Greetings to the Saker community and readers.
It is with pleasure that I am doing this Q&A with you. Many interesting questions have been raised by the community – to make this an easier reading I have grouped the questions together by “topic”. Also, some readers where kind enough to answer some of the questions; in those cases I will simply correct thing or add a comment if necessary.
Before I begin though, I noticed that readers are naturally interested in Armata. Well, I must admit that I am also deeply interested however at this point in time only the Russians working at the proving ground of their army know any details about the performance of the Armata. And obviously they are not telling
Curious George: I’d like to know the effectiveness of depleted uranium projectiles on today’s modern tanks and also what defenses are available to mitigate the effectiveness of these munitions.
mmiriww: And how much better DU is compared to Titanium.. are there any real world benefits to using DU in armor and projectiles compared to Titanium? And can newly developed carbon and other fibers based skins challenge these metals in weapons applications?
The answers by Lucius Sulla, Darpan and Mikie are quite correct. Briefly put, tank shells are divided into 2 categories:
– Chemical Energy: It includes High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) and High Explosive (HE). As the name implies, HEAT are used against tanks and HE against “soft” targets like infantry / APCs. All infantry deployed anti-tank munitions are HEAT. The most classic example of a HEAT round is RPG-7. Explosive Reactive Armour was developed to answer the threat from HEAT; the video below (excluding the theatrics, of course) shows how it works:
There is a continuous HEAT vs ERA circle going on these days with missile manufacturers changing the geometry / structure of their warheads and ERA manufacturers trying to do the same so one beats the other. And of course the composition of an ERA is a very closely guarded secret.
– Kinetic Energy: These are most commonly known as Armour Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS). Effectively, the idea behind kinetic energy shells is the same as a bow and arrow: release something hard enough to penetrate the armour of the target and then damage the soft stuff behind it. Like in ancient times where warriors would tip their arrows in poison same goes today with the material used for the core of APFSDS rounds in terms of density and flammability – you want something hard enough (and here hard = density + energy) to penetrate and then flammable enough to ignite the myriad of highly flammable objects inside a tank.
APFSDS shells are used exclusively for hard targets or for fast reaction as they are supersonic shells.
This video provides a decent explanation of rounds and armour although it does not delve on active protection systems.
Liza asked basically, if a specific tank model can be called “X anti-tank missile proof”
The answer to that it is not. While a tank can be hardened against a specific type of thread, there is no 100% protection against anything as you cannot possibly account for all the variables in the battlefield – for example, distance at which the shot is fired, the state of the explosives of the missile, angle of attack, type of warhead (single HEAT versus tandem) etc.
This video shows an SPG-9 round against a T-72:
As you can see there is almost no damage. And then, look at this image from a T-72 in Chechnya. Same type of tank, same type of anti-tank weapon but different operator / weather conditions / perhaps age of the tank / type of armour etc. Notice the extent of the damage in this case:
Cantal: What are the prospects for a 150 mm cannon being mounted on the Armata tank? What tradeoffs would that entail?
Augusto: What would be the ideal range today of a tank hitting ability, the fartherst, say 15 km?
In general, when deciding the calibre of the main gun, there are a few things to consider apart from if it is really necessary. For example, if all your tanks are say 125mm and you introduce now 150mm, then you need a whole new set of logistics to support this new calibre. Also, you will either enlarge the tank to carry the same amount of ammunitions like the predecessor or you carry less. Moreover you should think that a new family of ammunitions needs to be developed to accommodate the new calibre plus new optics so that you can actually target at the extended distance.
As with all ammunitions, tank shells have maximum range and effective range. Note that for their primary role plus as indicated by their design, tanks provide “direct fire” thus typical engagement ranges are between 2Km – 5Km depending on the type of ammunition, threat, etc. A range of 15Km while technically possible with the proper (lots of) modifications it is not practical as the tank cannot aim at that distance by itself; that is why you have artillery and why you need artillery spotters to have effective fire.
Lucius Sulla: I was wondering if you have heard anything regarding other nations and whether or not they will develop any new tanks.
The one that I am aware of that is actively being developed it the Altay by Turkey.
Mark: I am wondering how effective the active defense systems are on modern tanks?
