The Most Powerful Enemy of a Main Battle Tank

It was for decades said that the best way to kill a main battle tank was with another main battle tank. Today, however, the MBT faces new threats. For a start, thin topsides mean that munitions which penetrate from above are the most significant threat on the battlefield. But before the battle is even joined, new warfare mobility requirements and budgets conspire to put more lighter armor into service, reducing the MBT numbers.

The main Western tank-building nations now have current generation Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) in their armies. In some cases production continues, in others only upgrades to existing MBTs are required, but in either case the work the manufacturers can expect from the home market is clearly defined and limited. At the same time, export markets have become more difficult. A substantial number of potential customers must doubt the utility of the latest MBTs for their requirements, especially since relatively modern and useful previous generation MBTs are becoming available at bargain prices as NATO reduces its tank fleets in accordance with arms reduction treaties and post-Cold War economies.

As a result, the post-Cold War pattern of industrial restructuring has been for some companies to merge or take over smaller companies in order to get the advantages of (relative) size and (more nearly) monopolistic position. They are aided in this by other companies adopting a strategy of leaving the defense business or retaining only a small niche market. The trend is well known in aviation. What has attracted less attention is that it has been happening in the armored vehicle field, too.

As in aviation, the most sweeping changes have come in the United States. BMY Combat Systems and FMC Corporation merged to become United Defense LP. General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), hitherto focused on the heavy M-1 Abrams MBT, broadened its holdings to include more smaller AFVs and subsystems. It acquired Teledyne Land Systems and several parts of General Electric, which new owner Lockheed Martin was prepared to hive off. United Defense and GDLS are now the big two in US armored vehicle manufacture. Also, like the aviation industry, Europe has put forward many fine ideas but achieved little beyond national boundaries. In particular the hesitation and reluctance to denationalize which has marked French efforts both internally and internationally applies to their military vehicle companies, too.

Meanwhile, British industry remains split three ways. Vickers Defence Systems builds heavy AFVs, mainly the Challenger 2 but also the lighter MBT Mk3 for export. GKN and Alvis Vehicles focus on still lighter types, but both have moved to expand across the light and medium weight ranges. Most recently, Alvis added medium weight vehicles to its range by acquiring Sweden's Hagglunds Vehicles, makers of the CV90 series.

In Germany, Rheinmetall already owns MaK while Krauss-Maffei inaugurates 1999 by merging with Wegmann on January 1 to form KMW. Both groups are hoping to take over Austria's sole AFV manufacturer, Steyr-Daimler-Puch Spezialfahrzeug AG & Co. Its current owner, Austria's MAGNA Group, put it up for sale in November 1998 after deciding to withdraw from military manufacturing altogether. This in spite of the fact that Steyr-Daimler-Puch has good order books at present and is likely to continue so. A management buyout is also being proposed, but acquisition by one of the German big two would represent a considerable concentration of industrial power. Germany is already proposing that the basis for a merged Western European arms industry should be a UK-dominated aviation industry balanced by a German-dominated AFV industry. These moves take the idea almost as far as it can go on a purely German basis.

The last survey of MBTs and other heavy armor, in the October 1997 Strategic Policy, focused on Western and Israeli developments. Little has happened to amend the picture presented then.

Research for the longer term focuses on a tangle of problems related to the growth of armor protection. On the one hand this made most sideattack anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) ineffective against MBTs, leading to the development of a new generation of top-attack ATGMs which overfly the target and fire a charge down into its roof. Since armoring the roof to the same basis as the sides would increase the weight of the vehicle to unacceptable levels, something else must be done.

On the other hand, the continuing development of side armor has called into question the effectiveness of current tank guns as weapons to defeat another MBT. NATO has for some years been looking at heavier guns, standardizing on 140mm for its studies. Besides US programs, the main thrust is a joint French-German-UK project. But there is still a school of thought which points to previous successes in achieving better armor-piercing performance by improving the ammunition and enhancing the performance of existing calibers. Both offer promise. Krauss-Maffei has showed the prototype Leopard 2A6, a Leopard 2A5 mounting a 120mm smoothbore gun lengthened to 52 caliber. Several European nations have taken advantage of the reduced holdings of current NATO Leopard 2 users to acquire Leopard 2s and apply varying levels of upgrade to them. Austria, Denmark, Spain and Sweden have joined the Leopard club in this way. While Sweden's 2S model is currently the most advanced, actually being superior to the German Army's 2A5 model, the first candidate for the 52 caliber gun is rumored to be Spain. Its forthcoming Leopard 2E is said to be the 2S with the longer gun.

