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Complex problems – four issues the armoured vehicle industry needs to tackle

15th April 2024 - 03:04 GMT | by Christopher F Foss

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This analysis article originally appeared in April's Decisive Edge Land Warfare Newsletter.

As budgets are set, lessons learned from real-world operations, new threats identified and technologies evolve, what are some of the most significant dilemmas to resolve and decisions to take for industry, government and militaries in the land systems domain?

What next for US Army field artillery?

Stopping mass armour attacks

Can the UK fund its land programmes?

AFV longevity – bonus or headache?

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Above: The M109A7 Paladin is the latest version of the M109 to enter service with the US Army but still retains a 155mm/39cal ordnance, giving it a short firing range by modern standards. (Photo: BAE Systems)

What next for US Army field artillery?

The recent cancellation of the upgrade to the M109A7 Paladin self-propelled (SP) howitzer system with the 155mm/58cal XM1299 Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) due to problems with the barrel is just the latest in a long line of thwarted US efforts to enhance the firing range of the M109.

Today, all US Army M109s are fitted with a 155mm/39cal ordnance produced by the government-owned Watervliet Arsenal, the sole source for artillery and tank barrels in the US.

Maximum range depends on the projectile/charge combination but using the old 155mm M107 high-explosive (HE) projectile it is only 18.1km which increases to 23.5km firing an HE Extended Range (ER) Rocket-Assist (RA) projectile.


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Most European countries already moved to SP artillery systems fitted with a 155mm/52cal ordnance years ago. These include the tracked KMW PzH 2000 and Nexter CAESAR, normally based on an Arquus 6x6 truck chassis.

Some time ago, what is now BAE Systems developed to the prototype stage the M109 International which featured a 155mm/52cal ordnance but at that point the US Army was investing in the XM2001 Crusader which, had it been fielded, would have been the most advanced SP artillery system in the world.

This was then cancelled as the army moved towards the Future Combat Systems (FCS) programme which included the XM1203 155mm Non-Line of Sight Cannon (NLOS-C) and XM1204 120mm Non-Line-of Sight Mortar.

In the end the whole FCS effort was abandoned and if fielded the NLOS-C would have had a short firing range when using standard 155mm ammunition.

The US could potentially re-equip the M109 with a proven 155mm/52cal gun and at AUSA in October 2023 BAE Systems showed one with the complete ordnance of the German PzH 2000 which had already undergone firing trials in America.

The PzH 2000 entered service as far back as 1998 and firing conventional natures of ammunition such as the L15A2 HE projectile, a maximum range of 30km can be achieved, or 40km with an ER round.

It is worth noting that there have been several other upgraded M109s fitted with a 52cal ordnance including prototypes from Rheinmetall and Oto Melara, but none of these entered service.

Switzerland refitted its M109s with a 47cal ordnance as this placed less stress on the turret, while RDM of the Netherlands upgraded surplus M109 with 155mm/47cal ordnance and other improvements for the UAE and this was designated the M109L47.

If the US Army opts for a complete new 155mm tracked artillery system then the latest version of the PzH 2000 or the best-selling Hanwa K9 Thunder series are on the table, with the latter having a clearly defined future growth path.


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Not so long ago the US Army tested a number of 155mm wheeled SP artillery systems including the BAE Systems Bofors Archer, Elbit ATMOS, Yugoimport NORA B-52 and a CAESAR, but so far no orders have been placed by the DoD for any of these.

Since then, Elbit has developed a 155mm/52cal 10x10 system to meet the requirements of the IDF called Sigma, and the company is building a complete prototype at its US facility with only the barrel imported from Israel.

Rheinmetall is also involved and is offering this on an RMMV HX3 10x10 chassis with growth potential to a 155mm/60cal ordnance, with a claimed maximum range of up to 80km.

A more recent wheeled system is the KMW Remote Controlled Howitzer 155 (RCH 155) 155mm/52cal based on the Boxer 8x8 platform and now in production for Ukraine.

