What future for the armored component? Leopard, Merkava, Aries 2 or ...?

(To Mario Ruggiero)

As part of the process of renewal of the Italian Armed Forces, the problem of the modernization of the Aries wagon presents the same critical aspects of almost all the remaining national capacities. In Italy, despite some attempts to evolve military thought, the prevailing mentality remains "platform centric " and not "capability driven"As would be a modern military instrument.

With these words, it means that the modernization of a single platform within each single capacity, whether of the tactical, operational or strategic level, does not necessarily produce a qualitative increase of the capacity itself.

There is no doubt that the tank is one of the pillars of the armored component, but it is not the only one in the field of tactical functions1 that it must be able to express. It follows that it seems almost useless to talk about modernization / replacement of the Aries wagon without thinking about how to proceed with the modernization / renewal / integration of the other related tactical capabilities, within the national armored component, under penalty of non-employability in operations.

Because we still talk about tanks

On some newspapers, and perhaps also in some thought centers, there are reflections on the need, or otherwise, to have an army with Heavy Forces (mechanized and armored component) in a modern context with a strong terrorist threat and in which the same political forces to the Government indicate the reduction of operations abroad as the way to deal more effectively with threats brought directly within the country.

It is quite clear that in some fora there is at least a great confusion on the conceptual and strategic level. The strategic task of the Armed Forces, as established by the constitution, is to guarantee the defense of the State. This is achieved, as established by the descending legislative provisions, through primary tasks and insolvency tasks to other departments and functions of the State. There is no doubt, therefore, that the Armed Forces can be called upon to exert an important effort in quantitative terms to "contribute to the safeguarding of free institutions" but that in doing so they can not be unprepared for "defense of the State", " as well as to operate, in accordance with international law, in order to achieve peace and security ", the exclusive task - the latter - of the Armed Forces.

Looking at the international scenarios, in a synthetic way, anyone can notice how hybrid conflicts have quantitatively increased throughout the period of crisis that starts from the Maghreb up to Afghanistan and that in their conduct, the "heaviness" of the forces involved - precisely because of the hybrid character - has increased over the last few years, compared to the mere asymmetrical comparison. The use of armored vehicles, even if at the level of smaller units, has significantly increased despite the aerial dominance exercised by the various existing coalitions.

Consequently, if we are called to express the role of force that must impose "peace", rather than forces of interposition, it will be necessary to possess capabilities capable of "enforcing" the international mandate, so as not to suffer the will of the local forces. Let us not forget the nefarious episodes in which international forces under UN mandate have seen massacres without being able to intervene.

There is also the possibility that the international scenario will be marred by a "muscular" confrontation between NATO / coalition forces and the forces of nations subject to ever-increasing sanctions for non-compliance with international sanctions (for example: Russia and Iran). Even in this case, Italy can hardly avoid taking responsibility and must do so with adequate risk / threat forces.

Given, therefore, that the enemy is not chosen, but is resisted victoriously when it becomes necessary, the Armed Forces have their raison d'être within a military instrument worthy not only of that name but able to fulfill the tasks imagined. from the constituting Fathers and become reality in the current geopolitical scenario. Otherwise, it is the very existence of the Armed Forces that is questioned.

The threat

As a good habit in any military analysis, we must ask ourselves what threats we should be able to deal with our armored component, either autonomously or integrated into multinational formations.

Summarizing, it can be said that at the two extremes of the threat spectrum there is:

  • symmetrical comparison with heavy forces of technologically advanced nations (force-on-force);

  • comparison with formations operating with asymmetric techniques in the context of a hybrid conflict.

In both cases, we are talking about the use of armored formations / units, composed of wagons, mechanized infantry (or with high mobility in the case of "hybrid" formations) and tactical and logistic supports.

What varies substantially is the quantitative and qualitative level of the opposing platforms that could go from a large number of technologically advanced means of the "ARMED" type2 to lower numbers of old Soviet-made carriages, even if subjected to partial programs retrofit that although not completely eliminating the capacitive gap towards the wagons and more modern Western systems, they have reduced some critical aspects of the past.

In the panorama just described, it is of undoubted interest an examination, even if synthetic, of the Russian project "ARMATA"3 which represents a reference standard for the coming years, also in light of the possible sale to third countries.

