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Curious AFVs and why they look like that

Whilst the majority of contemporary AFV have reached relatively clear-cut design norms to be followed, with variances being quite subtle, there have over the years been some truly weird AFV that explored some highly unusual design concepts and ideas.

In no particular order, ten unusual AFVs that make an eyebrow raise, and a short discussion for each on why they look so odd.

1 | Lockheed Martin XM-808 Twister

A lot about Twister was strange - an 8x8 split into two 4x4 modules connected via an articulating linkage and each module had its own engine. The front module uses fully independent suspension, with the rear using walking beams. All eight wheels had a 12 inch travel.

It was actually quite small and light at only 5 tonnes, allowing it to be amphibious, with some prototypes fitted with twin water jets in the rear pods.

Why does it look so strange?

Articulated vehicles are rare but not unheard of, with the successful Hägglunds Bv-series (Bv-202, Bv-206 and BvS10) all very widely adopted and a number of similar 'all-terrain carrier' platforms (Bronco, Jonyand JY813, GAZ-3344-20, DT-3, DT-10, DT-20 and DT-30) using the concept of articulated modules.

This articulation on a wheeled vehicle is, however, very rare. The articulation gives three degrees of movement on the front pod, combined with suspension travel of 12 inches, meant the Twister could cross obstacles that would normally be very challenging for a wheeled vehicle.

Its small size and light weight combined with the powerful engines meant the Twister was fast and highly mobile, an interesting concept that offered some compelling capabilities for a small reconnaissance vehicle.

Ultimately it was not progressed to a production contract and fell into the history records as a truly unique looking oddity.

2 | Super Heavy Tank T28

Authorised in 1944 and first built in 1945 (albeit only 2 prototype examples were made), the T28 was born out of a need for a heavy assault platform to breach the anticipated massed defences of German (and later Japanese) defensive lines. More an assault gun than a tank, the vehicle was initially designated the T95 Gun Motor Carriage, but eventually renamed the Super Heavy Tank T28.

Bearing in mind most tanks of the era were around 25-30 tonnes in weight (e.g. Sherman @30t, Pz IV 25t, T-34 26t), the T28 was enormously heavy at 86 tonnes. This weight drove the selection of a highly unusual quad track design in order to retain useful ground pressure and tractive surface to operate. However, with only a 500 hp engine, it had a miserly 5.8 hp/t power-to-weight ratio and thus little ability to cross obstacles or operate in anything but good terrain.

Ultimately it would be cancelled in October 1947 and the two prototypes would be the only examples. One was scrapped, and the other lost on a night vision testing range for three decades before being found and moved to the Patton Museum at Fort Knox.

Why does it look so strange?

Two obvious unusual elements to the T28 - the quad tracks and the turretless hull with a very unusual mantlet.

The quad 495 mm tracks are unusual to say the least (though not unique to the T28), and a necessary solution to achieving good ground pressure at the huge 84 tonne gross weight. Imagine the burden of track bashing the cumulative 408 links, four sprockets and 64 roadwheels on the running gear of this thing.

The outer tracks could actually be detached from the tank and reattached to each other so they could be towed behind it as a single ~25 tonne unit when being freighted, else the vehicle would be far too wide (at just shy of 4.5 m) to be moved by any road or rail infrastructure. Doing this was a 2-4 hour job using integrated crane winches on each corner of the vehicle.

The main gun was the 105 mm T5E1, selected for its performance against concrete and fortifications (and a dab hand against armoured vehicles of the time), with a whopping 62 two-piece rounds on board.

Like other heavy assault guns / tank destroyers of the time (including the German Jagdpanzer and Soviet Samokhodnaya Ustanovka-series tanks) the T28 has no turret, instead mounting a gun with a limited elevation of +19.5° to −5° and traverse of 11° left to 10° right. The large domed mantlet was to ensure high protection around the weapon, as the rest of the tank had extraordinarily thick armour on the frontal arcs within which (as with all tanks) the gun was a potential weak area.

