Quality or Quantity? The MBT Conundrum

If the Ukraine war has taught us anything about high tempo conventional warfare between peer adversaries it is that numbers matter. That Russia has been able to continue its assault despite significant losses in men and materiel speaks to the value of having a large inventory, particularly of replacement armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs).

However, the West seems to have focussed on fewer, higher-spec AFVs. The UK, for example, currently plans to be able to field only 148 Challenger 3 main battle tanks (MBTs) by 2030, although surely this figure will be upped after recent events in eastern Europe. Pure numbers aside, it’s clear that the USA and its NATO allies have also plumped for large, increasingly complex, and expensive MBTs, topping 70 tonnes or more when prepared to what is sometimes referred to as “theatre entry standard”.

Just look at the most recent iterations of the M1A2 and Leopard 2A7, both remarkable for the myriad of bolt-on bits of kit deemed necessary to meet the threats. I do wonder, though, if the West is going in the right direction here, and for a number of reasons. The first, and most basic one, is cost. With a modern western MBT costing up to £8.3 million ($10 million) depending on its final fit, does it really make sense to invest so much in a vehicle that might be destroyed or disabled by a next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) which costs around £33,400 ($40,000)? Or even by an adapted commercial drone available for much less than that? I don’t think so.

Whisper it softly, but at the present time most western MBTs would fare little better against the Ukraine’s hand-held anti-tank weaponry than the Russians have. Yes, there are systems available to counter the drone/top attack missiles threat – the Israeli Trophy kit being perhaps the best known so far – but no NATO nation yet has them in general service. And, again, currently the UK plans to procure only 60 systems for its pathetically small planned fleet of 148 Challenger 3s. There are already cannons and ammunition optimised in the anti-drone role and possibly even laser weapons in the fullness of time, but they’re still some way down the road.

I also have concerns about the vulnerability of western MBTs and AFVs to less sophisticated threats. As technology has evolved to meet the defensive and offensive needs of modern vehicles, various add-ons – like active protective systems (APS), remote weapons systems (RWS), thermal imaging (TI) sights and the like – have been applied retrospectively to existing designs. However, the vast majority of these upgrades have been added on top of, not integrated with, the vehicles’ basic armour protection.

The end result has been that many modern MBTs look like tinkers’ caravans with all the bits and pieces that have been added, and these additions look extremely vulnerable to such mundane things as artillery shrapnel and small arms fire. Damage to these extra-armour appendages may severely restrict a vehicle’s operational capabilities, if not render it incapacitated altogether.

The last aspect I wish to deal with here, although there are many others, is that of size and weight. An important aspect of any AFV’s survivability on the battlefield is its ability not to be detected, and if detected, not to be targeted and hit. Agility plays a part too, of course, but if we look at the size of current western MBT fleets the vehicles are all large and bulky and therefore are essentially big targets. Plus their physical size limits the ways in which they can be transported, with the height/width/weight tolerances of road and railway bridges and tunnels being one example.

Large size comes hand in hand with increased weight, topping 70 tonnes in some cases as previously mentioned. This combination of excessive size and weight has a significant impact on strategic, operational, and tactical mobility. Studies have shown that the “trafficability” of an MBT (its ability to use the European road network) declines as the cube of its weight. In other words, doubling its weight will reduce its trafficability by a factor of eight.

It follows, therefore, that lighter MBTs and AFVs, which may not grossly exceed the weight limits set for commercial vehicles, can utilise a far higher proportion of the modern European road network than can the current 70 tonne plus MBTs which equip NATO armies. Clearly this influences the options for movement and manoeuvre. Interestingly Russian MBTs, which have performed badly in Ukraine for a number of reasons well covered elsewhere, have a much better trafficability.

There are other issues that we could examine, but taking just the three aspects of cost, vulnerability, and trafficability makes me wonder whether the west should re-examine its policies on AFVs in general and MBTs in particular. It may be that we have reached the upper limit of the size/weight/cost/vulnerability/trafficability matrix and need a radical rethink. Would it perhaps not be a better policy to opt for smaller, lighter, less expensive MBTs and AFVs in larger quantities rather than putting all our eggs in a few baskets, as it were? As the probably apocryphal German saying from the Second World War has it; “One Panther is worth ten Shermans, but there’s always an eleventh one.”

There is a debate to be had here and this short article barely scratches the surface. However, more recently the demands of urban combat on MBTs has led to calls for a “support” tank for infantry operations, thereby reinventing the wheel of the British  cruiser tank/infantry tank philosophy of the 1930s. One example of that might be KMW’s RCT120 remote turret with L/44 120 mm smoothbore on Boxer and Tracked Boxer. It is not an MBT substitute, but is able to provide infantry with direct fire support and protection against unexpected tank encounters. The turret additionally has twin long-range ATGMs.

There is also the option of going down the “optionally manned” AFV route, where the crewed vehicle might control one or two “loyal wingmen”, to borrow the phrase from developments in aviation. I would anticipate such a vehicle might have a three man crew in a protected compartment with a remotely controlled turret, rather like the Russian T-14 Armata design. The consensus is that future MBTs will have autoloaders, but not of the discredited Russian carousel design but rather that of in the turret bustle with blow-off panels like the French Leclerc.

That is probably enough for now. Finally, I did write on this site recently that “the age of the tank is not yet over”[1]. I think it appropriate, therefore, to end with a quote by one of Britain’s pre-eminent inter-war military intellectuals.  “Time after time during the past 40 years the highest defence authorities have announced that the tank is dead or dying,” wrote Basil Liddell Hart, the British military theorist, in 1960. “Each time it has risen from the grave to which they have consigned it”.

(First published in the UK Defence Journal in July 2022)

[1] The age of the tank is not yet over (ukdefencejournal.org.uk)

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