Army and industry weapons developers have begun work on an advanced next-generation Abrams tank specifically engineered with new weapons, ammunition, laser-spotters and advanced thermal sights able to outrange, outgun and outmatch the most modern Russian and Chinese tanks, service and industry officials said.
Advanced networking technology with new, next-generation sights, sensors, targeting systems and digital networking — are all key elements of an ongoing upgrade to position the platform to, if needed, successfully engage in combat against rapidly emerging threats, such as the prospect of confronting a Russian T-14 Armata or Chinese 3rd generation Type 99 tank.
“Right now we are at parity with near peer competitors, and a sight upgrade will give us operational overmatch,” Lt. Col. Justin Shell, the Army’s product manager for Abrams, said recently at the Association of the United States Army annual convention.
While, quite naturally, the range and particular technical capabilities of the US Army’s emerging tank sights are not available for security reasons, several Russian news reports — such as GRU Pycckoe (site here) — report that the new Russian T-14 Armata’s thermal targeting sights are able to discern tank-size targets during the daytime at ranges out to 5 kilometers. The same reports state the nighttime sights can reach 3.5 kilometers.
Additionally, the 48-ton modern T-14 tank is widely reported to be able to reach speeds of 90-kilometers per hour; it is built with an unmanned turret, without a “fume extractor” and is designed for a 3-man crew surrounded by an armored capsule. While much has been made of the T-14 Armata’s cutting edge technology, including its active protection, 12-round per minute firing rage and 125mm smoothbore cannon in numerous public reports and assessments, it is not at all clear that the T-14 in any way fully outmatches current and future variants of the Abrams tank — at least according to available public information.
Nonetheless, while not discussed much by US tank developers, Abrams modernization efforts are without question being designed to meet and exceed any dangers posed by rival nation tanks, such as the T-14. Concerns about the threat posed by the T-14 Armata are, without question, informing US tank and weapons developers.
The Army is working on a new SEP v4 variant, slated to being testing in 2021, is being specifically engineered as a “lethality” upgrade to position the platform as the world’s most advanced and threatening main battle tank.
(Army officials of course explain that many of the details of the next-gen systems for the future tanks are not available for security reasons)
The new tank will include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated on-board networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links, laser +warning receivers and a far more lethal, multi-purpose 120mm tank round, said Maj. Gen. David Bassett, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems.
A recent news report from Sputnik reported that tank-maker Uralvagonzavod has developed a “remotely-detonated” 125mm shell for the T-14 Armata.
The US Army’s Multi-Purpose 120mm tank round, to integrate onto the v4, is now being engineered to integrate several different kinds of ammunition into a single, tailorable round.
Without offering much detail, Army developers explain that the lethality upgrade, referred to as an Engineering Change Proposal, or ECP, is centered around the integration of a higher-tech 3rd generation FLIR — Forward Looking Infrared imaging sensor.
The advanced FLIR uses higher resolution and digital imaging along with an increased ability to detect enemy signatures at farther ranges through various obscurants such as rain, dust or fog, Army officials said. Further details are not available, developers say.
US Marine Corps
Improved FLIR technologies help tank crews better recognize light and heat signatures emerging from targets such as enemy sensors, electronic signals or enemy vehicles. This enhancement provides an additional asset to a tank commander’s independent thermal viewer.
Thermal targeting sights, as demonstrated during now famous Gulf War tank battles including Abrams tanks against Russian-built T-72, can create range mismatches enabling tanks to destroy enemy tanks without themselves been seen.
A report in Popular Mechanics earlier this year, by Kyle Mizokami, says the T-14s new, now-in-development 3UBK21 Sprinter missile can hit ranges more than 7 miles, basically tripling the current 2.48-mile range of an Abrams 120mm round, according to the report. The Armata’s current round, the 9M119 Reflecks, has a range of 3.1 miles (roughly comparable to the current Abrams) and can penetrate up to 900 millimeters of armor, Popular Mechanics writes.
It goes without saying that the lethality of a round is, by any assessment, contingent upon the range, accuracy and fidelity of the sensors and targeting technology in place to provide guidance; accordingly, exact range of fire may be far less important than the range and relative resolution of on-board sights and sensors.
Furthermore, not only will the Abrams v4 improve range and lethality of the tanks main gun, but it will also bring long-range laser detection and rear-view sensors. Also, newly configured meteorological sensors will better enable Abrams tanks to anticipate and adapt to changing weather or combat conditions more quickly, Army officials said.
“Meteorological sensors are being integrated into the fire control system. It provides information into fire control algorithms that help increase the accuracy and precision of your weapon system,” Ashley Givens, spokeswoman for the Army’s Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems, told Scout Warrior in a written statement.
The emerging M1A2 SEP v4 will also be configured with a new slip-ring leading to the turret and on-board ethernet switch to reduce the number of needed “boxes” by networking sensors to one another in a single vehicle.
The maturation and efficacy of active protection systems also bears prominently upon this calculus; the Army is now accelerating development of a handful of APS systems to better enable tanks and other armored vehicles to detect, track, intercept and destroy incoming enemy RPGs, tank rounds and anti-tank guided missiles. The Army is now integrating an APS system called Trophy onto its Abrams vehicles.
Citing Russian news sources, a story in The National Interest by Dave Majumdar says Russian weapons developers claim that their Afghanit active protection system mounted on a T-14 Armata “has been proven effective at intercepting depleted uranium-core armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) cannon shells.”
First MIA2 SEP v3 tank arrives
The first v3 pilot vehicle, already delivered to the Army, features technological advancements in communications, reliability, sustainment and fuel efficiency and upgraded armor, developers and Army senior leaders told Scout Warrior.
