Tag Archives: militariana

On Airbase Hardening

Conventional wisdom might say that airbase hardening was demonstrated to be foolhardy in the 1991 Gulf War. USAF precision guided weapons demolished Saddam’s hardened aircraft shelters. But is it really still so foolhardy? Let’s set aside a convenient mountain to hide your planes under, and think about the traditional Hardened Aircraft Shelter: a small hangar covered with a good deal of reinforced concrete and other armoring materials.

Let’s also suppose, of course, that we’re in an operating environment where the question has some merit. That is, we’re in an area where there are reasonably proximate threats. The mental calculus is different in the middle of Nebraska or Siberia than for most parts of Western Europe. Fortunately, that is where Borgundy is.

We know that with sufficient application of firepower, any target can be destroyed. Emphasis on the word application–only hits count. This is where the precision comes in. Precision guidance kits have massively increased the hit probability. If we can see it, we can hit it. And if we can hit it, we can kill it. And aircraft shelters, hardened or not, are pretty easy to spot.

The Iraqi experience in 1991 bears this out. Shelters didn’t last. The Iraqis were unable (or unwilling) to contest the coalition airstrikes, so coalition airpower hit targets at will. Tougher shelters might have taken multiple hits, but precision guided munitions made this easy.

All of this is true. But note that the bombs used in Desert Storm were big. 2,000-5,000 lbs big. And the coalition air forces were able to operate with impunity. Suppose we have a more aggressive, competitive air force, and a more useful air defense system. In other words, suppose a peer opponent. Unless your ‘peer’ is the United States, your opponent will not have a near-limitless supply of precision guided munitions.

You will not be able to harden your shelters against everything, of course, but you can harden them against a strike or two from 1,000 lbs class penetrator warheads. Why 1,000 lbs? Because those bombs are easy to carry in quantity on tactical fighters, and that’s the size warhead you can fit on a Tomahawk cruise missile. And the Tomahawk is widely emulated. That’s a pretty standard size for a large cruise missile. Long range, 1,000 lbs warhead. Smaller cruise missiles have tend to have significantly shorter range and similar warhead sizes.

Cruise missiles are cheap, accurate, and effective. They’re hard to stop, being significantly smaller than a fighter aircraft and flying low and fast. And if they are downed by a high-end air defense system, there are now POWs or friendly casualties to see on the evening news.

So the goal is to remove some low-risk, low cost means of attacking your hard targets. Force them to increase missile count and bombs, meaning more sorties.

Now all I need is some cost estimates for a bunch of bunkers.


I’ve complained before about the lack of modern American antiship missile options. Finally, the rebuilding Chinese Navy has gotten Lockheed Martin to answer the call. Building upon their excellent AGM-158 JASSM air-launched cruise missile, Lockheed has made a new antiship missile that checks pretty much all of the boxes I might have and then some.

The LRASM (Long Range AntiShip Missile) is based on the AGM-158B JASSM-ER. It’s low-observable for both infrared and radar sensors, and comes with a nice 1,000 lb. penetrating blast fragmentation warhead. It flies at a medium altitude towards the target, then dives for a sea-skimming terminal attack. While it has good range, estimated at about 350 nautical miles, this is rather less than the 500 nautical miles or so that the AGM-158B can manage, and most of that is due to the fancy new multimode seeker system.

LRASM comes with a fancy multimode imaging infrared and active radar homing seeker system, to help it find ships and not be spoofed by decoys. It also includes a datalink for external targeting information, and the inertial/GPS navigation system that you’d expect to find on a cruise missile. While the launch platform can designate targets for it, the LRASM is also capable of searching for targets autonomously. It can also pull targeting data from its radar warning receivers and passive RF sensors. This formidable sensor suite gives LRASM excellent targeting capability, and a wide variety of attack options for the commander.

Since JASSM and JASSM-ER are both air-launched platforms, the US Navy originally envisioned LRASM, and will initially deploy it, as an air-launched weapon. It’s being integrated onto F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and B-1B Lancers. The Lancers are noteworthy for being able to carry 24 AGM-158Cs, and give a long-range land-based naval attack capability to the United States for the first time in a while. However, testing showed that by adding the booster used on Lockheed Martin’s RUM-139 VL-ASROC, LRASM could be launched from Mk. 41 VLS tubes. This would give Mk 41 equipped ships the ability to easily be configured to have a formidable surface attack capability, and would remove the need for supplemental harpoon launchers.

LRASM is a modified land-attack cruise missile, and it has been tested against land targets in addition to ships. Its targeting systems work just as well against land targets. Right now, its range is less than ideal as a land-attack missile, but there are proposals to trade some warhead weight for more fuel to increase the range. Having one missile type for surface vessel attack and land attack would considerably simplify supply for the US Navy ships.

What do we think? It’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Low observability and an excellent targeting system are excellent features. Few current antiship missiles (from any country) actually take advantage of low-observability features. Plus, it’s great that it can be used from both aircraft and standard Mk. 41 VLS tubes. We’d buy lots as soon as they get put on the market.

Parvusimperator Designs A Frigate

I’ve talked about frigates before, and while I settled on the F100, it’s not ideal. Plus, designing things is fun. So I’m going to work up a frigate design sketch, and get exactly what I want. Unlike some of my other design sketches, this one will have requirements and some open questions. Consider it more of an RFP solicitation, because I don’t have the naval architecture skills to place components and be sure the ship is stable.

