Europe’s Armies Upgrading Heavy Forces

By Roxana Tiron

As the U.S. Army continues to modernize its 20 year-old fleet of Abrams tanks, its European counterparts in Germany, France, England and Russia also are striving to upgrade their heavy combat vehicles to make them more lethal and survivable.

Even though military priorities have changed, these countries still plan to maintain their heavy armored forces. “In Europe, the chance of a major confrontation between East and West has now probably passed for good,” said Christopher Foss, editor of Jane’s Armored Vehicles. “But most countries will still maintain fleets of main battle tanks for the next 20 years at least.”

Germany is working on upgrades of the Leopard 2 tank, from the A5 to the A6 configuration. Col. Werner Grühl, the German liaison at Fort Knox, Ky., said that his country does not plan to buy a new main battle tank. Currently, the German Armor Corps uses 2,300 tanks in 20 active and eight non-active battalions, according to Lt. Col. Ulf Bartels, who spoke at a recent Armor Conference in Fort Knox. The force will be downsized to 13 battalions in the future.

The first Leopard 2A6 main battle tank was delivered to the German Army in March at the Krauss-Maffei Wegmann facility in Munich. About 350 A6 tanks will be produced, said Bartels. The vehicle weighs 60.1 tons.

The A6 offers more protection for the crew and more firepower, said Grühl. A new smoothbore gun has been developed by Rheinmetall GmbH of Ratingen, Germany. The 120 mm L55 gun will replace the shorter 120 mm L44 smoothbore tank gun.

The L55 smoothbore gun is compatible with modern 120 mm ammunition and with advanced high penetration ammunition, said the manufacturers. The A6 also has improved mine protection and an air-conditioning system, said Bartels. By 2004, he said, 205 main battle tanks will receive mine-protection capability.

“This improvement shall result from an externally adapted reinforcement of the floor plate, a fixing of the torsion bars and the removal or reinforcement of all floor fixtures,” he said.

A camera with a 65-degree horizontal and vertical field of view positioned at the rear of the vehicle, together with a television monitor, allows the driver to reverse at high speed, without receiving directions from the commander. This also allows the tank crew to see potential snipers hiding behind the tank.

“In the past, we said: ‘Thanks, we won’t go into a town or city,’” said Grühl. “But today, we say that tanks have to go to these places whether they want to or not and, therefore, it is important that they get more protection for the crews.”

The driver’s hatch of the Leopard 2A5, also in the A6 version, is electronically operated and slides to the right to open. A deflector is mounted to the left of the driver’s station.

The turret has third-generation composite armor and add-on armor modules. The commander’s station has an independent panoramic periscope sight for observation and target identification. The laser-range data processor was modified, so that the Leopard 2A5 and A6 can now engage helicopters with APFSDS-T ammunition (Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot with Tracer). Each tank also has Global Positioning System equipment.

By 2004, three armor battalions will begin receiving new situational awareness software, called IFIS, which is the German equivalent of the U.S. Army’s force XXI battle command for brigade and below (FBCB2). Germany wants to digitize a mechanized division once the software becomes available.

“Key components, such as fire control, weapon sighting and testing systems of the main battle tanks contain technology that originated in the 1970s, and, therefore, they need to be replaced a few years from now,” said Bartels. Among the outdated components that need to be replaced, he said, are the first-generation thermal imaging devices and the communications systems.

Countries that employ the Leopard 2, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Austria, are considering upgrade programs. In the case of Sweden, which employs both the Leopard A4 and A5, an IFIS system already has been incorporated.

The French Army, meanwhile, is trying to make its heavy force more efficient by downsizing the tank crews to three men. “It reduces 25 percent of the crew,” said Gérard Turbé of Giat Industries, the manufacturer of the Leclerc, the French main battle tank. The Leopard and the Abrams have four-man crews.

Grühl, the German officer, does not believe a tank should have only a three-man crew. “What I did not like in the Leclerc [is that] the crew have no contact in the tank; the tank commander cannot look in the face of his gunner, because they are sitting together in the turret but they cannot see each other. It’s very important to see the crew in the eyes.”

The French Army has more than 200 Leclerc main battle tanks in service. In November 2000, the government ordered 96 more out of a total requirement of 406, Giat officials said. Giat Industries, Turbé said, is working on new composite armor for the tank, a second-generation forward-looking infrared for the commander and the gunner. The French main battle tank weighs 56 tons.

Giat Industries also has developed a tactical information system, called Finders. It is a command aid for squadron level and below. Finders, like FBCB2, provides a color map display which shows the positions of the host tank, allied and hostile forces and designated targets and can be used for route and mission planning.

The Leclerc will also have a system of friend-enemy identification, counter-measure equipment and an active protection, noted Turbé.

The tank has a 120 mm 52 caliber smoothbore gun and an automatic loading system, which allows cross-country fire-on-the-move against mobile targets, he said. The tank carries 22 rounds of ammunition. The vehicle is also armed with a 12.7mm machine gun co-axial with the main gun and a roof-mounted 7.62 mm anti-aircraft gun.

