Main Battle Tanks (MBT) continue to offer the most effective means for providing mobile protected firepower against a range of targets in both offensive and defensive actions, and new technologies continue to be applied to the MBT to enhance its combat effectiveness.
To this end, firepower and lethality have increased through digital ballistic computing, improved optronic target acquisition, and higher performing ammunition. Survivability is increasing through better, often lighter armour, threat detection sensors and active protection systems. Mobility has been maintained through the realisation of higher horsepower power-packs (the vehicle’s engine and transmission) coupled with more efficient suspensions and lighter track. Plus, overall combat effectiveness has been positively impacted by networking that provides for the integration of on-board vehicle systems. This last point may well be the most valuable advancement as it can be a capability multiplier allowing the integration and distribution of information to all crew members about not only their vehicle’s health and performance, but also their immediate tactical locale.
Outwardly, some MBTs appear unchanged because many of these above capabilities are subtle despite their revolutionary impact. Of importance is that many improvements readily fit into existing platforms. Thus, although few new MBT designs have appeared in the last two decades, MBTs in service have substantially greater capability, compared to the MBTs of 20 years ago. Globally, the MBT trend has been to modernise and upgrade existing vehicles. For example, on 2nd November 2016, several firms were down-selected by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) for the assessment phase of the British Army’s BAE Systems FV4034 Challenger-2 Life Extension Programme (LEP) initiative. These companies include BAE Systems (teamed with General Dynamics’ UK division, Safran, QinetiQ, Leonardo and MOOG) and Rheinmetall (teamed with Supacat, Thales, Pearson Engineering and BMT). The upgrade, according to open sources, is expected to include adding panoramic commander’s sights, upgrading thermal imaging equipment and other fire control improvements to be rolled out onto the MBT. Rheinmetall is also likely to include its Situational Awareness System (SAS) which provides 360 degree thermal cameras, plus alerting sensors such as laser detectors, gunshot detection and battle management system integration as part of its offering. A Rheinmetall spokesperson suggested that the company could also propose the replacement of the FV4034’s current Royal Ordnance/BAE Systems L30A1 120mm rifled gun with its L55 120mm with its programmable ammunition. The final upgrade contact could cover 227 MBTs and be worth up to $748 million. Prototypes of the proposed, upgraded MBT are expected to be built within the two years of contract award. A decision on which company will perform the upgrade is expected to be taken by the MOD in circa 2019, according to the UK government. The primary objective of the LEP is to allow the MBT to remain ‘competitive’ through to 2025 and beyond (2035 is widely viewed as the ultimate goal), according to reports. In addition, some new developers and manufacturers have entered the market offering modernised versions of earlier designs: In May 2016, Raytheon announced that it had introduced an upgrade package for the legacy Chrysler M60 MBY family, which would add a new power-pack, electrically-powered turret, and vehicle electronics.
Most European Union/NATO forces have focused on the modernisation of existing MBT fleets. The Heer (German Army) has continued its programme to enhance its Krauss Maffei Wegmann/Rheinmetall Leopard-2 family MBTs. Poland’s acquisition, from 2002, of Leopard-2A4/A5 MBTs from the Heer is representative of many recent Leopard-2 MBT acquisitions. Initially, the MBTs were purchased from Heer surplus stock to achieve an immediate capability. These MBTs are now being upgraded to the Leopard-2PL status. The work is initially being done by Rheinmetall as part of a $507 million effort begun in February 2016 to upgrade 128 tanks. The company also provides know-how to Poland’s ZM Bumar-Labedy for subsequent work, as well as, subcontracting 50 percent of the contract value to local suppliers, according to reports regarding the programme. The Leopard-2PL has improved turret armour using IBD Deisenroth Engineering’s Advanced Modular Armour Protection (AMAP) system, which is built locally under license by Rosomak, while the upgrade adds an electric turret drive and a new fire suppression system. Regarding the turret, the Leopard-2PL retains the Leopard-2’s baseline Rheinmetall L44 120mm smoothbore gun, but this weapon is modified to be compatible with Rheinmetall’s DM11 programmable projectile, and DM53 and DM63 armour-piercing rounds. The DM11 high explosive round offers a particularly valuable capability as it can perform point detonation, delayed detonation or airburst to a maximum range of five kilometres (3.1 miles). This round significantly increases the gun’s effectiveness against a range of targets including troops, light vehicles, helicopters, fortifications and buildings. It is ideal for neutralizing ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) teams, destroying bunkers, military operations in urban terrain and engaging moving targets such as ‘technicals’; armed pick-up trucks beloved of insurgents.
