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.
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
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. 
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.
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
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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, 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 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.
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. 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.
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.,. 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. In contrast, the USA made 49,234 M4 Sherman tanks giving it a massive superiority in numbers that German quality could not match.
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.
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.
 Survey of Allied Tank Casualties in WW2, Alvin D. Coox & L. Van Loan Naisawald, US Army Operations Research Office (ORO), March 1951
 Major General Kathryn Toohey, Australian Army, RUSI Land Warfare Conference Address, London, UK, June, 2019
 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 reasons… for 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.”
 The T-14 Armata From a Technical Point of View, Captain Stefan Bühler, 17 April 2018.
 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.
 Armored Champion, Steven Zaloga, Stackpole Books, 2015, Page 37-39
 The Tank Museum Bovington,
 Armored Thunderbolt, Steven Zaloga, Stackpole Books, 2008, Page 335
Wow, so much i agree on, however my concerns are that you think we can only use hydrogen for fuel cells, we can use any fuel that burns. Considering the problems with hydrogen storage, i’m going to say that diesel is going to be used, just with higher efficiency (now fix the electric motor cooling problem). Documents will be on the way Nicholas, don’t you worry.
Also did you forget this? https://www.army-technology.com/news/news80043-html/
We need to sit down and overhaul logistics, also looking into a decent after sales possibility of our weapons industry which we are most definitely not doing, i mean last time we tried….. something something space gun…It will help to offset some of the costs we have incurred. We also need a new rifle. But you knew that.
Sorry for the late reply, spot on about hydrogen, but that article is a bunch of rubbish.
A “force field” produced by capacitors is not going to repel rockets, most likely the author misunderstood the scientist. Conventional armor is not just a lump of metal as the article claims, but a carefully organized stack of materials and sometimes reactive or even proactive.
As I understood from other sources (Including https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_armour) it are two charged plates separated by a layer of insulation. When a projectile hits the armor it short circuits the plates. The resulting highly energetic plasma disturbs the carefully arranged workings of the projectile and as such preventing it from penetrating the main armor.
That seems like promising technology, but nothing like the Star Trek force field the article claims to be invented.
Also, some of the links don’t go anywhere….
T14 has a surprising number of weak spots, The lower Glacis and front underside escape hatches being the biggest two, what about the side protection? 3 abreast doesn’t leave much room does it?
Reduction of mass is key going forward. However where are you going to store your new big ammo? do you want less rounds? Honestly i think the diameter of the gun is fine, it should be a smoothbore, maybe with more velocity. But then its how you use it. Maybe reexamine the Tank destroyer role. With the Volume of urban conflict, a 76mm with lots of ammo would be more effective, than a large, long barreled current MBT. I also think Demolition guns could have a future in the ever urbanising battlefield. That and some floating artillery would be cool (its not a battleship, its tracked).
Great article, much to think about and discuss.
I disagree with your overall assertion that land power is about taking and holding real estate. Not saying such scenarios don’t exist, and won’t continue to but when all sides have much smaller armies, the ability to maneuver and destroy the enemies forces becomes potentially more important than taking and holding Hill 33.
I can see a movement away from the current model of Main Battle Tank, perhaps toward Heavy Tank / Tank Destroyer and smaller, lighter Infantry Support Tank / Assault gun. If we take the M1 as a starting point, and go back in history to 1980’s the Abrams Tank Testbed (ATTB) we can see that work was done that pre-dated the T14 Armata by decades:
3 crew down in a heavily protected citadel in the hull, with a Meggitt auto-loader in the turret bustle, which would be ideal for larger 130mm rounds, and thus a much smaller turret of lighter weight. Add the latest in passive armour tech, Active Protection Systems, and sensors and situational awareness tech like Iron Vision:
Click to access IronVision_1_Web.pdf
Only having 3 crew members can be mitigated by adding an IFV or APC to each squadron to carry additional crew members in close support.
Speaking of IFV’s; while 30mm or 40mm air bursting munitions are extremely useful at suppressing infantry, if you want direct fire HE support against prepared defences, or modern well constructed buildings with concrete and rebar walls, then a 90mm or 105mm gun, or 120mm turreted breach loading mortar on a variant of your IFV becomes essentially an “infantry support tank”. You can call it an assault gun if you wish, and readers should check out your previous post on the use of STUG’s in WWII. To me it does not matter if this CV90 with a 105mm, Italian Centauro, Japanese Type 61 or Chinese ST1, or even the tracked US Army “Mobile Fire Power” contenders, they are all infantry support guns with the ability to use HEAT or AP, against enemy IFV’s as well as defensive positions. A 105mm APDFS round is cheaper than a Javelin (?) and could potentially render a mission kill or mobility kill on even upgraded T72 or T90’s.
