2009/06/27

Heavy armoured fighting vehicles for Europe

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Europe had played along in the Cold War arms race for decades and ended up with thousands of first grade (late 70's to 80's) and even more second grade (60's and 70's) tanks in the early 90's.

The end of the Cold War (offering an opportunity to save on government consumption (military spending)) and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe changed the picture.
(The treaty has since been called into question (2007) due to less-than-optimal politics of Russia, the U.S. and also European member nations.)

The old/outdated tanks were scrapped and the modern ranks (especially German Leopard 2) were dispersed in Europe, even into former Warsaw Pact countries.
Britain and France replaced their old tanks (not badly outdated in the British case) with new ones during the 90's.

Today's Leopard 2 users:
Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapur, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey


The tightened budgets, the focus on peacekeeping/occupation missions and the obvious modernity of the current inventory stalled new tank development projects like the German NGP. Instead, we got an influx of many non-standardized wheeled armoured vehicles - almost none meant to be used in line of sight of conventional opposition.


The war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the limited upgrading efforts from a tank-on-tank battle focus (frontal armour protection against KE threat, higher energy gun) to close-in fighting equipment (like all-round protection against mediocre CE threats).


Sometime around 2000 the focus had finally shifted away from conventional wars with armour brigades facing each other.
Just one example; a book of the German 'armour pope' Hilmes of 1999 still emphasized frontal armour and gun KE energy while the next edition of 2007 finally became more balanced.


The last NATO Cold War MBT generation (Leopard 2, Abrams, Challenger) entered service in 1979-1983. The 90's NATO MBTs (Challenger 2, Leclerc, Ariete) aren't very different and rather comparable to later versions of Leopard 2 and Abrams (with Ariete following a low sophistication approach).

We're now equipped with what's basically 1970's technology tanks plus new electronics.
That's comparable to the situation of navies and air forces - except that they're in the process of replacing their old platforms.

The development of a new MBT in peacetime would take up to a decade, so we should better launch a development program if we want modern MBTs (or direct combat battlefield tanks of a new concept) in the 2020's.

I made my mind up on this some time ago; I want to see a heavy tracked family of vehicles at about 40-50 tons (likely to grow to 55 tons later in the life cycle) and a new concept for what kinds of vehicles should be used in line-of-sight combat. This should be supported by a truck family of vehicles and a lightly armoured family of vehicles.

video: New Japanese Type 10 MBT (44 tons)


I think so because I am convinced that armoured vehicles are still the answer to the old problem of rapid movement in high threat environments. A LAV-mobile infantry force of forward observers might be great as a delaying force, but a total failure as an offensive force.
The tank's ability to negate most threats with its protection in order to exploit the internal combustion engine's power for mobility and finally its high concentration of firepower and electronics payload is still a great combination.

There's not really a successor concept; the discussion was and is rather about the optimal mass of passive protective materials to be incorporated in such a vehicle.

picture: FCS MCS, meanwhile found to be too light at close to 30 tons


We should add new tank tactics, but the basic principle is still a necessary component of any fast-paced operational plan that faces competent and well-equipped enemies.

I have serious doubts about whether 1970's designs are a good answer to 2020's battlefields, though. We could upgrade them again and again, but that would keep their old limitations and end up being almost as expensive as new vehicles.

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I believe that it's about time for a European conference on a future tank design in preparation for a new German heavy tank family. Today's European Leopard 2 users should give conceptual and tactical input to help make it suitable for many European armies.

The design work should be done as a national German project to make it more efficient than multinational projects. nevertheless, the components should be sourced from the best European bidder, not only from German companies.

We must not develop any military equipment in cooperation with France anymore; they screw their partners almost always when they learn that the production would not be 100% French.
Their army equipment designs also tend to get a poor reception in export markets (their only really successful export design was the 1950's AMX-13 light tank).


