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5 October 2016 · 4 min read

Do tanks have a future?

A look at how armour is evolving

Last month the British Army caused traffic chaos in London by driving a replica First World War tank and a modern Challenger tank around Trafalgar Square. This impressive, yet slightly anti-social display was to commemorate one hundred years of tank service. Seeing these two goliaths of warfare side by side, it struck me that whilst major technological advances have been made over the past century, a modern tank still looks remarkably similar to its predecessor. It made me question whether tanks one hundred years on will still look so similar? Or whether in fact modern warfare no longer needs tanks? These are questions that are likely to be preoccupying the military vehicle manufacturers such as General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Nexter.

The last decade of counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare has led many soldiers of my generation to question the utility of the tank. In Afghanistan tanks were a hindrance rather than a help. They were too big to manoeuvre, their imposing presence terrified the local population and they were not appropriate firepower for taking on an enemy equipped mainly with small arms and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). COIN warfare demanded a new type of vehicle. The infantry needed to move at speed with protection from roadside bombs and so the new generation of Protected Mobility Vehicles (PMVs) such as the Jackal (SC Group)  and Mastiff (General Dynamics)  were born.  Currently the British Army has 428 tanks compared to 1945 PMVs.

It is easy to forget however that COIN is not the only type of warfare and as General Sir Richard Barrons recently warned, we must remain prepared for other types of conflict.

“There is a sense that modern conflict is ordained to be only as small and as short term as we want to afford – and that is absurd. The failure to come to terms with this will not matter at all if we are lucky in the way the world happens to turn out but it could matter a very great deal if even a few of the risks now at large conspire against the UK. Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans.”

RUSI estimates that there are approximately 108,000 main battle tanks in service globally, of which only ~18,000 belong to NATO. That leaves more than 90,000 that could be mobilized against us. The unstable geopolitical situation is such that there are any number of scenarios that could occur leading to warfare involving tanks, for example North Korea invading South Korea, China invading Taiwan and Middle Eastern war involving several Arab states and Israel or Pakistan attacking India to name but a few.

It is important to remember that tanks were not initially designed to counter tanks; they were intended to defeat the machine gun and penetrate layered defences in difficult terrain in order to restore mobility to the infantry. Therefore whilst you do not necessarily need tanks if your enemy has them (as the Taliban proved in Afghanistan), you do generally need them against an enemy with heavy weapons or fortified defences. In addition, anti-tank missiles have reached a level of sophistication such that tanks are vulnerable against any enemy with air power, as was the case for the Iraqis.

These issues are forcing militaries and the defence industry to rethink the requirements for tanks and there are a number of nascent technologies which could find their way onto the battlefield:

- Stealth: This is already used widely in warship and military aircraft, but it has yet to be used operationally with ground assets. BAE Systems caused amusement in 2012 when it showcased technology that could cause a tank to emit the heat signature of a cow, but anti-radar materials and coatings along with stealth based design could improve the tank’s survivability.

- Electronic Countermeasures (ECM): Again these are widely used by military aircraft and by soldiers on the ground, but the tank has yet to be used as an ECM platform in order to detect and jam enemy systems.

- Active countermeasures: During the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts static technology was developed which detected sniper or mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) as they are fired by means of radar and acoustic signatures enabling counter-strikes to be launched. Such technology could be developed for mobile use on tanks and integrated with an automatic defence system which could autonomously intercept and destroy hostile rounds.

- Unmanned tanks: Drone technology is at the forefront of thinking about future warfare, but it has not yet been applied to armour. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has stated it wants to develop tanks capable of going anywhere meaning they need to be lighter. It is therefore testing unmanned prototypes, as well as those which only need a two man crew (like an Apache helicopter) rather than the current standard four man crew.

So my reluctant conclusion, as COIN generation soldier who likes to dismiss tanks as a relic of the Cold War, is that tanks do have a future. However, in another hundred years I think they will be unrecognisable from those of today. They could well be smaller than Armoured Personnel Carriers and most likely without any soldiers inside. Crucially these innovations will only occur if the major defence superpowers of the US, UK and China as well as all NATO members, are forward thinking enough to acknowledge that armour still has a place in modern warfare and therefore invest in developing new technologies. The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) decided earlier this year to give the Challenger 2 a £700m upgrade to extend its life to 2035 rather than the more expensive option of purchasing a new tank. The US will be the real bellwether though when it reaches a decision point about its Abrams main battle tank.

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