The claim that the tank or armoured vehicles in general are obsolete, is one that has been made for decades.
The increased capability and falling costs of ATGWs is often quoted as an argument.
Others will point out that lighter anti-tank weapons like the RPG or thermobaric weapons like the RPO give an infantryman greater destructive power than artillery of a few decades ago.
It is true an infantryman so armed is stealthier than any vehicle and correctly positioned can do considerable damage. On the downside, he can only carry a limited quantity of ammunition. An RPG operator can seldom carry more than three or four rounds. Only one or two larger weapons can be carried, and then often at the expense of food, shelter and other important equipment.
The infantryman will probably be part of a squad and this partially alleviates the problem, but realistically a squad will probably only be able to carry less than a dozen such rounds. If a unit is on foot, it can only move a few miles per hour.
Tank designers like to talk about the “Mobility : Firepower : Protection Triangle”. Most people fail to realize this concept applies to other battlefield systems too. An infantryman with an RPO has considerable firepower, but it is acute rather than sustainable.
The infantryman can move on a variety of terrains, but only slowly. His main protection is stealth.
Using a vehicle allows an infantry unit to carry more armament and move faster. It also makes them much easier to detect.
Unarmoured vehicles are vulnerable to everything, including a single individual with an AK-47. Just as ATGWs get more sophisticated, so too do other systems.
Several modern weapons make it practical to enforce “no-drive zones”.
It is quite conceivable that in a couple of decades or less a contested area could be patrolled by inexpensive drones the size and shape of local birds. These weapons glide on thermals and use solar power to stay aloft for days at a time. When they encounter an unauthorized vehicle they dive into it and destroy it with a grenade-sized warhead.
Logically, history will repeat itself. To bring enough firepower, you will need a vehicle to transport it. To prevent the vehicle being destroyed by the lightest of weapons, it needs protection. The wider the choice of courses a vehicle has the less chance it has of being attacked, so cross-country ability becomes useful. Soon you have a tracked, armoured vehicle.
More sophisticated attack systems will mean more sophisticated countermeasures, however. In addition to passive armour, a future vehicle will have systems that detect and actively attempt to neutralize incoming threats.
The “suicide bird” drones I suggest above might be countered by automatically aimed shotguns, for example.
If personnel-carrying armoured vehicles such as the APC are unlikely to disappear, what about the tank?
A combat system is unlikely to disappear while there is still a need for it and no better alternative.
What IS a tank? Do tanks exist simply to fight other tanks? No, they do not.
Tanks blow stuff up! They are “battlefield bullies”. They can destroy anything that might be a problem and can carry enough ammunition to keep doing this without slackening off the pressure. Their defences mean they do not have to withdraw as soon as the enemy starts fighting back.
Tanks are also mobile machine gun nests that can mow down any infantry or lightly armoured vehicle unfortunate enough to be noticed.
In recent decades, the surveillance capability of modern tanks has become better appreciated. The thermal imager and other systems on a modern tank allow it to see further and better under certain conditions than an infantryman can.
I believe the distinction between tanks, IFVs and APCs will continue to blur. APCs and IFVs have become better armoured and heavier. Tanks have had to become more versatile.
New weapons and technologies are going to change the form of tanks and other AFVs.
The following passages are some speculation on one possible form that a tank of the near future may take. We will call this type of tank the “Thunderback”.
At first glance, the Thunderback looks like a Heavy-IFV or “Tank Personnel Carrier”. In fact, the same hull is used for a number of variant vehicles including personnel carriers.
The Thunderback has a more extensive sensor and target-acquisition suite than its IFV stablemates.
Instead of seating and equipment storage, the rear compartment of the hull contains more than forty vertical launch missile tubes. The missile tubes are arranged on pallets and the vehicle can be reloaded by sliding pallets horizontally in and out of the rear doors of the hull.
The missile most commonly loaded in the Thunderback is designated “Jaguar” and is an evolution of the Brimstone and earlier Hellfire missiles.
Jaguar resembles these weapons in appearance and like them in that it has a 178mm diameter, is 1.8m long and weighs about 49 kg. Velocity is around 450 m/s or Mach 1.3. The standard warhead is a 9 kg tandem shaped-charge with considerable blast and fragmentation effects.
Jaguar has a tri-mode seeker that uses a combination of millimetre-wave radar and passive imaging infrared (IIR) CCD. A semi-active laser homing mode (SALH) allows the launch vehicle or a friendly unit to designate a target. Jaguar is a fire and forget weapon, so will continue to home in on a designated target even if the laser illumination is removed.
Just before launch, the Jaguar is programmed with a flight plan.
Unlike its ancestor designs, Jaguar uses a gimballed motor and thrust vectoring control technology, possibly similar to that developed for the Taildog SRAAM. This makes the Jaguar highly manoeuvrable and allows it to rapidly assume its programmed course soon after vertical launch.
The flight behaviour programmed into a Jaguar can be quite sophisticated. Jaguars may be used against targets that are not within line of sight. Thunderbacks will often fire on targets located by the formation’s drones, infantrymen or other sources. Such targets can be designated by a third party or a missile fired into the general area so the Jaguar’s systems can lock on independently.
