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Land Opinion Short Read

A “Once Was” Yelling at Clouds: Time for a Step Change in Armoured Vehicle Thinking?

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Introduction

This opinion piece contends that contemporary Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) designs are approaching obsolescence, but not for the reasons some strategic commentators have posited.  Armoured vehicle thinking must modernise.  The justification for moving beyond the current ideals of what an AFV should be is not the result of inept Russian tactics.  Rather, that the limits of chemistry and physics are pushing the current configuration of AFVs to the end of their design limitations.  Coupled with the relatively constrained levels of land systems conceptual innovation that has occurred since the 1990s (unattended ground systems included), it may be time to consider conceptual step change instead of the current incremental evolution. 

AFV Evolution

The 1970s saw the broaching of many limitations that had plagued AFV development since the beginning of World War Two (WWII).  Regardless of the nature of the conflict, many factors facilitated the long-sought offensive advantage to AFV-centric, combined arms proficient teams.  The primary factors included: safe, reliable high energy density diesel power plants, improvements in fast-track layer reliability and ride, laser range finding integrated with computerised and stabilised fire control, passive array night vision, composite armour, and long rod penetrator munitions.  The major remaining challenge was the lack of onboard computing power, including but not limited to digital communications and precision munitions.  Not unexpectedly, with the arrival of digitisation and improved battery energy density, times have changed.

Prior to the current Russo-Ukrainian War, both T.X. Hammes and Albert Palazzo predicted the rise of indirect precision fires and the defence’s return to primacy in armed conflict.  Of course, this transition does not mean that offensive operations are impossible, and it still appears that the adage ‘only movement brings victory’ remains valid.  Nevertheless, widely available and functional precision weapons and the democratisation of air power should force the reconsideration of the shape of the land force.  This should not just occur in terms of roles, structure, and ongoing incremental development, but also in the conceptual nature of the AFV itself.

The Limitations of Incrementalism in AFV Design

General Dynamics’ most recent offering of the enhanced M1 tank exemplifies technical incrementalism.  The enhanced M1’s new hybrid drive, defensive aids systems, remotely operated turret, autoloaded muzzled-braked 120mm gun, and reduced weight and fuel consumption are impressive.  Yet these improvements are incremental, and like a customised classic car, the original chassis’ limitations (and advantages) are inherent. 

The physical issues associated with moving beyond existing large calibre weapon systems (i.e., above 120mm) that use solid propellants remain tenuous, untested in practice, and beyond proof of concept.  European main battle tank (MBT) increments are perhaps slightly less innovative than the M1, but they follow the same paradigm.  All MBTs remain in the role of the original vehicle.  Yet, it is widely apparent that today’s battlefield is different from that which drove the original MBT concept.  The differences remain uncertain – this article assumes that the differences are considerable.

EMERGENT Robotic operating concepts, WHICH COUPLE the optionally crewed fighting vehicle with robotics, are a technological dead end, and provides the worst of both worlds.

As realised by the updated M1 concept, it is possible to achieve weight savings with technology, and to increase both the tank’s protection and striking power without solely relying on more material.  However, aside from the realisation of defensive aids (by no means a minor feat), the technologies spread across arms sales floors today originate in the conceptual designs of the 1990s, if not earlier.  To be sure, things such as: liquid propellants, rail guns, complex hybrid drives, in hull crews, through armour video, passive array thermal detectors, director fire control, programmable munitions, affordable composite armour, long-rod penetrators, tandem jet shaped charges, explosively formed projectiles, and top attack munitions are all artefacts—successful or not—of that era (or earlier).  This is not to take anything away from those that have seen the potential, then developed these technologies and integrated them doctrinally.

Robotic operating concepts are another novelty to emerge from the 1990s.  Emergent robotic operating concepts, which couple the optionally crewed fighting vehicle with robotics, are a technological dead end, and provide the worst of both worlds.  The trade-offs are not worth the investment – weight and mobility costs to accommodate crew and technical and reliability costs to accommodate autonomy.  These disadvantages are in addition to the recovery nightmares that will occur when a crew’s remotely operated vehicle burns on the battlefield.  The exposed crew stares at a blank screen two kilometres away in the middle of major combat.  Bravo Two Zero writ large.

It is important to note that the full benefits of robotic land vehicles will not be seen until they have the potential to move and shoot faster than human beings can both tolerate and achieve, akin to the design advantages of air-to-air missiles over piloted aircraft.  The lumbering sons of IED tractors and modified attended platforms currently present on the battlefield are not the first generation, merely precursors, much like the Mark V tank was to the MBT.  This in itself will force a major change, primacy in land combat finally being yielded to the machines, not out of some moral imperative to save lives, but by necessity.  This may be decades away.  The transition will not occur because of incrementalism, but because of the determinism of machines, no matter how dark it seems.

