2022 has become something of the year of the tank, with a fair few new ideas and designs emerging, most excitingly the concept demonstrators from Germany and the US. A brief run through of them, some observations on common approaches and divergent thinking, and a concluding waffle on what, if anything, it all means.
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This is looking at the functioning concept vehicles unveiled in 2022, rather than any of pure conceptual work being done for the all-new design tanks of the 2030s (US DLP/OMFV-Tank, Franco-German MGCS, Korean NGMBT etc.). Those can be another post for another day. So, in vague chronological order:
1. Rheinmetall KF51 Panther
Unveiled at Eurosatory in June, Rheinmetall's KF51 Panther captured a lot of coverage, overshadowing some of the other developments at the show. The existence of a new tank-class AFV from Rheinmetall had been an open secret for a year or two, intended to offer their own heavy weight tracked vehicle above KF41 Lynx.
Important to remember that as with all the 2022 concepts, it is strictly a concept vehicle, showing notional direction that a hypothetical user could pursue towards a production candidate, either as a completely new vehicle or as a radical overhaul of an existing Leopard 2 fleet. It is not a mature on the shelf product to be bought.
Headline features include:
Has a crewed turret, but with a different set of roles. Either a 3-person crew notionally with the loader no longer needed, or Rheinmetall offered a vision of the vehicle retaining 4th crew person (two in turret and two in hull) as a systems operator, handling RWS and any associated systems like UGVs or UAS.
Rheinmetall's new 130 mm L51 main gun, fitted with an autoloader to handle the substantially larger ammunition from the magazine in the bustle.
Rheinmetall NATTER7.62 RWS, a high elevation (-15°/+85°) RWS providing some 'counter-drone' CUAS (counter unmanned aerial systems) capability, albeit with the quite modest 7.62 mm cartridge the efficacy and terminal effect are going to be limited.
An integrated ATGM launcher, with a four-missile launch unit fitted to the rear left of the turret roughly where a traditional ammunition compartment would be, but not required in that position now due to the autoloader. The ATGM launcher elevates for launch and retracts flush with the roof when not in use. It does not appear that reloads can be conducted from under armour. The launcher can also fire UVision HERO 120 loitering munitions, controlled from the tank by the systems operator.
Rheinmetall said the vehicle is protected by their ADS hard-kill APS, though as presented there was no overt evidence of the system or where it is mounted. ADS is a distributed APS, meaning it is fitted all around the vehicle rather than being a single launcher that fires from the vehicle like Trophy, so it's usually easy to spot the sensors. Perhaps a planned addition downstream, this is a concept vehicle for a show, after all.
Mobility wise it is a relatively safe offering - as presented the KF51 was using a hull derived from the Leopard 2, however Rheinmetall said that the 'real' KF51, were it to be developed into a production vehicle by a customer, would use an all-new hull and driveline that exists as a design but has not yet been built as a real demonstrator vehicle. Details on this hull design were not forthcoming.
In many ways KF51 is actually the most conventional of the concept tanks we've seen this year. It still has a manned turret with a big gun, normal optic and sensor configurations and a conventional mobility/powertrain. Its boast is in taking a solid step in delivering substantial leaps ahead in lethality (the 130 mm main gun, integrated ATGM/LM and latest generation optics and targeting kit), which is the key area most users are shouting for a major capability uplift to ensure overmatch against their opponents.
2. KNDS EMBT
Also unveiled at Eurosatory in June, KNDS' EMBT was perhaps slightly overshadowed in the media coverage by KF51, but in some ways is a more interesting vehicle to look at in terms of statements about future tank design. It is very much a concept vehicle, showing indicative design direction but not a specific as-is vehicle that is being marketed for someone to buy.
Headline features include:
Crewed or uncrewed turret options with crew relocated to the hull in the case of the latter. KNDS spoke about 2-, 3- and 4-person crew configurations, depending on user requirements and maturity of supporting technologies (namely automation and 'AI' to augment smaller crew numbers). Notionally the vehicle shown was intended to be a 4-person configuration, two in the turret and two in the hull, with the second hull crew being a systems operator, much like the KF-51 offering.
