The AFV of the future, today

I came across an article in an old issue of Armor magazine, and thought it interesting to explore a little how a vision of what AFVs might look like within 25 years have panned out, now that we're beyond that horizon.

Way back in the good old days of July 1997, buoyed by the excitement of having just watched the Titanic and Leonardo Di Caprio both sink to the depths, Armor magazine ran the first of a series of three features written by some AFV oriented design specialists, who were brainstorming what they thought an AFV fielded by 2020 might look like, ostensibly under the FCS programme. This was meant to be grounded in the absolute cutting edge but viable, rather than just wild Imagineering, though a few elements maybe didn't quite hit that remit as we'll see.

The AFV of 2020, according to 1997

So getting straight into the excitement, here it is; their notional Future Combat System (FCS) vehicle. Highlights include a crew of 2 in a hull of a 40-45 tonne vehicle, owing to small size and judicious use of composites in its construction, mounting an unmanned turret with electromagnetic (railgun) and laser armaments, buckets of situational awareness (SA) kit including a VR vision system, vertical launch SAM/ATGM, electric drive and composite tracks.

They gave us a little more detail on the mad-as-a-box-of-frogs main armament, a dual calibre (25/35 mm) rotary force air cooled electro magnetic autocannon. Bold.

This gun features three barrels each of 25 mm and 35 mm calibre, with one calibre for each of the two ammunition types (unspecified, but assumed to be 1x KE and 1x HE). Rate of fire would be variable 1-60 rds/min with cooling via forced ambient air through the barrel shroud, which is designed with stealth characteristics.

Now, on the surface this vehicle is nuts. The sheer volume of extreme technologies in the context of 1997 is mind boggling, but bear with it. This was the age of big R&D funding, a myriad of very advanced weapon system projects going on all over the place, and was the climate that birthed the FCS programme as a credible effort. FCS, for the uninitiated,. was an incredibly bold vision on a massive scale - imagine France's SCORPION programme (or even the newer and expanded TITAN vision), but on vast amounts of steroids. In short, it wasn't a time like today. People were dreaming big and achieving things at pace too.

And whilst the design is a bit wild and we are a ways off from any AFV that could tick all those boxes as a single finished product, its surprising how many of those boxes are quite mature in some manner today.

So looking back in 2022, what would work today?

Start outside the vehicle, which is also starting with the bad news. The rectenna charging system and the dual feed 25/35 mm electromagnetic rotary cannon are still as mad as they were in 1997.

Microwave power beaming via a rectenna receiver is something still being looked at, and it does work. But most research is not getting beyond quite low power (<1.6 kW) applications and keeps it terrestrial and short range (<1.5 km). The paper called on some studies from the 1980s which, buoyed by the successes of the Apollo programme, envisaged a US satellite network of some 60 Solar Power Satellites (SPS) operated by 1,000 astronauts, each satellite being 50,000 tonnes in weight and measuring 10.5 km x 5.2 km. (Note: Give this Wired article a read for the wonderful madness of the SPS vision). This idea clearly did not come to pass in any capacity, so charging an AFV from space is still a a no go, even a quarter of a century later.

A few other bold power options were explored in the papers, including micro nuclear power in the form of a miniaturised Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR). The article did acknowledge the substantial obstacles to safely and cleanly demilitarising reactors, and the many dangers of nuclear reactors being present in armoured vehicles in a kinetic threat environment.

The EM gun is arguably more viable than the power system, as there has been active development of smaller calibre EM cannons. The work around General Atomics' Blitzer was perhaps the closest we've got so far, but that was still absolutely huge as a total system and thus not remotely possible to power within the confines of an AFV design, let alone a light weight low profile one.

The BLitzer railgun, which would have been available in 10 MJ and 32 MJ variants

But Blitzer was a promising effort and was being positioned as a viable option for the Army, albeit as an indirect fires and C-RAM application, not least owing to the huge footprint of the accompanying power generation and supply systems.