ARMATA, (see image) above all, is not just a wagon, but a whole family of platforms designed to equip the Russian armored component of the near future. Indeed, it provides for the introduction into service of a first numerically significant package within the 2021. ARMATA, therefore, in its wagon versions (T14), IFV4 (T15), self-propelled artillery (Koalitsiya-SV) and CEV5/ Recovery (T-16) is able to equip units of armored formations intended for contact or near enemy units. In addition, the platform is designed to be integrated into an info-centric context and with active protection systems that complete the passive and structural protection that the platform is equipped with. It is, therefore, a platform that in the face of high performance in terms of acceleration and speed (typical characteristic of the Soviet tanks) has managed to combine excellent skills in terms of firepower (the current 125 mm wagon could be replaced with a larger caliber, depending on the evolution of future potentially adverse wagons) and protection of crews, going to define, as mentioned, a reference standard, while considering that the information disseminated by the Russian MoD may tend to exalt excessively the real capabilities of the ARMATA family.

Given that the perfect wagon does not exist because mobility, firepower and protection are factors that affect each other, let's analyze what exists in the Western world.

Similar capabilities in NATO countries

At the moment it is not possible to identify any "family" comparable with ARMATA. All existing initiatives have limited themselves to plans to upgrade the existing wagons, in order to limit the effects of the possible threat. The wagon that has certainly undergone more improvements is definitely the Abrams M1 of the US Army, in light of the lessons learned defined not only as a result of conflicts in which the US intervened directly, but also in those conducted by Israel, with particular reference to the Operation "Cast Lead" and the second campaign of Lebanon of 2006. Among the last significant interventions, for example, it is worth mentioning the introduction into service of the active protection system (APS) deriving from the Israeli system trophy (photo).

At the moment, the M1 Abrams wagon is no longer in production (even if subject to upgrade), and it was planned to replace it - together with the IFV Bradley - within the program Future Combat System (FCS), canceled in the 2009. The FCS has been replaced with the Brigade Modernization Program which provides for a progressive approach to the development of future capacities. At the moment the characteristics of the platforms that will compose the future US armored component are not known.

Also the announced Franco-German cooperation for the development of a Main Groud Combat System, seems to retrace the conceptual development of the FCS USA and should allow the first prototype platforms to be in the 2024-2025 to allow the entire system package to enter service within 2035. Therefore, it still presents many gray areas, given the intention of the respective Major States to close the definition of the Operational Requirements within the 2019. At present, there is only one model of a Franco-German hybrid wagon obtained by joining a Leopard 2A6 hull with a Leclerc turret, in order to demonstrate that the two countries' industry is able to cooperate. Obviously, this is an advertising spot, even if it demonstrates the mentality of the defense industry in European countries, which often considers international cooperation a system to "divide" the components to be produced and assembled, rather than integrating the lines of development and production in order to create real industrial potential.

Israeli capabilities

Israel has continued to maintain a close relationship over the years between the lessons learned in the field and the modernization / renewal of the vehicle and equipment fleet of its Armed Forces. The result of this work is undoubtedly, in the armored area, the availability of state-of-the-art means, combat proof and able to also constitute a reference standard.

The Israeli "family" consists of the following platforms:

  • Merkava IV Windbreaker wagon (image), characterized by high protection capacities, active and passive, as well as fire capacity optimized for a symmetrical asymmetrical environment, thanks to the presence of a primary state of the art armament and a truly versatile secondary armament. The critical issues identified during the aforementioned operation Cast Lead and the second Lebanon campaign was taken into account and drastically reduced with interventions on both passive and active protection, which was also used as a reference by the US Army;

  • IFV Namer, on Merkava hull, able to cooperate perfectly with the wagon component, has the same level of protection. The Israeli Army opted for an automated turret with relatively light armament, but there are versions with larger calibers up to 25 mm. The vehicle, moreover, thanks to the push of the windows6, is equipped with indirect driving. The pilot, therefore, in combat operates through the indirect vision of the external environment, having at his disposal an overview of what happens both in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle and at greater distances, in a situation of "comfort" operating that the allows you to drive even at high speeds.

  • Special versions: from the Merkava hull were also derived the version CEV, Recupero, Ambulanza and the self-propelled artillery, although the latter is based on the Mk III version of the Merkava.

