Video Above: Tank Modernization and Tank Battles in War
Laser weapons to incinerate enemy helicopters, AI-enabled computing to identify targets in milliseconds, guided munitions to decimate obscured moving targets, Active Protection Systems to “take out” incoming anti-tank weapons and an ability to launch “mini-attack-drones” are all fast unfolding concepts of operation informing the future of tank warfare.
KF51 “Panther” Tank and Abrams Tank
What about future tanks? Certainly the question gets much attention, as questions about composite materials, heavy armor and mobility persist and the US Army contemplates its approach to future armored platforms. At the moment, the service seems deeply immersed in a two-pronged approach, meaning it is both sustaining and upgrading its heavily armored platforms such as the Abrams tank while also exploring concepts for lighter-weight, more mobile and expeditionary armored attack vehicles. There will likely be a place for both, as militaries around the world seek to achieve the optimal balance.
The question is now getting a flurry of new attention following Rheinmetall's release of its new KF51 “Panther” tank, a new vehicle deliberately named after the famous WWII German Panzers. The new tank, unveiled recently at the well known Eurosatory military trade show in France, features a host of technologies now generating attention such as a larger 130mm cannon, ability to launch drones, top-down protection and 360-degree sensors. The vehicle is reported to be lighter than the 70-ton Abrams tank at 59-tons and incorporate a crew of three with an autoloader for ammunition.
An interesting write up in Popular Mechanics details many of the technologies built into the new Panther, which also incorporates a new generation of digital computing, Active Protection Systems and composite materials. The Popular Mechanics article says the turret is “edgier” and more angled but that the main chassis is similar in configuration to the German Leopard 2 legacy tank.
Naturally, many are likely to immediately compare the modern Panther with the most current variants of the Abrams tank such as the M1A2 SEP v3 and v4. Is there a margin of difference between the Abrams and the Panther, meaning does the new German tank represent a paradigm-changing improvement above upgraded tanks such as the Abrams?
The Abrams could be called an “organic” platform of sorts, meaning instead of being static in a certain technological position, the platform can continuously be upgraded, essentially making it almost an entirely new vehicle when compared to the original Abrams design which emerged in the 1980s. Like the German “Panther,” the Abrams does have an autoloader for ammunition and, GDLS developers say, future upgrades to the Abrams will be engineered with an ability to swap out or exchange its 120mm cannon for a 130mm cannon, making it comparable in ability to the Panther.
“We may keep the Abrams forever,” Mai. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle, Army Futures Command, told Warrior about ongoing upgrades to the Abrams. The platform has proven both combat capable and upgradeable.
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Taking a close look at available information, it does not seem clear that the new German KF51 “Panther” would necessarily be able to out-perform the US Army’s v3 or emerging M1A2 SEP v4 variant slated to emerge over the next few years.
The v4 builds upon some of the innovations woven into the v3 which include a 3rd-Generation Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensor, upgraded thermal sights, meteorological sensors Advanced navigational technology such as mapping, sensing and multi-node networking have improved the tank’s ability to maneuver and find optimal points of entry in seemingly inaccessible close-quarter urban areas. Should a bridge or narrow area present restrictions for an Abrams, advanced networking, for location data and mapping might quickly calculate new alternative transport routes. The Abrams v3 is now operational with forward Army units, senior service leaders say.
Certainly when it comes to tank lethality and tank survivability and protection, there is understandably much information that is not available for security reasons, yet public documents and public comments from senior Army weapons developers explain that indeed the next-generation Abrams incorporates a number of paradigm-changing technologies.
For example, Army and General Dynamics Land Systems weapons developers won’t say much about what kind of top-down protection the modern Abrams may have, for obvious security reasons, yet its technical composition is such that it can integrate cutting edge Active Protection Systems as well as launch drones.
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The technology for a “hemispheric” kind of 360-APS system existed years ago and was explored for Future Combat Systems, so it seems unrealistic that some kind of equivalent would not exist today. Innovations related to APS have been ongoing for many years now by the military services and the Pentagon’s research arm the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). One system from years ago, called QuickKill developed for the Army’s FCS, incorporated 360-degree or hemispheric protections. The program did not continue, yet the point is the technical capacity to integrate “surround” ISR has been here for years and is of course fundamental to the F-35s Distributed Aperture System (DAS).
Overall, the kinds of technology used for APS has been on the Abrams for many years, as GDLS developers were able to integrate the Trophy APS system as an integral part of the Abrams network and not merely as an applique. This is made possible by common standards and open architecture engineering, a trend which GDLS engineered have continued through the newest v4 Abrams variant. AI-enabled sensing, fire control and intercept technology is one of a few technical areas that has progressed very quickly.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.