So I am with you on the mix and match: perhaps a core of fewer 130mm gunned heavy tank destroyers, more 105mm “infantry support tanks” (tracked or wheeled) and all IVF carrying at least 2 ATGM on their turret, simpler APC’s carrying 1 ATGM on their RWS.
This is turning into a long comment so I will leave light wheeled “armoured cars” with ATGM, and longer ranged missiles like ground launched Brimstone for another time.
The MBT is dead…. long live the Heavy Tank Destroyer (HTD) and the Infantry Support Tank (IST aka Mobile Protected Firepower or MPF)! 🙂
“Graphene-based armour / Farraday cage to block the impact of EMP weapons for hull and turret”
Complementary goals, perhaps?
What about replacing enormous 130mm gun (and ammunition) by HVKM ?
Thank goodness that the mighty tank is to continue and not to be assigned to the rubbish bin of history. I believe there is no better way to punch a hole in the enemy’s lines than a MBT. A lot of nonsense was banded about in the last twenty years or so in the UK, in regards to the future of the main battle tank and to its determent we have seen the nation’s tank fleet dwindle. Almost abandoned in the pages of the successive defence budgets, the CH2 fleet has been reduced to the point where their very existence is in question? The plain fact that potential enemies have not stopped development proves the West needs to wake up, and address the ever-increasing polarisation in tank fleet numbers.
In retrospect, should the UK have sold off the Challenger 1 fleet so readily, should the UK have kept them to ensure an adequate number of reserve units in times of crisis? The CH1’s could have been partially dismantled to protect the most vulnerable items, and the main hulls cocooned against corrosion. Okay, I can hear the arguments about costs and viability etc, however, the UK has lost its ability to build MBT’s and reliance on CH2 of, which only around 150 will be (allegedly) upgraded, means we have nowhere to go other but the US to obtain replacements! The assumption being, our allies have none to spare either. This narrow perspective may not worry the people in grey suits, who only see credible cost savings, but it is of great concern to me. Our potential foe can field large numbers of MBT’s and admittedly, most are inferior to a combined NATO tank force, however, their sheer numbers could be decisive?
Maurice – while the death knell has been sounded too many times for the MBT, and it most obviously is not in fact obsolete – it may no longer be a good fit with the British Army. A very small fleet of very expensive MBT, that have to be transported quickly to where they would be needed, needs to have a whole different cost/benefit analysis done on them.
We are in a different era than Cold War BAOR when heavy armour was based close to where it was envsioned as being used. We are also in a rather sad state budget wise. We might get more “bang per buck” by ditching heavy MBT, letting continental allies provide them for defence of European NATO, and by focusing on all wheeled medium “Strike Brigade” force that has “infantry support” firepower role, with a 105mm or 120mm gun on a Boxer, backed up by appropriate vehicles with ATGM.
Tanks are great, tanks have become exquisite and very expensive. What use is a tiny exquisite capability when we simply cannot afford them en masse ?
jedpc, what you say is worthy of consideration, but where we deviate is on the issue of sharing assets. During the invasion of Iraq Britain was the only principal power alongside the United States. Thankfully, the CH2 proved its worth but if the war had developed differently, our reserve would have been tested.
Britain is a key member of NATO and therefore sharing is a key component of the alliance. That said, the UK could find itself in a similar position as it was in Iraq, and would need the punch of the MBT?
I still hang onto the notion that the heavy tank is an important part of land conflict, and therefore, should be retained and developed accordingly.
A very informative and approachable piece, many thanks.
You wrote in your twitter feed a while back that the KF41 chassis would provide a good basis for a future 50 ton tank, perhaps we could drop a crew in an armoured pod into the existing design sooner rather than later, this might provide for a cheaper upgrade path as we could upgrade only the module with future lightweight materials.
Perhaps not, but something like that sits right in the middle of your capability matrix and we could, you know, get a modern tracked IFV into the deal.
Think a larger coaxial would spare the main armament a lot of work.
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Thinking further on the article – two potential big game changers:
1. Integration of sensors :
I put a link to the Iron Vision PDF in my other comment – integrate that with Active Protection System (APS) sensors – radar, IR, acoustics, low-light/near-IR cameras, plus networking as mentioned by Nicholas in the article – and your tank now has the Emissions Control policy management of a warship at sea – when is it tactically expedient to be “EM quiet” even if that means the APS is off, versus when does transmitting on radios and radars provide greater situational awareness and other advantages ?
