U.S. Army modernization officials are looking for defense firms capable of producing lightweight tanks to arm infantry brigades with more firepower for the future battlefield. . . ."The MPF system provides early entry forces a mobile, protected, direct fire capability to apply immediate, lethal, long-range fires in the engagement of armored vehicles, hardened enemy fortifications, dismounted personnel and represents a long-term solution to the Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) capability," the document states.The Army kicked off the MPF program in December 2018 by awarding contracts to General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. and BAE Systems Land & Armaments LP to produce early prototypes. The two companies will build 12 prototypes each for testing; the goal is to select a winner by fiscal 2022 and begin fielding the first of 504 of these lightweight tanks in fiscal 2025.The MPF is planned as a tracked vehicle with a minimum crew consisting of a commander, gunner and driver, according to the document. It will be designed to protect the crew from small-arms fire, overhead artillery blasts, underbelly mine detonations and side improvised explosive device explosions, the document states. Army requirements call for the MPF to be armed with a 105mm, or possibly a 120mm, cannon to engage hardened targets at long range. . . .Interested companies responding to the March 11 deadline must be able to provide evidence of their proven abilities to produce this tracked armored vehicle, the document states.The MPF concept emerged several years ago when maneuver leaders started calling for a lightweight, armored platform armed with a large enough cannon to destroy enemy armor for light infantry forces. The idea was to field it to airborne units for forced-entry operations.But the MPF will not be air-droppable. The current plan is to have Air Force C-17 Globemasters carry two MPFs each and deliver them after an airfield has been secured.Airborne and other light infantry units can be used to seize airfields as an entry point for heavier follow-on forces, but they lack the staying power of Stryker and mechanized infantry.The 82nd Airborne Division was equipped with the [17 ton] M551 Sheridan Armored Reconnaissance Airborne Assault Vehicle until the mid-1990s [wikipedia image below]. Developed during the Vietnam War, the Sheridan resembled a light tank and featured a 152mm main gun capable of firing standard ammunition or the MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missile.
The MGM-51 Shillelagh missile has a 2 km range, but didn't fit a great need in the Vietnam War where the Sheridan tank was used most heavily, since the opposing forces largely lacked tanks or armored vehicles, and after Vietnam, an upgraded version of the missile with longer range that addressed flaws in the earlier system was only used six times in combat, all during the 1991 Gulf War to destroy bunkers.
It appears is that the intent of Army officials is to have a light tank that is more heavily armored than a Stryker armored personnel carrier, which is armored against heavy machine gun fire and some shrapnel, and more along the lines of a mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle, but is not capable is sustaining a hit from a tank or artillery shell or a missile, or even the lighter end of anti-tank weapons.
The M1 Abrams main 120mm direct fire canon has an effective range of 3.5 km. The original 105mm direct fire canon of that tank (replaced in early trials) had an effective range of 2 km. While these are longer ranges than those at which small arms are accurate, a 105mm or 120mm direct fire canon is likely to have a range only marginally greater at best.
This means that this light tank would be highly vulnerable to anti-tank missiles which are common in sub-"near peer" military forces, even infantry carried anti-tank missiles. Modern anti-tank missiles typically have ranges of 3.75km to 10 km, and can also be used against essentially any target that a tank round could be used against. A light tank would not survive being hit by a modern anti-tank missile.
As the threat of advanced anti-tank guided missiles and other infantry anti-tank weapons continues to grow, numerous countries, including the United States, are adding active protection systems to their armored vehicles. While being able to defend against some kinds of incoming rounds is very important, it's even more important to kill the threat before it ever has a chance to fire in the first place[.]
This article also notes the limited effectiveness of even advanced countermeasures against advanced anti-tank weapons which are technologically viable. A discussion of the emerging countermeasures that are available and their limitations can also be found here.
One such active defense system (designed to work with armor since even a successful countermeasure would produce shrapnel) is the Israeli Trophy system which uses radar, automated targeting and firing faster than a human being could react, to shoot down high explosive anti-tank missiles, anti-tank rockets, rocket propelled grenades, tank shells and artillery shells with bullets of its own before they hit your armored vehicle.
