A number of trends are influencing the development of future combat vehicles. They will also shape efforts to upgrade existing vehicle fleets in order to extend their capabilities and to allow them to remain relevant as battlefields change.
Current trends can perhaps be best be discerned by looking at each of the characteristics that define combat vehicles – firepower, protection (survivability), and mobility, as well as command and control and situational awareness. Increasingly these features are interconnected, not just at the system level but also functionally. Sometimes they are even physically integrated.
Underpinning the increased interconnection of combat vehicle characteristics is the introduction of advanced digital electronics and data processing, a trend that has been evident in commercial motor vehicles for some years. Combat vehicles increasingly incorporate a similar CPU (Central Processing Unit) linking all aspects of the vehicle’s functions in an overall ‘open architecture’ system. This provides for the cross exchange of data across various sub-systems and allows access to that data for different purposes. A number of the ‘new’ capabilities that can be provided in recent combat vehicles actually exploit information that has always been there but that has not previously been accessed or shared.
The overarching picture suggests that, from a technical aspect, what were previously separate classes of combat vehicles are progressively becoming more similar. Many advances in technology are equally applicable across all missions and roles, across tracked or wheeled chassis, and they can often be applied in upgrades to older vehicles as well as in new designs. Capabilities that were once reserved for higher end combat vehicle, such as the advanced crew controls and enhanced situational awareness once restricted to MBTs, can now be provided to a wider range of vehicle types.
Firepower is an effect that is achieved using guns, ammunition and fire control systems. The development of each of these has been influenced not only by advances in ballistics technology, but also by advances in electronics and data processing. Armour penetration capabilities have improved with the introduction of more advanced armoured piercing discarding sabot ammunition that can be used by currently fielded cannon. Jeff Janey, vice president for strategy at Orbital ATK, pointed out that: “the M829A4 large caliber round is an example of how new, advanced ammunition types are delivering improved capabilities to the well-established Abrams Main Battle Tank and its existing smooth bore 120mm cannon.”
Russia’s 125mm tank cannon can now use Svinets-1 Armour-Piercing Fin-Stabilised Discarding-Sabot (APFSDS) rounds that use a tungsten penetrator or alternatively the Svinets-2 APFSDS which employs a depleted uranium (DU) penetrator. These penetrators are approximately 80% longer than previous rounds, and promise to increase anti-armour capabilities considerably. Similar improvements have been seen in medium autocannon APDS ammunition.
Rheinmetall’s DM 63 and DM 53 A1 are examples of temperature-independent high-performance tank ammunition which assure consistent ballistic characteristics in a broader range of climatic temperatures, guaranteeing considerably greater accuracy and substantially less barrel erosion.
Even more tactically significant developments have occurred in the area of electronic fusing. Referred to collectively as ‘programmable’ ammunition electronic fusing has been applied to direct fire projectiles from 30mm calibre to 120mm, reflecting the range of weapons used by Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) through to the cannon used by Main Battle Tanks.
The use of electronic fusing can significantly enhance the lethality and effectiveness of a wide range of direct fire ammunition used by combat vehicles against targets other than opposing armoured vehicles, including fortified and urban positions, ground-launched Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), and shoulder fired rocket propelled grenades.
Ammunition like Orbital ATK’s 30mm MK310 and Advanced Multi-Purpose (AMP) 120mm XM1147 round, and like Rheinmetall’s 120mm HE DM 11, a tank round and airburst ammunition (ABM) represent a potential ‘levelling of the field’ against these threats. The gunner can electronically programme these rounds while in the chamber, setting them to detonate in the most effective mode based on the target.
Rheinmetall pointed out that: “The round can be timed to explode for maximum effect either above, in front of, or inside a target (for example after penetrating a wall).”
This provides optimal coverage even against targets in defilade or inside buildings or bunkers.
Jeff Janey explained that: “Orbital ATK’s programmable munitions have proven their ability to add new capabilities to existing guns and to defeat a wide range of targets at longer effective ranges, to include hostile drones and troops in defilade positions.”
