Ground combat vehicles, tanks, and the kill web

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. When I started researching ground combat vehicles (GCV) and tanks, I suspected it was going to be messy from the start. I was not disappointed. There's a plethora of research reports and articles containing hundreds of pages on this topic.

They segment the market into a bewildering array of vehicle classes: main battle tanks (MBT) in light, medium, heavy, and super-heavy weights. Then, we have infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), infantry mobility vehicles (IMV), light protected vehicles (LPV), light armored vehicles (LAV), armored personnel carriers (APC), armored amphibious assault vehicles (AAAV), mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAP), M-ATV (MRAP all terrain vehicles), M-EWTV (MRAP-electronic warfare tactical vehicles), AEV (armored engineering vehicles like bulldozers), other variants like rocket launchers, tank destroyers, air defense vehicles, missile carriers, armored multipurpose vehicles (AMPV), and unmanned ground combat vehicles (UGCV).

Then, you can further divide the classes by engine type (gas turbine, gasoline-piston, or diesel), tracked or wheeled, number of axles or wheels, weight, armament, etc. Unfortunately, we can only look at a few examples here. I could have created another table like the ones used for the fighter jet and long range bomber articles, with all the vehicles and their primary characteristics for comparison. But, it would be incredibly overwhelming. And, such a massive table would seriously irritate my copy editor.

You may remember the U.S. Army’s 2003 FCS (Future Combat System) program. It was cancelled in 2009. The plan envisioned eight heavy combat vehicles built on the same chassis and drive train: main battle tank, command vehicle, mortar platform, armored personnel carrier, reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle, motorized artillery, medical evacuation vehicle, and a maintenance-recovery vehicle (a big tow truck). Additionally, there were six smaller unmanned (UGVs) on the FCS roadmap. While attractive from an economic and maintenance viewpoint, it’s just not practical to use one basic chassis for multiple vehicles, as you will see.

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Today, the U.S. Army’s new modernization plan focuses on replacing the M1Ax Abrams Main Battle Tank (about 7 mission-specific versions), the Mx Bradley Fighting Vehicle (about 11 mission-specific versions), and the M113x Armored Personnel Carrier (about 16 mission-specific versions). These platforms date from the 1960s and the 1980s. According to web sources, we have about 5,850 Abrams tanks in service (with 3,000 old versions in storage), 6,725 Bradley’s running around, and about 5,000 M113s operational (with 8,000 old ones in storage).

These vehicles have been through more repairs, upgrades, and revisions than you can imagine. They are all heavy tracked vehicles and they wear-out their sprockets, idlers, spindles, and treads rapidly. The Abrams weighs more than70 tons, the Bradley weighs more than33 tons, and the M113 weighs about 15 tons. But the big problem is power for all the new electronics. During the Gulf Wars, soldiers had to turn-off certain electrical devices in the vehicles when they turned-on the anti-IED [improvised explosive device] jamming equipment. When you consider how every weapon in the Kill Web is attached to the network, the old electrical systems in these platforms can’t provide the power for advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (), communications, defense, and targeting electronics at the same time.

Like fighter jets, tanks don’t care much about fuel efficiency. The M1 Abrams uses a multi-fuel gas turbine engine and carries a 500-gallon fuel tank. It takes 10 gallons of fuel just to start the engine. Then, it gets one mile for every 1.67 gallons burned. Russia is planning on building a series of combat vehicles on the new T-14 Armata tank chassis: their main battle tank, infantry fighting vehicle, self-propelled artillery, anti-tank missile platform, and others. They didn’t learn much from the FCS debacle. The new Armata weighs 53 tons, and is powered by a diesel engine. Its range is 310 miles on 265 gallons of fuel (1.16 miles per gallon). Their experience with their T-54/55 and T-62/72 tanks in Afghanistan probably influenced their new design programs. Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of weapons, says: “Tanks don’t need visas.” And he wants 2,300 Armatas by 2020.

Israel has their Merkava-4 tank (70 tons), the Brits have their Challenger (69 tons). The French have their LeClerc tank (63 tons), and the Germans have their Leopard-2 tank (68 tons). So, the Armata (at 53 tons) is a lightweight. China’s plan is to give their new VT-4 (57 tons) to their army divisions, and the new ZTQ-15 (38 tons) to their Marines. One of the reasons the Chinese and Russians are building lighter tanks is that they can be more easily transported by rail or trailer, and travel across weak bridges in bordering countries.

When you think about it, all tracked tanks, fighting vehicles, and personnel carriers were designed for open-field battle. With armed drones, precision artillery, missile-carrying helicopters, and laser/GPS/IR-guided bombs, tanks in the open are big fat targets. However, the incidents in Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down in 1993) suggests that urban warfare is in our future. Maneuvering big heavy tanks down narrow city streets is problematic. So, there is a need for lightweight wheeled fighting vehicles, particularly in the Middle East. Russia is the primary land-war threat. If they invade, they will come through open fields: the Suwalki Gap against the Baltic states, or the Fulda Gap in Germany against Europe. That’s why they still have a big interest in heavy tanks. China doesn’t care as much about tanks. They want to be a sea-war threat.