3 | Panhard EBR

The EBR (Engin Blindé de Reconnaissance; Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle) was an armoured scout vehicle fielded between 1951 and 1960 in surprisingly large numbers (1,179 built). Designed in the post-war era where wheeled recce vehicles were trendy on the continent (Germany's Spähpanzer Luchs being the obvious example), it was a 12.5 tonne AFV with a crew of four and a typically French armament of an SA 49 75 mm and later CN 90 F2 90 mm gun. Like the Luchs, the EBR had the party trick of having two drivers and being to drive at all speeds in both forwards and (notional) reverse directions.

Why does it look so strange?

Self-evidently, those four all-metal inner wheels are very unusual, but the oscillating turret is also something not seen too often in AFVs and worth a note.

The central wheels are there to be lowered when required off road to radically reduce ground pressure (stated to be down to 0.7kg/cm². The central wheels are very different to your average wheel, being all-aluminium rims with steel grousers. These are therefore wholly unsuitable for road travel, for which they are raised.

The EBR isn't the only AFV to mount extra wheels that can deploy as needed, the most well-known and widely adopted example being the Russian BRDM-2 family, some of which were fitted with two pairs of chain-driven belly wheels that could be lowered by the driver to aid in negotiating obstacles. Unlike the EBR, the BRDM-2 had pneumatic tyres and a driver-operated CTIS, and many BRDM-2 variants would forego the central wheels in favour of additional weight and volume capacity.

The other oddity of the EBR is its oscillating turret, a design approach used very rarely other than France's AMX-13 and its derivative, the SK-105, as well as a range of prototype tanks including the AMX-50. Bonus Institute of Tanknology Tank Points to any readers that can tell us why France developed its passing love for the oscillating turret design.

Where most turrets rotate but are otherwise static, with gun elevation achieved by pivoting the gun within the turret face on trunnions, an oscillating turret sees the turret constructed from two parts with the upper part pivoting on its own trunnions to deliver an elevating mechanism. The gap produced by the moving relationship between the two halves is generally covered with rubber or canvas skirts.

The advantage of the oscillating turret is that because the whole turret is pivoting, the gun remains fixed inside it, removing the constraint usually seen of limiting depression of the gun due to it impacting the roof of the turret when recoiling.

4 | Chrysler TV-8

The TV-8 was a concept designed to produce a 'medium tank' (25 tonnes GVW) capable of amphibious movement and designed to be easier to air transport than most tanks. Armament included a 90 mm main gun with twin coaxial .30 in. machineguns and a .50 in. remote weapon station.

As it was just a concept, it was relatively undefined and had a range of crazy ideas explored for it (as was the norm in the exciting "sky is the limit" mindset of the 60s) including alternate power sources that included hybrid electric drive, gas turbine, and even nuclear power generation using a fission-powered vapour-cycle power plant.

Why does it look so strange?

The core of the concept was to place pretty well everything in that enormous turret - the usual crew, weapon, and ammunition but also the engine (which was actually a 300 hp generator driving electric drives in the front of the hull) and most of the things normally located in the hull. The turret was mated to a lightweight hull that could be detached for separate transport in aircraft (15 tonne turret, 10 tonne hull).

The distinctive bulbous shape of the turret looks like that for two reasons - it had to be very large to fit all the equipment in it, but was larger still owing to a lightweight outer skin beyond the armoured turret structure, which was airtight to generate sufficient buoyancy for the vehicle to be amphibious. The structure also acted as a spaced armour producing a standoff effect for shaped charges impacting the vehicle (which one assumes would be quite a frequent occurrence with such a monstrously large and easy to aim at profile...).

5 | Object 279

Manufactured as a prototype in 1959, the Object 279 was an experimental heavy tank designed to operate in the anticipated environment of a Cold War gone hot. It had very thick armour for a Russian tank of the time, as well as a rifled 130 mm main gun, and featured technologies that were cutting edge for the 1950s including thermal imaging.

Its excessive complexity, poor reliability and its heavy weight (c. 60 tonnes) meant it was not progressed and it was dropped in around 1961 as a concept.

Why does it look so strange?

The two really distinctive aspects of the Object 279 are the saucer shaped hull and the quad tracks.

There are two narratives for the shape of Object 279. First is that, designed as a tank to operate in a potential nuclear war scenario, the saucer shaped hull was intended to ensure the tank would not be rolled over by the considerable blast of a nuclear bomb detonation.

