The war in Ukraine may have heralded the return of large-scale mechanized wars of attrition. While Russia’s huge tank losses early on during its invasion have prompted premature calls about the tank’s death, the subsequent attrition fighting has shown tanks bearing the brunt of ground combat once again.
That development has re-emphasized the enduring need for a heavily armed and armored combat vehicle capable of breaking through the toughest of defenses.
However, the dynamics of mechanized warfare that have been unfolding in Ukraine may have validated or invalidated design concepts included in the latest main battle tanks (MBT), such as Germany’s KF51 Panther and Russia’s T-14 Armata.
Not the time for a loaded ride
These advanced tank designs showcase several technologies that may define armored warfare for years – but the tanks themselves might be of only limited usefulness in today’s modern conflicts.
The war in Ukraine has shown that large-scale industrialized wars of attrition are here to stay. Hence, the weapons systems needed in this kind of warfare must be cheap, simply engineered and capable of being quickly mass-produced – and must have available abundant supplies of fuel and ammunition.
The high costs of the KF51 Panther and T-14 Armata ($4 million per unit) are a strong disincentive for mass production. Also, deploying these tanks risks their advanced technologies falling into enemy hands, which may be one reason why Russia has not deployed the T-14 Armata to Ukraine.
Hence, these advanced tanks may become too expensive to mass-produce and too valuable to lose in attrition warfare. Such was the fate of the F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighter, whose production ended in 2009 with only 195 units produced due to high costs ($125 million per jet) and high maintenance requirements.
The F-22 may be retired without the type ever seeing aerial combat, as its successor, the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, is already in the works.
Thus, Germany’s KF51 Panther and Russia’s T-14 Armata are most likely to be deployed in elite high-readiness units or as technology demonstrators. In addition, major land powers may use specific design features and technologies to upgrade their existing tanks or incorporate these into more sustainable, cost-effective tank designs.
Read on for details about those bells and whistles.
The German contender
During the expo Eurosatory 2022, one of the showstopper exhibits was Germany’s KF51 Panther MBT. Rheinmetall, the tank’s manufacturer, claims it is an all-new concept not constrained by yesterday’s technology.
It promises the “highest lethality on the battlefield, combined with an integrated survivability concept and connected to NGV (NATO Generic Vehicle Architecture) data backbone to enable next-generation operational capabilities and automation.”
All the KF51’s weapons are connected to the targeting sights and fire control computer through fully-digitized architecture, allowing for hunter-killer and killer-killer operation, enabling instant target engagement that in the future would be supported by AI.
The KF51 Panther has a crew of three (commander, gunner, driver) with an optional crew station for a specialist (company commander, drone operator or wingman pilot). The tank can pass sensor and weapons control assignments between crew members instantly, with the various workstations capable of handling and taking over tasks and roles from each other with no loss of functionality.
In addition, the KF51 Panther provides turret and weapons controls to chassis-based workstations, enabling future upgrades such as unmanned turrets or remote operations.
The KF51 Panther boasts a 130-mm Future Gun System (FGS), which gives a 50% performance increase against 120-mm tank guns in Western service. The FGS can fire kinetic energy (KE) sabot rounds and programmable airburst munitions and comes with an autoloader holding 20 ready rounds.
The tank’s secondary weapons include a .50-calibre coaxial machine gun, a 7.62 remote-controlled weapons station (RCWS) for drone defense and close-in protection, and the HERO 120 loitering munition drone for use against targets that are out of line-of-sight.
The tank features a fully integrated, comprehensive, weight-optimized survivability concept combining active, reactive and passive protection technologies. It has pre-shot detection capability, enabling the tank to destroy threats first.
In addition, the tank’s NGVA architecture enables the addition of more sensors that could detect anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launch signatures. The tank also has Rheinmetall’s Top Attack Protection System (TAPS), enabling it to defeat top-attack munitions that go for the tank’s top armor, which is usually the thinnest on such vehicles.
Finally, the KF51 Panther has the ROSY Rapid Obscuring System, which creates an instantaneous, large smoke screen capable of blocking the infrared (IR) and visible spectrum to defeat IR-guided, laser-guided, and manually-guided ATGMs.
The KF21 Panther features a SEOSS 2 panoramic sight and the EMES gunner sight used in the Leopard 2 MBT, allowing both the commander and gunner to scan independently for targets day or night. Both sights feature their laser rangefinders, while a display in the fighting compartment provides 360-degree awareness to the crew.
Integrated drones add to the crew’s situational awareness in urban areas and within the vehicle’s immediate vicinity, allowing the tank to conduct reconnaissance and share the results with others in a networked manner. The tank is also fully hardened against cyber threats.
The Russian competition
Russia unveiled the T-14 Armata main battle tank during the 2015 Victory Day parade in Moscow. The T-14 Armata marks a significant change from contemporary Russian tanks based on Soviet-era designs.
It is part of a family of vehicles built around the Armata universal combat platform, with 28 possible configurations. These include the T-15 heavy infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), Koalitsiya self-propelled gun (SPG) and T-14 Armata MBT. This design approach helps standardize repair kits, tools, and components to replace various subsystems quickly.
An unmanned turret sets the T-14 Armata apart from contemporary tank designs, with the three-man crew (commander, driver, and gunner) inside an armored capsule in the chassis. This design approach isolates the crew from potentially dangerous fuel and ammunition and improves their survivability significantly. In addition, the T-14 Armata can be remotely controlled, turning it into a heavy unmanned ground combat vehicle.
The tank has a 125mm 2A82-1M smoothbore gun, an automatic loader, and 32 ready-to-fire rounds. In addition, it can fire the latest Russian sabot rounds, specifically the Vacuum-1 depleted uranium (DU) and Vacuum-2 tungsten KE sabot rounds. The T-14 also uses gun-launched laser-guided ATGMs allowing it to attack targets beyond the range of its main gun.
The T-14 Armata also has a 12.7-mm coaxial machine gun and an RCWS with a 7.62mm machine gun for secondary weapons. Also, there are plans to arm the T-14 Armata with a 152-mm gun, which is 30% more powerful than its predecessor.
The T-14 Armata features a tiered protection system consisting of passive and reactive defenses and armor. The protection scheme of the T-14 is built around the philosophy that the best tank defense is not to add additional armor but not to get hit in the first place.
To that end, the tank has the Afganit active protection system (APS), which features soft- and hard-kill technologies. The soft-kill component of the suite uses radar and optical sensors to detect an incoming ATGM. In addition, it has various means to disrupt its guidance systems, such as multispectral smoke screens, decoy flares, and radio jamming.
Should threats defeat the soft-kill system, the Afganit’s hard-kill system activates, sending an explosive blast in the direction of the incoming projectile. The Afganit’s hard kill system can destroy ATGMs, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and KE sabot rounds.
In case incoming missiles still bypass the Afganit APS, Malakhit explosive reactive armor (ERA) covers the tank, which explodes upon being hit to break up KE rounds or disrupt shaped charge warheads before they impact the tank’s hull armor.
Apart from these defenses, the T-14 Armata has radar-absorbing paint and could use Nakidka radar-absorbent R-dampening cloaks to mask the tank’s signature further.
For situational awareness, the T-14 Armata has a 360-degree commander’s sight and the gunner’s sight for the main gun. Both sights have multispectral capabilities, with both thermal and night vision modes. In addition, the driver has a forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR), and the commander has access to several cameras on the tank’s hull, providing 360-degree coverage.
The tank is capable of network-centric operations, designed to operate as part of a self-contained “module” consisting of fighting and support vehicles.