A new wave in MBT designs


P.S:: Some additions I made on twitter:


The Western main battle tank development appears to mimic what the T-14 Armata already showed:

  • at least two crewmembers in the hull
  • main gun using autoloader
  • hard kill active protection system
  • lots and lots of electronics & optronics
  • really expensive
  • under 60 tons weight

A current reveal is the Abrams X with three man crew in the hull, autoloader, optionally manned turret (manual loader with poor ergonomics as backup for the autoloader).

The German KF 51 Panther demonstrator is a classic autoloader tank of three plus one optional mission specialist in the hull for the added gadgetry.

The inclusion of drones and loitering munitions in MBT designs looks like a fallback to 1920's thinking about tanks. The tank developers appear to think of a tank as a single vehicle, not as it being part of a company team-sized effort with brigade-level support.

The difference that appears to split the development paths in two is the question of whether the turret is permanently manned or not. A permanently manned turret receives MBT-ish protection, whereas an unmanned turret appears to receive IFV-ish protection. Permanently manned turret MBT concepts are less radical, and may be realised as retrofit of the post-1980 MBT generation.

A 125 mm HE or 105 mm HESH shot would likely mess up an optronics- and electronics-laden turret anyway. Likewise, 20...30 mm APDS or HE rapid rife or a few 30 mm AHEAD kinda-of-shrapnel rounds would shred much of the expensive equipment outside of the armour as well. It's thus understandable that unmanned turrets don't receive protection against 125 mm or even 152 mm APFSDS.

A question remains: Why should the crew in the hull be protected against the greatest threats when the vehicle can be immobilised by even 105 mm shots and firepower killed by anything from 30 mm upwards? Other troops on the battlefield do not get this level of protection. I don't quite see a reason for this.

The new MBT designs do not reveal any particular philosophy for tank actions to me. There's no emphasis on mountain warfare, no emphasis on extreme speed (= neglect of some other characteristics), no emphasis on affordability. The only thing that stands out at least from the German and Russian examples is a quest for even more powerful main guns. This reveals an idea of a MBT that's fighting other MBTs. This thought is very common, but at the same time very questionable. Rather few tanks were destroyed by other tanks in Ukraine. Various kinds of PGMs, 152/155 mm HE indirect fires and morale issues were the big tank killers as far as I can tell. Armoured spearhead actions would rather not face much opposition by tanks, either.

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I stick with my fairly recent opinion on protection schemes that permits getting a tank "light" enough (~40 tons) for bandtracks. It makes no sense to add effort for crew survival in face of MBT main gun shots on top of that; the tank crews would be a tiny portion of the exposed battlefield troops. It's OK to have a main gun that defeats MBTs, albeit it doesn't need to blow them up from any angle. To firepower kill the hostile tank suffices. A 120 mm L/44 gun looks satisfactory to me. A quick fire autoloader gun of 76...90 mm calibre coupled with anti-MBT HVMs would be very promising as well.

Either the hostile tank platoon surprises yours - then they will likely knock you out by hitting your weaker sides. Or your tank platoon surprises the enemy tank platoon - then you'd do the same, even with a gun that does not penetrate the forward 60° hull protection.

It makes no sense to clutter the turret roof. A single remotely controlled weapon station ranging from a 7.62x51mm MG3 to a 20x102 mm M621 (or at most a 30x113 mm autocannon) suffices. You may use a coaxial machinegun if the RCWS features an autocannon. I'd propose a 120 mm L/44 with a .338 RCWS. I'd insist on a bulletproofed RCWS, including the munition and its feed.

Finally, I don't like how expensive tanks become. They price themselves out of the battlefield. We may afford a couple hundred, but we would not afford the needed amount of spare parts for all the vulnerable optronics. The commander's independent gimballed sensor should be bulletproofed except in its field of view and have an unimpeded all-round view. This means that the Russian approach of mating the CITV and the RCWS in one (which saves the RCWS's sensors) is the way to go, as it prevents the RCWS from restricting the view of the CITV and cuts costs. The gunner doesn't need the same quality optronics. A plain optical sight for a turret-seated gunner and a second cheap (!!!) infantry-grade thermal vision (monocular) for up to 1000 m vehicle detection range should suffice. Most combat would happen in daylight, and the CITV is a powerful sight for aiming the main gun as well.

The all-round view should be aided by small and cheap (!!!) camera sets with visual and thermal vision. This would feed the "through armour" vision of the crew (especially the driver) and an automatic threat detection (incoming ATGM, drone, persons, vehicles) software could use these cameras to support the crew.