Electronic fusing is already being introduced in a number of tank modernization programmes, including the Leopard 2A6 in Singapore, and the new capability may have been a key factor influencing the US Army’s Stryker 30mm gun upgrade. Carl Johnson, deputy director, TRADOC Capability Manager Armoured Brigade Combat Team reflected that “the new AMP ammunition significantly enhances the MBT’s technical capability to address a range of threats and targets that will allow it be more effective in urban combat, against entrenched enemy, and for countering anti-tank missile teams at long range. This capability now needs to be leveraged through training and through the perfection of tactics and crew procedures.”
The remote weapon station (RWS) has been gaining wider acceptance over the past two decades, especially for use on combat vehicles that carry infantry. The lack of penetration into the hull allows more open use of the interior and more space for the embarked infantry. Advances in video quality for sighting and surveillance have overcome some concerns and allow an unmanned station to achieve adequate targeting and situational awareness. The use of the RWS in the United States has progressed from using a remotely aimed .50 cal heavy machine gun and a 7.62mm M240 machine gun, or a Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher in a Kongsberg Protector M151 Remote Weapon Station, on infantry carriers like the M-1126 Stryker. The Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS), fielded from 2007, featured an unmanned turret with an M68 105mm cannon, but received much criticism, which crews felt was not fully warranted. The most recent Stryker model, the XM1296 Dragoon, mounts a Kongsberg MCT-30mm unmanned turret.
Similar Remote Weapons Systems have been fitted to some MBTs as secondary armament. In response to concerns about the M1A2’s ability to respond to threats in urban combat in Iraq, the Protector RWS was fitted as part of the Tank Urban Survival Kit (TUSK). This application was mirrored by several NATO armies, including the Norwegians on their CV90 IFVs. Russia too has embraced the RWS as a secondary armament for MBTs.
It is the introduction of an unmanned turret on Germany’s Puma, the replacement for its Marder IFV, that has solidified the position of the remote weapon as a likely path for future combat vehicles. As Rheinmetall’s Oliver Hoffman explained: “ Puma not only employs Rheinmetall’s 30mm MK 30-2 Air Burst Munitions (ABM) auto cannon but also a panoramic sight, gunner’s sight, driver’s viewers and five external cameras, all of which can be viewed throughout the vehicle. These offer unparalleled situational awareness.”
Russia’s debut of the Armata series including T-14 MBT, T-15 and T-16 IFVs and wheeled Bumerang all feature unmanned, remotely-operated turrets which further suggest that this may be a direction that new armoured fighting vehicle design and even modernisation will follow.
The idea of standardising a common weapon station across multiple platforms is another approach that is taking gaining acceptance across combat vehicles. This is most clearly demonstrated in the latest Russian designs where exactly the same station is utilised on quite different chassis. In this case three of their infantry carriers all mount the 30mm Bumerang-BM remote control turret.
In the West, CMI has proposed a similar approach, with common turrets for medium autocannon and major caliber cannon up to 120mm. This has also been Rheinmetall’s approach, with the design of the 30mm remote station of the Puma IFV leading directly to the Lynx RWS that is offered on the Boxer, notably for the Australian Force 400 project. Employing a common turret offers massive advantages in manufacturing and in life cycle costs, with scope for common training, logistics, and maintenance.
Russia, with its centrally managed development process has been able to direct this type of commonality, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which militaries governed by a more competitive process can implement a similar approach.
Fire Control Systems
The digitisation of fire control systems is leading to greater accuracy by taking account of several factors that can influence the firing solution and quickly and easily adjust for them. Winds, barrel temperature, vehicle cant, and more can be determined and adjusted for. It has also allowed for the wider distribution of information and imagery to both the vehicle crew and embarked personnel and to other vehicles and units. Dan Lindell the programme manager for the CV90 at BAE Systems suggests that “even in just that last decade the ability to process data has increased 200 fold. This vastly expanded processing power being offered to combat vehicle developers is allowing them to achieve the equivalent of 1 + 1 = 3 in new capabilities.” As demonstrated in the latest CV90 Mk IV this not only provides for greater situational awareness by all those in the vehicle but also more sharing of workload. For example, in the CV90N (fielded by the Norwegian Army) its roof RWS can be operated from multiple positions including those in the troop compartment. Such information sharing is increasingly becoming a key element in the development of new combat vehicles, and has potential to be incorporated as a capability enhancement to already fielded systems.