As with any good design, we’ll start with the mission first. We want a Frigate. Alas, that has become a rather nebulous concept these days, so permit me to resurrect an older, more appropriate term: destroyer escort. We want a relatively small1 ship geared toward the antisubmarine and antiaircraft2 missions. A token antiship armament will suffice.

For the antisubmarine mission, we want the following:

  1. Hangar space for two (2) LAMPS III[^helo] helicopters. These are critical. Helicopters allow for more coverage of the sea and rapid prosecution of contacts. I’m extremely disappointed with how few frigates accommodate two helicopters.

  2. A modern, variable-depth towed sonar array. This gives the best performance, and a modern towed array is a very useful and effective tool for hunting subs.

  3. A modern bow sonar. We’re looking for a good, effective bow sonar, that can accommodate future upgrades. Something reasonably sized and reasonably priced. This is less important than the towed array, so we’re open to savings here.

  4. A ‘beartrap’ hauldown device on the helicopter pad, to enable flight operations in a wider range of weather conditions.

For the Antiaircraft mission, we want the following:

  1. The Aegis Combat System, with NTDS datalinks and Cooperative Engagement Capability. This is the thing that’s going to hurt our budget, but we need it. This is the best integrated battlespace engagement system afloat. And it’s scaleable. We won’t want ballistic missile defense capability on these.

  2. Four multifunction PESA radar arrays, either SPY-1D(V) or SPY-1F(V). Here’s something that I’d need more information to choose from. I don’t know the weight, cost, and capability differences here, and frigates have gone either way on these3. I’m inclined to think the -1F is the way to go, but I won’t sell the bigger -D model short without data.

  3. A 3D Air Search radar to complement the SPY-1 array. Again, lacking the relevant comparison data on effectiveness and price, I can’t specify one. Offhand the SMART-L might fit the bill, but we might also have something smaller available that would be a reasonable cost compromise.

  4. Forty Eight (48) VLS tubes. No less. We want the American Mk. 41 or Mk. 57 tubes, since they can carry a wider variety of missile types. We’ll need to carry VL-ASROC or similar in addition to SM-2, SM-6, and ESSM SAMs. We’re not too particular as to layout though, and it may work better to use the peripheral mounting capability of the Mk. 57 tubes to place some on either side of the helicopter hangar, in addition to the usual forward mounting position on the bow.

  5. Two (2) Mk. 49 Rolling Airframe Missile Launchers. CIWS is important. Ask the USS Stark. Two launchers provide excellent coverage. And we’re going with missiles instead of Phalanx or Goalkeeper because the missiles are the more effective system.

  6. Three (3) Mk. 99 Fire Control System radars for terminal illumination. ESSM and SM-2 both feature terminal semi-active radar homing guidance, at least at present. These provide the radar.

That covers the key points. Let’s talk a few others.

As mentioned before, a token antiship missile armament will suffice. We’ll take eight Naval Strike Missiles4 in two quad launchers mounted amidships. Good enough for dealing with trouble if it shows up unexpectedly.

To save space and weight (and cost), we’re only requiring a 76 mm gun. Probably the Oto-Melara 76mm/62 Super Rapido. We’re also not too particular as to where it goes. We’d expect it to be in the ‘A’ turret (forwardmost) position, but it might work better in the ‘Q’ turret (amidships) position, as on the Oliver Hazard Perry-class. Make it work, that’s all we ask.

Lightweight torpedoes have long been standard equipment for prosecuting close submarine contacts. We won’t argue. A pair of triple-tube launchers for 324 mm torpedoes will do nicely.

We’ll also want some smaller guns to take out small attack craft or suicide bombers. We’ll go with a pair of M242 25mm autocannons in remote weapon stations, mounted amidships. Also a few 12.7mm M2 machine guns amidships, and a few more Ma Deuces on the fantail.

I’m not going to comment on ECM and decoys beyond specifying modern suites of both. Open source data on ECM system effectiveness is basically nonexistent, so I won’t comment further.

Now, let’s talk propulsion. We would expect some kind of combined diesel/gas turbine system5 with two screws. We would also like a maximum speed of at least 28 knots, and a range of 4,500 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 20 knots. A 20 knot cruising speed will enable her to keep up with just about any task force you please, and 4,500 nautical miles will do a good job of getting you from friendly base to friendly base, and refueling at sea is something we know how to do.

We would guesstimate a crew compliment, including officers and men for the ship as well as flight personnel, to be about 250. By modern standards, this is probably a little heavy, but that’s ok. We want to be sure there are enough men for proper damage control drills.

As for the hull and superstructure, we’d like good internal subdivision in the hull, and we won’t sweat an overabundance of low observability features beyond a bit of angling and avoiding corner reflectors. We’ll keep everything pretty conventional in terms of hull shape in order to keep the costs down. Also to keep stability up.