As well as taking an obvious parabola to descend directly on the target, Jaguar may take a less direct route. It may use terrain features for cover and to approach the target from an unexpected or poorly protected direction. The missile’s millimetric radar allows terrain avoidance and terrain following flight options.
The Jaguar missile can be programmed to only search for targets within a certain area or of a certain type.
If a target is in close proximity, the vertically launching Jaguar will make a 270 degree loop in another direction to then approach the target horizontally.
Jaguar can be used to engage targets in excess of 12 km and may even be used against slow-moving aircraft.
A dedicated higher-velocity anti-aircraft missile can be launched from the same tubes.
The launch tubes of the Thunderback can also carry simpler GPS/INS guided bombardment missiles with a variety of alternate warheads including submunitions and thermobarics. There are also loitering munitions compatible with the Jaguar launch tubes.
Thunderback is not just a long-range artillery or anti-armour vehicle, however. It is a tank, and as such also needs weapons for self-protection or so that it can support the infantry in closer range, more direct combat when required. (My thanks to Riley Amos, who suggested that a Hellfire-based missile may be too long and that something more like the Israeli Spike NLOS might be a viable alternative).
The main weapon of a traditional tank is usually a high-velocity gun. Most modern designs are of either 120mm or 125mm calibre.
The long barrel of such weapons can prove problematic in close terrain.
Most potential targets on the battlefield do not require this much gun.
The Jaguar missile can deal with well-protected targets such as MBTs and heavy bunkers, so the large-calibre gun becomes unnecessary.
Eliminating the heavy large-calibre tank gun allows for a lighter, more compact turret more suited to engaging fast-moving air and ground targets. The high elevation mounting of such a weapon allows better engagement of targets in mountainous and urban terrain.
The considerable weight-saving made by not using a traditional tank gun can be used for other systems.
The main gun mounted on the Thunderback’s turret is a dual-feed 35/50mm Bushmaster III automatic cannon configured to use the 50x330mm Supershot round.
Rate of fire of the Bushmaster III is 200rpm. (A water-cooled 35/50mm weapon with a cyclic rate of 1,000rpm is mounted on a dedicated air-defence variant of the Thunderback. Alternately the air-defence variant of the Thunderback may mount the 25mm GAU-12 cannon with a cyclic rate of up to 4,200 rpm)
The 50mm APFSDS-T round for the Bushmaster III fires a 640 g tungsten penetrator at a muzzle velocity of 1,600m/s. A short burst of such rounds will probably neutralize lightly armoured MBTs such as the widely used T-72.
The 50mm HETF-T round is also interesting in that its fuse can be automatically set an instant before firing so that the round will airburst, giving increased hit probability against fast-moving targets and enemies behind cover. The setting of different rounds in a burst can be varied to give a wider pattern of coverage.
The Bushmaster III is a highly effective and capable weapon and is supplemented by a co-axial .50 calibre machine gun, possibly a GECAL GAU-19 with a variable rate of fire of up to 1,300rpm.
Both weapons have an independent battery supply, allowing them to operate for some time in the event of a general power problem.
An alternative to the 35/50mm Bushmaster III is to give the Thunderback a 57mm main gun. A Russian company offers the AU-220M turret with a 57mm autocannon firing at 80/120 rpm. A variant also mounting the 9M120 Ataka ATGW has been suggested as a possible armament for the T-15 Armata. This proposal is reminiscent of the experimental German Marder variant with 57mm gun and TOW launcher.
The Thunderback-57 would probably mount a variant of the Bofors L/70. Programmable ammunition for this weapon already exists, and guided ammunition is under development.
The Bofors 57mm 3P round is programmable and offers air-burst, proximiry and impact-delay modes.
At time of writing, I do not know of any 57mm APFSDS rounds in production. The sub-projectile for the 50mm Supershot could be fitted with a wider sabot. IMI and OTO Melara worked on a 60mm Hypervelocity gun (HVMS). The HVMS was mounted on a turret compatible with a 1.5 metre diameter ring.
The APFSDS-T loads for the HVMS had a muzzle velocity of 1,620 to 1.680 m/s and mass of 870 g, losing only 90-95 m/s at 1,000m. Penetration is claimed to be 120-125mm RHA/60°/2,000m. These sub-projectiles might be adapted to 57mm firing, so too might the APFSDS sub-projectile designed for the 60mm gun-mortar.
A Thunderback armed with a 57mm gun and Jaguar missiles would be a threat to nearly any airborne or ground targets on the battlefield. The 57mm gun will bring down the most heavily armoured of helicopters. The few ground targets too tough for the gun may be destroyed with the missiles.
Riley Amos has advocated a Thunderback armed with the 76mm gun discussed on the Tankita page
An effective fighting vehicle needs to be able to lay down fire to several quadrants at once, so the Thunderback emulates a feature of the Vietnam-era M113 ACAV (left). On the rear deck, on either side of the missile-launch ports, there is a secondary turret that can be operated by remote control by any of the crewmen. Each turret mounts a .50 HMG and a 40x53mm Automatic Grenade Launcher.