Germany has adopted the soft-kill MUSS system for the Puma, which uses a jammer and multi-spectral countermeasures to prevent air-launched and ground-launched guided weapons hitting the vehicle[.]
[I]f active protection systems can stop armour piercing fin stabilised ammunition. . . . the large cannons that characterise contemporary tanks will run the risk of becoming redundant. . . .
Ultimately, the question is what is the best way of destroying an armoured vehicle? If it is via specialised missiles and ATGMs, tanks in the future will move away from large cannons and the industry will have to react to that, which it already has to some extent with active protection systems.
The Marine Corps Approach Compared
The Marines have recognized the new technological reality and have eliminated tanks from their force, in favor of an intent to purchase joint tactical vehicles with mounted or towed missile launchers (with versions for anti-ship as well as anti-tank missiles).
In the past, part of the Marine tank mission profile was to take out other enemy tanks in pitched armor vs. armor battles. Now however, Marines will be able to take out enemy armor from much father distances than a tank is capable of, and without a heavy 74-ton armored platform.Marine Lieutenant General Eric M. Smith explained this idea further during the International Armoured Vehicles Conference, held online this year due to the ongoing pandemic. USNI News quoted him, stating “the experimentation that we’ve done now to date successfully using lightweight mounted fires – think the back of a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle – is killing armor at ranges, rough calculation, about 15, 20 times the range that a main battle tank can kill another main battle tank.”
But, the Army is stuck in the mode of doing the same thing over and over again, even after the hopeful development of briefly having its outdated Sheridan tanks outfitted with anti-tank missiles (a capability used only rarely in Vietnam and in the Gulf War).
A better solution would be wheeled armored vehicle designed for an optional crew of two, with no capacity to carry infantry soldiers, that mounts, instead of a 105mm or 120mm tank shell direct fire cannon, anti-tank and/or surface to air missiles, a remotely operated 25mm-40mm cannon (and possibly also a remotely operated machine gun).
Defensively, it would have an active protection like the Israeli Trophy system, and a guided missile jamming system like the German MUSS system (which weighs just 65-160 kg). The passive armor would be as heavy as possible consistent with C-130 transportability limitations on weight and dimensions, and would be at least up to MRAP standards.
It should be limited to 36,000 pounds (18 short tons) to make it C-130 transportable, and to allow four of them to be delivered per trip of a C-17. This is a challenging, but not insurmountable standard, which had been met by other light tanks and armored vehicles with missiles in the past. If MRAP standards of armor protection could not be met with that weight limitation, the weight could be increased to up to 23 short tons, which would at least allow three of them, rather than two, to be delivered in a single C-17 trip.
Ideally, it would also have a small, limited range, dedicated rotary wing UAV to provide it with an "eye in the sky" to assist in identifying potential ambushes and targeting its missiles and active defense systems, as well as a remotely controlled cannon with firepower comparable to a semi-automatic carbine for engaging opponents in its main weapon system's blind spots and snipers that it identifies. The UAV could also provide an intermediate link for communications system when terrain or buildings are blocking communications signals.
Ideally, it would be 6x6 rather than 4x4 to limit its vulnerability if a single wheel is disabled.
Ideally, it would be narrow enough to navigate narrow urban roads and bridges in places that do not have the same city planning tradition as the United States.
Ideally, it would have some capacity to ford rivers, canals, ponds, wetlands, or short distances oversea from a landing craft to shore.
Why Wheels and Missiles?
A wheeled vehicle is faster, require less of a supply line of diesel fuel because wheeled vehicles are so much more fuel efficient, and would easier to repair in the field than a tracked vehicle. And, the off road capabilities and survivability of wheels v. tracked vehicles has largely equalized in recent decades.