In October 2017, the U.S. Army issued a contract to a team of five companies, to design and build two prototypes of the next generation combat vehicle (NGCV). These platforms will probably replace the Bradley fighting vehicle and the M113 APC first, while the arguments about light versus heavy tanks continue. As you can see, there is a schism about the vehicle requirements for next generation land warfare. Meanwhile, we will modify and upgrade existing ground combat vehicles. As an example, the Army has ordered 473 new Bradley’s as test beds. They will have a universal turret, for mounting different weapon systems like Tow missiles, Javelin missiles, Hellfire missiles, lasers, and larger caliber cannons. Also, these new Bradley’s will generate more electricity, to power all the new electronic systems coming to the Kill Web.

For reasons more about economics than defense, the European Union (EU) has initiated PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) among EU members, to fund common defense initiatives. There are 17 projects under this umbrella. One of them is to design and build prototypes for an armored infantry fighting vehicle, an amphibious assault vehicle, and a light armored vehicle. Each country puts money in the kitty for these programs, so they will expect to get some of the jobs and revenue from building the components or assembling the final vehicles. With the Brits leaving the EU, PESCO can safely put the steering wheels on the left, without suffering political repercussions.

Now, let’s look at some numbers here. According to Global Firepower, the Russians have 20,300 tanks; China, 7,700; US, 8,850 (including those in storage); North Korea, 5,240: and Iran, 1,650. Russia’s old tanks are terribly obsolete and they don’t have the economy to produce the Armata in volume. So, they are refurbishing about 6,000 of the 10,000 old tanks they have in storage. China is doing the same thing to their aged tanks. Additionally, the U.S. Army is testing “autonomy kits” for the old Abrams and Bradley’s, to operate as unmanned ground combat vehicles. China and Russia are both working on autonomy for their old tanks too.

Over the next 10 years, the market researchers say that a total of 453,000 military vehicles will be bought, built, and deployed. That’s 45,300 per year, if the markets were linear. Of the 453,000, about 108,000 will be armored fighting vehicles. Self-propelled artillery accounts for 11,300 vehicles. Logistics support will see 307,000 vehicles bought. Air and missile defense total is 3,400 vehicles. The U.S. will buy 107,000 vehicles over 10 years. China will buy 44,100. Western powers want medium to heavy vehicles. Smaller nations want light vehicles. And, 3,800 new tanks will be bought by 2023. Many small Asian countries are buying tanks to defend against China. All the countries bordering Russia want more tanks, and all the European NATO countries are in the market for new tanks these days. In June, Germany and France proposed a new 68-ton European Main Battle Tank (EMBT), made from the German Leopard tank chassis and the French LeClerc turret and gun. In some of the articles I have read, military news editors use an amusing but undiplomatic appellation to describe it: the “Frankentank.”

We’ve already seen the leading edge of this ramp-up in military vehicle demand. Oshkosh has delivered over 2,000 JLTVs (Joint Light Tactical Vehicles), and just got another order for 1,574. In all, the U.S. Army wants 55,000 of these vehicles. And, we haven’t begun to count the demand for unmanned ground vehicles on the drawing boards. Ground forces will have “wingman” unmanned ground combat vehicles (UGCVs) just like fighter pilots will have “wingman” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). If the Air Force envisions one F-35 controlling up to six armed attack UAVs, then a next-generation main battle tank might control six armed UGCVs, if the ratio remains the same.

In the Middle East, the terrorists have only one ground combat vehicle platform: a Toyota Hilux pickup truck, with a surplus Russian 50-caliber machine gun bolted to the bed, and a cellphone for communications. It’s cheap, easy to fix, can readily communicate with other forces and vehicles, and anyone can drive it without extensive training. That’s another dimension to consider for next-generation ground combat vehicles: will a host of fast cheap lightweight expendable low-tech platforms, or a few slow expensive heavy high-tech platforms, perform best in future wars? The answer is probably a mix of light (wheeled) and heavy (tracked) platforms. That’s why we experience so many versions and classes of ground combat vehicles.

If you want to dig deeper into this topic, there are tons of articles on the web covering every vehicle type from every country that makes them. Or you can spend about $20,000 for the market research reports. Obviously, the market for military vehicles is the largest of the platform markets, by volume. Also consider that most of these vehicles will need the advanced electronic C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers ISR] systems to hook into the Kill Web. According to researchers, that’s a $132 Billion market by 2023, and they break the systems down into another dizzying array of segments (air, land, sea, space, by platform, by country, etc).

As a final note, you should take a look at U.S. Army General Mark Milley’s warfare doctrine: if our ground combat vehicles sit in one place for more than two or three hours, they are dead. Then, look at U.S. Air Force General John Jumper’s warfare doctrine: if the enemy’s ground combat vehicles sit in one place for more than 10 minutes, they are dead. That best explains how the Kill Web works.

All ground combat vehicles have a natural enemy: the military attack helicopter. That’s the wilderness we’ll explore on our next expedition.

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