Could there be a lightweight armored attack vehicle able to speed across bridges, deploy quickly from the air, detect enemies at very long ranges, control nearby robots and fire the most advanced weapons in the world - all while maintaining the unprecedented protection and survivability of an Abrams tank?
Such questions form the principle basis of rigorous Army analysis and exploration of just what, exactly, a future tank should look like? The question is fast taking-on increased urgency as potential adversaries continue to present very serious, technologically advanced weapons and attack platforms.
“I believe that a complete replacement of the Abrams would not make sense, unless we had a breakthrough...with much lighter armor which allows us to re-architect the vehicle,” Col. Jim Schirmer, Program Manager for the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, told reporters at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium.
There is currently a range of possibilities being analyzed by the Army, most of which hang in the balance of just how quickly certain technologies can mature.
Newer lightweight armor composites or Active Protection Systems may not evolve fast enough to address the most advanced emerging threats, Schirmer explained.
While many Army weapons developers often acknowledge that there are limitations to just how much a 1980s-era Abrams tank can be upgraded, the platform has made quantum leaps in technological sophistication and combat technology.
“Until technology matures we are going to mature the Abrams platform,” Schirmer said. We would need an APS that could defeat long-rod penetrators. (kinetic energy armor penetrating weapons) -- that might enable us to go lighter,” Schirmer said.
A 2014 essay from the Institute for Defense Analysis called "M1 Abrams, Today and Tomorrow," reinforces Schirmer's point by detailing the rapid evolution of advanced armor-piercing anti-tank weapons. The research points out that, for instance, hybrid forces such as Hezbollah had some success against Israeli Merkava tanks in 2006.
Therefore, GD and Army developers continue to upgrade the Abrams and pursue innovations which will enable the Abrams to address these kinds of evolving threats - such as the long-range kinetic energy penetrator rods Schirmer mentioned; one of the key areas of emphasis for this would be to develop a more expansive Active Protection System able to knock out a much wider range of attack possibilities - beyond RPGs and certain Anti-Tank Guided Missiles.
Using computer algorithms, fire control technology, sensors and an interceptor of some kind, Active Protection Systems are engineered to detect, track and destroy incoming enemy fire in a matter of milliseconds. Many Abrams tanks are already equipped with a system known as “Trophy” which tracks and knocks out incoming enemy fire.
A next-gen APS technology that can take out the most sophisticated enemy threats could enable the Army to engineer a much lighter weight tank, while still maintaining the requisite protection.
For these and other reasons, the combat-tested Abrams weapons, armor and attack technology will be extremely difficult to replicate or match in a new platform. Furthermore, the current Abrams is almost an entirely new platform these days - in light of how much it has been upgraded to address modern combat challenges.
In short, regardless which future path is arrived upon by the Army - the Abrams is not going anywhere for many years to come. In fact, the Army and General Dynamics Land Systems have already engineered and delivered a new, massively improved, M1A2 SEP v3 Abrams. Concurrently, service and industry developers are progressing with an even more advanced v4 model - featuring a massive “lethality upgrade.”
All this being the case when it comes to a future tank platform -- all options are still on the table.
“Abrams will be out there for some time. We are funded from the v3 through the v4, but there is a thought in mind that we may need to shift gears,” David Marck, Program manager for the Main Battle Tank, told a small group of reporters at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium. “I have no requirements for a replacement tank.”
Accordingly, some of the details, technologies and applications intended for the v4, are still in flux.
“The Army has some decisions to make. Will the v4 be an improved v3 with 3rd-Gen FLIR, or will the Army remove the turret and build in an autoloader - reduce the crew size?” Michael Peck, Director, Enterprise Business Development, GD, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Also, ongoing work on NGCV could, to a large extent, be integrated with Abrams v4 exploration, Peck explained. GD is preparing options to present to the Army for input - such as options using a common lighter-weight chassis with interchangeable elements such as different turrets or an auto-loader, depending upon the threat.
“There are some things that we think we would do to make the current chassis lighter more nimble when it comes to crew size and electronics - eventually it may go on a 55-ton platform. We have a couple different interchangeable turrets, which we could swap as needed,” Peck said.
Despite the speed, mobility and transportable power challenges are known to encumber the current Abrams, the vehicle continues to be impactful in combat circumstances - and developers have sought to retain the technical sophistication designed to outmatch or counter adversaries.
“Today’s tank is so different than the tanks that took Baghdad. They were not digitized, did not have 1st-Gen FLIR and did not have commander’s independent viewers,” Marck said.
