower, Protection and Mobility are still important, but three additional elements have the potential to improve vehicle performance. These are Connectivity, which is the electronic architecture and systems that facilitates the sharing of information between vehicles and units; Supportability, which is the logistical footprint of a vehicle and the ease with which it can be sustained when deployed; and, Flexibility, which is a vehicles adaptability, and the extent to which it is able to perform different roles with minimal reconfiguration. These six elements define a capability matrix. The trade-offs that need to be made between different elements are made according to the four Cs: Combat utility, Crew Factors, Complexity and Cost. Future developments across the matrix may include the following:

Firepower. We are likely to see larger 130-140 mm smoothbore cannons with improved ammunition natures. At the moment, pacing threats suggest that these are not yet needed, but improvements to optics and sensors, enabling engagements at greater stand-off distances, with the ability to locate, identify, acquire, decide and engage enemy targets before they can do likewise. Smart sensors that use AI to scan for targets promise to be more effective than human operators, identifying threats faster and guarding the crew while they are resting. The UK has been looking at Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) munitions which essentially disable all of a vehicle’s electronic systems. These could turn any tank into a useless hunk of metal without actually destroying it. Directed-energy lasers are being developed  to shoot-down drones and small UAVs. The power requirements for lasers are considerable, so they seem unlikely to replace conventional cannons in the near future. This is also true for vehicle-mounted rail guns. In an era where chemical energy warheads (HEAT) can be defeated by active protection systems, simple kinetic penetrators fired at higher velocities continue to be an effective and affordable means of destroying armoured threats.

Protection. New ceramic compounds and the cover faceting of composite armour can offer better protection without increasing weight. Graphene, an allotrope of carbon, has 1/6th of the weight of steel, but is 100 times stronger. This nano-materiel has a range of potential military applications, including superconductivity, but its most important potential contribution is that, like carbon fibre, it promises to make vehicles lighter without compromising structural integrity. Graphene may even have an armoured application that allows it to be used in combination with composite or ceramic protection. While we will certainly try to produce lighter armour that offers increased protection, exotic materials like Graphene remain difficult and expensive to produce. New ceramic formulae and other composite armours are also being developed to offer increased protection with less weight.

Mobility. Hydrogen fuel cells linked to electric motors are most likely to power next generation vehicles, not battery-powered electric motors. This is unless there is a major advance in solid-state batteries. However, even if a HFC drivetrain can be made to work reliably, there is still the problem of storing hydrogen at high pressure (700 bar) on board a combat vehicle. Without a mature and affordable next generation technology offering reliable performance in military applications, the diesel engine may still offer the the best combination of power density, efficiency, reliability, ease of use, supportability, commonality, interoperability and affordability. In this regards, the 1,500 bhp V-12 diesel powerpack fitted to Germany’s Leopard 2 is hard to beat. Vastly more efficient than the Abrams’ gas turbine, why waste money trying to develop anything else at this stage? Why not simply use a refined version of this engine until clean technology powertrains are available?

Hydrogen Fuel
Hydrogen Fuel Cell drivetrains have four elements that need to be packaged: the Fuel Cell, the Electric Motor, the Hydrogen Storage Tank, and the Battery.

Brief mention should be made of Composite Rubber Track (CRT) technology. Two types exist. One is a continuous band type. The other is like a traditional steel track but with rubber 2-metre sections. Both types offer much longer track life, (8,000 km versus less than 2,000 km), reduced fuel consumption (between 10-20 mpg depending on vehicle type, reduced vibration and noise, which reduce crew fatigue. While existing designs allow a maximum vehicle weight of 45 tonnes, 50 tonne CRTs should be available within five years. These will do much to enhance the operational mobility of tracked vehicles, even if they are not quite ready to be used for MBTs.