The first batch consists of 18 units, but it is expected to be ordered by Germany and several other NATO countries.

Options clearly exist. So, will the US now adopt a new foreign design (with some or all domestic production), pursue another upgrade path for the Paladin or simply accept a range shortfall?

Stopping mass armour attacks

During the Cold War, NATO ground forces earmarked several weapons to defeat a potential Russian massed armoured attack which would have been spearheaded by well-protected MBTs such as the T-64, T-72 and T-80.

These would be followed by less well armoured tracked BMP-2s and smaller numbers of BMP-3 IFVs as well as BTR-70 and BTR-80 series 8x8 APCs.


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While the Russian force mix may have changed since (and be even better protected, at least in part), the same considerations still largely apply.

At longer ranges, conventional HE 155mm artillery projectiles have little impact on such AFVs but are highly effective against dismounted infantry following the first wave of tanks and IFVs.

In addition, these projectiles can inflict heavy damage against the rear echelons which supply front-line units with ammunition, fuel and rations as well as evacuate injured personnel.

Above: The Russian T-90 MBT has the latest-generation explosive-reactive armour which gives a high level of protection against HEAT projectiles. (Photo: author)

This scenario led to fielding the Lockheed Martin M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) firing unguided rounds. MLRS Phase I used an M26 warhead containing 644 Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions with a small HE antitank (HEAT) warhead to penetrate the more vulnerable upper surfaces of AFVs.

Also available were 155mm artillery projectiles such as the M449A1 carrying 60 anti-personnel grenades and the M483A1 carrying 64 M42 and 24 dual-purpose grenades.

More expensive 155mm options exist such as the Bofors/Nexter BONUS (still in production) and Diehl/Rheinmetall SMArt DM702 (due to go back into production) which carry two powerful top-attack munitions.

The Ottawa Convention banned small sub-munitions, as they were claimed to have a high dud rate and were a danger to civilians (and potentially a threat to advancing forces as they would have to be cleared first). The likes of BONUS or SMArt DM702 are still permitted.

Not all countries signed up to this agreement, so there are still significant numbers of these weapons held by some armies and several continue to be marketed.

All this has left a gap in NATO’s capability which so far has not been fully addressed.

I have seen a demonstration of one of the top attack munitions currently marketed in which two rounds were fired at targets, with just two hits out of four ‘possibles’. These were also stationary targets, not moving as they would be in a wartime.

So today NATO has no easy means of neutralising a massed (Russian) armoured threat at long range as allied close air support would not probably be available in the early stages at least.

What options does it have? NATO could lay minefields which would channel threat vehicles into pre-determined zones covered by a variety of weapon systems.

And at shorter ranges, the alliance has a good capability to neutralise Russian armour using weapons as the combat-proven Javelin and NLAW which have been highly effective in the fighting in Ukraine.

But the most effective methods of defeating such a force are either very expensive (and seemingly not as accurate as hoped) or illegal under international law. Will a new technology emerge to provide the answer?

Can the UK fund future land programmes?

The UK still has major number of land systems it needs to fund if the British Army wants to remain at the front of European cutting-edge capability.

But can the money be found for these (and key RAF and RN equipment) to be fully financed?

The major land programmes in question are the RBSL Challenger 3 MBT (still under development), GDLS Ajax family (at long last entering service), ARTEC Boxer Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (soon to enter service) and the Mobile Fires Platform (MFP) project (which is now urgent as a big chunk of the AS90 SPH fleet has been passed to Ukraine).

On top of all these is the projected Land Mobility Programme (LMP), which includes replacing not only soft-skinned vehicles but also armoured models including MRAP types which have little cross-country mobility and some tracked platforms including the Alvis Stormer and venerable FV432 series, the last of which rolled off the production lines as far back as 1971!

In recent years UK has had little success in fielding land equipment on time and on budget and it remains to be seen if this will change in future.

In 2010 GDLS UK was awarded the contract for the Ajax family of vehicles (FOV) to replace several ageing platforms including the Scorpion FOV, the remaining recce version of which was the Scimitar.

