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Tanks in modern warfare

Tanks remain an indispensable fighting instrument in modern warfare. Development of tanks that are capable of fulfilling multiple roles, have superior firepower, survivability and mobility, operate on various terrains, in any weather conditions and contested electronic warfare has become a major trend around the world.

Russian tanks marching on the Red Square

Given their important role in providing supporting fire for the infantry, many countries still invest in development of tanks although they are being labeled as obsolete “war machines.” Today, the operational environment and conditions of modern warfare have profoundly changed, and the world is witnessing a robust reemergence of next-generation tanks. These types of tanks will be the primary weapons of militaries in many coming decades. Accordingly, tanks and armoured vehicles are being developed in the direction of improving firepower, lethality, equipping with protection systems, enhancing mobility, command and control, and communication by countries.

Larger calibre guns

Tank guns are the main armament, which decides firepower of tanks. Together with rapid development of science, technology and military technology, the development of tank guns has recorded significant breakthroughs, ensuring their necessary firepower to destroy different targets. Next-generation tank guns are characterised by longer range, higher accuracy and superior firepower. Increased power of tank guns is achieved by longer barrel with larger calibre as has been demonstrated in 2A46M 125mm gun for Russia’s T-90S tank or L-55 120mm gun for Germany’s Leopard 2A7 tank. These guns can fire many types of projectiles, including laser-guided missiles. The trend in development of larger calibre guns is also shown in the Russia’s T-14 Armata tank, which is rumoured to have a 135mm smoothbore barrel. The muzzle energy of this tank gun can reach 18 megajoules (MJ), which is almost double that of the most advanced tank guns currently.

Increased lethality of ammunition

Militaries are focusing on innovating and upgrading their existing projectiles, developing next-generation ammunition with homing capability, generalising and diversifying tactical role and range through application of guidance technologies such as laser, infrared (IR), inertial navigation system (INS), global positioning system (GPS), laser and IR combination guidance, INS and GPS combination guidance, and so on. Lethality of these projectiles is increased through using composite material. The core of armour-piercing rounds is made from tungsten carbide or uranium. Some cutting-edge technologies of tank ammunition are being researched and developed by countries include armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS), cassette warheads to destroy troops, hyper velocity projectiles, active armour-piercing ammunition, top-attack shells, armour-piercing shells fitted with electronic primers, and so forth.

The development of gun-launched missiles brings about beyond-visual-range combat capability, extending the range of engaging targets. Gun-launched missiles must be capable of automatic target detection and recognition, flexible tactics, and engaging low-flying targets and unarmoured targets. Currently, Russia designates gun-launched missiles as standard supporting weapons of its tanks. Therefore, most Russia’s gun-launched missiles can be integrated with existing tank guns and fire control systems. This is the reason why gun-launched missiles are widely deployed on Russian platforms. Russian-made 9M119 missile is known as AT-11 SNIPER by NATO due to its extremely high initial velocity. It takes the missile only five seconds to hit the target 4 kilometres away. The missile has a length of 460 mm, which makes it possible to be kept and loaded like normal rounds of tank gun ammunition. This not only helps to save space inside a tank, but also enhance credibility.

Autonomous fire control system

Autonomous fire control system is indispensable for promoting firepower of tanks. Currently, both new and upgraded tanks are equipped with autonomous fire control systems to assist them in targeting, tracking and hitting targets at long distances, improving their combat effectiveness in any conditions (day and night, fixed or mobile). Russia’s T-90S tank has the automatic 1A4GT integrated fire control system, which automatically calculates firing range, sighting angle, deflection firing angle, wind velocity, angle of declination of the cannon, temperature of ammunition and atmosphere, pressure at the muzzle, and types of ammunition. US’s M1A2C fire control system is also upgraded to extend its service life until 2050. The modernisation effort focuses on commander’s independent thermal viewer, position navigation equipment and a full set of controls and displays linked by a digital data bus. Other upgrades include digital map, digital computer, communications with command and control system of brigade-level task force.