Missiles have a longer range, greater accuracy and pack an equal or more powerful punch. Also relevant is that a heavy M1 Abrams tank carries 40 tank shells and a light tank would probably carry somewhat fewer shells, so the reduced number of available rounds with a missile tank would be fairly modest relative to one with a large caliber cannon, particularly after considering that missiles are more accurate at long ranges.
Replacing tracks and a main direct fire cannon with missiles also both significantly reduce the vehicle's weight. So does eliminating the requirement to provide armored protection for a detachment of carried infantry found in otherwise comparable armored vehicles.
This should make either the 18 short ton goal, and the 23 ton fallback goal attainable.
Weight Considerations For Light Tanks
Brenchmarks From Previous Military Vehicles
MRAPs come in three classes, from a variety of approved manufacturers — over 60 variations have been built.
A Category I MRAP carries up to six passengers and weighs seven tons.
Category II vehicles carry 10 passengers and weigh 19 tons.
Category III is reserved for mine-clearing variants that carry up to 12 passengers; they can weigh as much as 22.5 tons.
These categories can be misleading though, because personnel capacity varies by the equipment load-out of the passengers, and weight doesn’t account for all the various add-ons: weapon systems, radios, electronic counter-measures, fire suppression systems and, for additional protection from mines, extra armor. Operating weight can be over 30 tons.
The MRAP program has many Class II vehicles that weigh in at 15-18 tons with awkward dimensions that reach 30-40 tons when fully loaded and armored.
A Joint Light Tactical Vehicle weighs 5.133 short tons gross weight, without a cargo payload and crew, and without armor add ons. The heaviest version, fully loaded, was limited by Army design specifications to 7.3 short tons.
The U.S. Avenger Air Defense System, designated AN/TWQ-1, which mounts anti-aircraft missiles on a Humvee, weighs 4.3 short tons (the anti-air missile system itself adds 0.5 short tons or less to the weight of the vehicle).
Helicopter Transportability Is Probably Unrealistic
Realistically, a heavy lift helicopter transport would be very challenging.
A CH-53K King Stallion has a maximum capacity of 18 short tons. A CH-47 Chinook helicopter has a cargo capacity of 12 short tons. The maximum capacity of a CH-54 Tarhe sky crane helicopter is 10 short tons. The VTOL MV-22B Osprey tilt rotor Marine transport plane has a 10 short ton capacity and significant dimensional limitations on cargo as well. An ordinary CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter has a maximum capacity of 4 short tons.
Realistically, however, the practical weight limits in combat applications for these military helicopters are about two-thirds of their quoted absolute maximum weight. For example, the Army when bidding the JLTV set a maximum weight of 15,639 pounds (about 7.3 short tons) to meet its requirement that it be transportable by C-47F and CH-53K helicopters, which was less than their absolute maximum payload, to recognize that they can't be operating in battle conditions at maximum loads with no margins of error. This requirement ruled out some of the heavier JLTV proposals.
The King Stallion might be able to carry a 12 ton light tank, but it would realistically have to be a little under 8 tons to be CH-47 transportable, to get to a vehicle that is consistently transportable by helicopter in deployments into potentially hostile areas.
A 8 ton limit, or even a 12 ton limit, would be very light for even a light armored tank, so a goal of a helicopter transportable light tank is probably unrealistic.
C-130 Weight Limitations
These changes could probably make it possible to design an acceptably capable and armored light missile tank down to be C-130 transportable (17-18.25 tons depending upon the model).
A single basic model Stryker, a Marine LAV, or an M113 can be carried in a C-130, although heavier Stryker models, such as its mobile gun system variant and models with slat armor, cannot be without being partially disassembled and broken into two loads.
Two of the base model of Joint Light Tactical Vehicle can be carried by a C-130.
The C-130 has a fully loaded range of 2,080 miles at a cruising speed of 336 miles per hour. It has a takeoff distance of 3,586 feet fully loaded and 1,400 feet empty.
C-17 Weight Limitations
Short of either of those possibilities, reducing the wheeled missile tank's weight can increase the number of them that can be transported via a C-17 long range military transport plane.
