MBTs continue to be a relevant capability for armies worldwide as the need to equip ground troops with highly protected platforms remains. However, as threats to MBTs evolve, these vehicles must also incorporate better systems and technologies. Consequently, in order to be ready for the battlefield of the future, militaries have the option to either modernise their in-service vehicles or procure new tanks.
Ryan Peoples, principal at Renaissance Strategic Advisors, emphasised the importance of choosing the most cost-effective strategy. From his point of view, many legacy MBTs are still very capable. ‘There are ways that you can improve the performance of platforms without the massive cost of undertaking a new vehicle development,’ he explained.
A defence analyst from Brasilia concurred that new MBTs bring high costs of acquisition and maintenance and the need to invest in crew training, which could make the process unfeasible.
Upgrading legacy platforms might not be the best solution for the South American country though. The analyst explained that the Brazilian Army operates two tanks, the American M60 (a legacy platform from the Vietnam War) and the Leopard 1, which are nearing the end of their service life, and therefore their ‘modernisation is not advantageous’.
There is consequently no one-size-fits-all solution and countries must weigh up the benefits and disadvantages of both options in order to find a way forward that best fits their needs.
New lease of life
The US Army, for instance, has chosen to upgrade its Abrams MBT fleet. According to Shephard Defence Insight, the service started operating the 105mm-armed M1 version in the 1980s as a replacement for the M60 MBT. Altogether, 2,374 M1s were built from 1979-85.
From 1991, General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) began delivering the M1A1 version armed with the M256 120mm smoothbore gun. Since 1992, the army has been upgrading its M1A1s to M1A2 standard.
The latest production standard is the M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) v3. The first example was delivered in October 2017, and this version will facilitate future upgrades involving the installation of new subsystems that are planned to be implemented on the M1A2 SEPv4 variant.
A spokesperson for Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems (PEO GCS) confirmed that, by 30 November 2020, the service had received 292 of the 606 Abrams SEPv3 platforms on order. A GDLS spokesperson added that the company expects to keep this version in service well into the 2030s.
Under the Army Acquisition Objective, the final number of upgraded SEPv3 and SEPv4 platforms will be 2,101, according to the PEO GCS representative. The project will progress in 2021 as the FY2021 budget, announced in February 2020, earmarked $1.5 billion for modifications and upgrades to 89 M1 Abrams tanks.
The USMC has also operated Abrams MBTs since the 1990s. However, under the Force Design 2030 plan announced in 2020, it will divest itself of all of its tanks, which will be operated by the army.
Although the PEO GCS spokesperson confirmed that the USMC is actively transferring its M1 Abrams ownership to the army, he stressed that the branch will decide on a later date whether or not to modernise these tanks.
The GDLS spokesperson highlighted that when the Abrams tank was first fielded, it was the best MBT in the world. From his point of view, after around 40 years and many improvements, it is still the best platform due to its architecture which is easy to upgrade.
‘The original designers were kind of genius in the way they put it together,’ he stressed, claiming that it is easier, faster and less expensive to add new technology into the vehicle every few years than to redesign the tank.
The modernisation process thus made Abrams a more lethal, mobile and survivable vehicle. The platform also received a new hull armour package and some electronic improvements in order to increase its survivability.
In terms of lethality, the fire control system was upgraded as well as the displays for the crew and the computing power, which made it easier to operate. The company has been developing new ammunition capability that will be even more deadly, the spokesperson stressed.
In order to improve mobility, it has an auxiliary power unit that the crew can run instead of the main engine. Also, there were improvements to make it simpler to maintain and resupply.
In addition to being able to self-diagnose faults, it uses replaceable modules instead of entire components, which makes repairs easier, according to the spokesperson. ‘It is an evolutionary process, but this tank has continued to be able to adapt very well,’ he said.
Peoples pointed out that these upgrades made Abrams a more capable platform. It should remain a competitive vehicle due to its active protection in addition to the sensors and targeting improvements, he added. ‘I don’t see how it makes sense right now to put a lot of investment into a brand-new MBT platform, given the army’s other modernisation priorities,’ he noted.
In addition to the US, several South American countries are planning to modernise their MBT fleets. Argentina intends to improve its Argentine Medium Tank (TAM), a capability developed in 1974-77 by Henschel Wehrtechnik (now Rheinmetall Landsysteme), according to Shephard Defence Insight.
