Almost all major military powers today field some sort of powerful main battle tank. But what would be considered the best of the best?
Take for example the U.S. Army's M1 Abrams. A powerful tank that has been upgraded dramatically over the years, but can it compete with the best say Russia has to offer?
Speaking of Moscow, the T-14 sports some very interesting features, but some question if Moscow can afford to produce the new tank in numbers that would make a difference on the battlefield.
Then there is nations like Japan, who make some of the world's best military equipment, and this includes tanks. Could Tokyo's tanks take on the best of the best?
To give you some ways to compare these three nations best armored weapons of war, we have combined together in this post two recent articles by Kyle Mizokami and another by Sebastien Roblin that look at the ins and outs of the T-14, Japan's Type 10 as well as the M1 Abrams. So which is the better tank? Let the debate begin.
Tanks are immensely important to a land power like Russia. Tanks were what allowed the Red Army to counterattack in World War II, forcing back Germany and her allies all the way back to Berlin. Tanks guarded against the forces of reactionary imperialism during the Cold War, and in the post–Cold War era have formed the backbone of Russia's conventional defenses.
Earlier this month Russian news announced the first deliveries of the T-14 Armata tank, straight from manufacturer Uralvagonzavo’s factory. Armata is exactly what Russia needs: a fresh, new design with room to grow over the next several decades. According to RT, more than one hundred T-14s have been ordered. That’s enough to fill out a tank regiment or brigade, plus spares. Another 2,200 are to follow, enough for seven tank divisions.
The West will be dealing with this tank for decades to come. One year after introduction, what do we know about it?
The basic statistics: Armata is thirty-five feet long, weighs fifty tons and has a maximum road speed of fifty miles an hour. It has a crew of three, with the turret completely unmanned. The tank has a 125-millimeter main gun, 12.7-millimeter heavy machine gun and 7.62-millimeter hull coaxial machine gun.
Like any tank, Armata is a combination of protection, firepower and mobility. The armor is a composite incorporating a new steel alloy known as 44C-SV-W, developed by the JSC Institute of Steel—also known as the NII Stali Institute for Protection—in Moscow. The new steel, made via electroslag melting, is apparently lighter than traditional steel, shaving “hundreds of kilograms” off the vehicle weight.
Weighing just fifty tons, the implication is that Armata deliberately has less armor than tanks such as the Abrams and Challenger II, both of which weigh around seventy tons. This is likely due to Russia’s confidence in its active and passive tank protection systems. Moscow’s new tank is equipped with the Afganit active protection system, which uses a combination of sensors and kinetic energy projectiles to knock down incoming rocket propelled grenades, antitank missiles, and subcaliber projectiles. The tank also features an anti-detection aerosol disperser, a new explosive reactive armor nicknamed “Malachite,” slat armor covering the engine spaces and even an electronic countermine system to prevent antitank mines from detonating.
Another protective measure the crew will appreciate: like the Abrams, main gun ammunition is stored separately away from the crew. This means Armata crews will likely avoid the fate of many Syrian T-72 crews that have met their end after a HEAT warhead detonated their onboard ammunition supply.
T-14 armament is currently the 2A82 125-millimeter smoothbore gun, an improvement on the T-90’s 2A46M gun and according to the Russian Armed Forces 17 percent more powerful than the NATO-standard Rheinmetall 120-millimeter gun. A new armor-piercing, fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) kinetic-energy antitank round called Vacuum-1 is being developed. Vacuum-1 is rumored to be able to penetrate one thousand millimeters of rolled homogenous steel armor at two kilometers. For long distance targets at ranges of up to eight kilometers, the Armata will have the 3UBK21 Sprinter anti-tank missile. The autoloader is reportedly capable of firing ten rounds per minute.
According to Russian state media, the Armata will eventually be upgraded to a 152-millimeter gun. This is a similar tack to that the U.S. Army took with the M1 Abrams, which was originally armed with the 105-millimeter L7 gun and later produced with the 120-millimeter Rheinmetall M256.