Lindell further suggested that “there has been a concern that the continued addition of sensors, counter-measures, and even weapons on combat vehicles, all well intended to add-capabilities, could actually have an opposite impact by increasing the potential for task overload for the crew. The idea in the CV90 Mk IV is to incorporate ‘iFighting’ that uses the power of data processing to provide suggested ‘solutions’ to the crew based on the correlation and analysis of available target and/or situation data.” This is intended to assist the crew in quickly making decisions by drawing on the collective knowledge and experiences resident in the database.
Protection/Survivability – Armour
It has thus far proved impossible to develop an affordable, lightweight armour with equivalent protection to current heavyweight solutions, though a number of innovations in applying passive armour have been introduced. Principle among them is the concept of modular armour, using preconfigured ‘armour modules’ to be placed on vehicles to increase their protection level. The approach is a more formalised version of the ‘add-on’ armour that has been used since World War II. This has been taken to a new level, as witnessed when American units sought to keep up with the escalating threats faced in Iraq. Armour modules can be optimised for various specific levels of protection and/or weight, allowing a vehicle to be customised to meet a particular threat or to meet transport thresholds. This approach is a key element of the Puma IFV, and was exploited by IBD Deisenroth in its MEXAS (Modular Expandable Armour System) and AMAP (Advanced Modular Armour Protection) composite armour systems, which have been employed on the Leopard 2 MBT.
Rheinmetall and IBD Deisenroth Engineering have, in their AMAP, taken a systems approach to the modular protection concept. They combine various modules and protection techniques to achieve a protection level and configuration most suited for the vehicle and mission. This concept, according to industry combat vehicle designers speaking on background due to competitive concerns, is readily adaptable to both future designs and for retrofitting onto existing vehicles. AMAP modules include not just armour but other ‘survivability’ enhancements like counter–blast seats, transparent armour, signature reduction, and side skirts.
Protection/Survivability – Active Protection Systems
Active Protection Systems (APS) detect, classify and neutralise an incoming projectile by direct action against it. Such systems are rapidly gaining greater acceptance. This is partly driven by the successful performance of new anti-tank guided missiles like the Russian Kornet, which has been demonstrated in Syria. Having some type of APS is viewed as a useful means of increasing survivability against weapons like these and against close-in shoulder fired anti-armour weapons like rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). APS solutions can include ‘hard kill’ and ‘soft kill’ systems, though both types use the common approach of detecting a threat and actively responding with some counter-measure, including decoys, ‘chaff’, and electronic jamming. The concept has been employed on naval vessels and aircraft for many years particularly against guided missile threats.
Similar ‘soft kill’ systems like those used on ships and aircraft have also been employed on AFVs. Russia’s Shtora-1 electro-optical jammer is fitted to the T-90 MBT, for example. It works by emitting false signals to confuse targeting systems, and by disrupting the ‘feed-back’ loop that is the basis for a missile’s Semi-Automatic Command to Line Of Sight (SACLOS) guidance system, as well as laser rangefinders and laser target designators. Systems like these have been fitted mainly to Russian-designed or influenced vehicles, with mixed success.
Smoke and other masking screens generated by vehicle mounted dispensers are standard on most combat vehicles. These are usually linked to threat warning devices including laser detection systems and acoustic shot detection and location systems like the QinetiQ North America’s EARS and the Raytheon Boomerang. Pyrotechnic advances by companies like LaCroix allow the deployment of specialised projectiles and payloads that can defeat visual, thermal, and IR observation.
Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) remains in widespread use and much attention is being given to reducing its weight and size, though ERA is likely to remain a solution for vehicles with heavier armour due to the need to resist the ERA’s own blast. Greater modularity is being considered as a way to address the logistics of dealing with many different sized ERA panels.