  1. Guesstimating based on other designs, 5,700 tons or so. Nothing set in stone, of course. 
  2. Okay, anti-antiship missile. 
  3. SPY-1D is used on destroyers like the Arleigh Burke and derivatives, as well as the F100. SPY-1F is used on the Fridtjof Nansens. If the F100 can accommodate the -1D, so can we, but the -1F might be a better buy. More data is required. 
  4. We would also accept, and very much like, eight HF-3s, but NSMs are smaller and cheaper, so they’re what’s required. 
  5. i.e. CODOG or CODAG depending on the economics of the engines and gearboxes in question. Again, I don’t have those numbers, so I’m not going to sweat picking one. I would also not say no to COGAG. 

Parvusimperator Reviews the F-22 Raptor

No fighter discussion would be complete without mentioning this one, even if it’s technically not available for the procurement games.

To understand the F-22, we should first look at the ATF, or the state of military aviation in the ’80s. The core of the USAF was the F-15 and the F-16. These were great fighters, but the Soviets had counters, namely the Su-27 and the MiG-29, which were at least the equals of the American fighters. In the maneuverability area, they might even be considered a bit ahead.

American doctrine was heavily invested in air superiority, and the USAF was always looking for the next big thing, so they put out a design concept for the ATF. It was to fly faster and higher than other fighters. Or, more precisely, to cruise higher. Speed is good, since speed is energy that can be converted into maneuvers. Energy is life. But supersonic speed meant afterburners, which burned fuel rapidly. So most fighters couldn’t sustain supersonic speeds for very long. The USAF’s idea was to use new engine technology to push the envelope of cruise speed, not maximum speed. The resulting fighter would not be faster than the Eagle, but it would be able to maintain supersonic speeds without lighting its afterburners (to “supercruise”). These engines would be designed to work at higher altitudes, because altitude can be converted into energy. Energy is life. Energy is winning.

Of course, there were secret projects in the works too, and so the USAF added stealth requirements. Stealth demanded careful shaping, special skin, and internal carriage of weapons. This helped the supercruise, since it reduced drag. A protracted development period due to the end of the cold war, and a competition between the Lockheed and Northrop Grumman entries eventually resulted in the F-22 we know today.

The F-22 is the king of the skies. Full stop. There is no better aircraft at aerial combat. None. Fighting with a Raptor really, really sucks. The Raptor has a massive, powerful, highly advanced, low-probability of intercept radar, and the obvious stealth features. So it’s going to see you first. And because it cruises at mach 1.2-1.4 at a higher altitude than you, the Raptor has the energy to decline any engagement it pleases, or dictate the range as it pleases.

If the Raptor chooses to engage BVR, as we’ve mentioned it’s going to get the first shot. It sees you first. It gets to position favorably. Plus, if you’ll recall, it’s flying higher and faster than you. So its missiles get that much more energy, because they start from a supersonic platform, and get a gravity assist as they dive down. Which is a great recipe for an intensely frustrating exercise. And by ‘exercise’, I mean ‘simulation of being smote by an angry god’.

But that’s BVR. The Raptor owns BVR. What if we force the merge and go to WVR? Probably by stipulating in the exercise rules that it’s a WVR fight, but still. Well, here go some of the advantages, though it’s still a massive pain to acquire a lock on the Raptor. At least you can see it. And you can engage with IR seekers, but not super well. Everybody dies in WVR. The Raptor is no exception. But it has the best aerodynamics of any fighter around, with a very high thrust/weight ratio and very low wing loading. It also has thrust vectoring. So even in WVR engagements, the Raptor is a winner more often than everybody else. It’s kill to death ratio at Red Flag is hilariously lopsided, and that’s against pilots who dogfight for a living.

If you’re thinking this is quite gushy, and excessively positive, you’d be right. I love this thing. But it’s not tops at everything. The internal weapons bays are somewhat limiting. The Raptor was designed around a warload of six AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders internally. This isn’t a bad loadout, though it could be bigger. However, those bays are not very deep. So the F-22 can’t carry much in the way of bombs. And it can’t carry any bombs that are all that big. The F-35 can’t carry many bombs, but it can carry two of just about any air to ground weapon you please. The F-22 is limited to bombs of 1,000 lbs or less, and that size class also rules out most standoff weapons. Plus, it only recently got ground-oriented radar modes. Ground attack is not its thing. Though the USAF is trying, and has made special small GPS-guided glide bombs so the Raptor can bomb more stuff.

Oh, and it’s out of production. Even when it was in production, it was super expensive. You could theoretically restart the production line, but that would cost a whole bunch of money. And the USAF only bought 187, which isn’t a lot. And there are have been issues with the onboard oxygen generating system, which have restricted that flight envelope. Those should be fixed by now.

So it’s an expensive, gold-plated, air-superiority fighter with gimped ground attack in a world of strike operations. Would we buy it?

Well, we can’t. Production lines were closed in 2011. Sorry. Blame Rumsfeld, not me.

Feels like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Okay, fine. Suppose they got their act together and started making them again. Raptors rolling off the production lines. Would we buy them?

Well, we still can’t. Even if the production lines were reopened, there’s a pesky act of Congress in the way. Really. There’s a law in the United States that says Thou Shalt Not Export the F-22. Even to one of America’s favorite and closest allies, like Japan or Australia or Israel. No Raptors for you.


Okay, that’s another cop-out, right? I’m still avoiding the question. Fine, fine. Remove both pesky intrusions of reality. Would. We. Buy. One?