The French GIAT/Nexter AMX Leclerc family MBT, already highly automated, is being ‘renovated’ under a 2015 contract worth $349 million to Nexter. A member of Nexter’s Leclerc engineering team shared with Armada that: “Fitting of the Scorpion Information and Command System (SICS) will allow data exchange between various elements of the joint tactical groups which are the core of future French ground force battle command and control.” SICS is a Battle Management System (BMS) under development by Atos which is expected to replace a range of existing French Army BMSs over the next five to ten years. In addition, the Nexter official explained that the improvements will also enhance the MBT’s survivability and protection, while ensuring that the vehicle’s GIAT/Nexter CN120-26/52 120mm gun is compatible with programmable ammunitions.
The level of international collaboration in MBT upgrades has been already mentioned, however, the cooperation between Otokar and Hyundai Rotem aimed towards the development of an entirely new MBT called the Altay. In April 2016 Ali Koç, the chief executive officer of Otokar, said that the Altay was “ready.” This culminates the joint efforts which took advantage of the technologies developed for the Republic of Korea Army’s K-2 Black Panther MBT (see below). As such, Altay prototypes show similarity to the K-9. That said, the Atlay has a different, wheel, suspension and turret arrangement, compared to the K-9. It uses a MKEK 120mm smoothbore gun, itself a locally-manufactured version of the Rheinmetall L55 120mm smoothbore gun and is equipped with modular and reactive armour from Rocketsan. The Altay has been shown with an Aselean-developed STAMPII commander’s remote weapons station. SSM, Turkey’s defence procurement agency, anticipated a production contract in 2015 for 250 tanks worth over $1Billion. An Otokar press release indicated it had submitted its final offer to SSM in August 2016 however, no contract has been announced. The total Turkish Army requirement is for 1000 MBTs and a number of foreign armies including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have expressed interest in the Altay.
The Ukrainian combat vehicle industry, the only location outside Russia that as part of the Soviet Union manufactured combat vehicles, has been seeking to expand its markets. With this in mind, Kharkiv Morozov developed an export version of the T-84 Oplot MBT. Known as the Oplot-BM, this MBT is equipped with a KBA-3 120mm smoothbore gun which can launch the Tula Machinery Design Bureau 9K119M Reflex laser-guided surface-to-surface missile as well as conventional rounds. The 9K119M was designed to be employed against helicopters and vehicles that could not be effectively engaged by conventional rounds, as well as against MBTs. The first export sale to Thailand was to deliver 49 vehicles worth $240 million but to date only 20 have arrived. Nevertheless, it is reported that the Ukrainian government has assured the Thais that remaining vehicles would be received by March 2017.
The Uralvagonzavod T-14 Armata MBT has captured much attention. T-14 has a new 2A82-1M 125 mm smoothbore gun that fires a new anti-armour round reportedly with a 900mm long penetrator. Armament, autoloader and fire controls are carried in a remote turret with the crew of three in the hull. The MBT is also outfitted with Ka-band (33.4-36 gigahertz/GHz) radar. Speculation is that this is part of the vehicle’s Afghanit hard-kill active protection and NII Stali upper hemisphere protection systems, and that it will also track multiple targets. Both composite armour and Malachit dual-Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) are used on the hull and turret. The question remains if this is the next Russian primary MBT?
The recent Russian unveiling of an updated version of the Uralvagonzavod T-90 family MBT, called T-90M Proryv-3 suggests that the Russian Army mainstay MBT fleet may continue to be based on traditional designs, as opposed to the new T-14. Improvements equipping the T-90M Proryv-3 replace the MBT’s previous protection with a composite armour with built-in Relikt ERA which is extended to the vehicle’s side skirts. It is reportedly effective against both chemical and kinetic energy projectiles. The T-90M Proryv-3 may also have a new automatic target tracker and fire control computer, as well as, a 1300-horsepower engine. The T-90 family itself continues to find further fielding. It surfaced in combat with the Syria Army in 2016. Algeria received 200 in December 2016, and it is possible there are orders from Peru. In addition, India’s Defence Acquisition Council approved in September an order for 464 more T-90MS MBTs at a cost of $2 billion.
