The Future of Land Warfare and the Tank

Future Tank

As we approach the 2020 Strategic Defence and Security Review, there are wild ideas circulating in the press about vital military capabilities that may be axed. The impairment of the tank in particular would significantly decrease the deterrence capability provided by British armed forces.

Tanks have demonstrated key roles in both the First and Second Iraq War. In the former, tanks dominated the battlefield with thermal sensors that completely outclassed their Russian counterparts. In the latter British Challenger 2's were very effective in an urban combat role. Additionally, in Afghanistan forces that deployed tanks significantly reduced their casualty rates. Upon examination of these three examples the evidence points to the conclusion that tanks are a vital component in land warfare. Therefore, the idea to scrap Britain's heavy tank divisions and armoured personnel carriers would rank among some of the most horrendous defence blunders since the cancellation of the TSR2. Notably, not a single large army (especially the US, Russia and China) have considered such a move.

Whatever justification is being made, the decision to decrease British tanks is driven by budget cuts rather than security imperatives. Britain should be spending more instead of less on defence. This should be done in a way that feeds jobs and money back into the economy with a revamped and efficient military-industrial complex.

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Zumwlatt

The US Navy's Zumwalt class destroyer demonstrates the sloped design of modern stealth that tanks should be replicating from both the horizontal and vertical perspective

Returning to the future of future land warfare and Britain’s armoured divisions, it is imperative to admit the weapons systems in existence are no doubt at or near the end of their effective life. However, instead of scrapping them we should be looking at what can be done to replace them at a time when revolutions in military affairs are abundant.

I believe it is important to remember that it was Britain who developed the tank in 1915. It was Britain who evolved the design and tactical deployment so that by August 1918 it had become a war-winning weapon. This is a story I have detailed and explained in my book Lions Led By Lions. This innovative drive did not stem from the established 'old' British Army who still believed cavalry was relevant on the modern battlefield. It came from the energy and vision provided by new officers drawn into the war effort from the civilian world. These were people who solved problems using creativity, not tradition. Today, the British army desperately needs this revolutionary energy it possessed in the First World War to successfully defeat a traditional tank army like the one Putin is now rearming with APC's and T14 Armata tanks.

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T14

Russia's new T14 Tank on display

Let us take a minute to exercise foresight and imagine what a revolutionary tank may look like in the years ahead. Originally, tanks were known as land battleships and it's ironic that modern naval weaponry once more provides a good guideline to the tanks evolution.

  1. Portable. The Armarta was designed to be 48 tonnes so that four at a time may be deployed from a heavy lift aircraft. Similar considerations should be applied.
  2. Automated. The crew should be reduced to a maximum of two, coupled with an autoloaded gun (like the T14). Similarly, all the driving sensor and battlefield systems should be automated to the point where the tank can be remotely controlled. 
  3. Powerplant. ln a modern warship, power is at the heart of all the systems from propulsion to weapons. So a hybrid diesel-electric system, with battery storage, would be ideal to drive a new tank. This would also provide the capability of an infrared stealth mode using electric power.
  4. Camouflage/Stealth. For years, planes and ships have been deploying stealth technology to reduce their battlefield signature. This technology on the battlefield could be a game-changer by creating tanks and AFVs that are invisible to radar and may include the following.
    1. Optical camouflage provided by cameras and electric photo camouflage that changes the colours of the tank to match its exact surroundings continuously like an octopus.
    2. Radar/stealth technology through ablation and reflection using sloping surfaces, coupled with active cancellation technology.
    3. Infrared. Adapting the tanks' surface to the temperature of its surroundings is a technology still in development, but is one that will no doubt come to fruition.
  5. Weapons systems.
    1. Sensors IR/radar. The T14 mounts a small phased array radar on its turret with a 100km plus range for air defence. This confers the ability for the new tank to operate its own integrated air defence bubble. Additionally, the radars could be used to locate the firing positions of incoming and transiting fire with an auto engage mode that quickly suppresses it. The same system can be used for point defence of the tank or AFVs.
    2. Main offensive armament. Most tanks are armed with 125mm smoothbore guns. The natural upgrade would be a 155mm gun. This could be autoloaded and outranges the competition. This same turret should be designed to be replaced by a future rail gun. If a rail gun turret can be designed to move through a full 90 degrees elevation, it could be designed for use against aircraft and for indirect fire. The latter would reduce the need for artillery and a single design could be used in both roles. If this were to happen, the integration of armoured and artillery units would be a game-changer on the battlefield.
    3. The secondary armament of a chain gun, anti-tank and short-range anti-air missiles. These could be replaced/supplemented by a laser when lasers become operational.
    4. Self-defence. The Russians have deployed systems that can intercept incoming missiles travelling at 3000m/s, such as Arena and the Afghanit active protection system. This capability is a must have for self-defence.
  6. Design. Warships like the US  Zumwalt destroyers possess incredible stealth properties as a result of sloped designs to reflect radar waves. Similarly, sloped armour increases penetration resistance. The ultimate shape could be a very clean, elongated pyramid with sides that extend over the tracks which can be collapsed for transportation. Whilst the width of the tank is limited, it could be extended in length if the extra volume is needed to carry the weapons load. This would also make its intrinsic design the basis of the Armoured Personnel Carrier as the Russians did with the T14. This single concept could now replace tanks, heavy artillery and APC's with one common design.
  7. Multi-Role Modules. Like modern warships that can embark different modules to specialise in different capabilities, the rear section of this new slightly longer tank design could have space for various modules: HQ and troop command, troop carrier, extra ammunition storage for the Artillery optimised role, drone and missile modules. The net effect would be that this new tank design could replace the majority of the multitude of vehicles in operation, and simultaneously increase the army's combat power by a significant quantum, as well as reducing acquisition and maintenance costs.
  8. Systems integration. The new tanks would be part of an integrated drone force of light scouts as well as light and small armoured fighting vehicles that support the main tank and APC force. Similarly, infantry could be supplemented by swarms of drones that hunt and kill ground targets. The new tanks would need to integrate these systems in a command and control capability which could reduce the logistical train and increase the ratio of fighting units in the army. 

 

These concepts may sound futuristic, but all the elements are in use or close to deployment today. The revolution in land warfare is upon us and provides Britain with the opportunity to deploy a new and more capable military. If we fail, we will be at a serious disadvantage on the international stage. The Army should be looking to maintain current forces while fast tracking this new model and testing it against the old systems. This new force would be less labour intensive and be air portable by current heavy lift aircraft. A capability which could in future be greatly enhanced by point to point delivery by helium airships before a conflict breaks out, or larger stealthy versions of the V22 Osprey tilt rotor during combat. This could allow deployment within 48 hours to deter potential aggression in Europe.

 

Design and production process

The one large problem in this vision, is the current MOD/Army procurement mechanism, that has proven expensive and untimely. New technologies bring about new solutions and this would be no different.

Right brained innovators from the army and industry should be moulded into a team that uses 3D design technology (similar to that used in warship construction and the UK's America's Cup team) where design and testing are all done within a 3D program. Following this, the designs should be created using new, fully automated production lines that can build not only the new tank, but all its future variants. The ownership of this new company should be in the hands of the British government coupled with a minority holding from the most capable current AFV manufacturer, with technology most suited to this task. Management should be in the hands of the best and proven from industry.

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