Rheinmetall and IBD Deisenroth Engineering have started development of the AMAP-EL Electric Reactive Armour system, which releases energy from charged capacitors, pushing the outer layers of the armour away when projectiles or shaped charges penetrate it, thereby deflecting the projectile away. The system has an extremely quick reaction time and poses a reduced threat to surrounding troops or civilians, because it does not use explosives.
Lighter weight solutions, at least against hand-held shaped-charge weapons like RPGs, include systems like Q-Net from QinetiQ. This appears to be a cord net that is offset from the sides of the vehicle. This traps or captures the projectile and disrupts its effectiveness. AMSafe Bridport’s Tarian RPG Armour System is similar. The capabilities of systems like these were well established during combat in Afghanistan although their application has been largely to enhance protection on more lightly-protected vehicles.
The greatest attention has been on ‘hard kill’ APSs such as the Raphael/ IAI Trophy and Russian Afghanit systems. These ‘hard kill’ systems target the incoming threat with counter-fire that seeks to kill the threat at some distance from the vehicle. ‘Hard kill’ systems can endanger dismounted infantry accompanying the combat vehicle and others, including nearby civilians. Altering tactics to keep infantry further from the vehicle can reduce this danger. However, this separation inevitably inhibits close co-operation between the infantry and the combat vehicle, which can ultimately make both more vulnerable, particularly when operating in close quarters combat such as in urban and forest areas.
Other APS designs have focused on solutions that reduce the chances of fratricide. The Iron Curtain system designed by Artis aims to defeat incoming projectile right at the vehicle itself. Artis uses radar to detect the incoming round and cue and arm the system. An optical sensor then tracks the threat, selects an aim point and determines which ballistic countermeasure to fire. This deflagrates the RPG warhead without detonating it, leaving the dud round to bounce off the vehicles side. This limits collateral effects.
Rheinmetall’s latest Active Defence System, the ADS-Gen 3 (which completed company testing in January 2018) is a distributed system, surrounding the vehicle with charges that blast the incoming projectile missile just before its intended impact. This can even defeat tandem warheads. By defeating the incoming threat close-in the potential for collateral casualties is significantly reduced.
Raytheon is also developing its Quick Kill APS with the objective of 360° coverage, as well as hemispheric coverage using a projected counter-measure that can engage threats fired from any angle or elevation.
Despite the tactical and technical challenges, and the cost, Active Protection Systems are likely to be fitted to more combat vehicles. The US Army announced in February 2018 that it would acquire the Israeli Trophy APS for 267 M1A2s; approximately one brigade’s worth. It also continues to qualify the IMI Iron Fist for its IFVs and Artis LLC’s Iron Curtain for less well-armoured infantry carriers. The modular design of the latter system allows it to be configured for a wide range of platforms. In addition, in 2017 the Dutch announced their intention to demonstrate the Iron Fist on the CV90 through a contract with BAE Systems, if successful, this would then become the first operational IFV with APS. NORINCO also conducted a live fire demonstration of its own GL-5 APS in August 2017. Finally, in February 2018 Turkey, which has lost tanks to ATGMs in recent operations, announced it would be fitting an indigenous APS, the Aselsan PULAT, to its MBTs. Live vehicle testing will begin in March 2018.
Protection/Survivability – Counter Surveillance
“If you can’t be seen, you can’t be hit.” seems an obvious statement, yet there has been little exploitation of this truism to enhance combat vehicle survivability. Even the latest surveillance and targeting sensors can have their effectiveness degraded through camouflage, concealment and deception. Niklas Alund of SAAB Barracuda suggests that “Individual and integrated counter-surveillance technologies available today are not necessarily seeking to provide invisibility but rather to present an opponent with additional uncertainty on what is already an uncertain battlefield.”
Saab’s Modular Camouflage System (MCS) is specifically configured for combat vehicles allowing them to freely shoot and move while significantly increasing the difficultly that opposing soldiers will encounter when trying to detect, track and effectively engage them. The benefits of MCS and similar systems are becoming more widely recognised. Considering the relatively moderate price of such signature reduction systems it is perhaps surprising that they have not been more widely adopted and fielded. The US Army for example has yet to classify the SAAB system for its combat vehicle fleets despite its adoption by more than seven NATO armies.
