I came across this article in the Free Beacon this morning, whose headline reads as follows: “Army’s Ground Combat Systems Risk Being Surpassed By Russia, China”.
Look, if you’re reading this article, you’ve read a lot of our articles. You know that I, Fishbreath, am not the expert on ground combat systems. Not really my cup of tea. You know, therefore, that when I say, “Man, this article is dead wrong,” that it really is just flat out dead wrong. Let me revise the Free Beacon’s headline: “Army’s Ground Combat Systems Risk Being Roughly Equalled By Russia, China After 40 Years Of Curb-Stomping Dominance”.
In the modern era, a combat system’s age is not nearly as important as its current capability. The T-14 and the Type 99 are modern tanks. They compete against the modern American system, the M1A2, in the three categories by which all armored fighting vehicles are judged: firepower, protection, and systems1.
First off: firepower. The American contender mounts the stalwart Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore gun in the 44-caliber length. The Germans, being a little squeamish about depleted uranium2, made an L/55 version for higher muzzle velocities. This gun, either the lengthened version or the original with depleted uranium, still sits in the top tier of tank guns as far as penetration goes3. The Russian and Chinese entries both use the Russian standard 125mm caliber; the Armata uses the 2A82, the shiny new version sans fume extractor for installation in the unmanned turret, while the Type 99 uses the ZPT-98, the traditional Chinese clone of the 2A46. Neither is clearly superior to the Western choice of gun. Standard 125mm ammo is nevertheless lighter and shorter overall (counting the penetrator and propellant) than the one-piece 120mm loads usually fired through the Rheinmetall guns. In exchange, the Russian-style gun gains the ability to launch ATGMs—questionably effective against modern tanks—and a little bit more power for HEAT rounds, which have the same issue as the ATGMs. Call this one a slight win for the Abrams.
Next: protection. The Type 99 falls behind quickly here; it’s more or less a T-72 hull, and the T-72 doesn’t have a great deal of headroom for armor. Too, the Type 99 has to deal with the swampy, rice-paddied Chinese south. The Chinese can’t build a T-72-based tank much heavier than the current 52 to 54 tons, and the protection they can achieve there is limited, given what they have to work with. The Armata, though it weighs in in the 50ish-ton range itself, has the benefit of an unmanned turret. Unmanned turrets can be smaller, and armored volume is expensive in weight terms. Our own parvusimperator claims Armata has roughly Western-equivalent protection. Give Armata an edge, even; there are no squishy humans in its turret, and no explodey ammo in its hull. The unmanned turret, unproven though it may be, neatly isolates the two. Call this one a slight win for the Russians.
Finally: systems. This is the hardest one to write about, since the Russians and the Chinese aren’t talking. We know more or less what’s in the M1A2: nice digital moving-map navigation, color displays, modern sighting units, separate ones for the commander and gunner, with nice thermal displays. I think it’s reasonable to assume the Armata has similar. We can see that it has an independent sight for the commander, and the Russian avionics industry has built color MFDs and moving map systems in the past. Presumably, the charionics4 in their tanks won’t be too far behind. It’s even less possible to speculate about the Chinese; their latest MBT entered service around the turn of the century, and who knows what they’ve stuck in it. Call this one a tie between the Americans and the Russians.
In a way, though, systems are the least important item here. Unlike armor or guns, swapping out the computers, stabilizers, navigation systems, and sights in tanks is more or less trivial. There may be integration costs, and there are definitely upgrade costs, but ordinarily, you don’t run into the same sort of critical design problems you find when, say, trying to cram a 140mm gun into an Abrams turret.
So that about wraps it up. Contra the Free Beacon article, the new Combloc5 tanks do not surpass the Abrams in any meaningful way. Where they are superior, it’s a matter of degrees. Elsewhere, they still fall behind the Abrams. What we have today is not a new era of Combloc dominance. It’s a return to parity for the first time in almost forty years.
Let’s go back a few years more than that. It’s 1972, and the fearsome T-72 has just entered service. It’s faster than the M-60, hits harder, has better armor, and is being cranked out of the Soviet tank factories at an astonishing rate. The armored fist of the Soviet Union could well crush Western Europe. This doesn’t sit well with Western Europe.
The Germans and Americans are already hard at work on the MBT-70. It reaches a little too far, and doesn’t quite work out. The Germans and Americans each take the blueprints and build something on their own, and we get the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams, entering service in 1979 and 1980. This begins the aforementioned era of Western tank dominance. The Abrams and the Leo 2 are vastly superior to the T-72 and T-80. The Russians do some various upgrade projects to the T-72 and T-80 over the years, but never regain the lead. The Leo 2 and Abrams see upgrades on more or less the same schedule; they’re still a generation ahead.
Finally, today. The Russians have Armata, a legitimate contender; the Chinese have the Type 99, which is sort of the Gripen to the Abrams/Armata F-22: some of the same technologies, still half a class behind. Which brings us to the final decider. Quantity.
The Russians have about one hundred Armatas. They only entered service last year, so I give them a pass. Their eventual plan is to acquire about 2300.
The Chinese have about 800 Type 99s. I have no idea if they’re still being produced.
The Americans have roughly 1000 M1A2s, the most recent Abrams. Of course, we also have about 5000 M1A1s of various marks, most of which have been upgraded to include nearly-modern electronics.
Even if we allow that the Type 99 and the Armata are superior to the average Abrams in American service, which is wrong, we still have twice as many as both other types combined.
The Free Beacon may say otherwise, but I say we’re doing just fine.
- To include sights and viewers, as well as command and control computers. ↩
- Understandable, given that in most hypothetical wars, the
WehrmachtBundeswehr would be shooting it over their own land. ↩
- As far as anyone knows. Armies are a little cagey about revealing how punchy their guns are, for some unfathomable national security reason. ↩
- Electronic systems for tanks, by analogy to avionics. (An avion is a French plane, a char is a French tank.) ↩
- Yes, I know they are, respectively, not Communists anymore and nowadays only Communists inasmuch as they’re heirs to a truly Communist body count. I don’t care. ‘Combloc’ is a reasonable way to refer to Russia and China in the context of this article. ↩