The new tank family should be affordable through quantity production, a 90% approach to costly components and by a modular approach. The latter should allow for everything from monkey export models for export to non-allied countries and a basic version for ill-funded armies up to highly sophisticated state-of-the-art machines.
Allies with basic versions could follow the prepared-for-but-not-fitted approach that's a quite popular cost-saving compromise in air force and navy procurement.

This tank should be suited to urbanized, interrupted forest, open agricultural and hilly terrains. Europe ranges from freezing cold polar to incredibly hot sub-tropic climates, a tank design needs to cope with many different climates and terrains if it shall be useful for defence at all European frontiers.

"Bomber" and "Panzer" are the two stereotypes most loathed by the most peace-loving fraction of the German population. It was difficult to secure the funding for the Eurofighter Typhoon and it would be difficult to get the funding for MBTs. The idea of many people that conventional wars (and their specific tools) are a thing of the past doesn't help.
Nevertheless, the primary and most honourable mission of the Bundeswehr is actual defence - and it needs the tools for the job.


A new heavy tank family would certainly face political opposition due to its costs, but seriously; it was possible to overcome this opposition for frigates and strike fighters. It should be possible to overcome it for tanks as well. The "chobham armour" generation of main battle tanks was a child of the 1970's. It would be a dereliction of duty if we kept them as our only MBTs in the 2020's.

Sven Ortmann
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6 comments:

  1. This post raises a couple of questions in my mind. First of all, what's wrong with our 60-70 ton MBTs? They were designed with slightly different threat scenarios in mind, yes, but that situation hasn't changed much imo. You said it yourself, territorial defence is still our main job. And the last time tanks were used in large numbers by western forces was the invasion of Iraq, and they did indeed face armoured resistance. Using tanks in low intensity conflicts is questionable at best, because it escalates the conflict to a point where it isn't low intensity anymore. If, however, you absolutely need to use MBTs, you can still add the required components on an ad-hoc basis, wich is basically the Tank Urban Survival Kit the Americans use for their Abrams. Since you will rarely use tanks in LICs, it's way cheaper than specifically designing heavy tracked vehicles for a task they should not do in the first place.

    In addition, you don't address the weaknesses of the FCS. Yes, your tank is supposed to be 10-15 tons heavier, but that's still fairly light compared to our current models. A regular MBT can be taken out by unusually strong IEDs, what you're giving the LIC opponent with a 50 ton tank is basically a tactical advantage. Not to mention the fact that this new 50 ton MBT would also need to accomplish everything our old MBTs did, which is the defence of our territory. How exactly will our 50 ton model be able to face the old-school 70 ton models of our hypothetical opponents? We're going to have a significant weakness in our defences. Just because we limit ourselves to 50 ton MBTs doesn't mean our enemy will do the same. What you're doing in my mind is basically assume that the enemy has some significant disadvantage, which if I remember correctly is something you explicitely don't do, ever. ;)

    And lastly, something not related to your idea, but something which really bothers me: how exactly are we going to procure arms on a European level? Clearly we can't all build our own military vehicles, it would be redundant. But transnational cooperation also has huge disadvantages, chief among these the fact that any European defence project will inevitably be some sort of huge compromise, the lowest common denominator in terms of what those vehicles are supposed to do. What we need to do, then, is find a way to bring our national militaries in line. They need to be aligned to be fighting the same kinds of war, to expect the same threat scenarios and to use the same doctrine accordingly. That is a huge task. But since defence procurement on a national level is already more focused on what the industry wants to produce than what the military actually needs, European defence procurement will inevitably be so far away from our operational needs that it's going to hurt us more than it's going to do us good, and will be expensive in the process.

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  2. I feel there is a greater need to exploit the revolution in communications brought on by the microchip and the flexibility of a network of platforms against modern threats, rather than the internal combustion engine. Against a smart bomb, armor is meaningless, but the flexibility of fast wheeled vehicles is perfect in this role.