2. Manned – Unmanned Teaming:
Where does the eponymous MILREM THEMiS or Textron RIPSAW M5 fit into the mix ? Do we get a tankers version of the fast jet Pilot’s “loyal wingman” ? 2 x UGV per tank – push them out in front for recce, or use as Decoys??
On item that is not necessarily such a big game changer:
3. Secondary armament:
Many twitter comments suggest the 7.62 remains the ideal co-ax MG. Others have suggested replacing a 12.7mm on the RWS with a 30x113mm MV cannon – with air bursting rounds this becomes a serious anti-personnel or C-UAV capability – but also requires a large RWS, raising height and increasing silhoutte (is that a problem on a radar and IR scanned battlefield?), all for what gain?
The tanks should be part of an all arms battle group, which means armoured infantry in IFV’s with 30mm to 50mm auto-cannon or APC’s with HMG, GMG or MV Cannon on RWS. Surely these platforms could / should be dealing with secondary targets that do not need the 105mm to 130mm main gun of a tank ????
Secondary cannon were nearly a thing, the (already lengthy) piece doesn’t mention the 120mm smoothbore variant of MBT-70 with its 20mm, then there’s the French AMX-30 and 40.
I’d argue that a 12.7mm on an IFV would spare the 30mm and a 30mm on a tank would spare the 120mm.
This from 73 Easting:
“The 9 M1A1 tanks of Eagle Troop destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks”
Not sure on the trucks, but I’m guessing they didn’t dawdle with the APC’s.
We should maybe defer to the Israeli’s when it comes to armoured warfare though and they’ve not seen a need to go higher than 12.7mm.
I do however have reservations regarding tank-on-tank battles. Firstly it will always be a race for bigger guns and more armour so it becomes counterproductive for strategic mobility. Secondly, the longest range tank-on-tank kill is about 5km and Hellfire has a far greater range.
Tank-on-tank aside I appreciate the need for supporting fires. I’d then question if even a 120mm isn’t more than enough. In other words perhaps a reduction in the size of the gun in order to carry more rounds?
A really interesting Twitter thread on tank main armament which is pertinent to this article:
It would be interesting so see how to apply this concept to a UK armoured infantry brigade with upgraded Challenger II and Warrior. Would it dilute the shock value of the tank or would it give greater all round effectiveness allowing more to be done with the same or the same to be done with less?
I posted a big long rant and it didnt post, i want my 20 minutes back!
This one posted, but I can’t find your other comment on the system. Apologies.
Well that’s my Pulitzer prize out the window!
So here is an abridged reply to what I posted yesterday that got lost, I probably posed it on a site my wife was looking at, there is going to be some very confused women who are into baking.
I don’t normally post on this site but having worked with MBTs and other AVFs (most NATO countries and some not) for the last 18 years so it peaked my interest.
I think you hit the nail on the head with the AH64 point, you can’t rely on AH, is purely a force multiplier and not the force its self. In Afghan when AH turned up for a fight it usually went quiet for a while until it went off to refuel.
Be careful of Russian reserve tank numbers, they are not stored in ideal conditions, not like they do at Ashchurch, most would struggle to get out the front gate. Also, you have to take into account the fact that most cant fire modern ammunition, indeed the service ammunition fired by some in storage has not been manufactured for decades, I wouldn’t want to load a 40 year old bag charge into a carousel.
In regards to NATO tank numbers and designs, this is more to do with geographic location rather than budget or technological ability. I you are close to the borders of Russia you will go heavy, you are already in the battle area, where as countries such as the UK will have to go for a lighter system. For the UK, the BAOR and its forward deployed assets are dead, long live strike, it’s a shame it ha taken so long to realise this.
Looking in the direction of Eastern Europe, Poland is the one to keep an eye on, by the end of the decade they plan to have a massive armoured force, this is not just a paper project, it is well thought out, budgeted for and ticks all the right boxes. This will be a godsend for Germany and its declining armed forces.
The T-14 capabilities is an interesting topic, it’s in the top three questions asked of me during my lectures so I’m not going to go into detail. The Russian government has already stated that it the tank is more export orientated (read too expensive for Russian service) but as there are no firm orders it has turned into a Challenger 1 scenario. Capabilities wise, it looks good on paper and it is certainly a step up from what they are working with now as the current service vehicles have reached their design limitations especially when it comes to firepower. I have a good PowerPoint presentation on Russian longrod development, they are now in the same position as the Challenger 2 with the inability to increase projectile length without effecting chamber pressure.