Connectivity. As vehicle electronic systems have evolved, they provide more reliable means of sharing information via voice and data. Vehicle health, usage and monitoring systems can automatically transmit data to central logistics hubs, simplifying logistical planning or even predicting resupply needs. Battle Management Systems that provide real-time data on the disposition of friendly and enemy forces can be a force multiplier. Network-enabled formations can respond faster, so are much more agile, regardless of the combat vehicle platform they are equipped with. Technology supports faster intelligence gathering and analysis, and faster decision-making. During the Battle of France in 1940, Panzer II and III tanks of the Wehrmacht all had radios, whereas the heavier French Char 1Bs relied on flags and carrier pigeons. This allowed the Germans to outflank the French despite having inferior tanks. More than any other technology on the horizon, the connectivity benefits of modern C4I systems offer the same degree of potential overmatch.

Supportability. Reduced fuel consumption, increased ease of repair, reduced spare part costs and other equipment support efficiencies can vastly reduce the effort and resources required to support a deployed force. Wheeled vehicles are much easier to maintain than tracked ones, but it is only over the last 20 years that they have gained sufficient off-road ability to make them a credible alternative. As vehicle technology improves, offering advances in tyre technology, central tyre inflation, hydro-pneumatic suspensions, electric drives with hub motors, and advanced transmissions with things like computer-assisted torque vectoring, we’re slowly getting to the point where wheeled vehicles will be able to substitute tracked vehicles completely, offering mobility that is better in all situations. The increased utility of wheeled platforms is a bitter pill for older cavalry officers to swallow.

Flexibility. Armoured vehicles have become so expensive to purchase and maintain that supporting multiple platform types across different roles is complex and difficult. Increasingly, we’re seeing a move towards common modular platforms capable of performing multiple roles. The Boxer 8×8 is an excellent example of this. Its mission module approach takes the Stryker concept of a family of vehicles and allows a range of mission-specific pods to be interchanged depending on the role or task. This approach helps to reduce the total number of platforms as well as platform types that an army needs to operate. It offers commonality and training benefits which are amplified when multiple armies use the same common platform.

What these elements suggest together is that the future challenge is not to think in terms of single vehicle types like a tank or a reconnaissance vehicle or IFV, but to think in terms of modular platforms capable of performing multiple roles and creating a whole family of vehicles. The Russian T14 Armata, for example, is not only the basis for Main Battle Tanks, but also for an infantry Fighting Vehicle. The same approach has been adopted by Israel which uses an IFV, the Namer, based on the Merkava MBT.
Capability Matrix

05        Towards the Next Generation

The geopolitical situation that exists today is more dangerous and unstable than it has been at any time since the Cold War. Armed forces modernisation has become a priority across NATO and particularly for Land Forces that have not benefited from new initiatives since 1990. In the absence of a new MBT design, many European and Middle East armies are buying new-build Leopard 2A7Vs. They recognise that this is the best platform available before 2035. They benefit from being a member of a larger group of customers (18 different armies use Leopard 2) which means they have ready access to a pool of affordable spare parts from multiple suppliers. The interoperability and commonality benefits speak for themselves. When new developments are needed, the cost of engineering them can be shared between customers. With demand outstripping supply, new build Leopards was the only solution. For USA, it is different. It doesn’t need to build new M1 Abrams, because it still has a pool of 3,500 tanks in storage. These can be stripped and rebuilt with new and upgraded components. The M1A2C and forthcoming M1A2D build standards clearly makes Abrams viable for the next decade. Beyond 2035, a new tank is only needed if the existing ones are unserviceable or too expensive to maintain. Should Russia accelerate its T-14 programme or China introduce a new tank, then the replacement timeline may need to be brought forward. Given that it takes a decade to bring a new tank design into service, new development programmes have already begun.

The overriding requirement for the next generation of tanks is improved deployability and agility. This means reducing their weight. As discussed above, tanks with a mass above 70 tonnes have limited tactical mobility despite being tracked. One way to lower gross weight is to have a lower basic weight, but the ability to add additional mission-configurable armour. The Russian T-14 has a basic weight of 48 tonnes, but since it has a 1,500 bhp powerpack, total vehicle weight can grow to 60 tonnes with additional ERA armour. Power-to-weight ratio is important for tactical mobility. It used to be thought that 18-20 bhp per tonne was ideal,[3] but modern gearboxes allow extra power to be harnessed providing more rapid acceleration. Manufacturers ideally try to achieve a ratio of 25-30 bhp per tonne. The M1A2 Abrams weighs 64.6 tonnes, but the M1A2C has grown to  an estimated combat weight of 66.8 tonnes, reducing power to weight ratio to 22.5 bhp per tonne. More powerful, e.g. 1,700 bhp engines, are an option, but the penalty is increased fuel consumption and reduced autonomy.

