Tanks and AFVs are great at a range of things, but they also have many significant weaknesses, usually mitigated by a clarity of these issues by their operators, and consequent tight cooperation with partner forces and capabilities - it's called combined arms for a reason. A really big one is that whilst AFV have advanced and capable sensor suites for engaging targets, their broader situational awareness (SA) of the space around them has always been very limited.
The baseline capability.
The baseline level of situational awareness (SA) in a typical AFV without the latest SA suites fitted (i.e. the inherent vision provided by the periscope vision blocks, hatches and main sighting systems) is really quite poor.
Periscopes are not easy to see through with clarity in a complex, chaotic, and high stress/workload environment, and so really are little more than useful to have backups and peripheral vision. The primary commander and gunner sights are typically very capable optical devices with day, night and thermal channels, but are designed very specifically to offer excellent tracking and engagement of long distance point targets at medium to high magnification, not for panoramic observation of the area around the vehicle.
Because of the inherent shape of an AFV and the location of the optics on it, large blind spots are unavoidable. The majority of the sights are on the roof of the turret, which is some two to three metres off the ground and offset to one side, typically the right, of the AFV. Seeing close in to the left is often hard to impossible - the picture below shows the blind spots on a baseline Leopard 2A6 for the driver (left) and commander (right) in metres.
The closest the commander can see with their vision equipment is still 6 metres from the vehicle. Most of the commander's blind spot to their right is around 10 m of dead ground, and to the left is 20 to 30 m. Anything closer than that is invisible to them. Of note is the ~7 o'clock position, where the commander has a blind spot to infinity - their sight unit is blocked by the their own hatch ring and vision blocks behind it and so can never see in that direction without turning the turret itself.
When you consider that a typical city street, even with a few lanes and good pavements, is often <20 m wide, it becomes clear a tank can't really see anything around it, as the inset picture in the image below illustrates.
This is an increasing issue on modern AFV which are being relentlessly retrofitted with more and more external systems - remote weapon stations (RWS), ATGM pods, communication systems, jammers, navigation systems, active protection systems (APS) and more are all being bolted onto any spare square inch of turret space and often cause dead zones in the optics, periscopes and the basic human eyeball view from the hatch, or at the very least degrade at least some of them.
This is in part why tank and AFV commanders are so fervent about spending most of their time stood in their hatch with their head out - though there are dead spaces in their sight around the immediate tank, it vastly opens up their view of the world and broader awareness of the complete space the tank is operating in. But this habit is increasingly being broken by technology.
A commander needs to keep a close eye on their battle management system (BMS) and the (several) optic systems. Some AFV offer detachable BMS consoles to allow them to be used on the roof while heads out, but a novel problem has arisen in recent years - active protection systems (APS).
Most hard kill APS, which are rapidly proliferating (most recently procured for German Leopard 2A7A1, US M1A2 SEPv2 and UK Challenger 3), have safety switches so that they will not work unless all hatches are closed, lest an interception see a crew member be injured by the system activating (which rather ignores the effect the incoming threat is going to have now the system won't try to stop it, but for whatever reason we don't focus on that).
There are reports from Syria that a number of tanks lost did not deploy APS systems when engaged by ATGM because commanders kept the hatches unlatched to pop heads in and out and manage internal temperatures, so the APS were automatically safed and inoperable when fired on (though most vehicles were using Shtora soft kill systems unsuited to many of the threats anyway). Israeli feedback has similarly spoken of the massive cultural obstacle to teaching tank commanders to live buttoned up in their tanks to ensure their hard-kill Trophy APS systems remain active.
It is also self evident that in more complex terrain like an urban environment it is very high risk to have open hatches that can readily be fired into from high elevations or have weapons, especially flammable weapons like Molotovs which would spread fire throughout the interior and potentially ignite charges, dropped from above. Snipers have always preyed on tank commanders with their heads out, which are extremely high risk threats in complex environments. These add to the APS factor and make operating with hatches open in the modern environment something that is undesirable and increasingly trained against.