The grenade launchers are capable of using programmable air-burst ammunition and have the associated sighting systems.
The HMGs are dual-feed CIS 50s.
The AGLs are a cost-effective system for engaging infantry and light vehicles at ranges of more than 2,000 metres.
The HMGs have even greater range and are useful against faster moving air and ground targets or in situations where the grenades may cause collateral casualties.
The optics and stability of the turret allow the HMGs to be used with considerable precision at ranges of more than half a mile.
It is possible that the Thunderback will not have space to mount these secondary turrets and carry 40 missiles of the Jaguar’s size and weight.
In such an event, two variants of Thunderback will be present in a platoon: A “Bull tank” with a full complement of missiles and a “Bitch” mounting secondary turrets and a smaller number of missiles.
The main turret may also have a pod of 2.75" CRV-7 rockets.
These versatile weapons provide an intermediate level of firepower between the 50mm cannon and the Jaguar missiles.
Both unguided and laser-homing variants of 2.75" rockets can be used, and a variety of warhead types are available including HE, HEDP, MPSM, anti-tank flechette, and general-purpose or anti-personnel flechette.
The pod-mounting points can also be used to mount other weapons, including Jaguar missiles for the rare eventuality that vertical-launch tubes cannot be used.
High Velocity Kinetic Energy Missiles might also be used from such mountings.
The IFV variant of the Thunderback will probably use turret-mounted missiles, hull-space being used for infantry or other cargo.
In addition to these offensive weapon systems, the Thunderback has a wide variety of defensive systems, both active and passive.
The wide availability of effective man-portable anti-tank weapons means that attacks may come from any direction. Modern and future fighting vehicles will need all-round protection, observation and fields of fire.
The most obvious defensive feature of Thunderback is the smaller turret perched on top of the main turret.
This smaller turret mounts an XM214 mini-gun, capable of shooting down incoming anti-tank weapons at medium range.
The XM214 weapon can also be used for more local defence. Since it has independent traverse, it can fire in a separate direction to the main cannon and wing turrets.
The XM214 is supplemented by a DEW Laser or MASER mounted alongside it.
Fragmentation, smoke and countermeasure launch systems (right) are mounted several places on the hull for threats that get very close.
Tanks such as the Tiger and Abrams have caused the layman to think that tanks must be invulnerable to do their job. When a weapon appears that can damage a tank it is announced that the tank is obsolete.
Confusingly, less well-protected weapon systems then get offered as alternatives!
Most tanks and armoured fighting vehicles throughout history have never enjoyed the immunity to damage the Tiger and Abrams have had, yet have been effective battlefield systems.
Unlike earlier generations of tank, the Thunderback has a variety of active defence systems, some of which have already been described.
A variety of sensor systems can detect and locate various threats or potential threats.
The Thunderback’s ability to launch its missiles against targets not in line of sight reduces its exposure to direct fire too.
Passive armour still pays a part in keeping the Thunderback alive.
The Thunderback’s base “skin” is similar to that of many IFVs, and provides protection against close proximity explosions, fragments, small arms and light cannon.
Vital systems within the vehicle have additional levels of protection.
Spacing, Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) and a variety of materials are utilized.
The outside of the Thunderback is surrounded by a cage against HEAT warheads. Just within this, a layer of mesh prematurely tumbles smaller kinetic energy rounds.
This cage is not visible, however, since like the smocks of the infantrymen it supports, the Thunderback conceals its armour beneath a caparison of flame-proof camouflage netting.
A dozer blade on the front of the vehicle serves a variety of roles and also provides additional protection against frontal attack.
The underside of the Thunderback is shaped to counter mine attacks. The running gear and tracks are designed to vent and redirect mine blasts.
The Thunderback’s passive defences are designed to be modular, so protection level can be increased if necessary. If necessary spaces between the armour layers can simply be packed with dirt or sand.
The main turret is unmanned and remotely controlled but does include a “chimney” with a cupola that a crewman can ascend if he wishes to view the surroundings “heads-up” from a high vantage point.
Above the mini-gun turret is the main sensor cluster which can be raised up for a higher vantage point.
Other sensors and cameras are mounted with the weapons and at other key locations.
All of the crew are positioned down in the hull and have controls and displays that allow them to each drive or operate any weapons system.
It is feasible that crewmen will wear VR goggles and enjoy a virtual transparent armour view of the battlefield.
The primary driving position has low-tech, non-electronic periscopes, as does the emergency operating positions for the main turret.
With the exception of the Jaguar missile, all of the weapon systems proposed for the Thunderback already exist.
Except for the vertical-launch capability, the Brimstone missile is essentially the Jaguar. If anything, I have been rather conservative in my estimation of the Jaguar’s range.
Vertical launch is already being used for land vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missile systems such as the Russian Tor (SA-15).
Highly agile thrust-vectoring systems such as used on the Taildog SRAAM were successfully being fired in the 1970s.
By the Author of the Scrapboard :
Attack, Avoid, Survive: Essential Principles of Self Defence
Available in Handy A5 and US Trade Formats.
Crash Combat Second Edition with additional content.
Epub edition Second Edition with additional content.
Crash Combat Third Edition
Epub edition Third Edition.