A C-17 long range military transport plane can carry one M-1 Abrams tank, one Patriot missile launcher system (with some disassembly and reassembly required), two M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, two multiple rocket launcher systems, two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, three AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, four combat-ready Stryker armored personnel carriers, or ten Humvees with TOW rocket launcher systems. A Congressional Research Service report diagram, below, illustrates its capacity (and the capacity of the larger C-5 military transport aircraft which has about twice the cargo capacity but requires higher quality airstrips than the austere airstrips that a C-17 can manage).
Limiting a proposed new light tank to 18 tons, about the same as a basic Stryker armored personnel carrier, would allow four of them to be carried on a C-17, doubling the number that could be transported per C-17 flight from the current proposal, in addition to making it C-130 transportable.
Limiting a proposed new light tank about 24 tons would allow the delivery of three of them per C-17 sortie instead of two, increasing air deployment rates by 50%, over the current proposal.
The C-17 has a fully loaded range of 2,780 miles at a cruising speed of 520 miles per hour. It has a takeoff distance of 8200 feet fully loaded and 3000 feet empty.
Allied Transport Aircraft
Joint operations are the norm in modern military engagements so consideration of the cargo capacity of allied military transport aircraft is also appropriate.
Many European military forces use the Airbus A400M Atlas, that entered service in 2013, which has a 40.8 short ton capacity. It has a fully loaded range of 2,100 miles at a cruising speed of 485 miles per hour. It has a takeoff distance of 3,215 feet fully loaded and 2,530 feet empty. This is enough to carry on M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle or two Stryker armored personnel carriers, but not enough to carry an M1 Abrams main battle tank.
The Japanese military uses the Kawasaki C-2 military transport plane that entered service in 2016, which has a capacity of 41.4 short tons (similar to the A400M) and a fully loaded range of 2,800 miles at a cruising speed of 550 miles per hour. It has a takeoff distance of 7,546 feet half loaded and 1,640 feet empty.
Other Weight Considerations
Excessive size has other disadvantages too:
The [typical fully loaded Class II MRAP] vehicle's weight and size severely limits its mobility off main roads, in urban areas, and over bridges, as 72 percent of the world's bridges cannot hold the MRAP. Its heft restricts transport by C-130 cargo aircraft or amphibious ships. Three MRAP vehicles (or five Oshkosh M-ATVs) fit in a C-17 aircraft, and airlifting is expensive, at $150,000 per vehicle, according to estimates by the U.S. Transportation Command.
The US Air Force contracted several Ukrainian Antonov An-124 heavy-cargo aircraft, which became a familiar sight above cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, where some MRAPs are produced. For comparison, sealifting costs around $13,000 per vehicle, but takes 3–4 weeks for the vehicle to arrive in theater.
Real World Examples Of Similar Vehicles
Consider the following realized versions of similar concepts.
Similar Vehicles With Main Tank Guns
Traditional Tracked Light Tanks
The Chinese Type 15 light tank entered service in 2017.
The United Defense M8 Advanced Gun System was proposed as a replacement for the Sheridan tank in 1995 and prototypes were built, but it never entered mass production. It would have weighed 19.25 to 24.75 tons depending upon armor strength, had the program not been cancelled in 1997.
Wheeled Tanks and APCs With A Main Cannon
The 20.7 short ton Stryker M1128 Mobile Gun System is a wheeled armored personnel carrier with a 105mm tank cannon. Its light armor for a tank and limitations on transporting it with a C-130 military transport aircraft have been criticized: "the mass of the [vehicle] exceeds the carrying capacity of the C-130 aircraft, so you have to remove equipment, a set of screens, and sometimes even a cannon from the car. The armor can be pierced by Soviet made RPG-7 projectiles." Also, the "large weapon station and relatively smaller hatch can make emergency exits difficult. Because the main cannon is separated from the crew compartment a gun stoppage during combat can only be cleared by disembarking from the vehicle."