Not everyone agrees that MBTs need to lose weight. A separate school of thought argues that, if we have wheeled medium armour formations, with 30-40 tonne vehicles that are lighter and more deployable, why do we need lighter MBTs? If current weights are viable across most situations, then we should focus on making next generation tanks more lethal and more survivable by mounting larger guns and increased armour maintaining mass at current levels, not reduce or increase it. The problem with large, heavy vehicles is that they are dependent on a fleet of heavy equipment transporters. When tanks need to rely on a secondary system for deliver them where needed, this not only reduces flexibility, but adds to total system cost. There is also the issue of heavy tracked vehicles damaging the roads on which they move across. They cannot access narrow streets in built-up areas. They can damage or destroy road bridges, so are restricted to certain routes. While the extra protection of very heavy tanks aids survivability, it impedes mobility, which in itself can be a form of protection.

If lighter tanks are desirable, another way to reduce weight is to have a smaller protected volume. The adoption of autoloaders reduces crew requirements from four to three, reducing the turret in size and thus cutting weight. Experienced tankers will quickly point out that crews of four are always better than three for labour intensive tasks such as changing tracks, bombing-up the vehicle and sharing sentry duties. The Russian T-90, Japanese Type 10, and French Leclerc MBTs, which are equipped with autoloaders, all have crews of three and weigh around 10 tonnes less than Abrams and Leopard. The T-14 Armata ’s unmanned turret is smaller still and is estimated to weigh around 50% less[4] than the Abrams or Leopard turrets. This allows T-14 to have a higher overall protection level while weighing less. The Israelis with their Carmel program have even considered a crew of just two, like a jet. The next logical step is to make tanks completely unmanned. With the crew eliminated, survivability needs only to prioritise protection of the gun, ammunition and powerpack. The vehicle can be more compact, lighter and with a lower silhouette.

Another way to reduce protected volume is to place all the crew in the turret and use a contra-boating driver’s position so that he or she is always facing the direction of travel. This configuration was tried with collaborative US-German MBT-70 project. Such a configuration could be relevant to today with the need for underbody IED protection, but there may be easier solutions. MBT-70 is instructive to those developing future tanks today. Integrating so many bleeding-edge technologies became so complex and difficult that unresolved issues created an unacceptable delay while estimated production costs made it unaffordable.

Screenshot 2020-04-05 at 20.13.06
The US-German MBT-70 tank program of the 1970s was an ambitious failure. The vehicle placed all three crew members in the turret. It had a 152 mm gun-ATGM launcher, advanced electro-optics and a hydro-pneumatic suspension that could lower the vehicle’s height. The complexity and cost of successfully integrating its many component technologies killed it.

If a crew is necessary, then the next future requirement is to increase their survivability by isolating them them from the main gun ammunition. As already noted, this is an area where the new T-14 Armata scores highly. Relocating the crew in the hull achieves this, but there is no reason why conventional turrets cannot be re-compartmentalised to separate ammunition and crew by adding an autoloader. Some means of accessing the breech of the gun from under armour will be needed in case of a stoppage.

The Abrams stores ammunition in the turret bustle. This has a blast-proof door and blow-out panels that allow an ammunition explosion to vent through the roof if the tank is penetrated. It has also dispensed with hull ammunition storage. The Leopard 2 also stores ammunition in the turret bustle with a blast-proof door and blow-out panels, but has a second ammunition storage area in the front hull next to the driver. This is controversial. Some commentators believe it creates a point of vulnerability.[5] The German view is that the front hull is the best protected part of the tank, therefore this is the safest place to store ammunition. Other videos that have been released show that even Abrams tanks with blow-out panels and no hull ammo storage have suffered catastrophic kills. Certainly, ammunition storage is a crucial area impacting survivability and one where future MBT solutions must innovate.

