As Mark Twain once said, “Rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” Those who believe there is no future for the tank are frankly fools. The tank will continue to play a pivotal role on tomorrow’s battlefield for the same reasons it has proven vital in conflict after conflict. Still, some thought into the role and specifications for the tank in the future are worth discussion.
Two doctrinal employments for the tank will continue to be support of infantry facing strong points and the rapid mobile firepower for maneuver warfare. In both functions, the tank will continue to be the premier anti-tank platform. The tank still maintains the ability to deliver potent firepower from armored protection. Despite anti-tank guided missiles and armed drones, it is still harder to suppress and destroy a tank than an infantryman.
Because the tank must be able to fill both roles, the tank of the future must balance the trinity of armored warfare – firepower, mobility, and protection. While a land battleship with extreme armor could score well on firepower and protection, it would suffer greatly in mobility.
Before discussing the trinity specification, a fourth important consideration must come first. The tank is is a crew served weapon system. Crew size matters for the prolonged competitive edge on the battlefield. While many tanks have a crew of three, using an autoloader to feed the cannon, a fourth crew member gives the tank increased capability in the vital aspects of maintenance, security, and field craft. A crew of four also allows the tank to continue to function in the event of the loss of a crew member, whereas a crew of two is whole insufficient to function on the battlefield longer than a few hours. The tank of the future must have a crew of four.
The ergonomics of the interior must allow a six foot tall loader to stand on the turret floor and remain fully inside the turret. The commander also can stand in a similar fashion, with means to adjust the height of the stand. All crew members will have guards to help them stay in place during aggressive maneuvering and to stay out of the way of the cannon recoil. The tank will also have a floor hatch under the turret. This hatch is invaluable for dumping spent machinegun brass and aft-caps from the cannon while under fire, as well as providing means for accessing the tank from the protection of cover.
The tank of the future will maintain the proven firepower concepts of the last century. The turret shall have 120mm cannon. The 120mm cannon used by NATO and its customers has been thoroughly developed and proven. There is no need to increase cannon size for the simple reasons of ammunition quantity and 120mm is capable of penetrating contemporary armor with ease. A barrel length of L55 (4.6m) is about as long as the cannon can be before becoming too long for mobility sake.
The cannon must be capable of depressing to -10 degrees and elevating to 30 degrees. This is essential to fight in urban or hilly terrain. A four round rate of fire needs to be under thirty total seconds for all four rounds. This is essential for reengaging a threat that proves harder to destroy. All contemporary tanks with a good crew can meet this requirement.
The gunner’s sights must provide redundancy in function, with means to continue to fight despite damage. Thermal sights, using FLIR are the standard, and magnification up to 25x aids in target identification. Daylight sights are vital for distinguishing color paint used for distinguishing between friend and foe when the enemy is similarly equipped. The sights must also be able to zoom back out to a wide field of view. An innovation to improve the tank’s concealment would be allowing the gunner’s sight to uncouple both elevation and azimuth from the cannon and search for targets without moving the entire turret. The human eye detects movement faster, so reducing movement signature goes a long way towards avoiding detection. The technology for this is already in use in the form of the commander’s independent thermal viewer on the M1A2 and later models of the Abrams, as well as many other tanks. The R2D2 looking viewer rotating is a much reduced signature. The suite of gunnery aids – stabilization, cross-wind sensor, temperature sensor, etc., goes without saying.
The tank commander must also have an independent thermal viewer (CITV), allowing better situational awareness while the gunner separately looks for targets. The CITV can also provide another layer of redundancy to the sights when boresighted. The two sight housings shall be in positions where they have minimal interference with the commander’s ability to view 360 degrees from the hatch, both through periscopes and at chin defilade.
The tank must have a ready ammunition of at least twenty rounds and a total load of forty rounds for the cannon. A conveyer belt system inside the ammo compartment could make up to thirty rounds readily accessible. This ammunition shall be in a compartment designed to protect the crew in the event of explosion. This is why western tanks have a rear extension of the current instead of the circular turret used by Russian tanks. This design also provides a counter balance for the weight of the cannon. The blowoff panels over the top of the ammunition compartment means that large areas of the turret roof must remain clear of added on items – weapons or equipment.
The tank will have a coaxial mounted machinegun (coax). 7.62mm has proven to be a good choice for this weapon as the ammunition balances size with lethality. A tank crew will use this weapon more than any other weapon during combat operations. The coax pulls its ammunition from a ready hopper that needs to hold at least 4,000 rounds of ammunition in a single belt.
The third weapon system of the tank is a machinegun mounted on a remote weapons station (RWS). The RWS must be capable of depressing to -15 degrees and elevating to 60 degrees. If using a Caliber .50, a ready hopper of 200 rounds is required and if using 7.62mm, 400 rounds. The design must not interfere with the commander’s vision, especially to the front and sides. I personally would prefer 7.62mm for the increase in ammunition quantity and simplicity. Targets that require more than 7.62mm are cannon targets.
A fourth machinegun, a back up for the coax, complete with a kit to place a butt stock, pistol grip, optic, and bipod on it, serves as a crew’s dismountable machinegun. This is handy for establishing an observation post or pulling security. Stowed in the loader’s area of the turret, this machinegun can also add firepower for a close in melee fight.