Tracked Armored Personnel Carriers Without Missiles
The tracked Swedish Combat Vehicle 90 weighs 25 to 39 short tons, is optimized for subarctic weather, and is distinguished by its very low profile. It carries 8 infantry soldiers and mounts a 40mm auto cannon as its main weapon. Prototype version of the CV 9040 equipped with the Bofors RB56 anti-tank missile called the Stridsfordon 9040/56 were developed, but issues with the sight alignment were unsolved and no units ordered.
Similar Vehicles With Missiles Instead of Main Tank Guns
The HJ-10 anti-tank missile is touted as a Chinese equivalent to the US Hellfire system, which has been bought by the Indian Air Force for its Apache attack helicopters. The HJ-10 comes in both fibre optic-guided, laser and radar-guided versions and is available in both air- and ground-launched versions. It can be used against tanks, surface targets and even helicopters and is estimated to have a range of around 10km.
The Chinese WZ550 tank destroyer (a wheeled 4x4 version of the ZSL92 mounting a traversable weapon station firing 4 HJ-9 anti-tank missiles with a 5.5 km range) that has a crew of three and does not carry infantry soldiers. It weighs about 15.1 short tons. This is a 4x4 version of the 6x6 version used in the Chinese Yi Tian anti-aircraft vehicle below. This combination debuted in 1999 and the underlying APC entered service in 1986. More background is available here.
The M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle has a 25mm cannon, a 7.62mm mounted machine gun, and TOW missiles, and carried six infantry soldiers in a 30 ton moderately armored tracked vehicle. A modernized missile tank version could reduce weight by dispensing with the infantry carrying capacity and would have a design more sensitive to IED threats. During the Persian Gulf War, M2 Bradleys destroyed more Iraqi armored vehicles than the M1 Abrams. Twenty Bradleys were lost—three by enemy fire and 17 due to friendly fire incidents; another 12 were damaged. The gunner of one Bradley was killed when his vehicle was hit by Iraqi fire, possibly from an Iraqi BMP-1, during the Battle of 73 Easting. To remedy some problems that were identified as contributing factors in the friendly fire incidents, infrared identification panels and other marking/identification measures were added to the Bradleys. In the Iraq War, the Bradley proved somewhat vulnerable to improvised explosive device (IED) and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks, but casualties were light—the doctrine being to allow the crew to escape at the expense of the vehicle. As of early 2006, total combat losses included between 55 and 150 Bradleys. By 2007, the Army had stopped using the M2 Bradley in combat, instead favoring more survivable MRAPs. By the end of the war, about 150 Bradleys had been destroyed. From 2005-2007, a small number of Bradleys were converted to M6 Linebacker units that had four anti-aircraft Stinger missiles instead of TOW missiles.
M1134 Anti-Tank Guided Missile Vehicle is a U.S. armored fighting vehicle based on the Stryker vehicle with TOW missiles (which have a range of 3.75km) similar to the system that I would propose, but the Stryker lighter armor and more infantry capacity than my proposal.
The image above from a February 2019 trade show is a Chinese a wheeled VN-1 (a.k.a. ZBL-09 Snow Leopard) armored personnel carrier mounted with a large battery HJ-10 (a.k.a. Red Arrow 10) anti-tank missiles (which are comparable to U.S. Hellfire missiles and can also be used against helicopters). The standard version of this APC has two HJ-73 anti-tank missiles with a 3 km range (a Soviet designed counterpart to the U.S. TOW missile), a 30mm cannon, carries 7-10 infantry soldiers, and weighs 16.5 to 22 short tons.
Global Times notes "Another newly revealed weapon is the vehicle-mounted version of the HJ-10 anti-tank missile system. Compared with the original version that uses tracks and is loaded with four missiles, this new version uses four wheels and is loaded with two missiles."This configuration reduces weight, allowing ease of transportation. . . . The use of wheeled carriers for both the howitzer and anti-tank weapons is significant as wheeled platforms are considered more suitable for high-altitude regions than tracked vehicles (common in battle tanks) as the latter are significantly more heavier.