I’m not a fan of the hydrogen fuel cell idea, having survived an ammunition fire in the past I’m dead against anything that can burn, even if it is contained. You have to also take into account the chap driving the units support tanker to refuel the tanks, driving round with thousands of litres of hydrogen will be a terrible job.
I think there will be very little movement on the next generation of tank guns, we have yet to reach the peak of 120mm smoothbore technology, a long as the Americans continue to use an L-44 barrel the rest of us will be ahead of he curve when it comes to penetration, as of now, no vehicle can take a head on hit by an M829-A4.
What will the next generation tank look like? It will look just like an M1, Leo2 or CR2 as we don’t intend to replace then any time soon. Most of the next generation capabilities can be retrofitted into the current generation of MBTs so a whole new design would not be not cost effective.
Jed you mentioned the idea of a .50 cal coax, I was working with the French a while back and was impressed by the .50 cal coax on the Leclerc, it just gave you the reach that 7.62 cant and was much better at engaging moving targets.
I’m not sure what EMP weapons you are talking about, mot NATO kit is already EMP proof anyway as a result of the cold war.
I’m sure I originally wrote much more but you get the gist of what I was trying to get across, I hope this works.
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Thanks very much for that. Hard to disagree with anything you said. If any future MBT cannot be protected against frontal penetration of 125 mm / 152 mm APFSDS, is it worth persevering with heavy tanks at all? Why not just go with something like a 120 mm gun on Ajax or CV90 so you have a more deployable vehicle?
“Why not just go with something like a 120 mm gun on Ajax or CV90 so you have a more deployable vehicle?”
A good question, here is the long answer (isolation is a nightmare)
Tank on tank warfare is not as binary as will a round penetrate or will it be defeated by the armour, there are thousands of variables to take into account. Things like angle of attack, where it hits on the front of the turret, armour composition, projectile materials and design, range, met conditions even things like how well the ammunition has been stored or weapon maintenance. You also need to take into account the none designed in variables, was the chap that manufactured the armour plate having a bad day, did quality control miss something.
An example scenario.
Will an M829-A3 round fired from an L-44 gun penetrate the front of a T-72 B3 at 2000m?
On paper the answer is yes with a little bit off wiggle room. But, if it was fired at a slight angle, say 30 degrees left or right there is a chance the projectile could hit a ceramic plate longitudinally so will have to penetrate 1000m equivalent of RHA and thus stop the round. It also works the other way around, would an ancient 105mm L-7 round from the 1970s penetrate a T-72 B3? On paper no way, but if the round hits the turret mantlet or the area around the drivers hatch or other weak spots on the tanks front then it will.
So what the hell does any of this answer your question? If you use this method of the chances of penetration most of the variables will be taken away when fired against a medium armoured vehicle. The differences in protection between a tank and IFV are huge, to put into perspective a CV90 would struggle to stop a 30mm round that can penetrate 70mm of steel, where as a modern MBT could stop a round capable of penetrating 800mm of steel.
It is all a roll of a dice, fire at a tank, roll the dice, anything above a 4 and you kill the tank, anything above a 1 then you kill the IFV.
You then have to dal with the none AT weapons found on the battlefield. A 152mm round landing 5 metres away from a tank might mission kill it, if it lands that close to an IFV it will rip it to pieces.
If only I could post pictures.
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Speaking of co-ax MGs both Sig and GD have .338 Norma belt feds on offer now. The .338 Sigs nearly inbetween 7.62 and 50 cal in performance. Longer range effective range and greater penetration/lethality than 7.62 but much less bulky ammo than 50. I think this calibre will be the future go-to for AFV co-ax
.338 in a belt fed weapon? nice!
If you have any spare time have a read of the NATO competition between all the small arms natures after the war, there was some really exotic calibres tested, unfortunately 7.62 won due to American pressure, shame really, it came bottom of the pile.
BV Buster. Have you got a link to that competition .
I cant find anything more in depth online.
I know 7.62 didn’t do very well.
I’m with you on deployability.
A 60/70 tonne tank, its HET and trailer is going to be pushing an all up weight of the best part of 100 tonnes.
As a Police Officer I spent many years escorting abnormal loads.
I’m far from an expert, I’ve forgotten more than I knew about the legislation on them.
But I am familiar with moving heavy vehicles.
All major routes, and in particular motorways are designed to carry in excess of the standard 44 tonne truck.
But there are bridges on certain routes that can’t take heavy loads.