    The logistics of an armor centric force is becoming unsustainable, especially for expeditionary-forces such as the American and European. Even in frontline areas such as Lebanon and Palestine, the Israeli's, with a much smaller supply chain, hasn't found their heavy Merkavas particular effective against insurgent (notably in the 2006 Lebanon War with Hezbollah), but American Strykers in Iraq are well respected. The Israeli's had an opportunity to purchase Stryker in the early decade but chose instead to upgrade their tracked IFVs. The results speak for themselves with the US prevailing in Iraq and Israel consistently bogged down in wars of attrition against a greatly underequipped foe.

    The Stryker and other wheeled vehicles are more of a mindset instead of just a weapons platform. The idea that you depend more on firepower, rather than being tied down to a vehicle which may be increasingly vulnerable to missile threats, especially ATGM fired from stealthy UAVs. But depending more on these IFVs, especially on their parasite infantry as your primary weapon, you can ensure something survives to strike back or strike first.

    So instead of depending on armor, you survive by dispersal, deploy by networking, and win by precision weaponry. Which is how the microchip replaces the tank.

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  3. "We're going to have a significant weakness in our defences. Just because we limit ourselves to 50 ton MBTs doesn't mean our enemy will do the same. What you're doing in my mind is basically assume that the enemy has some significant disadvantage, which if I remember correctly is something you explicitely don't do, ever. ;)"

    More isn't always better. 'Better' means 'more close to the optimum compromise' instead.

    NATO moved its frontier to the East - this means the terrain changes as well. They still have the same weather cycles there as in WW2, albeit a much better road network. The distances are also great - we don't talk of a few kilometers average distance between cities any more.

    The cardinal problems of the 55+ ton tanks persist, and have in part become more relevant than ever for us;
    - high mean maximum and nominal ground pressure
    - high fuel consumption (ceteris paribus almost proportional to weight)
    - large silhouette/target area

    The new terrain means a new optimum compromise.

    Leading armour experts have written publicly (before APS became able to degrade APFSDS) that about 50 tons weight would today be necessary to achieve a very high armour level, so my weight range is actually not dangerously low.

    The 40-50 ton range (it may be even less for the recovery version) is also a compromise because it's a family; several non-MBT variants are included and logistical considerations prefer a rather lower weight for them.
    An armour brigade is more than the sum of its MBTs, and its performance therefore influenced by compromises made for the other vehicles.

    "So instead of depending on armor, you survive by dispersal, deploy by networking, and win by precision weaponry. Which is how the microchip replaces the tank."

    Absolutely not. The FCS/NCW/RMA concept may work fine in slow-moving combat, but it's merely an upgrade, no replacement, in fast-moving forms of combat.
    Dismounted dispersed forward observers don' have offensive thrust and speed.

    You seem to have missed the whole 2GW/3GW debate if you seriously believe that NCW/RMA is an alternative to tanks.

    "Dismounted" = 3-6 km/h cruise speed, reduced to <2 km/h in combat. Tanks (negating most threats by protection) can dash through a battlefield at 15-50 km/h.
    Their tactics need to evolve, of course.
    There's almost nothing that dispersed FO infantry can do against a well-synchronized 10-20 minute battlefield penetration by armoured combat teams with plenty multispectral smoke, EW and other combat support.
    I have looked into this for months.

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  4. Mike,

    You can't really compare Israeli's conflict with Hezbollah, and the use of Strykers in Iraq. Hezbollah was a LOT more heavily armed, with many ATGMs and advanced RPGs. Strykers used in the same circumstances would've taken heavy casualties.

    Strykers are certainly useful, but they are not survivable against repeated ATGM hits.

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  5. Strykers are transport/carrier vehicles, not meant to fight themselves voluntarily.

    His combat model was the use of infantry dismounting from Stryker, detecting enemies and calling for support fires.
    That's halfway credible in near-static and in delay combat, but it's simply no substitute for tanks (no matter how well the microchips are) because it's an evolution of infantry, not an evolution of cavalry.
    There's no high tempo in a methodical detection & bombardment of opposition (unless you insert by air, but that's risky).

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  6. His concept sounds a lot like a replay of Hue City, only with large quantities of enemy ATGMs.

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