Integration of protection system

As a result of development trends in ammunition and anti-tank missile as well as increasingly effective, smart improvised explosive devices (IEDs), many countries have paid attention to improving protection systems of tanks. According to researchers of military science, today, enhancement of survival rate of tanks is inextricably linked to research and development of multilayer protection systems, early destruction of enemy tanks from long distances, reduced probability of being hit, and lessening of casualties when the armour is pierced. Passive protection systems will be improved by special shields to protect the hull, armour floor to provide protection against mines and IEDs, enhanced armour at the turret, and application of camouflage paint to lessen the risk of being detected in IR spectrums. More explosive reactive armours (ERA) are installed on the turret and the hull to augment protection against armour-piercing ammunition. The capability of ERA may be further enhanced to increase the survival of tanks before all kinds of anti-tank weapons, even the guided ones. The ERA serves to increase protection against high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) projectiles by 1.5 times and against armour-piercing rounds by 1.2 times. Russia has recorded significant achievements in camouflage when it successfully developed Nakidka camouflage kit, reducing the chances of detection by radars by tens of times as well as by IR and optical spectrums.

Tanks are also equipped with active protection system, electro-optical jammer, and laser radiation detection system to protect them against anti-tank ammunition and missiles. Nowadays, active protection systems, such as Russia’s Afganit and Israel’s Trophy (reaction time is 300 microseconds), are capable of intercepting missiles flying at a speed of 500 metres per second from the distance of 400 metres, as well as RPG-7 rockets firing from 30 up to 100 metres. These systems will be improved in the direction of increasing types of intercept rounds, decreasing dead areas, increasing reaction capability, and reducing size and weight in the future.

Enhanced mobility

Mobility plays a decisive role in combat effectiveness of tanks. Global military powers have recently announced plans to develop and apply latest innovative engine technologies to tanks. New concepts of engine have come into being such as high-power density diesel engine, turbocharged engine, hydraulic free piston engine, combined diesel-engine and gas-turbine system, electric hybrid engine. However, according to experts, diesel engine and gas turbine engine will remain primary motive power generating devices of tanks in the near future. Consequently, the main trend in enhancing mobility of tanks is to improve motive power components in the direction of enhancing capacity and torque, using subsidiary engine products, automatic transmissions and perfecting suspension systems. U.S.’s Abrams tank, Germany’s Leopard tank, France’s Leclerc tank, Japan’s Type 10 tank, and South Korea’s K2 Black Panther tank have been equipped with automatic hydraulic transmission systems, which makes it easier for steering the vehicles, reduces driver fatigue in long distances, and increases the average vehicle speed. Nevertheless, this method is expensive and decreases motive performance of tanks, especially on broken terrains. As far as suspension system is concerned, most modern main battle tanks has an independent suspension system. However, hydro-pneumatic suspension is used by some types of tanks such as India’s Arjun Mk1/Mk2 tank, South Korea’s K2 Black Panther tank and Japan’s Type 10 tank. Hydro-pneumatic control suspension will be widely used for tanks in the future because its smaller size allows combination in suspension systems to ensure convenient structure and smooth ride on all kinds of operational terrain.

Networked operations

Improved command and control of tanks is secured by not only modern communication equipment, positioning and navigation devices, but also automatic combat command and control information systems at all command levels. Currently, most upgraded and next-generation tanks are equipped with combat command and control information systems, which are networked or integrated into automatic command systems on the theatre. The combat command and control information systems on platforms, which are often developed on the basis of digital networks, are capable of operating in secure modes, transmitting data in the central network system, ensuring effective communications, displaying scenario information, positions and status of tanks, including the number of round left, fuel, damage and solutions, and so on. Navigation systems often use both GPS and INS in case of disruption of satellite signals.

In modern warfare, operating environment and tactics, threats to tanks are undergoing profound changes. Nevertheless, basic missions such as maneuver, assault, capture and control of battlefield remain unchanged. Therefore, tanks are still the main fighting instrument of armies’ offensive and defensive forces in high-intensity warfare as well as in other missions such as counterterrorism and security enforcement.

Senior Colonel Dang Dong Tien, General Department of Technology

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