During my time there was one motorway that I worked which had a bridge that could only take a single heavy vehicle. The escorting police vehicle had to drop back and let the truck go, hold other traffic before catching it up again. Another motorway had a bridge that had to be avoided, heavy loads would have to exit at one junction, run the A road parallel then rejoin. A total pain. So going heavy ain’t easy to deal with.
Really interesting article. A bit of futurology if I may.
If we fast forward to 2040 and assume that Challenger 2 and Warrior (in their upgraded forms) are finally leaving/ have left service then would their replacement(s) be effectively linear evolutions of the MBT or IFV? Might economic and technological pressures push one down a different route. For example if a Eurofighter Typhoon or an F35 Lightning II jet can be single pilot operated then over the next two decades might technology evolve to allow single crewman operation of the next generation tank or infantry fighting vehicle?
Going even further if personnel numbers are at a premium and we still have a mass problem then why not embed the ‘taking ground’ function of tanks into a larger number of smaller autonomous unmanned vehicles, and make the manned system the infantry combat vehicle, with a variant including the capability to exercise C2 over these autonomous tanks. For the defensive aspect of the current MBT role why again not have a variant of the autonomous vehicle armed with an ATGW such as a future version of Brimstone?
I’m not saying that this is anything more than a hypothesis, and a highly technologically dependent one at that, however it would be interesting to think through potential capabilities, tactics and organisational structure and then to war game it.
I think workable UCGVs will take a lot longer to develop, having an autonomous quadbike following a patrol is one thing, but having combat vehicle moving over complex terrain carrying and employing weapons is another. The technology hurdles are huge, a UAV with a line of sight control is easy to implement but virtually imposable to use on the ground, this means UCGV will need to autonomous which rules out weapons (for now). The are plenty of systems out there which claim to be UGVs but most are impractical in a high intensity environment.
I can’t disagree that the technological hurdles are high, and indeed that proponents of new technologies (myself included) have a tendency to talk up the benefits and talk down the disadvantages, risks, costs and development timescales.
My concern however can be summed up by a naval analogy, the battleship; and let’s remember that tanks were originally conceptualised as ‘land battleships’. Up to and in the early years of WWII the battleship was seen as the primary naval weapon, certainly by the UK and US, however from December 1941 onwards the reach, power and sustainability of aircraft carrier air power rendered them high value targets with little operational advantage (even the mighty Bismarck was fatally disabled by a Fleet Air Arm biplane). My point here is that rather than wait for the tank (land battleship) to be eventually rendered obsolete, and perhaps anachronistic, and then have to wonder what we do about it, would it not be better for the democratic West to be the ones who, through technology and original thinking, make the tank obsolete and give the totalitarian world the problem of what to do with their thousands of tanks?
How to make thousands of MBDs obsolete? An easy question with a Hard answer, there are defence companies out there that would pay goods money for that.
I think the biggest hurdle will be the destruction of the tank, detection is easy. ATGMs are a no go with ever effective APS being developed. KE is an option but hard to implement. I think new off the wall solution will be the answer.
The answer maybe a Hyper Velocity Missile, something the Americans had at one time proposed for the A10 in the 80s. A solid rod travelling at Mach 8 would be pretty hard to stop! Getting it to work is another matter…
LOSAT? Line Of Sight Anti Tank? outstanding bit of kit! you may be onto something, a hybrid of an ATGM and an APFSDS. Can you remember what guidance it used, cant be TI or wire, must ne RC?
Here you go
Essentially, the guidance system was much like the Starstreak SAM
I read this in Jane’s about putting a 105mm gun on Boxer ( https://www.janes.com/article/95593/boxer-to-be-demonstrated-with-john-cockerill-defense-s-c3105-turret ) and thought WOW a wheeled tank based on Boxer ! Then I thought what actually would one fire it against, and more to the point how often would it be used ? My point is that a 105mm (or even 120mm) gun on Boxer probably wouldn’t cut it against T90 or T14, Boxer not being able to take the punishment of an MBT. So if you had to deal with a modern MBT threat you’d bring your own heavy armour along anyway, or instead mount something like Brimstone on Boxer / Ajax variant. So if you don’t use it against peer threats perhaps you use it against sub-peer. However can’t one deal with sub-peers sufficiently with something like the 40mm on Ajax? (& even if they’ve got heavy armour you’d have brought your own along anyway) I can understand why you might want to put Ajax’s case telescoped ammo gun on Boxer, if money were no object, however wouldn’t a 105mm option potentially be disproportionate against most non-peer threats, with greater collateral damage limitations on use and with less ammo in the turret? Perhaps my comment would be better under the Anatomy of Strike post, but I do wonder whether the plan to use Ajax as a medium armour ‘tank’ might not be quite so daft as some critics claim ! Just a thought.