As presented, it fitted a conventional Nexter 120 mm L52 CN120-26/52 gun, but KNDS stated it is "ready for the future integration" of the Nexter ASCALON 140 mm cased telescoped cannon.
Nexter ARX30 RWS fitted with a 30x113mm 30M781MPG cannon.
Integrated Trophy hard-kill APS, in what appears to be a conventional contemporary configuration broadly as fitted to any other tank. The radars are integrated tightly into the base turret design.
A fairly safe mobility setup, with retention of Leopard 2 hull and running gear, and the use of the Leopard 2's long running MTU 883 family of engines, though the EuroPowerPack (EPP) model fitted is uplifted to 1,500 hp which is a step in the right direction (if not the 1,800 hp that would ensure good growth potential for the future, though it could be upgraded of course), and a significant reduction in pack volume.
The reason I say it is a little more interesting as a concept is the integration of systems and notional roadmap to increased calibre armaments and decreased crew through leveraging automation as it matures. Where most concepts and upgraded vehicles to date have largely continued the trend of slapping mission systems onto the exterior of the turret, EMBT has a more considered integrated approach where they are fully embedded within the turret structure in a more intentional and cohesive way.
3. General Dynamics AbramsX
After a lot of teaser videos over the summer, we finally saw the AbramsX at AUSA in October. Slightly unpleasant Apple-inspired name aside, it's an impressive set of upgrades to a now 42-year-old design that continue to broadly align with the European thinking, but also add a few novel elements to the discussion.
Headline features include:
Uncrewed turret - meaning a Meggitt autoloader (though not the same as the Compact Autoloader that has been around since the early 2000s) and crew relocated to a single compartment in the front of the hull, sitting three abreast rather like the Russian T-14 configuration first seen in 2015, but with a hatch for all three of them where every other 'citadel' crew configuration to date has seen two hatches with the middle crewmember not provided with one. Also noteworthy is that the turret, whilst uncrewed does have 'reversionary' crew positions to allow full engagement sequences in the event of autoloader failure. It was noted to be "not the most comfortable" though.
Turret drives are electric, which may be the norm for pretty well the rest of the world but is novel for Abrams. Compared to hydraulic systems they are quieter with finer control when using the latest electric drive systems and safer, though the dangers of contemporary hydraulic systems are vastly overstated.
Retention of 120 mm but using the XM360 gun developed during the Future Combat Systems days and intended to allow lighter (<20t) AFVs to mount 120 mm guns. The weight saving is substantial owing to the use of composite overwrap on the barrel rather than all-metal, as well as some trickery in the breach and mounting. All-up, it saves a claim 1-2 tonnes (depending how much of the system you measure) of weight alone. Also note that as its an uncrewed turret, there is no need for a fume evacuator, and quite unusually for a tank, it has a pepperpot muzzle brake.
Fitting of full panoramic sights for both gunner and commander is something you don't see every day on a tank, in this case both get a Safran PASEO which gives day/thermal channels and a laser rangefinder for each of them.
Kongsberg Protector RS6 RWS, dubbed the XM914 mounting an M230 30 mm cannon and fitted for Javelin integration.
Integrated Trophy hard-kill APS. though with an unusual three effector configuration (a third effector rear left of the turret) where every Trophy integration to date has had two, one on each side of the turret. In addition, there is a radar mounted at the rear of the turret pointing upwards to enable engaging of top-attack threats, though it is unclear if Trophy is actually capable of doing this yet or if it is just to prompt discussion.
A Cummins diesel electric hybrid drive powerpack (using the Advanced Combat Engine (ACE)), which may depress many Abrams fans but please everyone else who moved over to diesel packs nearly half a century ago. Jokes aside, efficiency of the hybrid system means they can achieve same range for c.50% fuel capacity, freeing up a load of very valuable internal space. The fuel tanks either side of the driver are thus gone, replaced with the 3-abreast crew 'citadel'. It also allows silent overwatch and 'limited' silent manoeuvre, The pack uses a Sapa ACT1000-series (possibly the new ACT1075) transmission, which is a fairly unusual non-hydraulic, electrically controlled 32-speed system that they claim has much higher efficiency than traditional heavy tracked vehicle transmissions.
