I’m usually the conservative one when it comes to military technology. I like my two-seat attack helicopters, my F-16s, my tanks that have a four-man crew. But, as Fishbreath will point out, even I have my quirky favorites.
Enter the Namer.
I adore the Namer, and would seriously consider buying them en masse instead of any sort of IFV, which is decidedly unconventional thinking. Let’s review a bit of IFV history, and then how the Israelis came up with something entirely different.
The first IFV was the BMP-1. The Soviets expected the Modern Battlefield (TM) to be loaded with radiation from tactical nuclear weapons, with snazzy new chemical weapons like VX in addition to old favorites like Lewisite, and maybe even some biological threats for good measure. So they conceived of a vehicle that could hold a squad’s worth of men and transport them in NBC-protected style. The BMP-1 had a crew of three plus eight dismounts. The dismounts could fire out the sides through firing ports. Protection was relatively light, but was rated against heavy machine guns (i.e. .50 BMG) from the front. The BMP-1 was easily moved and amphibious. It’s armament was a 73mm gun-missile hybrid unit that was relatively short ranged, with a coaxial 7.62x54R machine gun. It was designed to provide the equivalent of the squad support weapons, a PKM and an RPG-7 in the turret.
Of course, when the Soviets bought lots of BMP-1s, NATO reckoned that Something Must Be Done, and here we get things like the Marder 1 IFV. The primary armament of this first generation of vehicles was a 20mm autocannon. This gave some amount of HE infantry support, but more importantly, it could penetrate the armor of the BMP-1. And it outranged the 73mm gun on the BMP-1. The Soviets countered with the BMP-2, which had a little more armor, fewer dismounts, and a 30mm cannon to give it the ability to punch through the armor on the heavily armored NATO IFVs.
Here we can note that we’ve moved away from the raison d’etre of the original BMP. We’ve actually gotten worse at supporting the infantry, because 20mm and 30mm autocannons hold a lot less HE than the 73mm rounds. 73mm rounds are capable of demolishing some field fortifications, but the autocannons are not. From a historical perspective, .30 and .50 caliber machine guns were considered perfectly adequate direct-fire infantry support weapons in World War II as far as antipersonnel work was considered, and a 75mm short barreled tank gun was an excellent round for attacking bunkers and fortifications. Even though the 20mm autocannon was well-developed (see the excellent 20mm Oerlikon), nobody ever moved to use this to support infantry. It doesn’t add much to the mission of supporting infantry mission, which we’ll revisit more later.
Of course, as the IFV continued to evolve, more changes happened. Amphibiousness and firing ports went away. More armor was wanted to protect against increasingly powerful enemy weapons, and firing ports get in the way of that. Plus, the firing ports weren’t all that useful. It was very difficult for soldiers to hit anything firing out of them in testing, so they were deleted in the Bradley and never put into the Warrior. Increasing autocannon sizes led to fewer troops per vehicle, with most now only capable of holding six or seven men. And that’s the listed, ‘on paper’ capacity. Once you factor in body armor and all the other stuff that makes up full battle rattle, IFVs often max out well below what their designers said they could hold.
That’s more or less where we are today. There’s an arms/armor race, complicated by the fact that you have to put a few troops somewhere in the vehicle, so we get very small ready loads of ammunition. The CV9035 has two feeds of thirty five rounds a piece. These are big 35x228mm rounds, but they’re still shot in bursts to maximize hit probability, so combat persistence is pretty lousy. Troops can’t fight from inside the IFV, and the IFVs aren’t amphibious.
Let’s look at the Israeli case instead. The Israelis have more recent experience in a proper, full-scale conventional war than NATO in 1973. So they have faced enemies who have modern, man-portable ATGMs. These are reasonably easy to use and relatively cheap. They weren’t a factor in the original BMP-1 calculus, but they were in October 1973 in the Yom Kippur War. ATGMs did not make tanks obsolete. The IDF tank corps racked up a large number of kills, and both the Israelis and Arabs used infantry screens to help cover their armor. After the war, the Israelis increased the armor on their tanks and bought more tanks. So clearly they were not seen as obsolete. What the Israelis did discover was that more lightly armored combat vehicles like their M-113 APCs were extremely vulnerable to ATGMs. So they proceeded to create a series of tank-conversion APCs that eventually culminated in the Namer, which although based on the Merkava, is actually a new design.