We’d need a price, right? Well, let’s be awful and take the figure from an offhand quote of an Israeli Air Force general of $200 million, rather than the much more favorable wiki flyaway cost of $150 million. So. 200 million dollars a copy. Would we buy?

Hell fucking yeah, we’d buy.

Did you really think I’d say no to the greatest aerial combatant of all time? Are you mad?
We’d be all over this, if the above conditions were met. Even at $200 million. It’s got Wunderwaffe-class awesomeness. It’s also an absolutely beautiful fighter. It looks right. It is right.

Since this is a game, you might be thinking I should try to trade Fishbreath something so we can both skirt our self-imposed rules a little. He’d never go for it though. He doesn’t like spendy wunderwaffe.

Author’s Notes: This review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by Lockheed Martin, the Fighter Mafia, or members of the United States Air Force.

Engines for Armor: AVDS-1790

The AVDS-1790 is the descendant of the 1950s vintage AV-1790, from the days when American armored vehicles still used gasoline engines. It was redesigned to use diesel (the “D” in the initials) and use a supercharger (the “S” in AVDS) for more power. The supercharger has been replaced by a twin-turbocharger setup, and the engine has been refitted with modern, computer-controlled, common-rail fuel injection. Continental Motors, now a division of L-3, currently offers the AVDS-1790 in 750, 950, 1,050, 1,200, and 1,500 horsepower versions. The Israelis are big fans of the AVDS-1790, using it on most versions of the Merkava and on the Namer, as well as on their M48 and M60 tanks.

Note that the -1790 in the model number refers to the displacement of cubic inches1, not the horsepower or the torque.

At first glance, the AVDS is somewhat odd. It’s a rather big V-12 diesel. Yawn. It’s notably bigger than the other diesels you will find. But there’s a reason for that: the AVDS-1790 is air-cooled.

Air cooling provides some noteworthy advantages and disadvantages. The engine must be physically bulkier, because air cooling must be attached to the cylinders directly. You can’t pipe heat to a separate radiator. Liquid cooled engines will also see a higher amount of power for a given displacement. Liquid cooled engines are also easier to meet emissions targets with.

On the other hand, air cooled engines are lighter overall. They are significantly simpler, because there are no pumps. Further, and this is important for combat vehicle designers, they are more robust. Damage to cooling for one cylinder will not affect cooling from the other cylinders. The nature of an air-cooled system means it’s a lot easier to maintain, since the fins on the cylinders don’t need much in the way of maintenance.

The maintenance and ruggedness are what endear these engines to the Israelis. I’d be interested to learn more about the intake system on the Merkava, since this is a front-engined tank without the usual large amount of grillwork on the engine bay, and yet the air-cooled engines still work well.

I think most telling for the quality of the design is that having gone to the MTU883 in the Merkava IV, because a 1,500 hp version of the AVDS wasn’t designed yet, the IDF went back to the AVDS-1790 for the Namer.

  1. As is right and proper. Suck it, metric system. 

M4A1 PIP vs HK 416A5

We talked a little bit about the M4A1 PIP before. Let’s compare it to the popular and successful HK 416A5.

The 416A5 is the latest variant of HK’s version of the M4. It’s available in a number of barrel lengths, but to try to keep this comparison as objective and direct as possible, we’re going to compare carbines with the same barrel length: 14.5 inches.

While the 416A5 is a production weapon, the M4A1 PIP isn’t. So I’ll have to make some guesses as to what it might have looked like in an approved format. In the above article, I made some guesses:

  1. “SOCOM” profile (a medium profile) barrel
  2. Safe/Semi/Full Auto Trigger Group
  3. Daniel Defense M4 RIS II (12″)
  4. Cut down pinned gasblock (as on Colt 6920-OEM2)
  5. Knight’s Armament folding front and rear backup iron sights
  6. H2-weight buffer
  7. B. E. Meyers 249F flash suppressor

Pretty simple. I chose those parts because all of those have NSNs, and are already-approved accessories, and Colt already makes guns with that particular low-profile gas block. I keep going back and forth on the notion of changing the stock, and settled on not changing it mostly to keep things simple. The obvious stock alternative is the SOPMOD stock, however I couldn’t find anything on stock changes, so I opted to be simple and leave the existing stock. The SOPMOD stock weighs 11.5 ounces, which is about 4.4 ounces (0.275 lbs) more than the regular stock.

Let’s compare them. Both carbines are capable of semiautomatic and fully automatic fire. Both carbines do not have a burst feature. Both carbines have collapsible stocks. Both carbines offer quadrail handguards. The M4A1 PIP has a 3″ longer handguard (12″ compared to the 416A5’s 9″ handguard), but both are longer than the 7″ RAS/RIS handguard currently present on the M4.1 Both fire the same 5.56×45 mm round.

Doing a weight comparison, the M4A1 PIP weighs 6.99 lbs as above, unloaded and without optic. The 416A5 weighs 7.68 lbs unloaded and without optic, which comes to a weight difference of 0.69 lbs. Where does the weight difference come from?

Both rifles have medium-profile, 14.5″ barrels. The 416 also has a short-stroke gas piston system and a heavy handguard, both of which add weight. The stock of the 416 is also a bit heavier.