Next-Generation Combat Vehicle
The massive acceleration of the Army future armored platform - the Next Generation Combat Vehicle - is also informing the fast-moving calculus regarding future tank possibilities.
Maj. Gen. Brian Cummings, Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat, told Warrior Maven in an interview the Army developers are working on both near-term and longer-term plans; he said it was entirely possible that a future tank or tank-like combat vehicle could emerge out of the NGCV program.
“We want to get as much capability as quickly as we can, to stay above parity with our adversaries,” Cummings said.
The program, which has now been moved forward by nearly a decade, could likely evolve into a family of vehicles and will definitely have unmanned technology.
“Right now we are trying to get the replacement for the Bradley to be the first optionally manned fighting vehicle. As we get that capability we may look at technology that we are getting in the future and insert them into current platforms,” Cummings said.
Any new tank will be specifically engineered with additional space for automotive systems, people and ammunition. Also, as computer algorithms rapidly advance to allow for greater levels of autonomy, the Abrams tank will be able to control nearby drones using its own onboard command and control networking, service developers said.
Unmanned “wing-man” type drones could fortify attacking ground forces by firing weapons, testing enemy defenses, carrying supplies or performing forward reconnaissance missions while manned-crews remained back at safer distances. However, while clearly emphasizing the importance of unmanned technology, Schirmer did say there was still room for growth and technological advanced necessary to replicate or come close to many human functions.
“It is not impossible - but it is a long way away,” Schirmer said.
The most advanced algorithms enabling autonomy are, certain in the nearer term, are likely to succeed in performing procedural functions able to ease the “cognitive burden” of manned crews who would then be freed up to focus on more pressing combat-oriented tasks. Essentially, the ability of human cognition to make dynamic decisions amid fast-changing variable, and make more subjective determinations less calculable by computer technology. Nonetheless, autonomy, particularly when enabled by AI, can condense and organize combat-essential data such as sensor information, targeting technology or certain crucial maintenance functions.
“Typically a vehicle commander is still looking through multiple soda straws. If no one has their screen turned to that view, that information is not of use to the crew, AI can process all those streams of ones and zeroes and bring the crews’ attention to threats they may not otherwise see,” Schirmer said.
Abrams v3 and v4 upgrades
Meanwhile, the Army is now building the next versions of the Abrams tank – an effort which advances on-board power, electronics, computing, sensors, weapons and protection to address the prospect of massive, mechanized, force-on-force great power land war in coming decades, officials with the Army’s Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems told Warrior Maven.
The first MIA2 SEP v3 tank, which includes a massive electronics, mobility and sensor upgrades, was delivered by General Dynamics Land Systems last year.
“The Army's ultimate intent is to upgrade the entire fleet of M1A2 vehicles -- at this time, over 1,500 tanks,” an Army official told Warrior.
The first v3 pilot vehicles will feature technological advancements in communications, reliability, sustainment and fuel efficiency and upgraded armor.
This current mobility and power upgrade, among other things, adds an auxiliary power unit for fuel efficiency and onboard electrical systems, improved armor materials, upgraded engines and transmission and a 28-volt upgraded drive system, GDLS developers said.
In addition to receiving a common high-resolution display for gunner and commander stations, some of the current electronics, called Line Replaceable Units, were replaced with new Line Replaceable Modules. This includes a commander’s display unit, driver’s control panel, gunner’s control panel, turret control unit and a common high-resolution display, developers from General Dynamics Land Systems said.
Facilitating continued upgrades, innovations and modernization efforts for the Abrams in years to come is the principal rationale upon which the Line Replacement Modules is based. It encompasses the much-discussed “open architecture” approach wherein computing standards, electronics, hardware and software systems can efficiently be integrated with new technologies as they emerge.
This M1A2 SEP v3 effort also initiates the integration of upgraded ammunition data links and electronic warfare devices such as the Counter Remote Controlled Improvised Explosive Device – Electronic Warfare – CREW. An increased AMPs alternator is also part of this upgrade, along with Ethernet cables designed to better network vehicle sensors together.
The Abrams is also expected to get an advanced force-tracking system which uses GPS technology to rapidly update digital moving map displays with icons showing friendly and enemy force positions.
The system, called Joint Battle Command Platform, uses an extremely fast Blue Force Tracker 2 Satcom network able to reduce latency and massively shorten refresh time. Having rapid force-position updates in a fast-moving combat circumstance, quite naturally, could bring decisive advantages in both mechanized and counterinsurgency warfare.