It will be helpful to take a brief interlude to look at the operating environment of the IDF, specifically the the Golan Heights, a plateau on the Israeli-Syrian border that was the site of fierce armored fighting. The Golan is rocky, barely developed, and lacks trees. Here, the sightlines are long and unobstructed. It is an ideal environment for the employment of ATGMs. Smoke, suppressive fires, and heavy armor are the order of the day; there is nowhere to hide and no cover to be found. If they can see you, they can hit you. To counter the threat, both the Israelis and the Syrians made heavy use of infantry screens and smoke. APCs were used to leapfrog infantry to cover armored advances.
The Namer is the heaviest APC in the world, weighing in at 60 metric tons. Or possibly more; I don’t entirely trust IDF-reported numbers to be completely accurate. It is loaded with armor, and even without active protection systems has been proven to be able to withstand the latest Russian ATGMs in the Lebanon campaigns. It has three crew and is rated for eight or nine dismounts, depending on seat configuration. Looking at the interior, for once I think a manufacturer is understating capacity. Or accounting for gear. By Soviet standards, the Namer could hold a motor rifle platoon.
The Namer is armed with a heavy machine gun (the Ma Deuce) and a GPMG, like an M-113. The Israelis never really thought that their APCs were underarmed. And they did encounter Syran BMP-1s on the Golan, so they saw the firepower of the BMP-1. But they never felt the need to increase the firepower of their APCs, either to kill BMPs or to lob HE rounds. The Israelis felt that their tanks were better at killing vehicles than an IFV like the BMP-1 could ever be, and APCs worked better at the primary job of actually carrying infantry. This worked just fine for them on the Golan.
And this brings up an interesting point. In a world where new IFVs are starting around 33 tonnes, and top out around 42 tonnes (the Puma), what sort of circumstances are we expecting that would mean that these IFVs are going out alone and have to confront vehicles of their weight class and below? Is there some vehicle MMA where things are broken out by weight? Because if IFVs encounter MBTs alone, they’re in trouble. Well, unless the tank crews are poorly trained idiots. And a non-amphibious vehicle in the 33-43 tonne weight class isn’t substantively easier to deploy than an MBT. You still need at least a C-17 for air deployment, and those are expensive and in short supply. So deploying an actual force is going to require rails or ships. It will be slow. And if you’re already going to suffer through a slow cargo ship deployment, might as well bring the tanks too.
We’ve already talked about the problems with autocannons. Increasing size for increasingly marginal ability to kill a small subset of threats. They still can’t kill an MBT from the front, they’re increasingly unlikely to kill an IFV from the front, and they’re overkill for everything lesser. Don’t think the Bradley is exempt because it has ATGMs. The TOW on the Bradley basically requires it to stop moving while it’s guiding, so the wire doesn’t get snapped accidentally. Which means that unless the tank crew is unaware or massively stupid,1 the tank is going to hit the Bradley if the Bradley takes the shot. At longer ranges, the TOW has a flight time of about thirty seconds, which isn’t short enough to score a mutual kill, even if we assume the TOW is good enough to penetrate the tank’s armor.
Let’s take a moment to think about infantry support. We need three things to support the infantry: direct fire with a suppression component,
indirect fire HE to hit dug-in enemies, and direct fire HE to smash fortifications. Of course, autocannons have a direct fire HE capability. It is, however, a very small HE capability. It is not sufficient to reliably punch holes in adobe-type structures, let alone the reinforced concrete ones that you would find in a modern city. The fundamentals of direct fire HE support haven’t changed much since World War 2, when the minimum acceptable caliber for supporting infantry with explosives was 75mm. Smaller guns, like 40 and 50mm were tried and found wanting. So what voodoo makes you think you can do more with the smaller 30mm?
Some of you might be thinking about those specialized rounds that claim to be able to penetrate wall and kill what’s on the other side. There are several issues with these. Assumptions about knowing the locations of hostiles, getting them to stay there, and the composition of the wall may not hold in actual combat zones. Wall construction techniques vary, and the high velocity of the autocannon rounds tend to make placing timed explosions difficult. These specialized rounds still can’t actually demolish things or create an improvised entry point.2 Plus, an autocannon is not like a howitzer or tank cannon that has a loader you can order to “Load Exotic Goofy Shit”. Autocannons have two belt feeds, and given the size of the belts and how cramped3 the turrets are, swapping belts is an enormous pain. And, as we’ll see, there are a few kinds of exotic rounds that you might want, plus regular HE-Frag and APFSDS-T. So what are you going to load? And what will you do when neither belt contains the right boutique round for the target in front of you? You’d call for support like a smart person. Or die.