One thing I think is missing is that at 53.5t they could have looked at some Soucy Composite Rubber Tracks (CRT), which now go up to 55t GVW would have offered even more benefits to the vehicle (see my primer for more on CRT).
Side fact: the specific hull on the concept vehicle appears to be derived from the Heavy Combat Vehicle Test Bed (HCVTB) 'dieselised abrams' from 2013, which had some distinguishing features around the rear light housings, drive sprockets and the lightweight 570P3 tracks. (H/T Ronkainen on twitter for that tidbit).
4. Some observations
A brief comparison of the main specs, though please try not to use it to play Top Trumps - it's just to note the similarities and differences that then form some of the discussion below. Remember again that these vehicles are trying to prompt discussion around future design and capability priorities and direction.
Base vehicle (hull)
Hull & turret
Hull & turret
Rheinmetall 130 mm L51
Nexter 120 mm 120 mm L52 or Nexter ASCALON 140 mm
XM360 120 mm
Main gun loader & capacity
Yes, 4x in integrated launcher
Optional, 1x coaxial to RWS
NATTER 7.62 mm
ARX30 30 mm
XM914 30 mm
1,500 hp MTU diesel
1,500 hp MTU diesel
1,500 hp Cummins diesel-electric hybrid
4.1 Still waiting...
We are still yet to see anyone offer an all-new tank design, with even the more radical KF51/EMBT/AbramsX all being continuing developments of 1980s and 1990s tank designs.
The US, Germany and France are all progressing genuine new design vehicles under various programmes (including DLP and MGCS), but we are yet to see the fruits of those efforts. The concepts speak to some of the design thinking around those platforms, and the systems being developed may well be ported straight over into those development roadmaps, but as it stands, we are still waiting for that first all-new "next gen" (horrid term) tank family.
I've written on why this isn't actually a big deal before (on Twitter here and a longer blog version in progress), but it will be interesting when the first blank slate design emerges and how it tackles the problems of fitting a vast array of systems and sensors onto a very limited space with endless design constraints and compromises. Some of the work we are seeing on EMBT and AbramsX in particular show how these things can be tightly integrated when they aren't just being bolted on top of things.
4.2 Uncrewed turrets: Increasing interest
Russia's T-14 Armata made uncrewed turrets exciting again, but it was by no means an innovation originating from T-14. Western tanks haven't shown much interest in that direction of design approach in recent decades, but in many ways that has been more a reflection of the very slow progress of new-design tanks in Europe and the US than a lack of interest in the concept, as this 2022 crop of Western designs is now showing.
It is really important to remember uncrewed does not mean 'next generation'. Having the crew in the turret, or not, doesn't necessarily mean anything in terms of effects and generational leaps of capability. Remember that unmanned turrets have been trialled and in service (in admittedly small numbers, but Stryker MGS, Puma etc.) since the 1980s and 1990s - they aren't new conceptually.
They also are not a major capability lift in and of themselves. Take the below examples - CV90CZ (crewed, right) and CV90CZr (uncrewed, left). To all intents the same vehicle, the same effects, the same capabilities and the same generation.
They each bring certain benefits and certain drawbacks that collectively mean they may be better or worse in various scenarios, but thus far never inherently change the capability or radically alter the underlying threat vs host platform balance of power. It's just a case of assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses and picking the one whose weaknesses you can accept.
More on this topic in another post soon, but in the meantime, it would appear that manufacturers are seeing uncrewed tank turrets as a credible path to explore, and user appetite is increasing for them.
4.3 Sensor density: Lots!
It is impossible to ignore the sheer volume of sensors on these tanks, required to service the situational awareness suites, protection systems, observation and targeting systems, communications and more. Dozens of cameras, radars, antennas and other bits of kit are now fitted, and that's a lot of space claim (leaving out the power and weight burden, which is significant).
There have been concerns raised around the survivability of tanks with such a heavy sensor density and such overt reliance on those sensors to function properly. Especially as crew relocate to hull 'citadels', they have essentially no reversionary capability should the cameras be defeated. The notion of a 'mission systems kill' whereby a tank has its systems degraded to the point of being out of action, even though the crew, mobility and weapon systems are all still perfectly viable is very much a real thing in a battlefield full of artillery and airburst and HE/Frag weapon systems. How long does a sensor dependent vehicle survive against an attack like the one in the video below?
