Are Lightweight Designs the Future of Combat Vehicles?

There’s a trend among major armies to move towards lighter, more deployable armored vehicles, with the best known example being the US Stryker family. The UK has been looking at solutions along the same lines, although that project – the Future Rapid Effects System – ended up being cancelled and various more conventional vehicles will be ordered instead. In the meantime, most armies that deploy mechanized infantry send them to war in a vehicle similar to the M2 Bradley. The Bradley can carry a small infantry squad, protect against heavy machine gun fire, and has a respectable armament; the British Warrior is more lightly armed, but better protected and can carry a full eight-man section. The brand-new German Puma has the Bradley’s carrying capacity and protection at least equal to the Warrior – it can survive 30mm AP rounds and the occasional RPG – while upgrading firepower with an array of new weapons. IFVs like this are the mainstay of most armies and have performed well in many theaters, but it seems not everyone is thinking along the same lines.

The Israeli Army has relied on the venerable M113 APC for a long time, but when their focus switched to occupation duty and counterinsurgency in the 1980s, the M113 – which had performed magnificently in their conventional wars against their Arab neighbors – suddenly began to show major flaws. Lightly armed and thinly armored, it was highly vulnerable to RPGs and improvised explosive devices, and even a general purpose machine gun with AP ammo can chew through its sides at close range. Israel has a limited supply of manpower, and protecting its troops has always been a high priority, so a desperate search for a solution began.

Russian BTR-T Tank
Russian BTR-T Tank

Very quickly, the Israelis started looking at their stockpiles of captured equipment, which included large numbers of Soviet-made tanks. Some of these, rearmed with western guns, had been put into service by IDF tank units; others were reckoned obsolete. These included hundreds of T-55s, and while they were too old to fight alongside Israel’s other tanks, the Army decided they had potential as the basis of a radically new APC. The result was the Acharzit. Based on a T-55 hull with the turret removed, the old Russian diesel was replaced with a more compact unit and a five-man troop compartment built in the central hull, reactive armor and a complete upgrade of internal systems. The result was an APC offering tank-levels of protection that could operate in urban areas without worrying about RPGs or IEDs. The Acharzit is quite lightly armed – it has a remote weapon station with a 7.62mm or .50 machine gun, and two more manually operated 7.62mm guns – but that’s adequate for the sort of missions it’s used for.

Now Russia, smarting from its experience in the First Chechen War when numbers of BMPs were destroyed in urban combat, has come up with its own heavy APC design. Again, it’s based on the T-55; Russia has thousands of them, many in practically new condition, stored away in its famous big sheds. Unlike the Israelis, the Russians left the original engine in place. So, while the Acharzit has a rear door, the infantry in the BTR-T have to debus over the sides, but they spent the money on weapons instead. The BTR-T can carry a variety of heavy remote weapon stations; the lightest has a 12.7mm HMG and 30mm grenade machine gun, while the others have one or two 30mm cannon plus an assortment of guided missiles, GMGs, light machine guns and other weaponry. Like the Acharzit, it can carry five troops and is protected by reactive armor, in this case the highly effective Kontakt-5. That means it’s basically immune to anything less than a 120mm tank gun.

In fact, tank-based heavy APCs aren’t a new idea. The first one was the Kangaroo. Developed by the Canadian Army in 1944, this used a Sherman tank chassis with the turret removed and the interior stripped to make a ten-man troop compartment. The Canadians had suffered heavy infantry casualties clearing German defenders out of the hedgerows of Normandy and wanted to safeguard their remaining troops, and putting them behind tank armor was a logical solution. It worked so well that the British, who were also short of infantry, started converting their own APCs. First Shermans, then some heavy Churchills, were rebuilt as Kangaroos and stayed in service until purpose-built (and less heavily armored) APCs appeared in the late 1940s. The British had actually tried the idea even earlier; the Mark IX Tank, built in 1918, could carry up to 30 troops inside its hull. Only 34 Mark IXs were built but they, and the Kangaroo, showed that an infantry carrier as mobile and well protected as a tank had a place on the battlefield.

Modern western IFVs like Warrior and Puma are already extremely heavy vehicles; a fully armored Puma is over 40 tons, and both the Bradley and Warrior are pushing 30 tons with the latest armor fitted. Even so, they protect against light cannon fire and IEDs but remain vulnerable to tank gunnery, missiles and heavy mines. Bringing IFVs up to the same weight and power class as a tank would enhance mobility and give them massively increased protection, and in today’s increasingly casualty-averse climate that’s something we probably need to look at.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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