Using a moving digital map display, JBCP shows blue and red icons, indicating where friendly and enemy forces are operating in relation to the surrounding battle space and terrain. JBCP also include an intelligence database, called TIGR, which contains essential information about threats and prior incidents in specific combat areas.
Current GD development deals also advances a commensurate effort to design and construct and even more advanced M1A2 SEP v4 Abrams tank variant for the 2020s and beyond.
The v4 is designed to be more lethal, better protected, equipped with new sensors and armed with upgraded, more effective weapons, service officials said.
SEPv4 upgrades include the Commander’s Primary Sight, an improved Gunner’s Primary Sight and enhancements to sensors, lethality and survivability.
Advanced networking technology with next-generation sights, sensors, targeting systems and digital networking technology -- are all key elements of an ongoing upgrade to position the platform to successfully engage in combat against rapidly emerging threats, such as the prospect of confronting a Russian T-14 Armata or Chinese 3rd generation Type 99 tank.
Interestingly, when asked about specific US Army concerns regarding the much-hyped high-tech Russian T-14 Armata, Schirmer said the Army would pursue its current modernization plan regardless of the existence of the Armata. That being said, it is certainly a safe assumption to recognize that the US Army is acutely aware, to the best of its ability, of the most advanced tanks in existence.
The SEP v4 variant, slated to being testing in 2021, will include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated onboard networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links, laser warning receivers and a far more lethal, multi-purpose 120mm tank round, Army developers told Warrior.
While Army officials explain that many of the details of the next-gen systems for the future tanks are not available for security reasons, Army developers did explain that the lethality upgrade, referred to as an Engineering Change Proposal, or ECP, is centered around the integration of a higher-tech 3rd generation FLIR – Forward Looking Infrared imaging sensor.
The advanced FLIR uses higher resolution and digital imaging along with an increased ability to detect enemy signatures at farther ranges through various obscurants such as rain, dust or fog, Army official said.
Improved FLIR technologies help tank crews better recognize light and heat signatures emerging from targets such as enemy sensors, electronic signals or enemy vehicles. This enhancement provides an additional asset to a tank commander’s independent thermal viewer.
Rear view sensors and laser detection systems are part of these v4 upgrades as well. Also, newly configured meteorological sensors will better enable Abrams tanks to anticipate and adapt to changing weather or combat conditions more quickly, Army officials said.
The emerging M1A2 SEP v4 will also be configured with a new slip-ring leading to the turret and onboard Ethernet switch to reduce the number of needed “boxes” by networking sensors to one another in a single vehicle.
Advanced Multi-Purpose Round
The M1A2 SEP v4 will carry Advanced Multi-Purpose 120mm ammunition round able to combine a variety of different rounds into a single tank round.
The AMP round will replace four tank rounds now in use. The first two are the M830, High Explosive Anti-Tank, or HEAT, round and the M830A1, Multi-Purpose Anti -Tank, or MPAT, round.
The latter round was introduced in 1993 to engage and defeat enemy helicopters, specifically the Russian Hind helicopter, Army developers explained. The MPAT round has a two-position fuse, ground and air, that must be manually set, an Army statement said.
The M1028 Canister round is the third tank round being replaced. The Canister round was first introduced in 2005 by the Army to engage and defeat dismounted Infantry, specifically to defeat close-in human-wave assaults. Canister rounds disperse a wide-range of scattering small projectiles to increase anti-personnel lethality and, for example, destroy groups of individual enemy fighters.
The M908, Obstacle Reduction round, is the fourth that the AMP round will replace; it was designed to assist in destroying large obstacles positioned on roads by the enemy to block advancing mounted forces, Army statements report.
AMP also provides two additional capabilities: the defeat of enemy dismounts, especially enemy anti-tank guided missile, or ATMG, teams at a distance, and breaching walls in support of dismounted Infantry operations. A new ammunition data link will help tank crews determine which round is best suited for a particular attack.
The Institute for Defense Analysis report also makes the case for the continued relevance and combat necessity for a main battle tank. The Abrams tank proven effective both as a deterrent in the Fulda Gap during the Cold War, waged war with great success in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 - but it has also expanded its sphere of operational utility by proving valuable in counterinsurgency operations as well.
The IDA essay goes on to emphasize that the armored main battle tank brings unparalleled advantages to combat, in part by bringing powerful land-attack options in threat environments where advanced air defenses might make it difficult for air assets to operate and conduct attacks.
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