Thus far we haven't seen any real discussion around how to try and protect optics and other sensors from damage, or what the reversionary approach could be should a vehicle be liberally showered with airburst fragmentation. With crews moving into the hull and without being able to use physical backup optical sights as they can in a conventional tank today, the need to have robust protection of the sensors and a clear plan for reversionary procedures should they be neutralised are self-evident, but not widely discussed yet.
4.4 Protection: APS front and centre, not much else though
Where the armaments and turret designs are presenting quite exciting developments, the offerings in the protection/survivability space are a bit less exciting. There is nothing being overtly presented in the way of step-change armour (disruptive tech like electric reactive armour or new leap-ahead ERA/NERA designs), signature management (ranging from thermal coverings like Barracuda to active systems like BAE Systems' ADAPTIV) or active defences in the soft and hard kill domains. All three have utilised mature off the shelf defensive systems, so the outlook for protection in its many guises is a little unclear, if not disappointing.
Hard kill is at least a key element of these tank designs. Two of the three have fitted Rafael's Trophy, and we also have four real-world tanks now (Merkava IV, Leopard 2A7A1, Challenger 3, M1A2 SEPv2) that are fitting or have fitted Trophy as their APS of choice. Elbit's Iron Fist is often the next most popular choice for hard kill APS, though is generally seen as a medium weight solution and accordingly has been procured for the Netherlands' CV9035NL upgrade and Israel's Eitan 8x8, but not to tanks. Rheinmetall's ADS is the third big name in APS and secured its first operational customer in the form of Hungary's KF41 Lynx IFVs, delivered in early October. There has been a nebulous claim since around 2015 that ADS is fitted to a Southeast Asian country's AFVs, but no evidence of this ever seems to emerge.
It's interesting that as the opportunities and demand for hard kill APS continue to mature and open up quite substantially, we have seen no new hard-kill APS design enter the Western market in a meaningful since ADS in 2001. Trophy is largely cleaning up, but one would hope we must be on the cusp of a raft of new entrants even if only as incumbents like Rafael and Rheinmetall bring out the natural successors to their Trophy, ADS et al designs.
The silence from the big APS manufacturers around new solutions to protect against top attack and kinetic threats (namely APFSDS, which is very hard to defeat) is increasingly evident. An area to watch, alongside protection as a whole.
4.5 Weight and size
All three vehicles have claimed to a weight reduction over most high-end contemporary tanks (latest Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams sit in the 65t to 70t range, and the UK's upcoming Challenger 3 could be as much as 79,500 kg with optional armour packages fitted, where EMBT and KF51 sit around 60t).
General Dynamics is claiming AbramsX has a notional combat weight of 53.5 tonnes, which is in the region of a 20% weight reduction and brings it into a vastly different (better) range for logistics, mobility and support. Given the existing M1A2 SEPv3 has reached a weight where it is no longer "transportable by current recovery vehicles, tactical bridges, or heavy equipment transporters" and thus creates an enormous knock-on cost and resource burden to upgrade or replace all of these combat enablers to accommodate these new super heavy tanks.
What isn't changing is size. Given all three are using existing hull designs, the critical dimensions (length/width/height) are not changed over contemporary vehicles, which are already at their practical maximums (see my old twitter thread on why tanks are the size they are).
Turret height can be modestly lowered as they are uncrewed, but the much larger weapons being fitted to the RWS mean the overall height is somewhere between the same and maybe a little higher.
It will be interesting to see if the true 'next generation' of blank slate designs pursue a size reduction, or if the demands on larger weapons, radically larger ammunition and a raft of complex mission systems force them to retain the contemporary size template.
4.6 Armament: Some divergence of thinking
One of the main differences in these vehicles has been in their weapon systems, both the main guns, which vary in calibre and design approach, as well as secondary and even tertiary armaments.
4.6.1 Main weapon
There is certainly a lack of clarity on what the direction is for main armaments - will the future MBT class use 120, 130 or 140 mm? In this batch of 2022 concepts, we have two 120 mm and a 130 mm, with EMBT claiming to be future proofed for a trial of 140 mm (albeit the ASCALON CT 140, rather than 'full throttle' 140 mm as we saw on a Leclerc testbed a few years back).