SanctuaryOne: Is there any practical way in which the movement or I/R propellent heat of a TOW missile could be detected and the missile or its wire deflected or destroyed in flight? Detection of laser guidance origin? Blinding the operator with a defensive laser? Time is obviously of the essence here. If only detection is possible is a smokescreen plus movement a plausible defence? Regardless of reactive armour etc. surely the tank tracks and their cogs/wheels are always a weak point on any tank?
The Saker: The Russian air force has worked very hard on secure datalinks which allow one aircraft to lock on a target and another aircraft to shoot the missile. This even works with the air defenses. So in effect, this is the Russian version of a network-centric warfare: every system out there can securely share targeting data with any other. My question: is armored warfare also going down this road? Could, in theory, future tanks exchange targeting data between each other and, with other systems? If yes, which country has come the closest to implementing this and do you believe that this will significantly impact armored warfare and combined arms operations, or will this be rather disappointing (as it seems to have been for the US Army, at least so far)?
2nd question: Russia is working on several type of tank protection systems, including armored vehicles specifically designated to protect tanks. Do you believe that the future is tanks protecting themselves by passive/active systems, or tanks being protected by dedicated tank protection systems?
Defence systems on tanks function similarly as the ones on planes although in much smaller scale and with much less complexity. They usually detect the type of threat based on input from sensors, be it laser receivers even millimetre wave radars. Bear in mind that in order to guide an anti-tank missile, you must be able to see it therefore the missiles have a small flare at the back so the operator can track its flight to the target against the background.
Now to counter the threat one can use multi-spectral smoke grenades (in other words grenades that actually blind not only the visual spectrum), jammers which can be used to create phantom flares on the scope of the operator so that there is no way to distinguish which is your missile and active hard-kill projectiles that will shoot down the incoming shell.
As to the effectiveness, it remains to be seen as no equal-peer armies with such systems have fought to day. As with everything, the manufacturer will tell you something like “you have 70% chance to thwart a TOW and 5% to thwart a Maverick attack”. Of course brochures mean nothing on the battlefield. The higher the degree of automation the better as computers can react faster than humans; although rigorous training is required to be effective.
Regarding networking the tanks: The major difference between air and naval assets with tanks is that tanks have to operate within visual range to engage a target as opposed to a ship / airplane where the whole idea is to engage as far as possible and avoid close engagements. Characteristically when an air engagement enters the stage of a dogfight, the duelling pilots rely on their wingman and the AWACS is relegated to monitor if more opponents appear etc. Moreover, both air and naval assets operate in a more or less obstacle-free environment (excluding littoral environments for ships) compared to the variety of environments a tank will operate in (mountains, hills, forests etc) therefore communications are easier. Finally, a plane / ship have much more power in terms of electronics and can accommodate antennas for satellite communications. Remember that a key point of networking is bi-directional communication.
However, since the modern battlefield is hardly the place for just a unique type of system, most militaries do operate special vehicles designed to provide links with artillery / air assets. These are integrated at battalion level and usually are based on an APC chassis. In their most simple form these vehicles have the means to establish target coordinates and to transfer those to the appropriate artillery / air unit. More advanced versions are capable of conducting reconnaissance in a NBC environment and are equipped with a variety of sensors like the German Fuchs and if memory serves BTR-80. The battalion artillery spotter and air liaison officer usually operate with these vehicles.
Nexter (formerly known as GIAT and maker of the Leclerc) in France has developed Finders C2 which is a battlefield management system and probably the closest thing to what air forces / naval forces are using. It works only at battalion level though (for the brochure see here: http://www.nexter-group.fr/nexter/Flipping_Book/Export_GB/files/assets/basic-html/index.html#37). Currently operated by France and the UAE. Elbit in Israel has also designed a battlefield management system (WINBMS) rumoured to have been installed on Merkava IVs (brochure here: http://elbitsystems.com/Elbitmain/files/winbms%20%20%5B2011%5D.pdf)
In Russia, JSC Sosvezdie (АО «Концерн «Созвездие») is the primary developer for such systems (I believe this is a relevant link – please correct if wrong as I do not speak Russian: http://www.sozvezdie.su/catalog/avtomatizirovannie_sistemi_upravleniya/)
At the moment what is becoming the mainstay in Russia are active protection systems. I do believe that slowly more and more countries will move to data / sensor fusion similar to what is found on a plane. The level of sophistication however remains to be seen as at the moment one needs specialised technicians and bases to maintain a plane whereas a tank must be able to be maintained in the field.