Since 2008, an upgraded TAM has been developed by Israeli firms, including Elbit Systems, Israel Military Industries and Tadiran. The first TAM 2C prototype was completed in 2013. The modernised tank is equipped with a new digital fire control system with a data link, thermal sight and laser rangefinder.
In mid-2015, Argentina signed a $111 million contract with the Israeli MoD’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate to support the upgrade of 74 TAMs, undertaken by the Argentine Army’s 601 Arsenal Battalion. A prototype of an up-armoured TAM 2C, designated TAM 2IP, was completed in 2016 and features modular armour protection for the turret and sides.
In September 2020, the Argentine Senate approved the creation of the National Defence Fund (FONDEF in Spanish), with $404 million set aside to equip the three services. The modernisation of TAM is one of FONDEF’s priorities.
The Brazilian Army, meanwhile, released requirements for an upgrade to the in-service Leopard 1A5 in May 2020. Called VBC CC Corrente, the upgraded Leopard will be armed with a 120mm cannon and will provide frontal armour protection against 120mm and 155mm artillery.
In November 2020, the army issued guidelines to implement a subprogramme that aims to update the service’s armoured vehicles and modernise its systems and materiel in addition to acquiring new ones.
The document emphasises that the ageing fleet has a high level of unavailability of spare parts and external dependence, reducing the operational capacity of the ground force. Additionally, obsolescent equipment ‘exposes gaps in military capabilities’.
The Brazilian expert told Shephard that improving the MBT fleet will be a challenge for both the army and the marine corps. He explained that the national industry cannot provide tanks and the vehicles available on the market are quite expensive.
In addition, he pointed out that current spending plans focus mainly on personnel and expenses: ‘There are no resources for the acquisition of new armoured vehicles, especially MBTs, nor budget available for research and development.’
The Brazilian armed forces could therefore potentially partner with international manufactures to develop medium tanks based on existing platforms that could use Brazilian technologies.
‘Brazil should invest in the development of a national MBT. However, due to the high costs, this vehicle should be more flexible regarding the weight and the main weapon system,’ the analyst claimed.
In Europe, MBTs have been gaining in popularity and many nations are running programmes to either acquire new or upgrade their in-service vehicles.
Daniel Fiott, a defence analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies, claimed that there is no substitute for tanks’ mass and firepower in Europe. He noted that they have a deterrent effect and are usually the spearheads used to penetrate enemy lines and defences. ‘Europe would be naive to overlook the importance of MBTs,’ he explained.
Fiott highlighted that MBTs are not a stand-alone capability and must be fully integrated with other systems such as air defence and space. ‘It is not just tanks that could face off with Russian capabilities; it will be the whole suite of European (and American) capabilities.’
He added that MBTs will still be critical in the future for the region, especially when it comes to defending its eastern borders, ‘for the pure fact that Europe shares a sizeable land border on its eastern flank, and this flank represents the most volatile geographical space connected to Europe’.
Poland, for instance, is paying great attention to these platforms and has been upgrading its Leopard 2 A4 and modifying its T-72 tanks. The Polish MoD also has plans to acquire a new MBT under the Wilk programme. An MoD spokesperson confirmed that analytical and conceptual work is being carried out ‘to acquire new-generation tanks for the Polish Armed Forces’.
With regard to modernisation programmes, in December 2015, the Polish MoD’s Armament Inspectorate awarded the state-run Polish Armaments Group (PGZ) and its subsidiary ZM Bumar-Łabędy a zł3.29 billion ($840 million) contract to upgrade the Leopard 2A4 tanks to the 2PL version.
The plan is to modernise the entire fleet (142 vehicles) by 2023 in order to keep these MBTs in service for 20 years. The first two modernised platforms were handed over to the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade in Świętoszów in May 2020.
According to the MoD representative, the modernisation ‘will allow increasing their combat capabilities and utility values’, as well as the firepower and ballistic protection. He added that the improvement process comprises the replacement of stabilisation and propulsion systems of the turret and enhancement of ballistic protection, upgraded targeting, improvement of the cannon by adapting it to use modern ammunition and modernisation of the fire protection system.
A PGZ spokesperson explained that the turret’s ballistic protection was enhanced to the level of A5+ tanks by installing an external armour system and a multilayer anti-splinter lining inside the vehicle.