And on the third hand (an invaluable attribute for any tank crewman even in today's more automated vehicles) the increased focus on strategic mobility means increased emphasis on lighter vehicles. It is not that there is no role for the heavy MBT, but that other things have a greater call on funding than they used to. In any case, the MBT is now nearing 70 tons, a figure which would have been dismissed as totally unacceptable a generation ago. Even today, the prospect of a further increase is worrying, and both bigger guns and more armor cause further weight increases.

Hence armies and manufacturers are examining a range of radical new concepts. Most extreme is the US Army Future Combat System. (The name is chosen expressly to avoid the implication that an MBT is all that is needed.) The object of FCS is to develop a vehicle more capable in all respects than current MBTs, which is to enter service around 2015. Given the futuristic technologies being considered, this date seems optimistic. A wide range of solutions is being evaluated, most notably a 57-ton three-man MBT with a pedestal-mounted gun, a 55-ton two-man MBT with all-electric systems (electric propulsion, electric rail gun and, most ambitious of all, electric armor), and a 40-ton two-man MBT. In support, a 10-ton airmobile antitank vehicle is being considered in electric and conventional versions. The latter provokes memories of the XM-8 105mm antitank vehicle recently canceled simply because the US Army could not find the funds to buy it. With that example in mind, it may be that the FCS is another project to develop wonderful concepts without much thought given to the price of a production order. It is uncontroversial simply because it involves limited spending in the near future.

Indeed the near future problems of Western design teams are minor compared to those of their Russian opposite numbers. Their current generation MBTs are the result of decades of upgrades, and the scope for further development is nearly at an end. Within the budget constraints of the Russian economy, Russia is somewhat in the situation Western nations may be in 10 to 20 years time. How they approach their problems is therefore of particular interest.

Operation Desert Storm showed up some serious deficiencies in former-Soviet equipment. The lessons were taken on board, not least in MBTs. In so far as finances permitted, upgrades to Russian MBTs were developed within two years. This suggests that development had already begun, but the Soviet Union threw money into many development programs. The telling point is that funding for the MBT upgrades seems to have continued after the economic collapse. In particular, thermal sights were being fitted by 1992.

However in that year the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it could no longer afford to manufacture two MBTs in parallel. Since not only the "quality" T-80U but also the cheaper "quantity" T-72B were each only being built at one plant, and each plant was critical to the economy of the city it was in, the Government gave tiny orders to both. Omsk built five T-80Us and Nizhni Tagil 15 T-72s, and both built more against the hope of winning large export orders. Nizhni Tagil had built a few T-72BMs, T-72Bs upgraded with a third generation add-on Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) called Kontakt-5, which was already in service on T-80U. To further improve the T-72's export prospects and its chances of being selected as Russia's sole production MBT, the T-80U's more sophisticated fire control system was also added to produce a vehicle designated T-72BU. Finally, since worldwide news coverage during Desert Storm had firmly established the image of the T-72 as a burning Iraqi tank, the new model was renamed T-90. The designation was picked up in the West, but not what it represented. For several years there was confusion over just what the T-90 was.

THE DEFENSE MINISTRY finally made its selection of a single MBT in 1995. By then the heavy fighting in Grozny had been shown around the world and the reputation of Russian tanks was again sullied. Although many casualities were due to bad tactics and many T-72s were also lost, it was the knocked-out T-80s which made an impression. More had been expected of the quality MBT. Whatever the explanation, it was under a cloud. This is alleged to have tipped the balance against T-80 in the selection. Not that much was needed to do this. The T-80 was already more expensive and its delicate, fuel-hungry turbine engine was still giving problems. That, with all this, it could not actually succeed where the T-72 failed simply brought the matter home in an unmistakable way. In January 1996, Col.-Gen. Aleksandr Galkin, Chief of the Main Armor Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, announced that the T-90 had been selected as the sole Russian MBT. Its production would be phased in. Yet in September of the same year, he stated that he personally considered the T-80U to be the better tank. It was a demonstration of the uncertainties within the Army. Within the past year there have been reports that the decision to concentrate on the T-90 may yet be reversed.