This should originally have been replaced by the TRACER (Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Equipment Requirement), a joint UK/US programme that was cancelled when the Americans pulled out to fund the ambitious and ill-fated FCS effort instead.

At long last Ajax has begun to be fielded but it will be years until the remaining Combat Vehicles Reconnaissance (Tracked) are phased out, by which time they will be over 50 years old.

Above: The BAE Systems Warrior IFV, as upgraded under Urgent Operational Requirements funding, will be phased out without a direct replacement. (Photo: author)

The other recent procurement that was cancelled was Lockheed Martin UK’s Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP) which has left a huge gap in British Army AFV ranks.

There is no direct replacement for the Warrior. The Boxer will have to fill that role even though it lacks the armour, mobility and firepower.

Warrior under WCSP would have been armed with a stabilised 40mm CTAS cannon, as fitted to the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle, but Boxer currently will simply have a stabilised 12.7mm MG or 40mm AGL.

The UK now has a habit of cancelling not only key vehicle programmes but also artillery indirect fire efforts.

It remains to be seen what happens in the future, with a general election looming, and amid calls at home and abroad to increase defence spending to 3% of GDP.

The UK’s defence budget of course includes funding for the nuclear deterrent and its SSBN submarines, both of which will doubtless consume a significant amount of cash in the future to the determent of land programmes.

There is a good case for having a separate budget line for this deterrent to free up spending on conventional forces, which is urgently required, as many previous UK defence secretaries demanded in March 2024.

AFV longevity – bonus or headache?

Over the years AFVs have become increasingly more expensive, not only due to inflation but because end users demand more armour, mobility and firepower.

Cost aside, I would argue that deployability is a related issue here, as increased weight and size of AFVs can limit their rapid movement by air to where they are required.

A Challenger 3 MBT, when compared to say a Centurion, (incidentally the most successful tank in export terms the UK has ever produced), is a far more complex beast as it is full of electronics.

This includes not only the fire control and sighting system but also communications equipment, battle management technology, other sensors and often a defensive aids suite.

Many of vehicles still deployed were often originally developed some 40 or more years ago but a solid basic design has meant that they can continually be upgraded as the threat changes or new technology emerges.

Above: Production of the Leopard 2 MBT started as far back as 1979 but it has been continuously updated and is shown here with additional armour and a signature reduction package. (Photo: author)

No AFV contractor can build a complete vehicle on its own and must rely on an extended supply chain which often crosses borders and oceans.

‘Just in time’ is a buzzword for many commercial enterprises but can be a major disadvantage for the defence industry.

In the past, one AFV fleet I am aware of left the factory with fake 30mm gun barrels as production of the cannon had fallen behind schedule.

In another case vehicles were being stockpiled as there were no power packs. This latter is an indispensable part of the mobility package and consists of the engine, transmission, cooling and more recently power management systems.

All too often it is the transmission that causes the problem as this is a very complicated part of the power train.

AFVs have become more complicated than in the past and it is arguable that in some cases vehicles developed to meet specific requirements of a first-tier NATO country are simply too complicated for the export market.

It has often been said it costs a lot to meet this ‘final 10%’ of the requirement and perhaps in future spiral development can ease this problem.

I was there when the first Leopard 2 was rolled out of the then Krauss-Maffei facility in Munich in 1979 and this MBT has proven that upgrades can be successfully integrated as new technology matures.

In the case of the widely exported Leopard 2 this has included better survivability measures, a longer Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore gun, new ammunition and soon an active protection system.

Spiral development can include pre-planned product upgrades with the platform already prepared to accept additional improvements.

Indeed, many of the latest AFVs have an electronic architecture which it is hoped will make technology insertions easier without having to rip all the existing cabling out!

While long service lives are likely to remain a feature of most AFV programmes, keeping these platforms up to date is certainly getting easier as the potential for upgrades is increasingly baked into the design.

Other articles in this newsletter:

New tank, new ammunition – increasing the Challenger 3’s firepower

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