J.T – I agree with you on this one, lots of people get zoned-in on tank on tank warfare, where as in real life most of the time, tanks are used in support of the infantry.
“The primary role of a tank is the destruction of the enemy through offensive action”
“The secondary role is to support the infantry” *
*Random poster I read somewhere, possibly DVD or in a mess toilet.
I think if we go down the assault gun (for the lack of a better word) route we will have to change how we use them, as you have said they wont survive long up against a T-90.
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The crucial question is whether one should not change the overall concept of the MBT. By that I mean primarily the combination of heavy armor with a large caliber cannon. The moment I deliberately do without a large-caliber BK, the entire tank can be built much smaller, and because of the smaller outer surface to be armored, it either weighs significantly less or still has less weight with the same armor protection.
But then how do you fight other MBTs? My idea for a long time has been to rely on large-caliber machine guns that, with HEI and comparable ammunition as a target in the fight against enemy MBT, have only one mission kill first and foremost.
The enemy MBT is not destroyed, but only shot incapacitated (destruction of chains, optics, hard kill, tower mobility, etc.).
No hard kill system (APS) can stop such an attack, although it is already foreseeable that APS can also fend off KE projectiles by intercepting them and deflecting them to such an extent that they can no longer penetrate the armor. This even applies to large-caliber cannons with high-performance KE. The Israelis practically demonstrated this years ago.
So if even large-caliber cannons fail at least partially due to APS in the future, completely new ways will have to be found.
Hence the idea to rely on machine cannons in the future, which can achieve a mission kill from the front, but are large enough to destroy the immobilized MBT from the side and from behind. I’m talking about a caliber in the range around 75 mm. Such machine guns have many other advantages: you would have a much larger ammunition store with you. The elevation is much higher. You can look much steeper upwards (fight in cities, use against aerial targets). You can work much better against drones. Indirect fire (steep fire) over longer distances is possible. etc etc
Above all, with such cannons of smaller caliber, much smaller turrets are possible, which immediately lowers the weight considerably, significantly increases cross-country off-road capability and additional armament in the form of, for example, missiles (ATGM as well as anti-infantry, etc.) at great range Panzer allows. Such a system would be more like a Russian BMPT, but with a larger caliber machine gun instead of the two smaller ones. So much for my idea.
Summary: Get rid of the large-caliber cannon. Replacement of this with a machine gun in the range of 75mm. Significantly smaller vehicle. Lighter armor which should deliberately fend off large-caliber cannons that are not enemy from the front, but better protects all around.
Ulrich, an interesting concept!
I had a discussion about this idea a few years ago when there was work on a “semi” auto loader for a tank, basically a 2 round tray that sits on a 120mm breach that loads 2 rounds in rapid succession giving the tank a slow 3 round burst option. It was based on a WW2 anti-aircraft gun and looked simple but just didn’t work, people weren’t happy about having exposed rounds in the turret and it would have been a nightmare to fit.
We then started to talk about rapid fire 105mm guns from a revolver magazine (think S-tank) and what the benefits it would bring, the idea being if a Russian composite matrix can stop a 120mm long rod, can we shatter the matrix and follow up with another round in quick succession. It turned out to be a dead end as modern Russian armour has a multi strike capability, meaning the armour matrix adjacent to the penetration is not effected. You would have to basically get the second round through the same hole, not practical at 2000m.
Having something like a 75mm OTO Melara in a BMP-T style system would be outstanding for practically everything other than dealing with tanks, especially in an OBUA environment, as you have said. I don’t believe it would save much space, the autoloading system is pretty big as the rounds are not optimised for an AFV so are quite long, the over all weight of the system is pushing 7,700kg so its heavier than say a 120mm L-44 (5,000kg???)
Using cannons or HMGs to take out a tanks sighting system will not mission kill it or more importantly, stop it from killing you. Most modern tanks have secondary sighting systems buried in the armour and are quite effective (M1A1 is a bit fiddly, CR2 is nice and simple). A challenger 2 gunner for example spends more time during training working on firing from the auxiliary sight than the main sight as its trickier. The crews are expected to transition from “everything working fine”, to the “tank is on fire and we have no turret power”, this has to be done quickly to stay in the battle. M1A2 crews close off the gunners sight in an urban environment and fire from the gunners backup sight and the commanders CCVT, this means if the tank looses its sights it can open the gunners main sight and carry on.
