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What Do Future Main Battle Tanks Need to Succeed? Ask the Operators

Micah Clark
RUSI Defence Systems, 25 March 2019
United States, Land Forces
As the US Army and British Army eye upgrades to their respective main battle tanks, the often-overlooked operator’s perspective calls for the focus to fall on maintainability in the field over incremental upgrades to firepower and survivability

The US Army’s M1A2 Abrams main battle tank (MBT) is designed to last into the 2030s with sustained upgrades, and a RAND study on peer capabilities assessed that the Abrams ‘is still the best tank in the world given its degree of armour protection and antiarmor capabilities.’ Still the M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 2, the most widely fielded current variant, is ageing rapidly and the final two planned lifecycle enhancements will only provide marginal improvements. Tasked with delivering effective firepower and manoeuvre, the MBT is the central platform of the US Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT). As the US Army shifts from years of counterinsurgency operations to a ‘new focus on large-scale ground combat operations,’ continuing to upgrade and develop armoured platforms ought to be a top priority and retaining a comparative MBT advantage is essential to that effort.

The US Army’s Future Capabilities Command will make a decision by 2023 on whether a new tank is necessary and how to proceed with its development. Likewise, the UK is set to deal with a slew of Challenger 2 modernisation issues under austere army budget constraints. One simple suggestion as these upgrade and acquisition processes begin: seek input and feedback from the operators early. The author has recently completed a month-long rotation to the US National Training Centre as the culmination of over 18 months as a tank platoon leader deployed and in garrison, so is well positioned to provide operator commentary on the complex challenges of future armoured combat platforms.

Military acquisitions processes can be broadly understood by applying the steps of a systems engineering framework known as the systems decision-making process: problem definition; solution design; decision-making; and solution implementation. For combat platform design programmes, operator-level input is most commonly solicited in the decision-making and solution implementation phases. In other words, those who have the most first-hand, day-to-day experience maintaining and manoeuvring tanks get little input until decision-makers have already chosen a new design from a group of alternatives and no fundamental decisions remain. When establishing criteria and generating prototypes for the US Army’s next MBT, contractors and officials should keep in mind two key considerations from the operator perspective: the pre-eminence of maintainability in solution design; and the unanticipated friction inherent in modular and incremental improvements.

MBT design is conventionally focused on maximising the interconnected battlefield domains of firepower, mobility and protection. The maintenance factor is typically either considered a subset of mobility, or ease of maintenance is assumed to be inversely proportionate to vehicle weight. This way of understanding maintenance design makes logistics calculations much simpler (that is, if the MBT weighs less, it is more rapidly deployable, has a longer range and breaks down less frequently), but it does not do justice to the importance of considering maintainability in the problem definition and solution design phases. Maintenance drives all other components of MBT lethality because the world’s most deadly broken tank is still just a broken tank.

Of course tackling MBT maintenance is not merely a design issue. Leaders of tank platoons and companies must have more than just a cursory knowledge of their platform – they must be technical experts. Likewise, the flow of repair parts from national to unit levels could always be improved. Both the logistical and leadership sides of the maintenance problem are known issues, however, and they have improved noticeably with the US Army’s renewed focus on the decisive action training environment. The design-related roots of MBT maintenance issues, on the other hand, are much easier to overlook and much harder to fix after decisions have been made.

Maintenance is primarily a crew-level issue. All tankers ought to be, and generally are, masters of crew-level maintenance. In the author’s experience in the field, a routine maintenance issue rarely slows a tank down for more than an hour or two at most if the part is on-hand. An experienced tank crew is the ultimate combat power multiplier for its ability to conduct field-expedient maintenance to unconventionally repair issues that would otherwise render a tank non-mission capable. As the M1A2 currently operates, however, far too many of its most common problems must be fixed at echelons above crew or company maintenance. These more advanced problems result in much longer repair times. The most common components to cause such issues are those related to electrical power distribution, hydraulic system management and the tank commander’s situational awareness. While modern MBTs are designed with auxiliary and manual backups to many of these more advanced systems, too many of the problems result in non-mission capable tanks. When these components fail, therefore, tank crews are operating a sub-optimal platform at best. At worst, they are at the mercy of a specialised and highly sought-after maintainer to fix or replace a complex part that must be evacuated to the brigade support area as far as 20–30km behind the forward lines.

At the operator level, tankers in combat and training follow a strict hierarchy of needs: 1) Does the tank move? 2) Does it have the necessary fuel, fluids, ammunition, food and water to sustain long-range autonomous operations? 3) Do all weapons systems work? Only after these considerations does the question of lethality arise. In the current training environment, commanders rarely get a chance to assess crew and platoon lethality outside of regularly scheduled gunneries. It is often overlooked at higher-echelon force-on-force training. The first question senior officers ask their commanders in the field is ‘how many of your tanks shot?’ not ‘how many targets did you kill?’ This misguided focus certainly reflects a deeper problem with leadership culture, but it could also be mitigated in the solution design phase of future MBTs. If maintenance and maintainability can be made less of an issue, tank crews and their commanders will be more likely to shift focus toward lethality against enemy ground forces – the end goal of an ABCT under the Unified Land Operations doctrine.

US (and to a lesser degree British) MBTs are generally on par or ahead of their peers in regards to firepower, protection and mobility. In designing future MBTs, therefore, one top priority ought to be making as many components as possible repairable at the operator and mechanic level, rather than adding unnecessary complexity for marginal improvements in one of the aforementioned domains. Parts that cannot be repaired at the field level must be highly resilient in their design. If an armoured combined arms battalion spends the majority of its allotted training time getting its combat platforms mechanically ready to move and shoot, it is left with no time to ensure that its crews and platoons are trained to manoeuvre in combat. Prioritising maintainability in the early phases of MBT development, therefore, will buy operational units additional time to train and assess lethality realistically.

The problem of MBT modernisation is not unique to the US Army. As the British Challenger 2 undergoes a life extension programme similar to the one required to keep the Abrams family of vehicles relevant, British decision-makers must determine how to prioritise and implement platform upgrades while navigating more significant defence budget austerity challenges than their American counterparts. Just as British artillery is better described as tired, dated and decreasingly competitive than ineffective, British amour has begun to fall behind its competitors meaningfully but not alarmingly. The Challenger is in need of thoughtful upgrading before it can be considered first rate. Operator input and feedback on these upgrades should not be neglected, even in the formative stages of the modernisation process.

The improvements needed for the next US MBT are relatively minor: enhanced visual sensor technology; the addition of a high explosive fragmentation round to augment infantry units (likely covered by the development of the Mobile Protected Firepower platform); and active protection systems, against both precision top-attack and kinetic energy rounds. None of these speculative improvements are misguided or excessive, but as they are developed, designers would do well to remember that operators will be the ones fixing these components when they inevitably break. Modular and incremental improvements on armoured platforms can be effective and certainly cost less than outright procurement programmes. They are only worth their reduced cost, however, if they solve more problems than they create – so buyer beware.

Micah Clark
US Army Officer and former RUSI Military Sciences intern

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