Though an interesting proposition, Blitzer was severely limited in applications by its enormous power system

There was promising research in the late 1980s into AFV oriented compensated pulsed alternator power generation for a medium (c.30 mm) railgun weapon system, which worked by spinning up a flywheel in a vacuum with a small gas turbine engine and then braking it rapidly to tap burst of power out of it. It would manage several rounds before being too slow to continue to provide power, at which point it could be spun back up by the turbine. It was promising stuff, but got put on a shelf at some point and has yet to be resurrected. The internal diagram for this notional AFV mention a compensator energy storage system which may well be of a similar design approach. Given the brief but fervent activity around the Blitzer one has to assume that they would have at least reviewed the historic research and discarded it for good reason.

Those two opening (and quite enormous) drawbacks aside, the rest is not looking too bad. The optics were never that dramatic in their aspiration, and we're at or beyond the standards they hoped for (target of Gen3, Gen3+ being widely available already). There have been some interesting contemporary developments around colour and augmented vision systems that go beyond what they could envisage at the time, so its fair to say the modern era offers at least what they were looking for.

The AFV world hasn't taken up the idea of vertically launched ATGM/SAM systems, but ATGM are far more prevalent on AFV these days, typically in a two round pods on the side of turrets.

Podded ATGM on IFV-class vehicles is broadly considered a standard requirement now

There was an MBDA proposal for quasi-vertical launch Brimstone for Boxer, and a similar albeit smaller scale system exists for Spike systems to fire them from tactical utility/patrol vehicles. Gun launched ATGM (GLATGM) are rare in the West but continue to be an option.

The notion of taking up very limited (and even more so in the low profile AFV of the Future proposal) internal space with a mix of both ATGM and SAM missiles is probably the most unrealistic element. There simply isn't room for sufficient stowed kills in so many guises, especially when the vehicle is already carrying a dual calibre main gun and is a small volume platform and so space is at a big premium. Further, air defence is a sufficiently specialised capability to warrant dedicated assets to be used for it in almost all cases.

3D panoramic vision systems integrated into the vehicle armour sounded a bit barmy in 1997, but today we have Australia looking at one of it's two IFV contenders (Hanwha's Redback) that has exactly this in the form of Iron Vision.

Iron Vision provides augmented and virtual reality for crew.

This allows 'see through armour' by projecting 360 degree imagery onto the users vision area, and allows augmented reality by projecting system information and symbology over the camera imagery. This augmented reality approach is also already being fielded in a few other areas, including France's Jaguar recce vehicle which has sensor fusion and augmented reality to show the crew not just what their vehicle can see and detect, but what other vehicles and networked systems can see too, prioritised to who can deliver best effect.

An integrated crew citadel under the glacis was never that bold a proposition, and is being fielded by Russia with T-14, and is at the core of most current and next gen AFV layout plans. The XM2001 Crusader was well into development when this was written, though hadn't fielded prototypes yet, so this concept was and is very viable, in fact the majority of near and future AFV will use unmanned turrets and crew citadel design concepts.

One thing the concept nailed was the need for high order autonomy and recognising the evolution of what it would mean to crew an AFV in a sensor fusion environment:

"The adaptation of a reduced crew requires a dramatic departure from the underlying philosophy of conventional tank operation. The two crew members must be regarded as ‘pilots’ that could not and should not be expected to perform routine functions presently assigned to conventional tank crews. It practically implies that logistics, maintenance operations, sentry duties, and alike, should be minimized by virtue of highly-advanced technologies and extended reliability. The tank self-defense systems should operate intelligently and independently, continuously watching, monitoring and protecting, while the crew is asleep, recuperating, or inoperable."

Even today such a degree of autonomy and cultural change in the way AFV crews might be viewed, trained and operated remains elusive. Israeli efforts around the Carmel system continue to explore this most promisingly, with less extreme examples including the networked situational awareness and targeting systems of the French SCORPION programme similarly requiring a cultural shift in how AFVs are operated and utilised.