Cutaway of M1 Abrams
Cutaway view of M1A2 Abrams interior showing the internal configuration including ammunition stowage in the turret bustle. 

Moving on to the main gun, Nexter and Rheinmetall have developed larger 140 mm and 130 mm guns respectively. Russia is also reported to have developed a 152 mm gun for T-14. The penetration values for the 130 mm gun alone suggest any tank designed to withstand it would need to weigh 100+ tonnes. Such a gun would deliver an increased range. Fire control systems incorporating new sensors and AI linked to advanced rangefinders, ballistic calculators, and wind deflection plus meteorological computers, will enhance speed of engagement, accuracy and serial engagements. Third generation forward looking infra red (FLIR) sights can be expected offer greater resolution and range. The ability to engage the enemy at ranges beyond those they can return fire is a worthwhile benefit, not least because it is a form of extra protection. The packing and cooling of turret electronics is another consideration given that space is at a premium.

Lightweight armour using advanced materials has already been suggested as has the addition of active protection including soft kill (jamming devices) and hard kill (countermeasures that stop anti-tank guided missiles). Other protection features include signature management systems such as heat reduction, anti-radar and IR reflective panels that make the tank invisible to thermal and image-intensifying sensors. If electromagnetic pulse (EMP) munitions enter general service then tanks will need a Farraday’s Cage built-in to the turret, engine and hull compartments to stop such weapons from compromising the vehicle’s electronic systems.

Likely features of next generation Main Battle Tanks:

  • Smaller, more compact design
  • Basic weight of less than 50 tonnes
  • Ability to add mission configurable appliqué armour for maximum combat weight of 60 tonnes
  • Main gun 130-140 mm, coaxial 12.7 mm HMG and 12.7 mm HMG in RWS
  • Turret with autoloader and at least 40 rounds of APFSDS plus HEPAB
  • FCS with 3rd generation FLIR and advanced computational systems + AI
  • Main gun ammunition isolated from crew
  • Crew of three and optimally un-manned systems
  • Crew located in hull in central armoured compartment
  • Power to weight ratio of 25-30 bhp per tonne (1,500 bhp engine)
  • Active protection system
  • Graphene-based armour
  • Farraday’s cage to block the impact of EMP weapons for hull and turret

Current MBTs cost between $10 and $15 million each. It has been suggested that OMT and MGCS prices could increase unit cost to $18-$20 million per MBT. The German Tiger I tank of WW2 cost almost three times as much to make as the Panzer IV tank.[6],. We remember the Tiger I for being a formidable benchmark of WW2 tank development, but only 1,347 were produced. The most effective German tank of the period was the Sturmgeshütz III, which was manufactured in the largest number of any tank and accounted for the most allied tank kills.[7] In contrast, the USA made 49,234 M4 Sherman tanks[8] giving it a massive superiority in numbers that German quality could not match.

Next Gen MBT
Concept by Marcel Adam

Today, cost remains a limiting factor. The army that possesses only 400 MBTs instead of 1,000, because of the extra cost of a more advanced design has limited the total it can afford, may be less capable. A similar trend is already observable with combat aircraft. Something else that brings the cost debate sharply into focus is the relative cost of anti-tank missiles. If a system like the Russian 9M133 Kornet ATGM costs less than $30,000 per missile and can reliably neutralise a $15 million M1A2 Abrams MBT, the economic argument in favour of highly sophisticated tanks begins to lose credibility. The same relative calculation using the cost of combat aircraft versus that of a naval battleship led to their demise.

06        Summary

For as long as land warfare encompasses the need to seize and hold territory, the protected mobility and firepower of tanks (and other armoured vehicles) will remain a relevant capability.

The number of tanks in service with potential adversaries is significant and therefore we need to retain a credible number to deter potential land grabs. There are approximately 25,000 tanks that could be ranged against NATO, which has circa 12,000 tanks at its disposal. Despite the disparity in numbers, many of the tanks that threaten NATO are older models. There is no immediate imperative to renew our MBTs or to acquire a substantially increased number.