The second justification, which is perhaps closer to the truth, is that it presents a highly sloped armour profile increasing the effective thickness, and as the visible surface is actually a standoff layer mounted above the true hull below, offers increased protection against HEAT-type threats.

The quad tracks are highly unusual (despite having been discussed earlier on the T28), and were selected to provide high mobility by spreading the weight as much as possible. Rather than the approach taken with T28, Object 279 mounted the tracks in opposing pairs on a hollow structure running the length of the vehicle, which also housed fuel for the tank's 1,000 hp engine.

The running gear was a complex hydropneumatic design, which was said to be overly complex and unreliable which led in part to its scrapping in favour of more conventional designs, along with the broader decision to only adopt smaller and lighter tank designs in Russia.

6 | Versuchsträger VT-tanks

The versuchsträger (experimental vehicle) tanks, or VT-tanks, were a pair of turretless tank concepts developed in the 1970s as Germany experimented with concepts whilst they developed the Leopard 2. Initially an Anglo-German effort, the British withdrew as they wanted a conventional tank, but Germany continued with the experiment of a turretless tank that could conceptually fill a niche alongside the conventional turreted Leopard 2 design. The two vehicles, designated VT 1-1 and 1-2, were built in 1974.

The vehicle was based on a shortened MBT-70 hull, and had a fairly tremendous engine by even contemporary standards, with a 1,500 hp baseline power and the ability to surge to 2,400 hp for short periods.

Why does it look so strange?

Any near-contemporary design that eschews a turret is immediately quite odd, but self-evidently the weird thing about the VT tanks were the twin main weapons - rifled 105 mm manually loaded guns on the VT 1-1 and autoloaded 120 mm smoothbore guns on the VT 1-2.

The VT 1-1 required a crew of four to manually load and fire the guns, with the VT 1-2's smoothbore guns using a five round autoloader each, reducing the required crew to three. Twin barrel tanks are a rare occurrence, primarily as they bring a tremendous increase in weight, volume and complexity whilst offering relatively little benefit.

Spending only a part of that space/weight claim that two guns would consume on technologies to increase rate of fire or expand ammunition types and capabilities has always proven a better solution.

7 | 1K17 Szhatie

A very rare thing to see - an AFV with a laser main weapon system. Built on a MSTA-S self-propelled artillery vehicle hull, it has often been mistaken for a rocket launcher like the TOS-1 system, but it is in fact a large laser projector designed for damaging electro-optical systems on enemy weapons, vehicles and aircraft.

It did not progress to full scale production, not least because of the hobbling cost and complexity of manufacturing the 30 kg of artificial rubies required for the lasers on each vehicle.

Why does it look so strange?

The odd thing about the 1K17 is that main weapon, a bank of lasers, each projecting from one of the circular apertures in the turret face. The concept was that this laser projector could be focused on an enemy vehicle or position and it would badly damage any optical devices looking back, such as weapon and observation sights, periscopes and other devices. Obviously but not necessarily intentionally, it would also do the same to any eyeballs looking in its direction.

High Energy Lasers (HELs) have come back into fashion in recent years, but in much smaller forms designed to engage UAVs and RAM (Rockets, Artillery and Mortars) threats. The concept of a laser designed specifically to burn out optics and any human eyes within a relatively broad arc of effect is also wholly incompatible with modern concerns around fratricide and civilian casualties (let alone the PR optics of burning out the eyes of your opponent) and would likely never be considered again.

8 | MBT-70

MBT-70 is probably the least odd looking AFV in the post, looking fairly normal even, but something doesn't feel quite right about it. The joint US/German effort to produce a new generation of MBT had a turret that was clearly very large compared to, and sited very far forward on, the hull. The hatches were just all over the place, and depending on the photo, the running gear could be very unconventional looking.

MBT-70 as a project ultimately collapsed and led to the US and Germany designing and introducing their long standing M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 families of vehicles respectively, but the technologies and concepts developed within the MBT-70 programme have their fingerprints in a wide range of Western AFV designs in the years since.

Why does it look so strange?