In any case, both T-72 and T-80 had their origins in such old designs that they were nearing the end of their upgrade capability. A new design was needed. Rumors of this began, but it was not until October 1997 that a vehicle called Black Eagle was exhibited. It was suggested that it might enter service in 1999-2000, but it later emerged that the prototypes shown were incomplete testbeds. They mounted a standard 125mm smoothbore gun with an improved automatic loader, said to permit the carriage of improved ammunition types, mounted in the turret bussle. But part of the bussle was itself a mockup. Reports speak of several design bureaus working on new MBTs, probably with a larger caliber gun and matching autoloader. This would correspond with Western thinking, which centered on a 140mm gun, but any such program faced one major problem.

The Russian Army was seriously short of funds. It estimated that it needed 300 new MBTs per year to modernize its fleet, but only 60 to 80 were ordered in 1995 and 58 more in 1996 were only funded by allocating money from the 1997 budget. The factories kept going by building tanks on spec, in the hope of large export orders. They were reported to have some 350 T-72s and T-90s and 150-200 T-80Us stockpiled at the end of 1996.

By then enough destroyed T-72s and T-80s had appeared in news coverage of wars from Desert Storm to Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia to seriously damage export prospects for modernized versions of these tanks. A few T-80Us were sold to Cyprus and more went to South Korea in settlement of Russian debts, but that was all.

To rub things in, the Ukrainian Morozov Design Bureau developed the T-80 more effectively. The Malyshev plant production line now builds the T-80UD, with a fuel-efficient local diesel engine replacing the T-80U's turbine. Pakistan ordered 320 in 1996 and the first was delivered in 1997. Besides upgrade packages for the T-72, the Ukraine has collaborated with Czech PSP and France's SAGEM on the elaborate T-72AG upgrade. The Ukraine has now developed a prototype of an improved T-80UD, designated T-84, and is actively seeking export orders. Not content with all this, the Ukraine made a stir at the Eurosatory 98 exhibition by exhibiting new 120mm and 140mm smoothbore guns which it described as to NATO standards and compatible with the future NATO gun respectively. There was polite skepticism about even the first of these claims, unless someone has been giving the Ukraine the technical documentation of the German-designed weapon. The exhibit also included a model of a T-72 mounting the 120mm gun and with its autoloader replaced by a drum autoloader in the turret bussle. It will be interesting to follow Ukrainian progress in the export market. It has already made a good start.

Nor is it alone. The number of T-72s in service around the world with countries which cannot afford a replacement in the foreseeable future combines with their perceived inadequacy to create a promising market for upgrade packages. Several of these countries are among those seeking admission to NATO, a fact which gave rise to an interesting spectacle in November 1998. NATO Land Group 2 met to consider preferred ways of upgrading T-72s to make them more compatible with NATO systems. Of the first group of applicants, the Czech Republic and Poland both built T-72 under license and have already developed national upgrades. The Czech one was developed at the Military Repair Plant (VOP) 25, and is awaiting a production order. Polish industry produced the T-72M1Z and Wilk upgrades and has gone on to build the PT-91 Twardy development. This has now entered service. Other countries offering upgrades include Slovakia, with the T-72M1-A, and Croatia, where RH ALAN has restarted production of the M-84AB.

Many of these incorporate key subsystems provided by Western companies. The full measure of the potential market is that France's DGA showed what it termed "the official French T-72 retrofit kit" at the Eurosatory 98 armaments exhibition.

All this may explain why the long-rumored T-90 has finally gone on show outside Russia. The T-90S variant appeared at the IDEX military exhibition at Abu Dhabi in March 1997. But export results are still not encouraging.

The T-90 does show a continuing convergence with Western designs. It is more heavily protected than T-80, both with fixed armor which includes some of Chobham type and with the latest generation Kontakt-5 ERA. Weight has increased. The late model T-80U's 46,000kg was already 4,000kg above the early T-80, T-90 goes up a further 4,000kg to 50,000 kg. Until a new powerplant can be fitted, this leaves the T-90 noticeably more sluggish than its predecessors.

But the most interesting feature of the T-90 is that its protection goes one better by incorporating the Shtora-1 Defensive Aids System (DAS). This aims to protect the vehicle against two of its major threats; the long-established ATGMs with semi-active command to line of sight (SACLOS) guidance and the more recent laser-guided shells and ATGMs. In its current form it includes a laser warning receiver with one or two pairs of coarse and fine sensors, mounted externally on the turret. These detect any laser illuminating the vehicle and notify the control system, which may inform the crew or begin automatic countermeasures, as preferred.