A digital fire-control system allows the gunner or commander to select six different targets in about 30 seconds. The gunner’s station is equipped with a gunner’s main sight, three periscopes and a visual-display unit. The gunner’s sight contains a three-fields-of-view thermal imager.

According to Turbé, tanks remain among the most versatile conventional weapons for regional conflicts and peacekeeping operations. In Kosovo, the Leclerc tank crews were the first to enter Mitrovica and have been present in the area since 1999, conducting surveillance, escorting and patrol missions, he said.

The British heavy force also is being upgraded, even though the U.K. Ministry of Defence has run into cost problems. “The trouble is that everything is so expensive,” said a U.K. MOD official, who asked not to be identified.

The British main battle tank, the Challenger 2, built by Vickers Defence Systems Ltd., has only about 4 percent commonality with its predecessor, the Challenger 1, “It’s therefore a bit of a misnomer,” said Lt. Col. Mike Clements, the British liaison at Fort Knox, Ky. “The power-train, suspension, track, gun, armor are all different.”

Challenger 2 has a new 120-mm rifled gun and commander’s sight capable of independent operation. “[This enables] it to accelerate target acquisition while the gunner is conducting an engagement,” Clements said.

The tank accommodates four crew members. The commander’s station is equipped with eight periscopes, which provide 360-degree vision. Pushing a command button under each periscope causes the turret to slew around and align with the periscope.

A thermal imager is mounted inside an armored barbette above the gun. An on-board compressor and gas bottle pack provide cooling for the imager. The gunner also has a stabilized gunner’s primary sight.

The design of the Challenger 2 emphasizes crew safety and tank survivability, said Clements. The turret is protected with second-generation armor. The tank is guarded against nuclear, biological and chemical agents by an over-pressure filtered air system, located in the turret bustle. The electronics systems are protected against nuclear electro-magnetic pulse.

“Despite the leap in improvement, Challenger 2 could benefit from a commander’s independent thermal viewer and secure digital communications,” said Clements.

One of the challenges in operating the Challenger, Clements pointed out, is its 62.5-ton weight. The weight diminishes its “deployability, protection versus anti-tank weapons, competition from aerial and indirect precision weapons.” The cost of maintaining such large vehicles also is a problem for the MOD, he said.

The Challenger 2 upgrade program costs about 2.3 billion pounds. It compares favorably with the latest configurations of the Abrams, the Leopard and the Leclerc, said Clements. “What it lacks in surveillance and target acquisition and secure communications is easily compensated for by excellent, well-trained crews.”

The United Kingdom is still committed to its heavy force, but like the United States, it is moving towards medium and light forces. “The balance is probably towards a lethal, mobile, agile and sustainable medium and light force,” Clements said.

The Russians have been known to build formidable tanks during the Cold War, but financial problems have made it difficult to implement upgrades, experts said.

Russia’s current main battle tank is the T-90S. Like the Leclerc, the T-90S, manufactured by Nizhnyi Tagil, has three crew members. Its 125 mm main gun is stabilized in two planes and equipped with an automatic loader. According to Russian officials, the gun is the same as the T-72 gun, but the fire accuracy in the T-90S is 1.2-1.4 times higher.

The gun is equipped with a thermal protection jacket that reduces ambient temperature effects on barrel bending. It also has a built-in device to control the gunner’s sight alignment and a quick-released joint between the barrel and a breech-piece enabling the charge to be carried out in the field without dismantling the turret, Russian officials said.

Along with the new gun, the T-90S has an automated integrated fire-control system, allowing the tank to deliver aimed fire on the move to maximum ranges, both at night and during the day. The system incorporates a ballistic computer designed to automatically calculate corrections to aiming angles for “off-standard firing conditions, as well as a built-in alignment control system,” said a news release.

Russian officials said that the T-90S distinguishes itself from its predecessors and Western counterparts because of its guided weapon complex. A laser beam guided anti-tank missile is fired from the main gun as a conventional artillery projectile and engages ground targets, as well as low-flying helicopters. Its maximum range is 5,000 meters. The missile also has a warhead that pierces 700 mm of steel armor.

Camouflage paint is used to distort the tank’s exterior in visible and infrared spectral bands, said the release. Such painting reduces detection, both during the day and the night, by 20 percent. The front of the tank’s hull and turret is made of composite armor. Built-in explosive reactive armor also is used for additional survivability.

Recent conflicts, such as the one the Russian Army has been fighting against rebels in Chechnya, provided some real-world lessons on what type of changes would be necessary for the Russian main battle tanks, said a Russian military official who asked not to be named.

“The use of this tank is behind the lines of infantry that should prevent the tank from hitting mines,” the official said. “However, this tank is capable of waging war by itself. It’s created to provide the highest support for infantry.”

Topics: Tank Automotive, International, Ammunition, Armaments

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