All members of the crew need a pistol and a rifle. A place to stow the weapon inside the tank for all positions and an exterior quick access point for the loader and commander are a must. The loader should have a 40mm grenade launcher as well. This is useful for a whole host of signaling and lethal purposes.
The next element of the tank trinity is mobility. The tank of the future will score well in this category. Fully tracked, with a ground clearance of at least eighteen inches and a ground pressure of less than 15 psi, give excellent cross country capability. The track will be made of linked metal shoes with rubber track pads on them. This allows rapid repair in the event of a mine detonation, unlike rubber band tracks. A torsion bar suspension with at least seven road wheels on each side give a smooth ride.
The tank of future will use a diesel engine and maintain a horsepower to weight ratio of at least 25 hp per ton. This ratio allows the tank to rapidly accelerate, which is more important that a top speed. The tank of the future will have a top speed above 40 mph forward and 25 mph in reverse.
The reason the tank of the future uses a diesel engine instead of a gas turbine like the Abrams tank does, is logistics. A modest fuel consumption improves the mobility of the unit as a whole. While there is a push for electric or hybrid motors for future tanks, such battery and motor units will not be meet the repeated acceleration demand combat incurs without using so much battery the armor must go to maintain the horsepower to weight ration. The tank must have a range of at least 200 miles on a tank of fuel.
In addition to the main power pack, the tank of the future will have a smaller generator to keep the electronics of the tank running when the tank is stationary. There are long periods of time when the tank does not need the full horsepower of the engine, but keeping the thermal sights, radios, and active protection systems operating is required. The battery requirement otherwise would be massive, and batteries are heavy.
Both the main engine and the generator need to be well equipped with a muffler. Decreasing the noise of the engine improves the crews situational awareness while improving concealment. Additionally, the exhaust must to be sides and high so that infantry can hide behind the tank without getting blasted by high temperature fumes. This also minimizes the potential for the engine to drown in a water fording. Still, don’t go where the cattails grow.
The tank of the future must be lighter and smaller than today’s main battle tanks. Too often, we find streets too narrow and bridges too weak to support the massive contemporary tanks. The tank of the future will weigh in at 60 tons and less than 12 feet wide. The highest point on the tank shall not be higher than nine feet when the RWS is in level elevation. The roof of the turret shall not exceed eight feet high.
It is important for the crew to be able to easily access the circuit breakers for the tank, as well as having a backup non-computerized control of the engine to allow the tank to retire for a better day after taking serious punishment or electro-magnetic warfare effects.
A related side-note: The tank’s tow cables should be mounted on the rear of the tank instead of the sides of turret so they remain accessible even after applying layers of camouflage netting and brush.
The driver will have a thermal viewer for driving in limited visibility that can swap out with one of the periscopes. Additionally, the driver will have a backup camera, both thermal and daylight video so enable vision to the rear. The driver will have a hatch, as well as a passage through the turret basket to the rest of the crew.
Given the mobility requirements, there must be some concessions made in protection. In Iraq, I had a tank with so much added on protection that it added about two feet to the width and another foot in height. The belly armor decreased ground clearance significantly and mobility off road suffered. Despite all the extra bulk and weight, we still took casualties and lost tanks.
Top-attack munitions will become more prevalent as we move forward, but will not eliminate the need for protection against cannon fire from other tanks. Landmine and IED threats will always remain as they have since the first tank’s debut.
The first layer in protection is concealment. The tank of the future will be designed with an eye towards applying camouflage netting and field expedient brush and such. The sides and top surfaces will have eye-bolts for attaching camouflage in ways that maximize coverage without risking snagging in the moving parts of the track or turret. There will not be large pieces of ballistic glass to reflect light as the loader’s shield on the M1A2 series does. Antennas will remain thin enough and mounted in a manner they don’t betray a hiding tank below. The longer a tank remains undetected, the better.
The next layer of protection is countermeasures. The tank of the future will carry four salvos of four smoke grenades each. These grenades are essential when caught in an anti-armor ambush, as well as when targeted by a long range missiles. Additionally, the tank of the future will utilize Trophy active defense against incoming missiles. This system is combat proven with the Israeli Defense Forces. The tank of the future will be able to place Trophy in stand-by mode when infantry are in close proximity and would be at risk of fratricide by the defense munitions.
The final layer of protection is the actual armor. The tank of the future will utilize modern composite armor, made of a variety of materials from high density metal to plastics and voids. The armor will be sloped enough to afford thicker protection to the top of the tank. The frontal armor will have a capability equivalent to 1000mm of rolled homogenous steel armor. In the event of a penetration, halon fire suppression systems will automatically engage to limit the fire risk.
The tank of the future will employ air purifying systems that provide positive pressure in the tank to protect the crew from weapons of mass destruction. The seats and turret floor decking are designed to mitigate the blast force from below and the sides.
The communications suite will provide both voice and data for the tank. Dual voice radio in every tank is a bare minimum, with means to employ a third radio available. Data for situational awareness as well as UAS feed is mandatory. All radios must be capable of transmitting 25km.
The tank of the future will balance the trinity of armored warfare and be a potent force on the battlefield. We just need to field it.
~ Strike Hard. Expect No Mercy. ~ Galen d. Peterson