Whilst most examples have referenced Western designs, it's worth noting Russian designs are no better, and in many cases worse due to their two-person turrets being smaller and more densely saturated with the many systems required to operate a tank. Regardless of your country of origin, crewing a tank or other AFV and maintaining high SA is a difficult task.
The risk these limitations pose.
The most immediate risk is that without modern SA suites, an AFV crew has very little ability to maintain good awareness of what is going on in the immediate area surrounding it, which was hard even when you could look outside the vehicle through a hatch. With combat increasingly being conducted in urban environments, this means AFVs are incredibly vulnerable to unseen attacks.
A picture paints a thousand words, so let this be illustrated by the video below of a rather bold Syrian fighter taking out a T-90 with a hand grenade and ruthless exploitation of a tank that is unaware of its surroundings and completely unsupported by necessary complimentary forces to protect it from exactly this sort of threat.
This wasn't even particularly dense terrain, the risk of exactly this sort of simple exploitation of AFV SA weaknesses is even higher in complex urban terrain where opponents can emerge undetected within feet of a vehicle where it cannot possibly see them, and usually has no mounted weapons with sufficient depression to engage them even if it could. This includes emerging at windows and rooftops directly above the vehicle, able to attack on the weakest armour aspect on the roof. The vulnerability cannot be overstated.
As we have seen already in Ukraine and extensively in places like Syria, armour in an urban fight in particular is easy to ambush and in many cases has zero ability to see or respond to threats.
Consider the picture above from Syria and the sheer range of ways these tanks could be attacked without recourse. something as simple as a Molotov, which can be readily manufactured en masse in a home environment, could be posted directly onto any of these vehicles with ease from adjacent structures.
There are concealed quasi-entrenchments running within inches of some of these vehicles where charges and mines could be placed from, and even just the angle the photo has been taken from would be a perfect location to engage at least half of the vehicles with RPG fire before the farthest ones could begin to traverse and try to gain sufficient elevation on their weapons to return fire. It also shows how ineffectual these huge bar armour packages are once some elevation is gained by the viewer.
YouTube is filled with examples, particularly from Syria, of armour in complex terrain and having their limited SA ruthlessly exploited, All speak to a common issue that is inherent to the contemporary design of AFVs and particularly tanks. This is why tanks have to operate as part of a combined force to survive in any environment, but particularly urban. They are but one capability in a complex matrix of rock, paper, scissors strengths and weaknesses and by no means the invulnerable asset they are oft portrayed as.
So, whilst tanks are the apex land predator in broad terms, they are by no means an invulnerable wonder weapon. They generally bring unparalleled comparative protection, a capable multispectral sensor suite and unparalleled firepower, but once they are out of their preferred habitat of open terrain where they can be constantly moving and engaging at range, all the weaknesses above start increasing in severity.
Modern SA solutions.
Trying to solve these weaknesses with technology brings us to modern best in class AFV SA, which is heavily augmented by visual, near visual and infrared sensors to show full 360° vision and then integrate this with a range of software tools to provide enhanced overlays showing automatic target identification and tracking, fusion with on- and off-board sensors and integration with battle management systems.
But first, the basic 'modern' solution - 360° vision SA cameras. Its accepted to assume any AFV procured or upgraded in the modern age will be fitted with a suite of cameras for 360° SA. Typically four to six mounting points provide panoramic views - one wide angle camera on each corner plus a dedicated front and back camera for the driver.
Systems like the Hensoldt Local Situational Awareness System (LSAS) provide all-round wide angle high definition video as well as uncooled thermal imagers for 'all-weather' day and night visibility, with the thermal capability providing a greater capability to spot threats than a human eye would offer, making the system not just a replacement for sticking your head out, but something better. LSAS also allows integration with the BMS for quasi-sensor fusion, but we'll cover that in a minute.
Beyond seeing things, SA is also now a multispectral and an active, not passive/reactive concept. Beyond simply providing cameras to allow the crew to look around, so-called 'smart' capability enhancing functionality can the added to the existing vision systems as well as visualisations of other sensory data.