Carrying more weight sucks. But weight can also bring advantages. Bearing in mind the following destructive tests had a sample size of one, let’s see what weight helps with.

On a standard M4, firing 140 rounds rapidly and continuously will raise the temperature of the barrel to the cook-off point. At this temperature, any live round remaining in the chamber for any reason may cook-off (detonate) in as little as 10 seconds.

What if you keep going cyclic? What if you’re desperate? Colt tested this in 1996, and discovered that the barrel on a standard M4 (with full auto trigger group) will burst after 596 rounds fired cyclic. That’s just under twenty magazines worth of rounds. That is a lot.

The M16A2 (also with a full auto trigger group) was also tested to destruction. Its barrel burst after 491 rounds. That’s also a lot, though less than the M4.

The M4A1 with the heavier SOCOM-profile barrel will fail after it has fired 840 rounds cyclic. In this case, the barrel won’t burst, but the gas tube will fail. If this was a problem, you could conceivably use a beefier gas tube. Or accept that this is good enough, since a soldier’s basic load is 210 rounds.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much in the way of good data on when the HK416 (or the M27 for that matter) fails if it’s run cyclic until it chokes. I do know that it’s “more than 900 rounds” but that’s the best I’ve got. This makes sense: the barrels are similarly beefy, and eventually the op-rod/piston will fail. Or the barrel will. Waste heat sucks.

So what do I think? Well, a good part would depend on what price you could get both guns for. But if you could get the M4A1 PIP as a package from Colt for any price that isn’t exorbitantly over that of the 416A5, I’d probably go with the M4A1 PIP. I like less weight, and I really don’t think the piston system gets you all that much for your trouble.

That goes triple if you already have M4s/M16s in your procurement system, since you can just swap uppers (and trigger groups if you have that infernal burst mechanism).

  1. We could have used a 9″ quadrail on the M4A1 PIP, but that would have increased its weight advantage, and we would have had to pick a handguard that isn’t currently in the inventory. The DD M4 RIS II 12″ handguard is already in the system, as the handguard for SOPMOD Block II upper. Also, note that I don’t have a weight figure for a 416 with an extended handguard. 

Unmanned Autocannon Turrets

There’s a big interest in remote weapons stations for machine guns, since they let you use the guns without exposing yourself to enemy fire. Their bigger brothers, unmanned autocannon turrets, are also increasing in popularity, because they’re a cost effective way to add firepower to vehicles. Let’s look at some options. Alas, costs are unavailable, so you’ll just have to guesstimate.

First, Russia’s Epoch turret. It’s used on the T-15 Armata Heavy IFV, plus the Kurganets IFV, and could probably be retrofitted on to other things. It’s got a 30×165 mm autocannon with 500 rounds of ready ammunition (dual feed with one 160 round box and one 340 round box), a 7.62x54R mm machine gun with 2,000 rounds of ready ammo, and four Kornet-EM ATGM tubes. The gunner has a day/thermal sight with laser rangefinder. The commander has an independent day/thermal sight with laser rangefinder as well. I do not have information on whether or not these are Gen 3 thermal sights. No secondary remote weapon station is fitted for the commander. Epoch is not protected against autocannon fire. It is fully (i.e. biaxially) stabilized. Eight smoke grenade launchers are fitted. It is capable of high-elevation fire. It does not appear that reloading the turret is possible from under armor. Also, even though it lacks armor, given it’s bulk and ammo reserves, I would expect it to be heavy. Also, relatively expensive. But it does have the most firepower of any turret on our list.

This is the turret that the US Army is fitting to some of its Stryker vehicles for more firepower. It’s made by Kongsberg, out of Norway, and it has a lot of options. The gun is a 30×173 mm autocannon, with 150 rounds of ready ammunition (dual feed with a pair of 75 round boxes). There’s also a coaxial 7.62×51 mm machine gun with 600 rounds of ready ammo. ATGM launchers are available as an optional extra. The gunner’s sight is the usual day/thermal with laser rangefinder. An independent commander’s sight, or a Commander’s Remote Weapons Station, are available as optional extras. The basic turret has negligible protection, but the turret can be provided with protection against up to 30 mm autocannon rounds (STANAG Level 6) as another optional extra. High-angle fire is another optional extra feature, as are threat detection systems and active protection systems. All versions can be reloaded from under armor. We’d expect weight and cost to vary significantly based on desired feature set. It’s not a bad turret, but we wish it could accommodate more autocannon ammunition. A pity that’s not another optional extra. Full stabilization is standard.

Samson RCWS-30
This is an Israeli turret, currently in use on the Czech Pandur II. It’s very barebones, without any kind of protective shell. It comes with 200 rounds of 30×173 mm (in a 140 and a 60 round box), a 7.62×51 mm machine gun with a 460 round box, and a pair of tubes for Spike ATGMs. The turret is fully stabilized and a commander’s independent sight is available. A commander’s remote weapon station is not available. There are no protection options available for this model. On the other hand, it’s only 1,400 kg ready to fight. Also, since it’s an exposed gun and feed systems, it can be fitted with any other autocannon system. Conceivably, one could also increase the ammunition capacity, but that might require more powerful traverse and elevation motors. It is capable of high angle fire as well. This is probably my favorite turret from an ‘add more firepower’ standpoint, since it’s light, cheap, and provides balanced firepower.