The lymphatic system of the above mentioned platforms is represented by a Command and Control system in which the MATCH GUIDE system is integrated7 which allows the designation and engagement of targets, also point-like, not only from different platforms, but having a positioning in three dimensions that are very different from one another, with problems of visibility and individuation strongly influenced by the diffused perspective view. With the MATCH GUIDE, in a completely digitalized way, the platform that identifies, the one that designates the objective and the one that neutralizes it even if very distant and "out of phase" between them, are sure to operate on the desired target, minimizing the risk of unwanted effects.

In a modern context it is a must which goes far beyond the availability of digitized Command and Control systems.

Possible solutions

The national situation, as far as the Aries wagon is concerned, has been well described in the 12 online defense article last September8. To this it must be added that the situation of the national VET and of the wagons of the support version is seriously lacking, being based on DARDO platforms (for the IFV) and LEOPARD 1 (for the CEV and Recovery). The situation of the artillery component is much better, based on the PZH 2000 platform (photo) which represents the state of the art in the sector.

The possible alternatives for the modernization of the national armored component must turn to solutions that can also solve the problem of the VFI, given that the support versions of the wagon will automatically descend from the platform identified.

As a result, let's analyze these alternatives:

  • modernization of current platforms (Aries and Dart): it is a viable path which, however, should provide, in principle:

    • increased passive protection to meet the needs arising from the experiences gained in recent asymmetric conflicts, with a consequent increase in weights;

    • development / installation of type active defense systems trophy for the contrast of both asymmetrical and symmetrical threats;

    • installation of external 360 ° vision systems to allow operation in urbanized compartmentalised environments;

    • digitalization and cyber protection of platforms in order to be able to rely on automated Command and Control Systems;

    • increase in engine power, through remotorization, to counter the increase in weight resulting from the installation of the systems described above;

    • review of the train tracks to cope with weight gain;

    • revision of the armament and the turret of the IFV to make it compatible with those of the digitized means (see FRECCIA) and the evolution of the threat;

    • introduction into service of missing derivative platforms ie command post, mortar gate, against wagons and ambulance.

In short, this is a redesign of the vehicles which, however, must safeguard the existing platform with all its merits but also its shortcomings, not to mention that these are platforms that, presumably, begin to feel the weight of age. also in terms of structural resistance.

The initiative is feasible on platforms in good structural conditions, but has design costs and non-recurring costs that will certainly be very high, given that they must be "divided" on a very limited number of platforms. In fact, the possibility that new Aries and new Dardo are the subject of sales programs abroad seems rather remote, given the availability on the market of vehicles "combat proven"Modernized, from the ex-USSR, USA, Israelis and Germans, whose strengths and weaknesses are known in real operations.

  • Leopard: in the international context there is a surplus of these platforms, in various versions, however upgradable to the 2A6 version, since the latest versions are all derived from the 2A4 with the addition of subsequent kits. Even the latest versions of Leopard, however, present some critical issues due essentially to the lack of an active protection system. We must not forget the costs of nationalization in terms of the integration of national Command, Control and Communications systems.

Moreover, Germany, as mentioned above, has already started the development of a new MGCS together with France. It would therefore be an interim solution that, however, would only affect the component wagons, leaving completely unresolved the problem of VET and wagons.

  • New Main Ground Combat System9 (MGCS) Franco-German (photo): the solution is not yet well defined since the two countries are still in the definition phase of the Operational Requirements. It should allow the construction of a "team" of manned and unmanned vehicles for the 2035 time horizon, on the conceptual model of the Future Combat System USA. It is a solution for the long term, even if this, in reality, could be an advantage if you want to pursue an international solution. The Military Requirements being defined could also take into account national needs.

The solution presents, however, the strong critical elements both for the lack of information on the operational concept at the base of this project, and for the weight of the German industry (Krauss-Maffei) and French (Nexter) that would end up crushing the national to mere assemblatrice / producer of minor details, losing any possibility of technological development in the sector. Moreover, due to the significant weight of the two industrial players, the costs of development and industrialization of the platform are likely to be very high, unless the industrial sector is effectively integrated. It makes sense to pursue this solution only if a strategic partnership is established in the industrial defense sector that leads to a merger of the entire sector, starting - in parallel - an interim solution.