The high energy laser (HEL) directed energy weapon (DEW) is not especially unusual now, with this class of system becoming increasingly adopted in the CUAS domain and looked at for C-RAM and some VSHORAD applications.

Powering HELs from within an AFV is no longer a tremendous challenge, and there are DEW vehicles as light as a Polaris MRZR now. No-one calls them laser cannons though, and I'm not sure they did in 1997 either but let's give them a free pass on that faux pas.

The vision called for this system to be used in a counter-missile and rocket type capacity more than the CUAS environment we find today, and in that regard there is some divergence, but its not outside the realms of possibility. Hard kill APS cover more of the spectrum the vision was looking at, but certainly a mixture of APS and HEL is a viable vision.

Inside the vehicle had a few more elements but a surprising number are looking alright. Electric drive is yet to see operational fielding in an IFV or tank, but came very close with the GCV programme, and there are M2A4 Bradleys running around in the US with QinetiQ's EX-Drive in them. It seems very likely that hybrid and even all-electric drive AFV will be a norm over time, and at least uncommon very soon.

The mine detection and defeat system is not detailed, but can be assumed to be analogous to the many similar technologies that emerged through the 2000s and 2010s as everyone poured money into CIED technologies for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pearson's PEROCC demonstrator demonstrated a range of neat CIED integrated technologies, and some of the work into multi-spectral texture analysis to indicate disturbed or recently excavated soil for IED and mine detection is impressive capability that would be good for integration with modern AFV augmented reality systems.

Multispectral imaging can detect and mark terrain disturbance from passive imagery

Composite tracks, which would have seemed very unlikely to be viable for a large AFV at the time, are now very mature. Soucy would happily jump on this programme with 55 tonne GVW capacity CRT and associated running gear (so tick off the composite running gear components, though right now the road wheels would still be a metal/composite construction, but the sprocket would be a composite item). Active suspension using hydropneumatics is also quite normal now, doubtless Horstmann would have a range of options. To be fair, that wasn't excessive in 1997 either as Challenger 2 was already happily driving around on hydrogas on it trials programme at that time.

Hanwha's Redback uses both composite tracks and hydrogas suspension

The situational awareness (SA) suite including virtual reality was covered above, but also a note that the desire for a 10 camera SA suite is by no means excessive, with contemporary vehicles like Ajax now mounting well north of 20 cameras to complete its sensor and SA package. The notion of buying an AFV in the 2020s that isn't covered in cameras and SA systems would seem utterly bizarre and a terrible set of requirements.

Composite hulls were by no means new in 1997, with the US having made a composite Bradley in the late 1980s (saving c.27% weight after accounting for additional ceramic armour) and the British having made the Advanced Composite Armoured Vehicle Platform (ACAVP) 'plastic tank' which was more ambitious in the scale and scope of composite replacement of metal, and similarly saw a 20-30% weight saving. What is perhaps interesting is that nobody has followed up with much work in composite hulls, with the only real use of significant composites in AFV hulls having been on the British Foxhound.

A GRP composite M2 Bradley hull made by FMC in 1986

Closing thoughts

The reality is this was just one concept, developed by a single node in the breadth and depth of the defence industry. But it is a good indicator of where thinking was in the 1990s, which is to say very optimistic, bold and seeking real game changing technology. Contrast it with today, where no-one would possibly put forward equivalent requirements this bold or far reaching, and if they did they would be doomed to an endless cost and time sink that probably never delivers anything. Is that a fault of a lack of suitably ambitious mindsets or an excess of enormously rigid and bureaucratic procurement processes that prevent agile development and acquisition of boundary stretching capabilities? Bigger topic for another post.

But when you look, nearly 30 years later, at the AFVs of the mid 2020s that we have today there are perhaps a surprising number of technologies in a reasonably mature state and even being fielded that were seen as visionary not all that long ago.


Recent Posts

See All