The unmanned version of the German Lance turret, the -RC variant is very nearly identical to the turret mounted on the Puma. It comes with a 30×173 mm gun with 200 ready rounds (dual feed, but I haven’t found box sizes), a 7.62×51 mm coaxial machine gun (probably about 650-700 rounds based on the Puma’s capacity for 5.56), and the option for a pair of Spike missiles. It’s got STANAG Level 6 protection out of the box, and excellent optics for the gunner and an independent sight for the commander. It can also be fitted with additional cameras to improve situational awareness or a laser-based jamming system as part of a soft-kill APS. As you might expect, it’s heavy and expensive. But it’s also very nicely equipped.

Of the NATO compatible turrets, what you’re trying to do will determine which you buy. Platform and transportability requirements will also impact your decision.

Leclerc Review

The Leclerc is a very underappreciated tank. For better and for worse, it got its design completed just before the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, this is bad, because order numbers were slashed, and there weren’t large quantities of surplus tanks to drive the price down in the 90s, when no one in Europe thought tanks were cool.1 On the other hand, it meant it got a lot of really innovative design features pretty early. It’s still a formidable and competitive tank today, held back only by the lack of upgrade budget.

The Leclerc was designed to (finally) replace the venerable AMX-30, after a joint Franco-German project and the AMX-40 project had both failed. The French were the first western power to put an autoloader in a production tank. It’s a ‘belt-type’, and is contained in the turret bustle. It has a capacity of 22 rounds. A further 18 rounds are stored next to the driver in the front of the hull. The bustle is provided with blow-out panels. All ammunition is marked with a barcode, so that the autoloader knows what round types are where.

The gun is a 120 mm L52 smoothbore, developed in France. At the time of introduction, this was the most powerful tank gun in production. It can keep up with the newer Rheinmetall L55 given appropriate ammo design. The gun is fully stabilized.

In a reverse from other western designs, the coaxial machine gun is a 12.7×99 mm HMG, and the commander’s gun is a 7.62×51 mm GPMG. In its original design, the commander’s machine gun was pintle mounted. More recent improvements have replaced it with a remote weapons station mount.

The Leclerc was an early adopter of the Commander’s Independent Sight, giving the commander the ability to use optics to look in a direction other than where the turret faces. The Leclerc was also one of the first tanks to give the commander his own laser rangefinder in the sighting unit, an ability still not found on the Abrams or Leopard 2.

Leclerc came with a battle management system from the factory, though it initially did not have a video display. This was rectified on later models. Just like on other modern tanks, a battle management system provides a huge coordination bonus to vehicle crews and unit commanders, and just like on Abrams, the BMS on Leclerc is integrated with the communications suite.

Leclerc’s protection hasn’t been as upgraded as much as its contemporaries, and here it suffers. The best estimates I can find give it a protection somewhat less than an M1A2 SEP or a Leopard 2A6/2E. Given the era, it’s not terrible, but it could use some work today. It’s an interesting armor array because it uses a lot of materials chosen to reduce weight but are somewhat more costly to work with.

The protection of Leclerc is somewhat improved by the inclusion of the Galix combat system, which is a computer controlled array of 14 smoke grenade launchers. Current modernization plans increase this to 24 launchers. These are capable of launching the usual smoke grenades in quick-blooming and long duration versions, but can also launch antipersonnel grenades. While this system would make an excellent soft-kill component of an active protection system, I do not know of any plans to link it with a missile approach warning system.

Leclerc’s powerplant is my favorite part of the tank. It’s a diesel engine, but it’s a little bit different. Instead of a conventional V-12 diesel with twin-turbochargers, it has a 16.4L V-8, called the V8X, and its equipped with a hyperbar system. The hyperbar system is neither a supercharger nor a turbocharger. Rather, it’s an externally-powered compressor, driven by a small gas turbine engine. This yields absolutely massive boost pressures of 32.1 bar mean effective boost pressure, no turbo lag, and no loss of power at the driveshaft. It also yields big gains in horsepower. For comparison, the V8X generates 1,500 hp, and the same basic engine with a conventional twin-turbocharger instead of the hyperbar system generates 1,000 hp.

This come at a cost of course. You might have guessed the V8X engine is expensive, and it is. The hyperbar system adds quite a bit of bulk, though the gas turbine can also be used to drive an integrated APU quite easily. Finally, there’s the question of fuel consumption. The then brand-new Leclerc didn’t fare so well in the Swedish tank trials, though GIAT hadn’t really done much optimization of the engine settings. Once they had, the result was probably about what you might expect: better than gas turbines, worse than diesels.2

So what do we think? Well, that depends on the timeframe. Today, the Leclerc is good but in need of some upgrade funds, and the reduction of orders from 1,400 to 460 didn’t do anything kind to the price. But at its debut it was extremely modern, introducing a number of new features that were on the Want List of every modern tanker.3

  1. Looking at you, Leopard 2. 
  2. The numbers I have are about 4.5 L/km in M-1 and T-80, >3 L/km for more modern experimental gas turbines like the LV 100-5, about 2.8 L/km for the V8X, and 2.2 L/km for Leopard 2A6. I think newer diesels are supposed to get a bit under 2 L/km. Of course, I don’t have acceleration data for any of these vehicles. A drag race would be very illuminating. 
  3. Look at some early 90s vintage issues of ARMOR magazine, especially the ones from 1993. Plenty of great tank designs in there. Or look at K2. 