It appears inevitable that the tank-class armament needs to increase from 120 mm, which is very close to its design limits for terminal effects (even if those effects are in general still overmatching essentially all targets). Rheinmetall 120 mm guns are the armament (or origination of the armament, as with the M256) for essentially all Western tanks, and there isn't a lot of competition in the tank gun space anymore, so Rheinmetall's overt move to 130 mm as their future armament offering may well force the market.
That said, 140 mm has been experimented with for decades now, and is still being looked at by France in conventional and cased telescoped designs. The US is yet to make a clear movement in any direction, with General Dynamics having mounted the 120 mm XM360 to AbramsX, but the US direction on going beyond 120 mm will doubtless be a significant factor when they do reveal the thinking behind the inevitable Abrams successor's requirements.
4.6.2 Weapon Stations
An emerging consensus appears to be to move to mounting medium calibre cannon RWS systems where contemporary tanks largely mount 7.62 mm calibre weapons as a maximum. Both the EMBT and AbramsX mount 30 mm RWS, and there is a fair amount of overt preferential discussion around this by users.
On the plus side, a cannon-class RWS provides a very potent fully independent weapon system with high elevation and potentially flexible ammunition natures to have a range of valuable effects. In particular these systems are being positioned as powerful urban warfare tools and able to provide C-UAS defence.
On the minus side, these are much larger and heavier systems than the norm of a conventional 7.62 mm calibre RWS, and their ammunition is many orders larger and heavier too. Storing a useful number of rounds is a substantial space and weight cost and does need to be challenged as to how it will be employed as a new capability and not just a heavier like-for-like swap of the older and lighter systems to prove its value.
Layout wise, the broad design approach seems to be to put the RWS to the rear of the turret and keep them independent from the sensor heads. This is heavily constrained by the need to have other things operating at the frontal arc and retain access through the roof hatches, but it does mean terrible depression and blind spots for the RWS all around the frontal arc.
As I talk about in my post on situational awareness, having good SA and ability to depress and thus employ a defensive weapon in close proximity to the vehicle is very important, especially in complex terrain. It does feel that all these designs are lacking in having any specific design consideration for complex including urban terrain.
All of the vehicles have chosen to place their RWS as a separate system from the commander's sight, rather than consolidate the weight, space and integration complexity by combining the two.
EMBT is an outlier in that it does integrate a machine gun into the sensor head, but as an additional weapon to the RWS and the coax rather than integrating them (making it technically a joint quaternary (4th) or even quinary (5th) weapon system? Best to avoid that line of thinking...). There is certainly a case for having too many disparate weapons on a vehicle.
4.6.3 Ammunition Storage
Both of these are high cost, in terms of space, for ammunition stowage and handling. In particular, any movement to a larger calibre main gun will see a significant change in the area of ammunition storage. 130 mm and 140 mm single-piece rounds are radically larger than 2-piece rounds and cannot be handled manually from either practical or legal perspectives.
That means autoloaders, which mechanically transfer the ammunition from a protected compartment into the breach. Autoloaders have a rather bad press at the moment, owing to the Russian designs having a predilection for catastrophic failure and destruction of the whole vehicle, but the autoloaders for future Western vehicles are of a very different design and alongside IM-compliant ammunition pose no real risk of the whole vehicle exploding, and in the event of a catastrophic event in the magazine, blow out panels and engineered weaknesses direct the blast away from the vehicle interior.
However, with ammunition being radically larger, far fewer rounds can be carried, and the ability to store additional rounds in the hull and transfer them to the main magazine manually is no longer possible, though this can be modestly compensated by having a larger primary magazine given they are generally more compact in autoloader configurations.
Similar issues exist in the evolution to medium calibre RWS systems. 30 mm class ammunition is radically larger than 7.62 mm, as demonstrated by the comparison below of a 30x173 mm (which is a little larger than the 30x113 mm that is more typical of the RWS seen on these concept tanks) to other ammunition types.