I bore myself sometimes!
Of course I seem to recall that CTA 40mm’s effectiveness has previously been touted as equivalent to a significantly larger calibre conventional cannon. Hence Ajax might effectively become (?) this new style ‘tank’.
There are some fascinating recent threads on the topics expressed above, by Jon Hawkes on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JonHawkes275
One on the 105mm gun, and a high / low mix in future MBT, with some having a 130mm and some a 105mm, because as mentioned above, it can still damage modern MBT if not kill it outright.
The second thread discusses where you can use a well armed IVF in place of an MBT. It discusses the Russian unmanned turret that mounts a 57mm auto-cannon, 8 x one type of ATGM and 4 x second larger type of ATGM.
Based on the comments above, we can extrapolate. Should we get out of the MBT business for small fleet / expense reasons? Should we be all in on a 105mm Boxer, to do all those other things beyond tank on tank? Why, unlike just about every other advisory or allied nation do we not mount at least 2 x ATGM on the Ajax turret ?
Based on Ulrich’s comments above, I was looking at kinetic energy options to use in concert with conventional ATGM like Javelin, MMP or Spike:
A high end 120mm APFSDS with a tungsten or DU long rod penetrator is throwing a 1 to 2cm by 55 to 80cm long 4kg projectile at 1,700 m/s (which is around Mach 4.9!) giving a rough energy of 5.7MJ
The US CEKM experimental missile, was 45kg at Mach 6 = 10 MJ
Obviously these are meant to destroy the enemy tank, but what about an adjunct weapon to saturate Active Projection Systems?
Canadian CRV7 drill rockets with a solid steel warhead were found to be penetrating old MBT targets during the cold war, and so the idea of an kinetic AT version of the CRV7 rocket came to be. This is a 22cm long 4.5kg tungsten rod at 990 m/s (Mach 2.8) giving 2.2 MJ – a lot less than a 120mm APFSDS round, but given the angle of attack from above a target, it was considered overkill for non-MBT, and so a version was developed with 5 tungsten “anti-armour flechettes” that would wreck anything below MBT. 70mm rocket launchers on vehicles is now a thing, with many manufacturers showing their version, and laser guided versions are now old hat too. So does either version of the CRV7 high velocity rocket act as the “first round” to trigger and hopefully damage an APS, with the slower dual warhead HEAT round following ?
The UK’s StarStreak Hyper-Velocity short range air defence missile has always been touted as having a secondary anti-armour role, but its 3 tungsten SAP HE darts are only 0.9kg, so even though they are travelling at Mach 4+ (1,400 m/s) they will not penetrate a MBT – but could trigger and /or wreck components of an APS ? A single 2.7kg dart at the same speed would be 2.6 MJ, so again about half the impact energy of the 120mm round.
StarStreak is supplemented in UK service by the cheaper Light Weight Multi-role missile (LMM) aka Martlet. it has a 13kg HE warhead, and hits 550 m/s or Mach 1.5 – perhaps a solid tungsten 4kg penetrator could be accelerated to greater velocity by the same rocket motor; or potentially 3 sub-darts, heavier than StarStreaks, could be used, again the idea being to trigger an APS on an MBT prior to launching a “standard” ATGM, or achieving penetration against less well protected vehicles.
Of course, can we see the penny pinching UK forces deploying a Boxer variant with say a Nexter T40 variant turret with a 40mm CTA, 2 x MMP and a 4 pack of LMM or a 7 round 70mm rocket launcher ?
We cannot seem to get past the doctrinal / budget hurdle of even mounting an ATGM on anything other than a specialist “over watch” vehicle.
The 76mm Oto Melara is heavy and big, of cause, but such cannons or cannons with such parameters can be built today much smaller and much lighter. And this was also tried in earlier times. One example which i have found on the sites of Sven Ortmann years ago was for example the AAI Rapid Deplyment Force / Light Tank (RDF / LT), with an caseless 75mm gun.
The idea of this tank was like yours 105mm Burst to beat the armour through hitting the same place several times after each other.
But that is not my concept. My concept is to not ! beat the front armour but to cripple the tank and then to beat the armour on the sides and on the back. Simply accepting that the front armour cannot be beaten for sure frees yourself up very much.
You then stated, that there are secondary armoured optics, the crews can fight on from an disabled tank that burns etc, All Right and correct. But this is today also true for a hit from an 130mm, oder even an 140mm gun. Modern APS can weaken an shot from even such an tremendous gun so much, that it cannot beat the front armour of modern MBT for sure. So you have the same problems you mentioned here with an 140mm gun as they would be with an 50mm to 75mm caseless high rate of fire machine cannon.