Protection/Survivability – Situational Awareness
Situational awareness may be defined as knowing and understanding the tactical situation, and it is critical to survivability and mission success. You need to know the position of friendly forces, and of any enemy forces, detecting potential threats as early as possible and quickly acting against them. The first to see the enemy will gain an advantage. With the easy availability of more compact yet higher resolution video cameras, lower cost night vision systems, and with the ability to display and distribute imagery it is now possible to offer continuous 360° observation from a vehicle, and this can often be viewed by multiple occupants.
Images can be processed and integrated with navigation and position data, and with other battlefield information including maps, graphics, and reconnaissance imagery generated offboard, allowing the viewer to achieve a wider appreciation of his surroundings and the overall tactical environment. This facilitates tactical orders, and enables rapid direction and targeting by commanders at all levels. Carl Johnson at the US Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) suggested that “This combination of shared information may be the single most valuable development for enhancing combat vehicle combat power.”
Advances in technology have allowed the development of digital sensors that offer greater resolution, smaller size, at a more affordable cost, and these can be placed all around a vehicle. The output from all of these multiple sensors (together with pictures from other platforms) can be fused with other data (such as vehicle position and navigation information) into a single integrated picture. BAE Systems’ BattleView 360 can take the imagery from multiple sensors and display them on a helmet-mounted monocle display or on a screen. This allows soldiers inside the vehicle to effectively ‘see through’ armour and to have a 360° view of the outside world. “BattleView 360 focuses on helping soldiers understand their environment, quickly identify hazards and react to rapidly evolving scenarios,” said Dan Lindell, BAE Systems’ platform manager for the CV90 Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
Mobility is broadly defined as the ability to move toward a military objective. Combat systems with higher mobility are able to move more quickly, or across more difficult terrain. Mobility therefore consists of more than top speed and horsepower per tonne, and is more than a vehicle’s ability to undertake extended road marches to shift combat forces to respond to developing situations. It also includes a vehicle’s ability to accelerate and reach cover quickly if engaged, as well as the ability to traverse difficult terrain to attack an opponent from an unexpected direction.
With the introduction of new powerpacks (a powerpack comprises an engine and drivetrain) efficiency, horsepower and torque have continued to increase, sometimes allowing performance lost through survivability and firepower upgrades to be recouped, sometimes increasing overall performance. The development of more compact powerpacks can sometimes allow older vehicles to gain greater power even where the engine space is fixed. This has made powerpack upgrades extremely popular.
For the most recent ECP for the US Army Stryker, General Dynamics Land Systems included a more powerful engine, larger wheels and tyres, more electrical power, and a number of reliability improvements. Similarly the latest CV90 Mark IV has a 1000hp Scania engine and a new X-300 transmission. Dan Lindell, BAE Hagglunds pointed out that: “power-to-weight ratio is only one of the factors that influence mobility. Torque is equally important.” The MTU powerpack in the Puma is another example of a successful upgrade, as Rolf Behrens at Rolls Royce Power Systems explained: “At 1073hp, the MTU V10 892 offers not only greater horsepower per volume but is simpler to service and maintain.”
Suspension performance is a key factor in allowing a combat vehicle to traverse a range of ground conditions in a manner that provides stability for the weapons systems and comfort for the crew and any embarked troops. Increased attention is being given to the contribution of suspension systems in improving on-the-move target acquisition and firing accuracy. It is now routine for 60tonne MBTs to be able to fire accurately while moving at high speed. Beyond that the introduction of adjustable suspensions can offer tactical benefits. Korea’s Black Panther can change its stance in any direction allowing it to sit bow up, or to kneel, or cant to either side.
The adoption of hydro-pneumatic, semi-active and active ride controls has allowed vehicles to move more rapidly over rougher terrain. The adoption of advanced suspension systems, in conjunction with larger tyres and central tyre inflation, have allowed wheeled combat vehicles to carry higher payloads and to assume new combat roles. A member of Patria’s team suggested that “suspension advances and the resulting enhancement of performance and payload have encouraged the increasing adoption of wheeled platforms for combat roles.” The Patria AMV 8×8, for example, is now in service with eight armies and under consideration by three others with versions mounting weapons up to 30mm and offering the same capabilities as many IFVs. France is replacing its tracked AMX-10 with the wheeled VBCI, while Russia is introducing its new Bumerang 8×8 with the same turret as the Kurganets-25 infantry fighting vehicle.