The standard countermeasure for laser guided systems is the discharge of new-type smoke grenades from launchers of types already standard on T-series MBTs. The new grenades create an aerosol cloud which the manufacturers claim will block laser designators, preventing missiles from homing on laser light reflected from the target. It will also block laser rangefinders, but this is of limited value since the initial laser will have given the attacking tank the correct range, enabling it to fire at least one accurate shot through the smokescreen. The cloud is also claimed to be hot enough to decoy the more rare infrared homing missiles away from the vehicle, but the decoy will be in line with the target, so this, too, probably has limited effect.

The second component of Shtora-1 is the TShU1-7 electro-optical jammer. All installations seen to date feature a pair of these, turret-mounted on either side of the main gun. SACLOS missiles depend on a tracker in the firing system monitoring infrared emissions from a flare at the base of the missile, and sending corrections if the missile departs from the direct line of flight to the target. An e-o jammer sends out similar signals to the flare, but modulated in such a way as to confuse the tracker and lead it to send false course correction to the missile. Early SACLOS systems were extremely vulnerable to this. The tracker might even be confused by a flare or ordinary fire near the target. More recent trackers screen out heat sources unlike the missile's flare, making the success of the jammer depend on the closeness with which it imitates the missile flare.

Apparently fitted as standard on the T-90, Shtora-1 is also a fairly straightforward upgrade to existing MBTs. It has already been shown fitted on T-80U and Ukrainian T-84 MBTs. In contrast, Western manufacturers have developed several e-o jammers, but no Western army fitted them until they began preparations for Desert Storm. Then the US Army fitted the Loral VLQ-6 Missile Countermeasures Device and later bought Sanders VLQ-8As, equipping M-1A1 Abrams MBTs and M-2/3 Bradley AIVs. Likewise the French adopted the GIAT Decoy S to AMX-30B2 MBTs and the CS Defense Eirel to AMX-10RCs. (Incidentally, Iraq had begun fitting jammers on at least some of its T-72s before Desert Storm.)

Likewise Western manufacturers have also developed a number of laser detectors but Western armies have been even slower to begin fitting them as standard. Italy's Ariete MBT is fielding a GEC-Marconi system linked to a Galix 80mm grenade launcher. This can fire a wide range of rounds including infrared countermeasures and anti-personnel grenades. But the launcher has the same problem as the many conventional launchers which have been in service for decades, usually for launching smoke grenades: it consists of too few barrels to permit a substantial number of discharges, and the crew must reload it slowly by hand while outside the turret. Significantly, Israel thinks it worthwhile to fit its Merkava 3 MBTs with an advanced laser detector, and retrofit its older MBTs with a simpler model. The only other MBT with a laser detector is Japan's Type 90.

The problem is that more threats are coming. Active millimetric radar homing is now a possible threat, so there is a case for detectors and jammers for this, too. Users face a situation on which the MBT is overburdened with expensive specialized systems.

This is one reason why the alternative of active defense is being considered. (It helps that the technology to produce a useful system has only become available recently.) If Western armies have been reluctant to field passive systems, they hesitate even more over active defense. But now that a new generation of ATGMs threatens the tank in ways which cannot be stopped by increased conventional armor, active systems are being reevaluated.

Again it is Russia which is leading the field, at least in published and tested work. The Arena active defense system mounts an active radar at the rear of the turret top to detect incoming missiles. It feeds the information to a computer which fires one of a ring of explosive devices around the turret. The Russians claim that it will work against kinetic energy rounds as well as ATGMs. This may be optimistic. Indeed the whole system is still unproven, but some kind of active interceptor is now technically possible against ATGMs at least. It may not be affordable.

Most Western armies take the attitude that it is better to spend money on research at present. Projects are examining all the options with a view to combining the most cost-effective in an integrated defensive aids suite (DAS) in which active and passive defenses are all controlled through the vehicle's computer. The long-term possibilities are impressive. But as we remarked about the US Army's FCS project in the previous article, there is a suggestion that research teams are packing every interesting idea they can into the program rather than focusing on what is the best affordable option for a battlefield system.

Widely as they differ in other respects, all the major MBT variants described earlier in the FCS itself share great emphasis on a powerful DAS. This is a useful field of research and one which could offer a major improvement in the future MBT. It might even be the main thing which guarantees that the MBT has a long-term future. But it will need to be strictly controlled if it is to do so and not merely be an expensive body of pure research.