Another means of saving weight and costs could be to use a smaller powerpack. The hybrid approach with an electric motor-generator for peak power (acceleration) with some robust rechargeable batteries for it makes sense. The battery helps greatly with powering the electronics and the turret drive without running the engine (an infrared signature issue). The electric engine is extremely compact and peak power output is rarely required, so going for a "mild" hybrid makes a newly-developed powerpack smaller than an equivalent turbocharged diesel powerpack. The electric engine also counters the turbo lag issue. In the end, the concept has to have a certain power to weight ratio, and developers appear to aim at 30 hp/ton, while 20 hp/ton was widely regarded to be sufficient for a long time and frankly, I don't see why we need the extra 50% power. Yes, having that extra power is fine, but having 5% more tanks for the same budget instead is better. And that may actually be the choice to make.

So even with an intent to cut costs, I'd only

  • save some expenses for special hull armour
  • save the operating expenses associated with the extra hull armour weight (especially fuel)
  • save some costs on the RCWS sight
  • save some costs on the gunner's sights
  • certainly add small costs to the tank with my insistence on anti-drone sensors and acoustic sensors

That might reduce a 15 million Euro tank to a 12 million Euro tank, but the costs for buying AND OPERATING the new MBT generation would still be severe problems. Keep in mind that even the development of the Leopard 2 did cost about as much as 200 tanks. Full development of MBTs is in itself only going to be affordable if we have production runs for well over 500 vehicles.

I don't quite see a route how we could keep tanks tactically highly capable and at the same time affordable in quantity.

There are many alternatives to the use of MBTs in slow-moving combat, and I suppose we should embrace them. MBTs should be focused sharply on rapid spearhead actions by rather compact armoured battalion battlegroups. The current crop of MBT concepts does not appear to be aimed at this, and does not appear to be affordable for more general employment.



*: "affordable" is not about fiscal possibility. "affordable" means that the costs to benefits ratio is not much worse than for alternative approaches. Germany could buy hundreds of tanks that cost a hundred million Euro a piece, it would just be extremely wrong to do so.



  1. I'm wondering whether tanks and self-propelled guns will merge into one class. Surveillance thru unmanned systems could enable strikes from afar, which reduces the need for armour.
    Is there a reason against much lighter armour and longer distance combat that requires traditional heavily armoured tanks with direct line of fire?

  2. Some ideas:

    Use cluster munition instead of APFSDS (KEP), to attack from the top, to defeat hardkill systems and produce mission kills. Also use other more modern ammunition, especially top attack ammunition like KSTAM.

    Higher caliber like the 140mm ASCALON could provide an artillery like ability, as anonymus wrote right above me, tanks could then be used instead of self-propelled howitzers and could deliver the tube"artillery fire" for an armoured brigade. This Sturmgeschütze 2.0 could therefore fulfill two roles instead of only one.

    New concepts for hydrogen mobility (like the Methanol- Brennstoffzelle) could increase the effective range for tanks without the problems normaly produced through an hydrogen engine.

    Using the best available hardkill-systems could decrease the passive armour drastically. If you then built the tank as compact and small as possible, with an crew of perhaps only 2 soldiers, you can again spare much weight. Then the tank could easily weigh less than 40 tons with enough protection for the battlefield and a much higher mobility.

    One should combine different types of Tanks, instead of the current one MBT fits it all concept. One type of tank with an high calibre cannon (140mm for example) and a second type of tank with an autocannon (a kind of "Begleitpanzer") should work together instead of one type of tank. The Autocannon Tank then also delivers air-defence for the "team".

    One should think about reducing electronics in the tank instead of further increasing them.

    1. An MBT paired with an AFV is already the current practice.

    2. A MBT is an AFV. Maybe you mean "IFV", but I don't see the point of your comment even in that case.

  3. If this machine has a diesel engine and a battery, could the battery be used to accelerate the projectile? This could result in cost and weight savings.

  4. I strongly disagree with your arguments on armoring, for two reasons.
    1. Surprise does not necessarily mean ability to flank the enemy.
    2. If you AFVs can't stand up to an enemy's MBT main gun, the enemy is going to do his damnedest to roll over you with his MBTs. Because you're more vulnerable than a classical MBT.

    1. "If you AFVs can't stand up to an enemy's MBT main gun, the enemy is going to do his damnedest to roll over you with his MBTs. Because you're more vulnerable than a classical MBT."

      here you work with two assumptions, that are at least debatable:

      1) With relative few tanks in the front line the likelyhood of meeting an enemy tank with one of your own decreases.

      2) Tanks operate as part of an combined arms unit. Are there ATGMs that give the infantry a chance to defend?

      My personal argument against lighter tank was and still is very simple. The tanks become more prone to mission kills.

    2. "New concepts for hydrogen mobility (like the Methanol- Brennstoffzelle) could increase the effective range for tanks without the problems normaly produced through an hydrogen engine."