If you, or that support you called for, had a big ol’ HE-thrower, you could blast the daylights out of that wall with no trouble at all. Once again, if we look at the Combined Arms Team, we might notice that once again there’s an obvious choice here. You guessed it, the MBT. Bigger HE is better HE, and it’s easy to throw a couple of speculative 120mm HE rounds into the ammo rack of an MBT without compromising its primary, vehicle-slaying mission.
Clearly, the IFV and the Namer lack proper indirect fire capability. No, 40mm underbarrel grenade launchers issued to the squad aren’t a solution. And no, airburst autocannon rounds aren’t a replacement either. For one, timing the airburst for effect over a known-range target is made really difficult by the high velocity of an autocannon round. Plus, we really aren’t starting with a lot of explosive in a 30 or 35mm round, and we need the frag pattern to work from a variety of angles, since it still needs to work with more traditional contact fuzing. Again, most armies in World War 2 found the 50 and 60mm mortars inadequate for high-angle support, and preferred systems with a caliber of at least 80mm. Again, airburst is expensive, unproven, and eats into the already tiny ammo load. For indirect support, stick to dedicated systems like mortar carriers. With the range on modern 81mm or 120mm mortars, there’s no reason for such systems to be at the front line anyway, and not having to have the magazine and troops share space is excellent. So don’t think about putting such a system into an IFV.
Let’s now examine the direct fire mission. For supporting infantry, an autocannon doesn’t get you a ton of things. Machine guns allow for larger ammo loadouts, and the small HE rounds of the autocannon don’t really kill people any deader. More ammo means more time suppressing. The belts are less awkward to handle, and provide a significantly lower secondary explosion hazard in the event the armor is penetrated. Plus, not having a massive turret and basket means there’s more room for infantry and their stuff. Going MG-only is a tradeoff of some shock effect for more combat persistence and vehicle survivability.
No big autocannon also means we can forgo the big turret and fancy optics and targeting systems. For modern tanks, this is a significant cost driver. And since IFVs increasingly have optics that are every bit as fancy as what’s on an MBT, and often fancier targeting systems, we’ve eliminated a large source of cost growth. Which is good. A standard problem for armies is what do do when you’ve got a seven to ten million dollar IFV platform, and can’t afford to put all your soldiers in them. So you buy some other APC for second line duties. And you write some horseshit whitepapers on ‘information warfare’ and the ‘way of the future,’ and you ‘prove’ your conclusions in a bunch of rigged exercises until you run into some dudes with RPG-7s that blow holes in your pretty theories and your cheap APCs, and there’s egg all over everyone’s face on CNN. Those insurgents probably just didn’t get the memo about rolling over and dying in the face of your ‘fourth generation warfare’. Did you use the new coversheet when you emailed it to them?
Infantry are the primary purpose of this vehicle. The infantry. The gun should be secondary at most, so it’s best if it’s not eating large amounts of internal volume. If you want an autocannon-carrier, build one. With the Namer, we’re trading vehicle capability for superior infantry carrying capability and effectiveness. It’s a trade I’m happy to make. And regardless of what a bunch of eggheads will tell you, there’s no substitute for armor when you want survivability. Ask the IDF how many computers it takes to stop a Kornet.
Overall, the Namer takes the crown for Most Survivable armored vehicle, with an obscene amount of armor, active protection systems, and basically nothing inside to cook off and cause secondary explosions in the case of a penetration. Which also makes it a winner in that fourth dimension of all things procurement: politics. A vote to buy the Namer is a vote to bring someone’s little boy home safe. Are you going to be able to look those mothers in the eye and tell them that their boys burned to death in some crappy thin-skinned vehicle? Do you want to testify at that hearing?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. SOLD.
1.) See the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991. An ideal case for the attackers, because the Iraqis couldn’t find their own ass with two hands and a map.
2.) Also known as a man-sized hole in the wall.
3.) Yes, Virginia, even western IFVs have cramped turrets. The monster CV90, which is roughly as big as a PzKpfW VI Tiger I tank, has a turret which has been described as “a tighter fit than a T-72.”