Equipping vehicles with combat systems like these only makes sense if they can be seen to be able to operate where fighting vehicles must go. Wheeled vehicles have always had major advantages in road and trail operations, but their adoption for direct combat roles indicates how far their off-road capabilities have improved. Although tracked vehicles have had the advantage in the most challenging conditions, particularly in vehicles weighing more than 30 tonnes, wheeled vehicles are now closely approaching their performance, in the view of many militaries. Wheeled systems also have lower maintenance and operating costs and have proved to be adaptable to a wide range of roles, thereby offering commonality benefits. This expanded use of wheeled chassis in armoured first line roles is expected to continue especially as tracked combat vehicles become more focused. The Belgian Army is currently undergoing a major re-equipment programme, phasing out all tracked vehicles and replacing them with wheeled vehicles.
The ability to move combat vehicles long distances, especially by air transport, is of growing importance for those armies that expect to undertake expeditionary operations. Such operations demand vehicles with a combination of mobility, protection and firepower. Unfortunately, the payload limits of transport aircraft make it a challenge to provide the right balance of these properties in a lightweight, air transportable vehicle – especially when deployable, major calibre direct fire capability is required. The Leonardo Centauro and Stryker Mobile Protect Gun (MPG) are two examples of systems developed with this focus. Alternatively, CMI Defense Groupe offers gun turrets like its CT-CV 105 that allow vehicles like the AMV and CV90 to offer a significant direct fire capability on a more readily transportable vehicle. The modular armour approach of the German Puma is also focused on facilitating air transportability, since removing armour modules allows the vehicle to be carried by the Airbus A400M. A priority acquisition program of the US Army is its Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) system. Being pursued as a rapid development it is intended to provide an air-transportable, tracked, protected, direct fire vehicle to support deployed infantry combat teams. Awards to provide vehicles for run-off testing are expected later in 2018.
Networked Command & Control
Digitisation and an increase in data processing capabilities are allowing much greater data-sharing, both within the combat vehicle and beyond. Data and imagery can be shared with other vehicles within the tactical unit and to higher command and supporting units. The full benefits and ramifications of gathering and exchanging information in this way are just starting to be realised.
Digitisation and connectivity have been crucial in allowing crew positions to be migrated from a turret into the hull of vehicles like the German Puma IFV and the Russian Armata IFV and MBT. It also has facilitated the reallocation of tasks across a vehicle crew and even to embarked troops. For example, on the latest CV90s anyone on board can view the scene outside from any observation camera, and can also operate the roof mounted RWS. In networked vehicles all occupants gain an unparalleled awareness not just of the immediate surroundings but also, by linking to vehicle position/location, mapping and battle management systems, to the wider tactical situation.
The ability to seamlessly share information between vehicles in real time offers even greater benefits, allowing each combat vehicle within a unit to gain expanded situational awareness. Imagine a scenario in which vehicles are advancing in column. The lead vehicle’s laser warning and/or gun shot detection system alerts it to a threat to which it responds. Simultaneously, all following vehicles are alerted and supplied with the direction and position of this threat even though it may not yet be visible to them. This could allow the whole unit to take more effective action, and the opponent’s attack advantage would now be countered by the combined firepower and manoeuvre of the entire unit. In addition, supporting arms may also be more readily be able to respond as the situation and target information can be readily passed to them.
The tactical information revolution has particularly significant advantages to the implementation of manoeuvre warfare tactics and operations. Here the driving principle objective is to observe, assess, and respond to the battlefield situation more quickly than one’s opponent. By continuously staying ahead of the opponent, a tactical advantage can be gained, and their responses can be rendered ineffective or even irrelevant. The ability to gather and share information more rapidly has the potential to allow a more rapid ‘OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop’ – which is key to gaining such an advantage over the enemy.