Abrams Additions

Earlier, I talked about the US Army’s latest improvements to their Abramses, the M1A2 SEP v3 program. Which is great, because as they start to take deliveries, I’ve heard no concrete orders for further Leopard 2 upgrades, or anything about the vague, pie-in-the-sky new MBT to be developed by France and Germany. Given that it’s multinational, it will probably be overbudget, late, and contain a bunch of stupid compromises. So good on you, US Army!

This program, combined with the M829E4 APFSDS round development, plays to the traditional strengths of the Abrams: well designed armor piercing rounds, heavy frontal armor, and excellent fire control.

Unsurprisingly, I am not satisfied. There are a few more things I’d like to see in the short term. No, these aren’t dream weapons like a rail gun. These are doable things. They are in order of urgency (and also affordability, amusingly enough).

  1. An Active Protection System. Since this term gets kicked around a lot, I mean a proper hard-kill one. CIWS for a tank. There are a lot of good options. The US Army is currently “investigating”. Yawn. They should have a competition and pick the winner. Or just take Trophy, because it works pretty well at stopping incoming RPGs and ATGMS. No, it won’t stop APFSDS rounds. Oh well. Yes, it can be dangerous to nearby infantry. It’s not perfect. I don’t care. It works, and unlike a lot of other systems, it’s been combat tested, and a bunch of bugs have been beaten out of it. So what I’d really like is to just add Trophy. Plus the cost is reasonable. That whole “in production now” thing really helps with that.
  2. Extra roof protection. This isn’t too terribly difficult to add, but you’d need to do quite a bit of reworking, and probably add a power-assist to the hatches. Weight is also a concern. To be clear, we’re looking for a specific, limited protection upgrade. We want roof protection from DPICM-type submunitions, and maybe EFP submunitions if practicable. It is not feasible to protect against top-attack ATGMs with armor, so we won’t try. On the one hand, all those optics are toast in a submunition storm. On the other, we can at least keep the crew alive, and they’re more important. Tanks are reasonably easy to salvage. Crews, not so much.
  3. New engines. I’m not going to spill a lot of ink here, over type. You could give the existing, worn AGT-1500s a rebuild. You could (at least in theory) use the LV100-5 from the canceled Crusader program. You could switch to diesel. Given a diesel engine, you’d have to rework the rear suspension to remove the last set of torsion bars. You’d have two off-the-shelf engine choices:1 L3’s AVDS-1790 1,500 hp variant and General Dynamics’ GD883.2
  4. Situational Awareness improvements. The Germans have prototyped day/thermal camera arrays around the turret to improve situational awareness while the crew is buttoned up. Given the new 1080p displays added in SEPv3, these would be welcome and helpful, especially in urban settings. A radar or other missile approach warning system would be nice too, but that would come with the active protection system.

So there you have it. A few more ways to put more improvements into your M1A2 SEP v3 Abrams tank. I know Big Army is working on number one as I write this.

  1. Using the reasonable constraint of “1,500 hp diesel engines that are made in America” 
  2. A license built MTU MT833. Made in America so the Israelis can buy them with US Aid credits and use them in Merkava IVs. 

Rampant Armata Speculation

Let’s have some fun with rumors, speculation, and armchair analysis, shall we?

We don’t know very much about Russia’s new tank, the T-14. In my review, I made the tacit (and completely groundless) assumption that the turret shell concealed some heavy protection for the gun. Something tank-like, i.e. that the frontal armor of the gun could be expected to withstand APFSDS rounds as well as big, high end ATGMs. Like the front of the turret of a Leopard 2A6/-A7/-E or an M1A2.

Let’s try to poke at this assumption a little, shall we?

First off, let’s forget about side protection. No tank in existence can take a modern sabot round to the turret flank and not care. Focus on the front. Clearly, the outer “shell” has negligible protective value. It does hold a lot of systems, most of which are fragile. Of course, there’s nothing else behind the turret face, so hits there will probably tear straight through the fragile sensors and APS effectors. The gun mantlet is not readily apparent, and the outer shell seems to be in the way. Compare the M1A2 and the Leopard 2A6, both of which have big, thick mantlet armor atop and around the main gun. This is curiously absent from the T-14.

Remember, composite armors trade weight for thickness especially when compared to an equivalent mass of steel. So if we want to stop sabot rounds from a tank, we’re going to need a bunch of bulk. And since we’d like to be able to elevate and depress our gun, we’re going to expect to see quite a bit of exposed, movable bulk.

We can also find some images showing a T-14 turret mounted on the relatively light (28-30 tonne) Kurganets APC hull. So there’s at least one lightweight version of the turret out there. Of course, the shell could hide more armor on the T-14 version, maybe. We can’t rule out two versions. Now, it’s hard to figure out how one could hide bulky composites under the shell, given its shape and attachment methods, but we really can’t be sure about anything. The Kurganets hull is a little unusual if only because this idea has gotten very little traction elsewhere. The Swedes have a CV90 version with a low-pressure 120 mm gun prototyped, but have not ordered it and have not achieved any sales. The US Army has a version of the Stryker with a 105 mm gun and autoloader, but this version hasn’t been too popular. The US Army has moved to add more conventional autocannon firepower to some Stryker APCs to get more firepower in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team. So no one else really likes this concept.