Running software over the visuals allows automatic threat detection, classification and tracking, automatically alerting crews to potential risks and if integrated with the Fire Control System (FCS), the ability to 'slew-to-cue' to direct the main weapon immediately onto that point.
Threats do not have to be enemy vehicles or infantry moving in plain sight. Systems like Pearson Engineering's Threat Sense allow automatic detection, classification and live highlighting of static threats, in the case of Threat Sense this is surface laid mines which are marked with confidence ratings for each threat.
Threat Sense also illustrates the ability to procure significant capability without major integration risk - this particular system is a software solution that is integrated with the existing SA suite, so no new hardware is needed to add this to the vehicle's survivability tools and capabilities. With essentially all vehicles now built with Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA) compliance in mind, the ability to plug and play capabilities for rapid spiral enhancements of capability is very attractive.
Beyond the visual spectrum (and near visual/infrared), SA is also possible to enhance with acoustic shot detection systems, which provide high fidelity directional detection of hostile fire to warn the crew.
The latest systems like the Thales Acusonic pictured above are very sensitive, able to provide detection at up to 2 km with a +/- 4° accuracy and can be integrated with the other systems, allowing for overlay visuals on optical systems to highlight estimated axes of incoming fire, filtering out interference from the vehicle, weather, and surrounding structures causing echoes.
The output can then be integrated with other C4ISR systems such as the vehicle's BMS and input to the FCS to allow rapid location and 'slue to cue' return fire or designation of the target to other callsigns and calls for fire support.
Another capability being exploited is radar. Vehicle mounted radars are increasingly fitted as part of soft and hard kill active protection systems, can feed their continuous tracking data into the broader SA environment and offer further graphical depictions of the space around the vehicle and visual alerts and symbology when threats are detected and classified.
Putting all of this together into an effective and intuitive system for the operators is a significant software development challenge typically only seen to date, arguably to a lesser extent in most cases than is required for an AFV, on the integrated sensor fusion systems of the latest generation of military jet fighters like the F-35.
Israel's Carmel programme has been driving hard towards heavily augmented SA for AFV crews, with a mind to fielding a viable two person crew vehicle that possesses much greater SA and broad capability than contemporary systems.
Though a new vehicle upon which to mount the Carmel suite is yet to break cover, Carmel has conducted experimentation on the SA system architectures retrofitted to M113 APCs, with Elbit's demonstrator shown in the video above. This programme has created the ironic situation that arguably the most advanced AFV in the world right now is a 70 year old APC rather than some shiny 'next gen' show prototype defence salesmen want you to look at.
More on what constitutes next-gen in reality versus the marketing hype is a topic for another blog post soon™.
Drawbacks & limitations.
These very impressive systems are by no means a panacea, however. There are some clear drawbacks and limitations with the adoption and use of such systems.
The most obvious issue is that they are good only so long as they stay working. If the cameras become obscured or damaged by mud, incidental damage (striking obstacles etc) or hostile action, the view is gone.
If a vehicle has been designed with an assumption around the existence of these cameras to deliver foundational capability, the impact of losing them may be to be a so-called mission system kill - the vehicle is fine, its weapons and crew are fine, but it will take no further part in the battle because it has been rendered inoperable by neutralisation of the mission systems required to operate it.
At present most tanks and AFV are existing designs that are retrofitted with such systems, and so can readily revert to a degraded capability by using the vehicles as they were designed to be used, with largely manual vision.
But as we see new and 'next generation' vehicle designs emerge in the imminent future that are designed with exclusive use of digital vision systems, for example by placing the crew in a protected compartment in the hull and making the turret fully unmanned, they gain an appreciable risk. Assurance of the vision system function and redundancy via protected backup optics becomes a critical requirement, or relatively small and simple fragmentation weapons (especially airburst cannon) can rapidly knock out a formation of advanced AFVs.