K-2 production continues even as product improvements are being finalized. The manufacturing consortium lead by, Hyundai Rotem, have delivered 241 K-2s. The total requirement is reported as 680 to be achieved by the early 2030s. Suspension upgrades are being rolled out across the fleet, as is a hard-kill active protection system and Non-Explosive Reactive Armour (NERA). The K-2 already has a unique capability jointly developed by the Republic of Korea and Diehl as its L55 120mm smoothbore gun can launch the Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition (KSTAM). It has a range of between two and eight kilometres (1.2 miles to 4.9 miles) and can attack targets behind hills and in defilade. Once fired the projectile is semi-autonomous. The warhead deploys by parachute over the target which is sensed by the munitions’ multi-sensor detector that initiates an explosively-formed penetrator to attack the top of a vehicle.
Meanwhile, the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has continued its process of iterative improvements to its MBT designs. The Norinco Type-99/A is the most advanced and capable but is only fielded with regiments in PRC’s Shenyang and Beijing military areas in northeast China. It mirrors Russian armament designs, notably with its 125mm gun and gun-launched ATGMs, and reflect many Western inspired protection approaches, notably through the use of welded armour and ERA. NORINCO, though, has developed and presented advanced MBTs for the export market. Its MBT-3000 (also known as the VT-4) has a crew of 3 and uses an auto-loaded ZPT98 125mm smoothbore gun, a coaxial machine gun and a roof mounted 12.7mm remote weapons station. The tank is outfitted with composite armour and ERA on the turret and hull front. The first export order came in April 2016 from the Royal Thai Army. Under the contracted 28 tanks were to be delivered in September 2016. Following trials, an additional 19 could be requested for 2017 delivery.
The United States continues to rely on the General Dynamics M1A2 Abrams MBT, but as Major General David G. Bassett, the programme executive officer for combat vehicles told Armada during a November 2016 meeting; “the (M1A2) of today is nothing like the one first introduced.” The Army approach to keeping the M1A2 ‘first class’ assumes it is an assembly of: “a mobility system, lethality system (and) communications systems.” By developing, adopting and integrating new technologies within these systems on the existing vehicle, “you don’t have to build a whole new vehicle,” Maj. Gen. Bassett continued. This fact has seen the M1A2 fleet implement block improvements over its history, with the most recent, the System Enhancement Package (SEP) V.3 led by General Dynamics Land Systems. The SEP is a programmed upgrade of the current M1A2 through the introduction of selected demonstrated technologies and subsystems. General Dynamics shared with Armada that the: “V3 is developed as an ECP (Engineering Change Proposal). This will permit it to more rapidly enter production. Six production prototypes have already been provided for test” SEP V.3 tanks could begin to be delivered to the US Army in 2017. The improvements rolled out as part of the SEP V.3 upgrade include improved communications, armour enhancements and reducing the MBT’s maintenance burden. Even as the SEP V.3 upgrade is being tested the US Army and General Dynamics is working on the SEP V.4 which it aims to field from 2021. The SEP V.4 upgrade could include third generation thermal imagers, a new laser rangefinder, perimeter colour video cameras, laser warning receivers and improved digital communications. An off-the-shelf Active Protection Systems expected to be tested later this year could also be added. A contract was also awarded in February to Orbital ATK for the firms’ 120mm AMP (Advanced Multi-Purpose) round to equip the MBT. Like the Rheinmetall, it has three automatically programmed detonation options.
The Main Battle Tank, though similar in form to its predecessors, is changing its spots again in response to new battlefield challenges. Technology and innovation are transforming the MBT to meet the challenges of asymmetrical warfare. That said, speed, firepower, and protection continue to remain at the heart of MBT design considerations, both in terms of new products, and upgrades to legacy platforms.