Perhaps the most dramatic design feature of MBT-70 was that the driver was not in their own compartment in the nose of the tank, as is the case in essentially every other tank design, but was sited in the traversing turret with the rest of the crew, which was one driver of the quite large turret size and its forward positioning.

It was however the product of achieving the lowest profile possible for the vehicle as a whole, which was very low at c.6 feet to the roof and as a result left insufficient room in the hull for a driver's compartment.

Recognising that sitting in a traversing turret whilst trying to drive a tank in a completely different direction would be deeply unpleasant and cause sickness, disorientation and degraded performance, the drivers station was itself traversable within the turret and as geared to rotate to remain forward facing as the turret rotated. It could be manually traversed to a differing position, allowing the driver to face rearwards and drive the vehicle at full speed in reverse if required.

The running gear was also some of the most advanced in a tank at the time, being hydropneumatic and thus able to do all the self-levelling, squatting and other tricks now commonly seen on AFVs with hydropneumatic suspensions such as the South Korean K2.

The range of movement was considerable - 4 to 28 inches of ground clearance, allowing it to squat low or level behind terrain, but achieve high suspension travel when moving at speed cross country.

9 | UDES XX 20

UDES XX 20 (Underlagsgrupp Direkt Eld Stridsfordon, eXtra eXperimentell "Direct fire ground combat vehicle, extra experimental" version 20) was a very unusual light tank developed by Hägglunds in the late 1970s as part of a programme of new AFV design efforts.

Why does it look so strange?

Its two pod design is undeniably unusual, only fielded as a design approach in a small number of all terrain carrier vehicles like the Bv206. A precursor prototype for the UDES XX 20 was in fact based on a Bv206 chassis, the UDES XX 5 testbed (the 5 denoting the weight in tonnes).

UDES XX 5 proved the concept from a mobility perspective, with the same outstanding mobility of the Bv206 family, with few if any trenches able to stop it crossing.

A larger and more tank-appropriate model was developed, the 20 tonne-class UDES XX 20. A crew of three were located in the front module along with the 120 mm main gun. The engine and ammunition were in the rear module.

The project was reasonably successful, it showed that the concept could offer extreme mobility in a viable package for the unique mobility demands of arctic operations. Ultimately however, there was not a compelling enough need for a heavy direct fire platform with such mobility, and the concept remained something only used by the all terrain carrier design.

10 | FV23680 Contentious

Not to be confused with the FV4401 Contentious, a prototype lightweight air portable two-crew tank armed with a QF 20 pounder (84 mm) gun, the FV23680 Contentious was a 1953 design from the glorious minds at the UK's Chobham establishment for a one man lightweight tank that could offer a small and cheap platform for massed employment of tank destroyers against an anticipated massed Russian invasion force.

Why does it look so strange?

Contentious was to be operated by a single person crew, who would operate the two 120 mm guns, each fitted with a 7-round revolving autoloader and +/-20° traverse and +10/-5° elevation, mounted on an FV400 Cambridge Carrier hull and weighing 15 tonnes.

The original Contentious design actually had four 120 mm single shot guns, which would then require the vehicle to retreat to a reloading point for external reload. User feedback was said to be 'unenthusiastic', and so the twin gun arrangement, each with an autoloader, was created. The two guns would enable a rapid rate of fire so that the vehicle could minimise exposure and retire after a short volley of rounds.

Survivability was mainly provided by small form factor, and the weapons were unstabilised (which didn't entirely matter as it was incredibly unlikely the single crew would be able to effectively drive, aim and fire the weapons anyway!). A ranging machinegun would enable high probability of first round hit, said the designers.

Quoting the excellent Tank Factory book, user feedback was filled with fairly obvious concerns about this slightly mad concept, including:

  • The viability of a one-man crew;

  • Vulnerability of the external guns;

  • Lack of rounds (fourteen only) – the user expressed a preference for a single gun and more rounds;

  • Accuracy of the guns – only likely to be accurate to 1,000yd;

  • The need for improved mobility for the nuclear battlefield (the mobility would have been similar to that of the Centurion).

The result was some concessions by the Chobham engineers, who evolved the design into a two-man crewed vehicle, the Contentious II (more on that in a future post).


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