Although tanks still have a role to play in future land warfare, mass tank-versus-tank clashes are less likely to occur due to the increased vulnerability of even the best protected MBTs to a range of weapons including long-range artillery, combat aircraft and anti-tank guided missiles. Instead, tanks are likely to become niche weapons used for deliberate assaults or “break-ins” where their surprise, shock effect and reliance cannot be matched by other ground-based systems.

The other factor affecting future tank usage is deployability. With most NATO tanks weighing close to 70 tonnes, they have become impractical and difficult to deploy. There is a genuine risk of heavy MBT units failing to arrive where needed in time to make a difference.

The number one issue relating to future tank design is the need to reduce total weight. Armies are likely to operate a mix of medium weight platforms. Half will be tracked with a maximum weight of less than 50 tonnes. Half will be wheeled with a maximum weight of 40 tonnes. This will provide the flexibility to deploy armoured formations, prioritising unit composition based on terrain and operational mobility requirements.

MBTs are likely to remain a separate heavy platform category, although some armies will develop IFVs based on their MBTs. Others will develop MBTs based on their IFVs. There is no reason why infantry should not have IFVs that offer protection equal to that of MBTs. Designers will need to think in terms of modular systems where a single platform can perform multiple roles and be easily reconfigured.

Future tanks are likely to be optionally manned or have reduced crews of 2-3 personnel. They will be smaller and more compact platforms with a basic weight of 50 tonnes and the capacity to add appliqué armour for a maximum combat weight of less than 60 tonnes. The weight reduction will be achieved by using advanced lightweight armour. Advanced nano-materials like Graphene offer potential in this area.

We are likely to see crews relocated to the hull within an armoured capsule that isolates them from main gun ammunition. Gun turrets will be smaller and the main gun will be served by an autoloader. Sensors and fire control systems will be network-enabled to provide real time data to command echelons.

For the moment, 120 mm guns appear to be sufficient to neutralise the tanks belonging to potential adversaries. Their performance will be augmented by new sensors and fire control systems that will incorporate AI and computer-aided functions. New lightweight armour can be expected to increase survivability. Active protection systems will also help.

Future tanks will rebalance the iron triangle in favour of mobility. They’ll be more agile with a power-to-weight ratio of 25-30 bhp per tonne and a combat range approaching 1,000 kilometres. Hydrogen Fuel Cells are the most likely clean energy propulsion technology to replace diesel engines, but these are not expected to be widely amiable in military applications before 2050.

As wheeled vehicle technology improves, with hybrid electric drives, in-hub motors driving all wheels, advanced tyres, and torque vectoring, the off-road performance differential between wheels and tracks will diminish.

The biggest challenge facing tank designers is to deliver increased utility at an affordable price. If a next generation tank costs $20 million, but can be defeated by a $40,000 anti-tank missile, it will be money wasted. In the final analysis, the last thing we need to to do is replace a heavy tank with an even heavier tank.

Screenshot 2020-04-05 at 18.40.55

____________________________________________________

[1] Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in WW2, Alvin D. Coox & L. Van Loan Naisawald, US Army Operations Research Office (ORO), March 1951

[2] Major General Kathryn Toohey, Australian Army, RUSI Land Warfare Conference Address, London, UK, June, 2019

[3] Design and Development of Fighting Vehicles, R. M. Ogorkiewicz, (London: Macdonald, 1968), p. 87: “The horse-power per ton governs the acceleration of a tank, which is particularly important because of its influence on the speed of changing firing positions. Likewise, it governs the speed with which the tank can climb gradients and the average speed in varied terrain, which is directly proportional to horse-power per ton… There are good reasonsfor having as much horse-power per ton as possible. There are various limits, however, to the amount of power which tanks can effectively use and no more than 20 gross b.h.p. per ton has usually been aimed at.”

[4] The T-14 Armata From a Technical Point of View, Captain Stefan Bühler, 17 April 2018.

https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=33534

[5] This based on images of Turkish Leopard 2A4s destroyed in Syria that were shown in 2017; however, there is no evidence that hull ammo storage was the key factor leading to their loss.

[6] Armored Champion, Steven Zaloga, Stackpole Books, 2015, Page 37-39

[7] The Tank Museum Bovington,

[8] Armored Thunderbolt, Steven Zaloga, Stackpole Books, 2008, Page 335