      A fuel cell has an electric yield of 50%, and IIRC methanol has a lower energy density than diesel. A combination of a smaller diesel, that always runs at optimum ("range extender") is most likely better.

    3. If you have a crew, which is running fully automated things through monitors only entirely anyway (down-hull), then the immediate question should actually be: Why the heck do you still have to have *any* crew at all sitting in the tank itself? You could as well already run the whole damn thing completely remotely.

    4. That's the idea behind optionally manned AFVs.
      It doesn't work. You need to do maintenance and resupply the vehicle, so a crew needs to be close. This means it needs another vehicle, presumably also protected. Now this other vehicle needs security. The whole enchilada doesn't work then the unit is a spearhead or on a raid.
      That's merely the trouble before remembering that my car sometimes loses its Bluetooth connection to my phone that's INSIDE my car.

      BTW, this crew-in-hull approach means that every tank is a full-blown simulator. This can be great for tactical training.

    5. The "crew maintenance" factor is hugely exaggerated. 99% of it is in reality done by the technical platoon and 100% of it is done out of engagement. I don't think it is really valid. The same empty argument had already been pushed as an excuse for not having a good auto-loader.

  5. Do we know for certain these tanks don't have tank-level protection for the armament?

    Looking at the AbramsX, if the turret is unmanned (or 1-2 cramped seats), then it doesn't have to be as wide as it is. This could mean from the turret cheeks either side of the gun to the back of the turret, narrowing at the magazine, is mostly some form of spaced armor. So frontally, the turret it is mostly sacrificial. From the side, if it is spaced armor it may have more protection against HEAT warheads than the current M1.

    If so, then this could actually be an improvement in turret protection.

    1. Tanks need to be wide in part becuase the main gun recoil necessitates a large turret ring diameter.
      The present gun with pepperpot muzzle brake may not necessitate a large diameter, but they would want to have growth potential.

    2. The Abramx X is relatively lightweight. This is possible because the turret is relatively lightweight, which in turn points at much-reduced KE protection (though some other things also reduced the weight).

    3. An unmanned turret doesn't need to be as wide as it is, even if it still has a wide turret ring. Shrinking the volume and frontal area that's max-protected can reduce the weight while still offering tank-level protection for the armament.

      The cheeks of the existing M1 turret are extremely heavily armored because there's crew behind them. They're on the order of around 900-1,000mm RHAe vs APFSDS. The sides of the existing turret are supposedly in the 300mm RHAe range.

      That's a lot of weight. Now remove all of that and replace it with a sacrificial spaced armor instead.

      Frontally, the cheeks are no longer protected against all threats because there's nothing really behind them so they don't need to.

      I don't know if this is the case, but it seems at least possible that the AbramsX maintains significant protection for the armament. Perhaps even better than the existing turret.

      See attached link. The green area _could_ be sacrificial, with only the red area needing max protection.


    4. There were unmanned minimum profile turrets on demonstrators in the 90's, but since then so much gadgetry has been added to the turret that you simply need a big turret - and for a future MBT that would be bigger than for the Puma IFV.

    5. But what gadgetry was added _inside_ the turret? Most of it is added to the top (RWS, independent sights) or the periphery (APS).

    6. Concept vehicles have little internal equipment because they're not complete. The amount of black boxes, RCWS munitions, retractable APS weapons and so on is huge.
      You need a large turret area to arrange all the outside stuff properly. Look at EMBT, for example. Almost the whole turret surface is in use.

  6. >to mimic what the T-14 Armata

    DARPA tank project: am I a joke to you?

    1. Demonstrators and concept test tanks with unmanned turrets existed since the 80's. Nevertheless, the sentence is correct.

    2. Two important aspects of MTB designs were actually first found in the T-14:
      1) Highly protected crew compartment.
      2) No conventional turret (crew members are not longer in the turret).

    3. Ulenspiegel, read PDF from my url. "First found", meh.

    4. Many things were already used in concept studies, the T-14 is the first MTB in a design for "serial" production which have the two aspects I mentioned.

  7. SO Q. Is there some reason why Tank components cannot be modularised for strategic transport? , ie most Heavy Construction Machinery ( Liebherr Cranes for Instance ) take mere hours to be assembled & disassembled.

    1. You can remove the turret to save ~18 tons with a normal Western MBT.
      Commonly you keep the tank near-empty, remove munitions and remove add-on armour modules to make a tank lighter for air transport. Rail transport is rather limited by width (again, removable flank protection modules)
      and tank transporter (road) transport simply adapts to the mass with a stronger tractor and trailer.

      The issue with disassembly is how quickly you can re-assemble a whole battalion (45 or more MBTs) and conduct the afterwards necessary calibrations.