If greasy flames and fire and smoke as an result of an longer burst of 75mm HEI block the line of sight, the secondary armoured optics become useless. The tank is blinded. If the tracks are gone, t cannot move. Than i will take the flanks and will shot through the side armour and destroy the dissabled (mission kill) enemy tanks.
And for the rare frontal only tank duels which will not happen so much in modern warfare but will be an rare exception some high speed ATGM will deliver enough destruction power. Moreover the combination of HEI bursts that will erase the APS will easen it to get the ATGM through. So both systems could then be also used combined.
Attacking the top armour of an enemy MBT should be easier with an gun with high elevation because then i can use indirect fires much more easily. Such an 75mm high rate of fire cannon could then fire over large distances in indirect fire against the top armour of enemy MBTs. Moreover: if all of my MBT are equipped in such an way (high elevation guns), many MBT without an line of sight could then also join the fight.
With an 140mm for example my tank cannot give real indirect fire and even with special ammunitions like the korean smart top attack munition this is not as easy as with an high elevation gun of smaller caliber. And an 75mm would beat the top armour of an mbt. If i have an tank company fighting, any other company of the bataillon could then join the fight (network – fire control system) and could then concentrate the fire of the complete bataillon against the enemy regardless of the terrain which would sometimes (depending on height etc) would block out even an kstam.
This idea is not mine. Sven Ortmann has written about this kind of solution years ago. But more for recce light tanks and i think this overlooks the potential for MBT s. Moreover such an tank fleet could then use the same gun and the same caliber as the lighter recce tanks (perhaps on GTK, like the australiann GTK CRV). And it could also be used as an light artillery which would then fill the gap between mortars and real artillery and would strengthen the indirect fire component. And indirect fires in IMO anyway the future).
I hear you, I have been reading Sven’s stuff for years, and yes I think we agree on indirect fires, and also on the “dont attack the front if its too difficult” approach 🙂
Greetings all, apologies for the late reply.
Some very good points on the problems of defeating an MBT from the frontal aspect. A 75mm rapid firing gun would be much more effective at dealing with every other AFV on the battlefield that is not an MBT, only a small percentage of a battlegroup is made up of tanks, the rest are only protected by STANAG level 3/4 so a 120mm round would be overkill. Blinding with smoke is a great option, even if the hard kill system destroys the smoke projectile it will still activate and create a screen.
The problem with removing the large calibre tank guns from a battlegroup is that an active protection system that is able to defeat long rods is an expensive bit of kit, if you remove the 120mm gun then they will not need to fit the complex APS in the first place, and could remove it saving on the huge cost. This would be a retrograde step and leave us in a awkward position of not being able to kill 3rd world 1960s tanks fitted with a basic decoy system as all we have is 75mm guns.
Also from a tank crew perspective, not being able to kill a tank head-on at range is an absolute no go, manoeuvring to the flanks is easier said than done, it works fine with a dug in position but don’t forget the enemy tank is as mobile as you are and could just withdraw, picking you off at range.
I think using a rapid fire medium calibre gun firing top attack SALH HEAT projectiles would be a game changer in braking up armoured formations, even if they are fitted with the newer generation of APS. You would still need some sort of direct fire weapon to prevent an all out Balaklava style cavalry charge knowing your forces will have to withdraw or get wiped out if engaged at short range. Armoured cavalry use this tactic when operating behind the FLET conducting raids on artillery positions. Instead of tactically moving towards the artillery position they move as one unit at full speed and thus reducing their exposure to IDF, the enemy can then be engaged at extreme short range.
I was musing the other day about how impervious to innovation all tank building nations have become and was thinking of a couple of designs which proved their worth but have never caught on.
As a defensive weapon the Swedish S tank had a lot to like about it. Compact, hard to spot, amphibious even at 40 tons, fast and agile. It didn’t want for firepower either, for its day. An update on the Jaghpanther concept. I guess it would be difficult to produce a modern equivalent (eg with 120mm gun) at under 50 tonnes, but that is still a lot lighter than most MBTs.
The other is the Merkava, who design draws continually on IDF combat experience. The Merkava layout clearly has some significant advantages, but least it can be readily converted to other uses such as IFV or SPG which need a front mounted power pack. Strange how other countries haven’t incorporated some of these principles into their own designs.
Any thoughts, gents?
Very good explanation, thanks for sharing