Originally, U.S. Army observers stated that Armata would be powered by the Chelyabinsk A-85-3A X-diesel engine capable of producing up to 1,500 horsepower. Currently output however is downrated at 1,350 horsepower, and Uralvagonzavod’s director, Oleg Sienko, seems to hedge on the original 1,500 horsepower specification, telling RT, “Upgrading the engine is planned for the future, but we believe that the more you force the engine, the fewer are its resources.” As it stands, Armata has a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 27 to 1—decent by modern standards—but a weight of sixty-five tons will drop that down to a lackluster 20 to 1.
Uralvagonzavod also claims that Armatas will eventually sport their own flying drones for scouting and target acquisition, although it remains to be seen which of the three-man crew would receive the added workload. If that isn’t enough, it also claims the T-14 will eventually go completely unmanned.
As described by the Russian press Armata is a genuine supertank, equipped with the absolute latest devices. Whether any of this information is genuine, rumor or propaganda, one thing is for sure—it all points to a direction in tank development Moscow wants to pursue. It may take Armata just a few years to get there, or a few decades, but given the continuing importance of tanks on the modern battlefield, few can doubt it will actually someday happen.
As a nation that produced exceptionally poor tanks during World War II, Japan during the postwar period had quite a reputation to overcome. Wartime tanks such as the Type 97 “Chi-Ha” were a decade or more behind the rest of the world during a period of exceptionally quick tank development.
As Japan rebuilt industry and specialized in cars and trucks, it also built up a cottage tank industry to replace American M4A3E8 and M24 tanks donated to the Ground Self-Defense Force. The Type 61, Type 74, Type 90 and now the Type 10 tanks have all been credible designs more than capable of turning the tanks of Japan’s potential adversaries into smoldering scrap. Remarkably, each design bears little in common with previous versions.
Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute, the research and development arm of the Ministry of Defense, began developing the fourth-generation Type 10 main battle tank in 2002. The tank was designed to complement the heavier Type 90 tank and replace the thirty-year-old Type 74 outright.
The Type 10 was designed to be a smaller tank, and thus more tactically and strategically mobile. Much of Japan’s road infrastructure is built to accommodate smaller cars and trucks, and mountainous terrain often includes bridges with specific weight limitations. There are also laws that prohibit heavy vehicles—including GSDF tanks—from operating on most roads. The Type 10 was designed to be a smaller tank to comply with road laws and be small and light enough to cross some of the larger civilian vehicle bridges. This also makes the Type 10 more suitable for air and sea transport.
The Type 10 was designed to be a fast, highly mobile tank. It is powered by a four-stroke, eight-cylinder diesel engine generating 1,200 horsepower. The results in a horsepower-to-weight ration of twenty-seven horsepower per ton, making it speedy for a main battle tank. It is capable of forty-three miles per hour on roads and, thanks to a continuously variable transmission, can go just as fast in reverse.
The Type 10’s armor is described as an improvement over the Type 90. The base armor configuration gives the vehicle a weight of forty tons, or just 60 percent the weight of an M1 Abrams. Additional bolt-on armor raises the weight of the vehicle by another eight tons. The armor itself is a ceramic composite. The modular, replaceable nature of the armor and the high horsepower-to-weight ratio should help ensure that the Type 10’s armor can remain state-of-the-art while the antitank threat evolves.
In addition to armor, the tank is protected by a laser warning receiver that informs crews when the tank is painted by a laser-guided missile beam. The warning receiver is connected to a set of smoke dischargers that automatically enshroud the tank in a smokescreen whenever it detects an enemy laser.
The main armament is in the form of the 120-millimeter smoothbore gun developed by Japan Steel Works. The gun is fed by an automatic loader, which removes the need for a human loader. The L44 caliber gun is the same as that on the M1A2 Abrams and can be more safely traversed in forested terrain, but the gun position can accommodate a longer L55 caliber gun as a future upgrade. The tank has a 360-degree day-and-night sight, and front-facing sights for the commander and gunner.