We should also note that T-14 has a lot of active protection system effectors. There are ten tubes for the Afghanit hard-kill APS, five on each side of the turret. Additionally, there are two boxes of twelve soft-kill (likely some kind of obscurant) effectors facing outward, one box on each side of the turret, and another twenty-four soft kill effectors in a vertically configured box to protect the roof. That is an awful lot of active protection.

For comparison, the Merkava IV has a Trophy (hard-kill) APS launcher on each side of the turret. Each launcher holds three effectors. No additional soft-kill system is mounted on Merkava. Of course, Merkava IV is also heavily armored, and Trophy is seen as a supplement for flank protection against high-end ATGMs (e.g. Kornet).

So what might this mean? Well, we know that the T-14 has a bigger hull than T-72. Scaling comparisons will tell us this. Also, we know that we have to fit all three crewmen up front, so that front compartment must be significantly bigger to accomodate the three crewmen plus all of the displays and computers. Also, loads of hull armor, since the front appears to be quite thick (it’s sloped, and likely some kind of composite or composite + ERA, all of which takes space). We don’t actually save all that much room in the turret basket, since we still have to have some sort of (probably vertical) carousel for enough rounds to make all this worthwhile. And while the engine is a weird X-configuration model, it’s quite a bit more powerful than the one on T-72, and it still needs a radiator, transmission, and of course fuel. So we’d expect the hull to be noticeably bigger, and this agrees with what we can see from playing with scaling.

We also know that while the T-14 is heavier than the T-72, it’s still a light MBT. While it’s hard to draw comparisons to Western analogues, we do note the large hull and thick glacis armor would eat up a lot of mass.

Historically, the Russians have been quite strict about the weight of their tanks, simply because their infrastructure can’t take the weight of big Western tanks.1 For this reason, they pioneered the autoloader in the 1960s, and made heavier use of ERA than anyone else. Both are lighter than their respective alternatives. It’s quite possible that something had to give to keep the weight within tolerances, and the designers chose to accept a less well protected gun. Active protection systems are pretty good at defeating ATGMs, and they’ve made sure to have something for both direct-attack and top-attack weapons. In the current small wars, they’re not likely worried about sabots.

Further, the roof seems like it would blow-out in the event the ammunition storage compartment is compromised, and there are a pair of blow-out panels on the T-14’s belly. So ammunition cook-off will not likely kill the crew. Further, the Russians have put an escape hatch on the floor of the crew compartment. Good for them.

Could Afghanit be effective against sabot rounds? Specifically, the kind of APFSDS rounds fired by a modern tank gun (120 or 125 mm). Again, we can’t know for sure. It might be possible. But I’m disinclined to believe the present statements about it. Afghanit looks to shoot some kind of fragmentation or mini-EFP warhead to damage incoming projectiles. It’s simple and cheap, and works great against RPGs and ATGMs. But these are relatively fragile. An APFSDS round is a solid rod of some dense alloy (based on depleted uranium or tungsten), and it’s moving a lot faster than a missile.

It’s certainly not impossible to intercept an APFSDS round, but it’s a lot more difficult than intercepting a rocket. And the extent to which you disrupt it is important. You intercepted it. Great. What’s the effect? Is it destroyed? Damaged? Destabilized? If the round is still incoming, how much armor is needed to stop it? And what was the incoming speed and penetrator design? Test details are, naturally, hard to find. So color me skeptical that Afghanit can reduce the effectiveness of modern APFSDS rounds2 sufficiently for a lightly armored turret3 to be able to stop them.

Okay. So what do we think? Given the large amount of active protection systems, the reported wait, the size of the hull, and the nature of the turret shell, I think it’s quite possible the Russians are taking the T-14 in a new direction with a less protected main gun. They’ve pushed the envelope before. Some things have caught on, some things haven’t. This isn’t a notion I’m overly fond of, but that’s ok. The proof is in the combat, and the Russians will likely get into some before too long4. The keen observer might then be able to learn something as to whether or not these ideas work.

  1. I pick on Leopard 2 and Abrams enough, so let’s talk Challenger 2. Wouldn’t want the British to feel left out. With their “Streetfighter” Urban Warfare supplemental armor kit, the Challenger 2 tips the scales at 75 tonnes. 
  2. To be clear, I mean M829A3 or M829A4 depleted uranium APFSDS rounds fired from the M256 gun on an Abrams or the DM63 round from the Rheinmetall 120 mm/L55 gun on the Leopard 2A6 and subsequent models. Modern rounds, modern guns, no reduced-power charges. We never know what ad copy means, but that’s what you think of when I say “tank rounds shot at Russian tanks,” da? 
  3. Supposing the T-14 turret is lightly armored, that. But I suppose we should still define things, so something meeting STANAG 4569 level 5 or 6. In plain english, something ‘resistant to 30 mm APFSDS rounds”. 
  4. Unlike some other countries, the Russians are likely to get into a fight and test their new stuff.