Last but not least, there were several questions around the subjects of “why X-Y-Z tanks did not perform well against country A” and “what happens in real wars”.
Simply put, the best tank is the one with the best crew. Training is of the utmost importance as is proper maintenance since a tank is a weapons system. One example of such training is “terrain reconnaissance”. Tank crews should regularly walk on the area where they are supposed to operate – these walks should be taken day and night, in hot and dry or heavy snow or muddy and rainy weather. The goal is to get a feel of how the terrain feels and behaves in various conditions, which paths are blocked if heavy rain falls, possible ambush points etc. Germany pre-WWII formed quite a few “nature clubs” for young adults which regularly visited various countries around Europe for “nature walks” where in fact they were scouting the terrain.
Also the tank crew should be able to think on their feet. Allow me a few examples from personal experience. On one occasion a tank was moving on hilly terrain that was muddy following heavy rain. Due to a malfunction, when the driver shifted from 2nd gear to 3rd, one of the track changed gear a second after the other. The result was a drift compounded by the mud and the tank ended up very close to the edge of a cliff. While on normal conditions the cliff was easy to pass, due to the rain softening the ground the tank started sinking sideways and almost rolled over. What saved the tank and the crew was the gunner acting fast enough to turn the turret the opposite direction from the edge thus using the weight of the gun as counter-balance.
On another occasion we were out for a night field exercise. It was a moonless night with enough clouds to block star light. I was in the leading tank and we all could not see anything as Soviet night vision is not that good. I also knew that in our direction there was a rather big ditch we should avoid. Suddenly a stray dog appears in our front and starts running terrified towards where we were supposed to be going. I told the driver to keep some distance from the dog, match speed and follow him; practically the dog was our volunteer guide for the night. At one point the dog disappeared – there was our ditch.
Of course, when one takes a lax attitude, disasters happen. The image below is from an arson attack on German army barracks in Saxony, July 2013:
During war time, field innovation, tactics and recycling matters. I cannot delve into tactics but I can provide examples for the other two.
Israel utilised the captured T-54s and T-55s from its wars with Arab countries to create the Achzarit APCs.
“Achzarit” by gkirok – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Achzarit.jpg#/media/File:Achzarit.jpg
Greece is experimenting with ZU-23 guns on BMP-1s. This is a simple modification that can be performed by army maintenance facilities and with the benefit of removing burden from the logistic lines as there is no more need for main gun ammunition / spare parts for the turret. Plus that more light vehicles that would be needed to tow the ZU-23s are freed for other tasks.
Also, older even obsolete systems can find second life during war. An obsolete tank can be used to teach new recruits the basics of driving a tank. The first time I had fired a tank shell was in an M-47 with the shell itself manufactured in 1956. A tank that is rendered immobile beyond repair can be buried except the turret to create a stationary gun emplacement or be used as a decoy.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a Houthi commander. You know that Saudi is buying weapons from the US via the FMS programme. FMS sales have to be approved by the State Department, meaning they get published. Therefore you manage to get internet and you check the Defence Security Cooperation Agency website and you find out this:
In this list, you can see that Saudi has asked for 1500 Penetrator warheads for its planes. If you have reinforced bunkers, now you have fair knowledge that an attack is being designed against them.
As for what the future holds, while tank battles of the scale of Kursk are unlikely tanks are not that obsolete. On the ground, almost every weapon has a counter weapon which is why there are combined operations. A tank can be countered by tanks, infantry and helicopters. Helicopters can be countered by mobile sam systems (Antey demonstrated a version of the TOR that can actually fire on the move – a global first: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmzQZ2GrDjw) and infantry. Infantry can be countered by infantry, helicopters and tanks. Drones are the new entrants in this fray but so far there has not been a fight between countries that a) have drones in abundance and b) can actually conduct serious electronic warfare. Therefore their effectiveness remains in a battlefield with peer enemies is probably limited.