Secondary armament for the Type 10 consists of a M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun at the tank commander’s station in a remotely operated turret. A coaxial 7.62-millimeter machine gun is mounted at the base of the main gun and is operated by the gunner.
One of the more interesting aspects of the tank is a networking capability that allows tanks to form wireless networks on the battlefield. Little is known about this Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) system, but it can allegedly tie into the infantry-oriented networking and communications “Regiment Command Control System” for tank-infantry cooperation. The tank can even share data collected from the 360-degree sight on the RCCS.
Another feature worth noting is the active hydropneumatic suspension system. This allows for a smooth ride during cross-country travel, making firing while on the move much more accurate. It also allows the tank to adjust its stance like a low-rider car, raising the left side, right side, front or rear in order to mold itself to the local terrain. The suspension system can help the tank make full use of broken terrain to fight from a hull-down position, in which the tank uses terrain to minimize its profile while remaining capable of engaging targets to the front.
The Type 10 is an excellent overall design, but much of its early development period took place before the use of improvised explosive devices—especially those using shaped charges—became commonplace. The tank’s light weight also makes it likely it has only minimal protection against blasts from below.
Japan’s relaxation of its arms export ban means the Type 10 could be the first Japanese tank ever exported. Ultimately though the advantages it has over similar, time-tested vehicles such as the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 are relatively minimal, and it is unlikely the Type 10 will have much overseas success. Regardless, Japan is set on producing its own tanks, so overseas success or not, Japan will continue to pay the premium for its own homegrown main battle tanks.
Back in the 1990s I recall reading Tom Clancy’s loving paean to the M1 Abrams, Armored Cav, in which he related that the unkillable tank had never been knocked out by hostile fire. The Abrams’ 120mm cannon effortlessly peeled the turrets off of T-72 tanks in the Gulf War, while Russian anti-tank missiles and 125mm shells couldn’t pierce the American tank’s Chobham armor. In fact, the Abram’s own gun reportedly struggled to penetrate the Abram’s depleted uranium armor.
Since then the Abrams has been involved in a lot more war, and it has had to forsake its invincible reputation. During the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, several were knocked out by massive IEDs or RPGs in the vulnerable rear armor, others by advanced Russian-made anti-tank missiles such as the AT-14 Kornet. In the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Iraq, dozens of Saudi and Iraqi Abrams have been taken out by such missiles.
The Abrams also hasn’t encountered modern tanks. In fact, the Abrams is hardly unrivaled in its (very heavy) weight class: other vehicles such as the German Leopard 2, the British Challenger 2, the French Leclerc, and Israeli Merkava 4 possess similar firepower and protection levels, though of course each type has its advantages and disadvantages.) However, none of them were likely to ever be shooting at an Abrams, so it wasn’t a problem. For decades, the most threatening potential opponent was the Russian T-90 tank—a vehicle which has a fighting chance against the Abrams, but is hardly a peer.
Russia’s new T-14 Armata tank finally does present a peer challenge to the Abrams. While the Abrams still appears to have a slight edge in conventional armor, the Armata compensates with a combination of explosive-reactive armor and a sophisticated radar-guided Afganit Active Protection System (APS) intended to shoot down incoming projectiles. The T-14’s new 2A82 125mm also has improved armor penetration, meaning the Abrams’s frontal armor may be vulnerable at shorter combat ranges (possibly 1,500 meters and less).
While it’s still debatable which is the superior tank—they clearly both are capable of destroying one other—the point is that the Abrams can no longer assume the inferiority of opposing tanks.
The SEP V3 Abrams
Another thing they used to say in the 90s was “The Army doesn’t do cities.”
