Future of war on land

Future of war, part one: land battles, tank development

Image credit: BAE Systems

War is one of the great accelerators for technology development. It is, quite simply, a matter of life and death and consequently it is a huge industry sector in its own right. In this series of three articles, E&T talked to military and aerospace contractor BAE Systems about how the future is shaping up for equipment for land, sea and air.

Conflict is becoming more diverse. Regional and internal skirmishes, the sometimes invisible but widespread threat of terrorism, or the more traditional view of national and international wars. While not all may require boats and planes, all will require a land army, and one of the principal fighting weapons of an army is a tank. The question is, what will the tank of the future look like?

“I think the first point is that holding ground, taking ground, will still be a fundamental of all warfare, whatever scale in the future.” That is the opinion of Simon Jackson, campaign leader for Challenger Two Life Extension Programme (LEP) at BAE Systems. In other words, land forces, including such equipment as Challenger tanks, are always going to play an important part in any future conflict.

There’s actually not a great range of main battle tanks on the market and the leading contenders in the Western world, including the American M1, the German Leopard 2, the French Leclerc and the UK’s Challenger Two, are all designed to be in service until roughly 2035-2040. Jackson says: “Everybody’s now looking at the technologies that will be needed for what comes after these main battle tanks. Robotics, different types of weapons, the information piece, sensors – that’s what everybody’s looking at. Is this the end of the powdered gun [for example]?” Laser damage weapons or electromagnetic guns could be the new weapons of choice.

New technologies are not going to wait 15 years for a new tank platform, of course. If it is good then it needs an immediate home. For the UK that could mean the proposed Challenger Two upgrade – the Black Night. This tank features all sorts of next-generation technology, but it is its ability to be deployed more effectively at night that gave it its name. The secret behind its nocturnal capabilities is in its night vision, which comes in the form of thermal imaging from UK company Leonardo. It is the same technology used by film-makers for David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth II’ to get unprecedented footage of a leopard hunting at night, and in cricket, where the Hot Spot system can detect if contact has been made between the ball and bat or batsman just from the heat caused by friction on impact.

Temperature differences as small as 0.02K can be detected, which is what allows the creation of such high-​resolution images. In military applications this effectively provides perfect night-vision, which can improve the safety and effectiveness of night missions.

Black Night will also be fitted with laser warning systems, which detect lasers used by a number of weapon systems to capture the range to a target. Detecting the laser means detecting the threat and taking the appropriate response. Jackson says: “You can emit smoke from Challenger Two, so the threat can no longer see you, or you can move, or you can automatically slew the turret and the gun to point to that threat so you can then start engaging it.”

Future of war on land (inline version)

Image credit: BAE Systems

The protective dome around the tank in the picture is a figurative representation of the Active Protection System, which detects and hopefully eliminates incoming projectiles. The system sits in the turret and offers instant projection 360 degrees around the tank, without the turret having to move. On Black Night, the system has two sets of two launchers that are able to move quickly and fire the projectiles to intercept incoming missiles.

Developing a tank is a technology race between the tank’s abilities to attack and its capability to defend itself, and that, according to Jackson, has been the case since 1917 when the first tank went onto a battlefield. He summarises: “That protection is a whole layer of systems and the first part of that layer is being able to detect targets. Having good sensors on the vehicle, like we put on to Black Night, is the first step, so you can see the threat before the threat starts to engage you. It’s like the rings on an onion.

“Then there are things such as the laser warning system and the active protection system. Next layer is the mobility of the platforms – the more agile the vehicle is, and arguably the smaller the vehicle, the more difficult it is to attack.”

The final step is the armoured protection system of the platform. All main battle tanks have a combination of the base armour, which is armoured steels, and a layer of Dorchester armour – a composite ceramic armour, and then further protection, which Jackson “cannot talk about”.

So the tank is almost impregnable (only one Challenger Two tank has ever been destroyed on a battlefield) and is equipped with the latest detection and artillery options, but it still needs to be useable. This is what the British Army calls ‘fight ability’.

Jackson says: “You’re picking up a lot of sensors and systems and communication systems on a tank and it’s very easy, therefore, to overload the crew by giving them too many tasks or tasks that are too difficult to do. So we have worked hard with the British Army on designing the interface between the soldier and the weapon system, or the systems on the tank.

“It’s about improving the fight ability by the design of the crew stations, the way that information is displayed, so that it is easy for the crew to fight the tank.”

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