Holding a useful number of rounds for these radically larger 30 mm weapons requires a lot of space and weight, and both are a premium on any AFV. Most IFV hold fewer than 200 rounds, so as a secondary or tertiary weapon system it is unlikely these RWS will hold more than 50 rounds at best. Is this a useful quantity for the size and weight cost? Some modelling and operational analysis will doubtless draw out a breakeven point and some clever design work is needed to efficiently store and handle the ammunition.
4.7 Mobility: Lacking focus?
Despite the future looks and exciting tech across these vehicles, there is not a great deal of innovation or future looking technology from the perspective of mobility, which is a shame.
The exception is AbramsX, which has a hybrid electric drive (HED) power pack connected to the Sapa ACT1000-series 32-speed transmission. The HED driveline brings with it the claimed benefits of silent watch, silent movement and a vastly increased fuel efficiency (50% the fuel usage of the existing Honeywell AGT1500 gas turbine system), but the other two tanks continue to use conventional diesel engines. It would be good that as with the weapon and sensor systems, some more aspirational thinking around the drive systems would be interesting to help drive thinking about what tank powertrains will look beyond contemporary 1,200 hp diesel packs. The US Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), cancelled back in 2014, was producing a pair of HED driven 70-80 tonne AFVs, so it is a challenge the market has been looking at for some time now and could do with some snazzy show tanks to generate more excitement around the technology.
The EMBT does feature the EuroPowerPack (EPP), a newer (although it does date back to around 2005) version of the MTU 883-series engine originally designed as a potential drop-in replacement to free up internal space and increase power output. 1,500 hp as a standard output, with capacity for increasing to 1,700 hp.
Another disruptive technology area is Composite Rubber Track (CRT), which replaces traditional steel linked tracks with a monolithic rubber 'band' of track (though the reality is quite a bit more involved - see the CRT primer for more). CRT has been rapidly developed to the point that it can now handle vehicles with a GVW of up to 55 tonnes, making it potentially applicable for the AbramsX, if not the heavier KF51 and EMBT.
Given these are just concept vehicles, it would have been good to spark further discussions around the potential for much lighter MBTs of the future to leverage CRT technology. Perhaps simply a commercial issue around who is invited or bids to be a part of each tech demonstrator, rather than any statement of the suitability of the technology.
4.8 Cost: Inflating
These are concept vehicles, demonstrating notional configurations that could be pursued for a production candidate vehicle, if desired. Do not mistake them for finished vehicles, ready to be bought from a showroom. Which means we also have no indication whatsoever how much these things would cost, though we can make some estimations given decades of cost data to work with. The key thing though, is they're really expensive.
The cost of tanks (or any AFV) has been climbing constantly as they become radically more complex, and produced in far fewer numbers, than ever before. A high-end (meaning something like M1A2 SEPv3 or Leopard 2A7V) tank is typically beyond the $10 million mark, per tank, and as much as $14 million when buying in small volumes.
These new tanks, sporting brand new and exotic weapons, sensors and other mission systems would absolutely be a significant step further up the price ladder. Even with the anemic tank fleets present in most NATO user's armies, is a $15-20 million or more per vehicle tank a sustainable future?
5. What does it all mean?
Well, tanks certainly aren't dead, as many keep decrying. Fighting that argument is a different post for another day, but in any case, we are seeing industry and government actively pursuing substantial spending in the development, upgrade and fielding of tanks and associated technologies. Hurrah.
It also shows that we are finally seeing active development in much more foundational progression of technology and capability for heavy combat systems in a way that has been absent for nearly two decades while the West got completely distracted by Afghanistan and Iraq. Whilst not wildly radical (a nod to the fantastical sky is the limit thinking of the 1990s), these latest tank concepts are leaning more in the direction of those exciting days of the 1990s and early 2000s where genuine innovation and disruptive ideas were being explored and tested with real world machines.
But to return to the headline "Old Dogs, New Tricks", we're still seeing development and experimentation of existing tank designs, most of which are from c.1980. As I've said a few times here, and at length in twitter threads, platform age is just a number most of the time but there is a need to see some tangible progress of the true successor designs. MGCS, DLP/OMFV, NGMBT and the rest are still very nascent CGI 'imagineered' renders.