During the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which involved a gazillion Military Operations in Urban Terrain, a Tank Urban Survival Kit (TUSK) was rushed into service with a number of upgrades to cope with potential ambushes from any direction. Many of those upgrades have been standardized in later Abrams, including improved belly armor, a Crew Remotely Operated Weapons Station (CROWS)—basically, a remote-controlled .50 caliber machine gun so that the crew isn’t exposed when firing—and add-on Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) to the vulnerable sides of the turret.
The U.S. Army had long eschewed ERA, as it can wound nearby friendly infantry and can get “used up”; however, it served as a relatively lightweight and inexpensive means of defending the Abram’s vulnerable side armor from concealed enemy rocket-propelled grenade teams.
The latest Abrams variant is an upgrade package, the M1A2 SEP V3. Many of its features are practical rather than sexy: upgraded computers, and a new Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) that allows the Abrams to keep its sophisticated systems running while the engine is off, improving the fuel efficiency of the Abram’s notoriously thirsty turbine engines. Maintainability is improved with modular, replaceable cabling.
There are some lethality upgrades, notably a datalink to connect with new Advanced Multi-Purpose programmable airburst shells. These will allow the Abrams’ main gun to shoot high explosive shells that detonate directly above enemy troops in cover—an ability hoped to counter to enemy anti-tank missile teams. Other detonation modes, including one optimized for penetrating walls, are also available. An improved Forward Looking Infrared Sensor (FLIR) will upgrade the Abrams’s detection capabilities and main gun accuracy. A revised, lower-profile remote-controlled machine gun also sports improved cameras.
Finally—and possibly, most importantly—the M1’s depleted uranium armor package has been improved. How much, you ask? The Defense Department sure ain’t telling! ERA, however, does not appear in the default package. A jammer for disabling wireless IEDs has also been installed.
Critical Add-Ons: News Ammunition and Active Protection
A number of the most important upgrades to the Abram’s capability maybe come independently from the SEP V3 upgrade package.
The first already began entering service in 2015: the M829A4 Armor Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot shell, the latest ammunition type for the Abram’s 120mm M256 cannon. The M829A4 has a segmented depleted uranium penetrator, and has been specially designed to defeat the Relikt explosive reactive armor on the latest Russian tanks, including the T-14 Armata. Future improvements to the Abram’s firepower are likely to come by improving the capabilities of munitions, as they are easier to upgrade and replace than the main guns.
Another innovation, Active Protection Systems (APS), have the potential to revolutionize tank defenses—the best combine ‘soft kill’ measures that obscure the tank and mislead guided missiles, as well as ‘hard kill’ measures that literally shoot down incoming projectiles. These are generally most effective against missiles, though theoretically may be effective against tank shells; the M829A4 shell is supposedly designed to overcome them.
The Israeli Trophy APS has a proven record shooting down deadly anti-tank missiles in recent conflicts. The United States military has attempted to develop its own indigenous system—but recently, the Army and Marines began testing Trophy on M1A2 tanks. Trophy can basically be purchased “off the shelf” and installed relatively quickly, so if the Defense Department decides the Abrams needs the capability, it could pursue the upgrade relatively quickly.
Another upgrade that could be installed quickly if desired would be a Laser Warning Receiver (LWR). An LWR would notify the Abram’s crew if their vehicle was being painted by an enemy laser-range finders and guidance systems—giving the crew an opportunity to hit the reverse pedal and back the tank out of danger.
It should be stressed there are no definitive plans to install the latter two technologies in the SEP V3 Abrams. However they are obvious upgrades that could be implemented quickly and at reasonable cost.
The Army is currently planning to develop a more radical upgraded Abrams by 2020, the M1A3. Details are sketchy, but reducing the Abram’s roughly seventy-ton weight appears to be one of the priorities. Certainly, weight has limited the ability to deploy the Abrams around the world and restricted which bridges it can cross. Features specifically mentioned include a lighter-weight gun, replacing the wiring with fiber-optic cables to shave off two tons of weight, improved suspension, and adding a Laser Warning Receiver. Other improvements are doubtlessly being considered, but specifics are lacking for now.
Image: Creative Commons.