  • Merkava and Namer: they represent two platforms of undoubted interest from a technological and tactical point of view. We are faced with a solution that has already been strongly digitized and with communication systems that can be quickly integrated with national ones, given the availability of SDR10. The problems that arose during the more or less recent asymmetric conflicts in which Israel participated were quickly taken into account through cutting-edge technological solutions.

With the development of the Merkava Mk IV Barak platform, expected to start in 2020, Israel plans to introduce elements of Artificial Intelligence in the discovery and neutralization of the objectives, as well as the complete implementation of the Iron Vision technology (based on Helmet Mounted Display) that will allow better effectiveness not only of the wagon but of the entire armored / mechanized package operating.

The Israeli solution would seem to be able to solve the critical issues of the national armored component in the short-medium and long term, also considering the recent acquisition of the PZH 2000 as a curved fire support, through a solution in continuous transformation based on the evolution of threat and technological progress.


From the above, we can say that:

  • the purely national solution would lead us to have platforms updated to international standards in a time window ranging from 5 to 10 years from now, taking into account the development and integration of advanced technologies. Solutions that provide modest capacitive targets will equip us with training platforms, which can not be used operationally and only if it is foreseen - simultaneously - the arrival of modern systems. Otherwise, we would - in fact - move towards the loss of capacity;

  • the European solution could appear attractive. However, it is a long-term solution that does not solve the short to medium term. It should be continued, then, together with an interim solution. In any case, it requires a strong political will not to relegate Italy to a secondary role;

  • the solution that provides for cooperation with Israel can be highly cost / effective if - as done for other systems - a real partnership with Israel is established. Starting strong cooperation on the development of the Merkava IV Barak and derivatives platform (including IFV). This could allow quick access to both sensitive technologies and the involvement of the national industry in the production / customization of any national platforms, as well as financial compensations that could almost cancel - for the country system - the initial procurement effort (as happened in recent partnership programs). The presence on all the platforms of the MATCH GUIDE system, mentioned previously, would make it possible to transform each single platform into a complex able to continuously and automatically transform into a sensor, designator or striker according to requirements. That is, we would have a heavily protected armored component, with a firepower capable of competing even with the most modern opposing formations and perfectly able to operate in a hybrid and info-centric environment.

Lastly, the availability of a military Integrated Test Bed able to implement all operational experiences with limited time and costs, allows a continuous update of the platforms, without waiting for the 2035 to discover that the operations will not be conducted as assumed in the 2018 but how the evolution of thought and the technological one will "impose" us to do.

Finally, the question about costs will arise. The resources currently available in the Defense sector for the modernization of the armored component amount to only € 35 million for the construction of a prototype of a modernized Ariete tank (Vds. Defense Planning Document 2017 - 201911). To this line of financing should be added the funds needed, post 2019, for the launch of the entire modernization company and that, for the Aries only wagon, were estimated in the aforementioned article of the 12 last September12, in about 1 billion € and would allow to obtain a partial capacity and with heavy limitations. It is clear that, given the size of the Israeli fleet, it is possible to rely on a logistic system already started and with high efficiency, to be able to divide the development costs and non-recurring costs (past and future) on much higher numbers of platforms. the national ones, the costs of an Italian-Israeli partnership will certainly not be higher than those of the other indicated solutions, with the same "theoretical" capacity. Not to forget, however, the intrinsic value of a solution forged on repeated and continuous use in operations and the possibility of establishing a strategic partnership that will allow a constant evolution to the national armored component, in line with the "volatility" of modern operational needs.


1 Source: UK Land Operations (AC 71940): The tactical functions represent the full breadth of a country. They are: command, intelligence, manoeuvre, fires, information activities, capacity building, protection and sustainment.

2 Taken as a reference standard.

4 Infantry Fighting Vehicle

5 Combat Engineer Vehicle

6 Vetronica: sf. (term derived from the English Vetronics, that is vehicle electronics, based on the avionics model). Technology that tends to the integration of all the electronic systems present in a land vehicle, especially for combat, to facilitate its management.

10 Software Defined radio


(photo: web / US Marine Corps / Russian MoD Fed / ISL / Army / US Army / IAF)