Situational awareness was enhanced and the Leopard 2PL is now equipped with the KLW-1 Asteria third-generation thermal imaging camera and sighting devices for the commander and gunner.
Additionally, PGZ has been running the T-72 modification. The MoD and the company signed an agreement in 2019 to refurbish 230 vehicles, with an option for 88 more.
The PGZ spokesperson emphasised that the main purpose of these projects is to restore full efficiency for these vehicles. He stressed that all tanks will undergo re-engining and regain full efficiency. ‘It will open up a number of further development opportunities for this equipment, based on national competences,’ he noted.
As the spokesperson highlighted, the process includes installation of new passive sighting and aiming systems (which will increase the ability to operate at night and during difficult weather conditions), digital communications from the Thales PR4G F@stnet family and new navigation systems.
‘It is planned that renovated tanks with modifications will be used for at least ten years,’ the Polish MoD spokesperson claimed.
The UK also has plans to modernise a portion of its Challenger 2 fleet to Challenger 3 standard as part of the Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme which aims to keep these tanks in service until 2035. However, the future of this programme will not be clear until the Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is published.
In addition to the Challenger 2, the UK MoD is currently running three other major British Army armoured vehicle procurement projects – Ajax, Boxer and Warrior. As Ajax and Boxer are contractually committed, Challenger 2 and Warrior would be the most vulnerable programmes under the IR.
Norway is also looking for new MBTs. In November 2020, the country’s MoD identified the South Korean K2 Black Panther and the German Leopard 2A7 as potential solutions for the army.
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The number of tanks, cost base and project timescales are still to be defined, but a Norwegian MoD spokesperson told Shephard that the new MBTs will replace Leopard 2A4 tanks which are more than 30 years old.
These platforms have shortcomings ‘when it comes to fulfilling today’s operational requirements’, the representative noted, emphasising that ‘the main goal of purchasing new tanks is to increase the operational capability of the army’.
Initially, the MoD worked with the Norwegian Army to identify nine potential concepts to improve the MBT fleet. This scoping study included an evaluation of a broad range of possible types of tanks by representatives from the Defence Research Institute, the army and the Defence Materiel Agency. The ministry expects to send a procurement proposal to the Norwegian Parliament for approval in 2021.
In April 2020, France and Germany signed two new agreements for the development of an innovative Main Ground Combat System. The programme seeks to replace the French Leclerc and the German Leopard 2 by the mid-2030s in addition to improving the mobility and protection of their MBT fleet and incorporating the latest innovative capabilities into these new platforms.
The European Defence Agency (EDA) also plans to run joint programmes. In November 2020, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence report recommended cooperative efforts to develop a new common MBT (with entry into service in the mid-2030s) or to upgrade existing capabilities in the short term as an interim solution.
An official spokesperson for EDA confirmed to Shephard that a new vehicle or a modernised platform will have to address aspects of C2, target acquisition, firepower, mobility, survivability and sustainability.
Several defence experts told Shephard that both upgraded and new platforms must offer certain capabilities to allow armies to face ongoing and future threats.
Peoples stressed that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan had highlighted the need for enhanced protection in order to face UAS, ISR and long-range strike capabilities. ‘It indicates that active protection systems will be very important,’ Peoples noted.
The GDLS spokesperson claimed that tomorrow’s battlefield demands highly survivable vehicles. ‘The future still requires a platform that is very mobile and can cross very difficult, complex terrain. So, mobility, firepower and survivability are still needed.’
The Brazilian analyst added that tanks should be equipped with C2 capabilities to face ongoing threats and avoid friendly fire, in addition to UAS and robotic capabilities to supplement its protection.
In the future, ‘automatic and unmanned turrets tend to prevail, which reduces MBTs’ exposure to anti-vehicle weapons’, he explained, adding that new materials and layouts are also likely to reduce the electromagnetic signature of MBTs.
For Fiott, logistics and MRO are key factors that should be considered in design and procurement, as well as sustainable energy. In his opinion, military systems digitalisation and connectivity will be key future attributes in addition to automation.
‘For the most part, however, armour protection and firepower will continue to be key needs, but we must also not overlook the fact that MBTs require a high degree and rate of maintenance in the field,’ Fiott explained.
Over the coming years, countries are likely to increase efforts to either procure new platforms or to modernise their fleets in order to equip their ground forces with tomorrow’s capabilities.