This current mobility and power upgrade, among other things, adds an auxiliary power unit for fuel efficiency and on-board electrical systems, improved armor materials, upgraded engines and transmission and a 28-volt upgraded drive system.
Abrams-maker General Dynamics Land Systems is already on contract to build 500 of the M1A2 SEP v3 tanks for the US Army.
The v3 is built to lay the ground work for subsequent v4 variants in a number of key respects. On board command and control, force tracking technology, power generation and sensors are, as is regularly the case with today’s new acquisition strategies, incorporate a common set of standards known as “open architecture.” This approach is intended to engineer hardware and software in a way that enables it to quickly integrate and merge with new technologies as they emerge.
“The v3 will be the foundation for future tank upgrades,” Shell said.
Alongside these efforts, the v3 is also built with a specific “protection” or survivability flexibility to afford commanders an opportunity to tailor the tank’s protection level to adapt to whatever threat the combat circumstance may merit.
Shell explained how the modern v3 construction approach, seeking to expand upon the previously integrated Tank Urban Survival Kit (TUSK), allows for rapid switching of underbody armor protection, reactive armor tiles and other protective applications such as a commander’s gun shield and loader’s gun shield.
“We can scale the protection level and increase the weight depending upon the threat. We took the underbody kit and took one-thousand pounds out of it using an aluminum alloy,” Shell said in an interview with Scout Warrior.
Next generation combat vehicle
The Army is now seeking to finesse a careful and combat relevant balance between upgrading the current Abrams to the maximum degree while also recognizing limitations and begin conceptual work on a new platform called Next-Generation Combat Vehicle.
While the Army is only now in the early stages of concept development for this technology, Bassett did tell Warrior that it may indeed evolve into a family of vehicles. Many reports and Army comments have indicated that the configuration of the new vehicles may resemble hull forms of an Abrams, Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle, Bradley or even elements of a Stryker vehicle. However, it is without question that, whatever NGCV evolves into, it will be built to consistently accommodate the best emerging technologies available.
For instance, Shell explained that some early developmental work assessing lighter weight armor and hull materials able to provide the same protection as the current vehicle at a much lower weight.
“We could look at some novel material such as lightweight tracks or a hull replacement,” Shell said.
Key parameters for the NGCV will, among other things, include building a lighter-weight, more mobile and deployable vehicle. Weight, speed and mobility characteristics are deemed essential for a tank’s ability to support infantry units, mechanized armored units and dismounted soldiers by virtue of being able to cross bridges, rigorous terrain and other combat areas less accessible to existing 70-ton Abrams tanks.
Bassett explained that specific cross-functional team leads have begun to explore concepts and early requirements for the NGCV effort to, among other things, look for common, cross-fleet technologies and build in flexibility.
“We are standing up a cross functional teams defining the art of the possible as we look at what technologies are available,” Bassett said in an interview with Scout Warrior. “We could change some assumptions. We want to give the Army some flexibility.”
3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division
One possibility now receiving some attention, Army senior leaders say, is that the NGCV may implement a lightweight 120mm cannon previously developed for one of the Manned-Ground Vehicles developed for the now-cancelled Future Combat Systems program. The vehicle, called the Mounted Combat System, was built with a two-ton 120mm cannon roughly one-half the weight of the current Abrams cannon.
The Army’s MCS program developed and test-fired a super lightweight 120mm cannon, called the XM360, able to fire existing and emerging next-generation tank rounds.
The MCS was to have had a crew of two, a .50 caliber machine gun, and a 40mm automatic grenade launcher.
The Army’s recent Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy specifically mentions the value of adapting the XM360 for future use.
Special new technology was needed for the XM360 in order to allow a lighter-weight cannon and muzzle to accommodate the blast from a powerful 120mm tank round.
Elements of the XM360 include a combined thermal and environmental shroud, blast deflector, a composite-built overwrapped gun, tube-modular gun-mount, independent recoil brakes, gas-charged recuperators, and a multi-slug slide block breech with an electric actuator, Army MCS developmental documents describe.
Abrams & robotic wingmen
While not specifically referring to the T-14s unmanned turret or Russian plans for an autonomous capability, Basset did say it is conceivable future armored vehicles may indeed include an unmanned turret as well as various level of autonomy, tele-operation and manned-unmanned teaming.
Bassett also emphasized the future vehicles will be designed to incorporate advanced digital signal processing and machine-learning, such as AI technologies.
Computer algorithms enabling autonomous combat functions are progressing at an alarming rate, inspiring Army and GDLS developers to explore the prospect of future manned-unmanned collaboration with tank platforms. It is certainly within the realm of the technically feasible for a future tank to simultaneously control a small fleet of unmanned robotic “wing man” vehicles designed to penetrate enemy lines while minimizing risk to soldiers, transport ammunition or perform long-range reconnaissance and scout missions.
“The Chief has stated (Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley) has said that all future vehicles will be tele-operated. We take those things into account and we’re are going to get some great experimentation in this area,” Bassett said. “There are things you can do in a next-gen vehicle which you cannot do in a current vehicle due to physical requirements.”:
Levels of autonomy for air vehicles, in particular, have progressed to a very advanced degree – in part because there are, quite naturally, fewer obstacles in the air precluding autonomous navigation. GPS enabled way-point technology already facilitates both ground and air autonomous movement; however, developing algorithms for land based autonomous navigation is by all means far more challenging given that a vehicle will need to quickly adjust to a fast-moving, dynamic and quickly-changing ground combat environment.
“There is a dramatic difference in size, weight and power performance if you make something tele-operated,” Bassett said.