Recommendations

What is the so what?  Ignoring, for now, Western political malaise and, as already cited, some intellectually bankrupt strategic commentary about the nature of contemporary land warfare, the stasis and relative incompetence of apparent ‘peer threat’ nations provides considerable breathing space.  Yet, in Ukraine, analysts are starting to see drones ram each other.  The next thing that will emerge from the conflict will be drones attacking enemy drones, in a similar fashion to the early reconnaissance pilots of World War One.  Air power has been democratised, and so must air defence, but not just in terms of something else to bolt on every vehicle.  This open sourcing of aerial reconnaissance, close support, and strike requires serious reflection.

A Road full of destroyed Russian tanks
A Road full of destroyed Russian tanks

This may lead the combined arms team to unburden its requirements on each platform, the tank returning to assault support origins, and a re-emergence of the tank destroyer.  The Infantry Fighting Vehicle focused on the protection of personnel and less on nascent light tank duties.  The current equipment deficiencies in organic air defence, which the West had gotten away with for so long, will not solely operate by defensive aid suites.  New systems embedded in organisations at a far lower level than extant doctrine will be required.  Composite vehicle troops with the counter air platforms for example, or even perhaps astride breaching support, followed by unattended ammunition and logistic tenders moving from hide to hide (which is probably the richest, yet only lightly tapped vein for un attended systems at present).  All cued and guided by organic aerial drones.

Land forces are coincidentally at a conceptual broach point… are they about close combat or strike?

But other systems, especially those seeking to conduct infiltration operations to enable strike, are neither greatly assisted by heavy protection nor working in high concentrations.  It may be that what is now obsolete is the medium-weight vehicle – they offer an unhappy balance of insufficient physical protection and being too large for effective signature management by concealment and stealth.  Further, the West will have to consciously break the paradigm of crew survivability ‘above all’ and seek systems capable of significant infiltration and range.  Examples include new types of Scorpions (or M114 Lynx) to current Supacat types, to the ubiquitous quad bike, with proportional drone capability, greater stand-off for offensive support, and mobile indirect fire.

These musings may all sound like a costly fantasy, but extant systems are hardly available at bargain basement prices, especially with the ever-growing assortment of add-on sub-systems.  Moreover, extant systems may offer even less cost-benefit if they are far more vulnerable than the above proposal.

Beyond significant advances in crew survivability, the post-Cold War stasis in AFV designs and technology is starting to thaw, but are the concepts?  Industry without large extant orders on their books should not be relied on too heavily on developing such significant innovations.  Design, let alone tooling up for limited production runs and the sunk costs of research that does not yield sales, are costs seldom understood by governments.  Nevertheless, nations are starting to increase defence spending.

Land forces are coincidentally at a conceptual broach point, as Will Leben has articulated well: are they (land forces) about close combat or strike?  As usual, the answer is both.  The answer is a matter of choosing the balance point between the close combat and strike.  This needs deeper consideration, because few militaries, if any, can afford today to go all in on both close combat and strike.  Further, it must be noted that an imbalance towards close combat is regressive, which needlessly risks blood and treasure.  Conversely, an over reliance on strike platforms leads to great vulnerabilities when dispersion and surveillance is denied.  Such conceptual balancing deeply influences vehicle design.

Hard-learned lessons drive design towards well-protected and powerful AFVs.  To be sure, in armed conflict, the unexpected will occur and when it does, it is not generally pleasant.  A sign of this is that the weight of armoured vehicles tend to go up during wartime, in the case of WWII, almost three-fold in three years, as seen with the transition from the Stuart tank to the Pershing tank.  That said the current incrementalism—adding more and more to what is—tends to indicate a failure in imagination.  Staying on one course for decades increases the risk of another set of hard lessons being learned whilst in the breech.  This is never a good place to commence recovery.

Conclusion

In this article, I have deliberately underplayed the importance of combined arms theory and the impact of joint air power.  But, as evidenced by the arms show floor, new AFV variants are somewhat scarce.  No new Western-designed MBT has appeared for forty years.  Even the ‘new’ Boxer vehicle’s design origins are nested in the late 1990s.  Meanwhile, advanced Russian AFV variants remain un-fielded

Extant vehicles can fit new operating ideas, but only so far.  It may be that these suggestions are being provided too soon, in terms of both technical and cost appetites, or that threat profiles will be manageable under the weight of overwhelming air power and offensive support intrinsic to the Western way of war. 

Nonetheless, new concepts at the platform level are worth contemplation.  The chemistry and physics that AFV relies on now with the current vehicle types are at design limits, which more and more computing power is unlikely to relieve beyond the short term.  Is it time for a conceptual step change?  Again, finding out when in the breach is too late, and Western militaries have historically been caught out before.

Jason Thomas

Jason is a retired Australian Armoured Corps Officer who served in a variety of command and staff appointments.  Including capability development and future warfare positions. He holds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering, a Master of Science in military vehicle technology, and a Master of Arts in strategy and policy. Currently, he is living in Copenhagen where besides reading for a PhD in Mission Command at the University of Sydney, and being a house dad, he occasionally writes on military topics with a focus on leadership and strategy.

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