The adage is that 'simple works', more or less, and advanced networked SA suites with sensor fusion, virtual reality goggles and cognitive augmented overlays are not simple, so pose a number of risks through their inherent complexity.
Most immediate is the difficulty of developing to a suitable level of maturity for fielding in an operational combat vehicle and then integrating it successfully with all associated systems.
If users are to defer much if not all of their SA to digital tools, the reliability has to be beyond any chance of a failure, and in a combat environment where the system will be taxed hard and potentially experiencing electronic and physical damage. Assuring a system like that only increases its complexity.
This complexity drives a high price point for such capabilities, both literal - they're really expensive - and more figuratively - the time to develop and field them becomes radically longer and fraught with a lot more risk around these hugely complex IT system developmental efforts.
Mitigating a portion is the maturation of VR headsets and associated software, being driven primarily by the commercial sector for entertainment and gaming. This high commercial sector interest means rapid and high investment activity, which is good - purely defence applications mean much smaller scale development and at a higher price point.
To field an AFV where the primary SA is being delivered via goggles the latency needs to be extremely low, or the crew will rapidly feel eye strain, dizziness, nausea, fatigued because their vision is out of sync with reality. Excessive latency also means operators lose their sense of agency and ownership of their own vision, leading to poor decision making and reduced performance.
The good news is that most existing commercial VR systems are already at a latency level where there is no real concern about these big ticket high latency effects.
More pervasive issues endure however - using a VR headset for many hours on end is typically significantly more tiring than operating a conventional crew station, and brings general physical discomfort and fatigue. Though the 'world' within them is greatly augmented with automation to improve operator efficiency and effectiveness, it is also much more complex and feeds vastly more information to the user and so is likely to be a mentally draining experience that will be challenging for prolonged usage.
None of these issues are insurmountable, but it is all worth remembering when seeing a swish 30 second marketing video of an augmented reality SA system. Using it for a week in operational conditions is going to be a vastly different beast and needs some careful thought, research and testing to find a viable solution to make sure all those benefits are delivered sustainably.
So now we can see, has it solved any actual problems?
Capable though these systems may be, the reality endures that having plugged the enormous SA hole in AFV capability, without a significant change in corresponding weapon and defensive systems the vehicle remains arguably as vulnerable as it was before - so the crew can see a threat being set up above or below them - they may well still have no means to lay a weapon onto them.
This is not strictly true, of course. High elevation RWS typically allowing an elevation of +60° to +70° are increasingly prevalent, and transparently a necessity for survival in present and future battlefields. But main armaments rarely elevate past +20° and high elevation systems are generally unable to go much beyond 12.7 mm in calibre due to the size of the weapon and avoiding excessively high profiles. If desiring larger medium calibre cannons as the main armament the elevation is typically quite limited (with the exception of the CTAI 40 CTAS which offers very high elevation for a weapon of its class owing to the unusual design).
Germany's Puma IFV is an innovator in possessing a close in protection weapon for defence against infantry in the form of the TSWA (die Turmunabhängige Sekundärwaffenanlage), a traversable 40 mm grenade launcher turret mounted at the rear of the vehicle loaded with lethal (HE/frag) and non lethal (flashbang and tear gas) grenades with a range of 0 - 400 m. This sort of capability may need to be a default requirement if AFV are to survive in urban and complex terrain without having their close range impotence readily exploited.
A significant defence is to leverage the capability of the new SA suites in providing fully networked and integrated systems. Though the vehicle under threat may not be able to lay one of it's own weapons onto an imminent threat, it can readily mark the target and hand it off to another accompanying vehicle, aircraft or infantry unit for immediate engagement on their behalf. The speed and fidelity of target designation and handoff already possible with systems like France's SICS and Israel's Fire Weaver are impressive, and look very credibly to be ready for further step change increases in the near future with systems like Carmel.
In the near future I will write a separate post on offensive and defensive AFV systems and capabilities specifically for the urban environment, but clearly there are existing and developmental capabilities to answer this weakness.