Major trends in Western tank armor

(To Philip Del Monte)
02/05/24

The war in Ukraine essentially proved right those who maintained that the traditional tank remained central in the battles and maneuvers of a conventional conflict. It is precisely the centrality played by the tank that has accelerated the processes of change and evolution of this instrument.

The latest episode involving tanks in Ukraine was the US request to withdraw the MTBs Abrams M1A1 from the front line. 31 of these tanks were supplied to the AFU with Washington's military aid package last autumn and, to date, 5 have been destroyed and 3 damaged, mainly hit by Russian anti-tank missiles and circuit munitions.

The massive use of kamikaze drones by the Russians is causing quite a few problems for the Ukrainian armored forces, especially now that the peak of the Moscow offensive in Donbass has been reached. The Abrams Books they were also withdrawn for "commercial" purposes, as it is one of the tanks most exported by the United States in the world, also in the wake of the operational successes achieved in the Gulf War of 1990-1991 and in the Iraqi conflict of 2003.

Now, from a purely technical point of view, theAbrams Books, whose conceptualization is the result of the 1970s and 1980s, like most of the tanks currently in service in the world's armed forces, in fact has the same vulnerabilities shown by other MTBs when tested in a conventional conflict. Hollow point munitions and suicide drones are deadly weapons to throw at a tank. 

The greater lethality of artillery and the appearance of swarms of drones on the battlefield has made the configuration of tanks designed from the 70s onwards obsolete, not excluding the more modern ones, such as the Challenger 2 British, the Leopard 2 German and, in fact, the aforementioned Abrams M1A1 US.

The response to the increased effectiveness of the offense can be of two types: either an increase in armor - this is the case of studies on both passive and reactive composite armor - or the improvement of crew evacuation processes.

In fact, the first option involves the study of new types of armour, which due to its composition - as in the case of the Soviet "Combination K" in fibreglass-plastic-steel or the chobham British ceramic-steel - is able to absorb the hits received, reducing the penetration power of the bullet; or reactive armor type Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA), which, detonating once hit, reduce the kinetic energy of the enemy projectile, essentially canceling out its effects (a European example of this type is the Polish CERAWA-1 and ERAWA-2 armor, designed by the Wojskowy Instytut Techniczny Uzbrojenia -WITU).

The last element is the redesign of some specific components of the tank, for example the turret, which, together with the increase in armour, contributes due to its shape to reducing the impact and damage of both an exploding and armor-piercing projectile.

Clearly, the increase in armor corresponds to an overall increase in the weight of the tank, to the detriment of maneuverability, which represents a significant problem given the versatility and speed of weapons such as drones. Ironically, the search for invulnerability generates a probable vulnerability. This is why a different approach believes that the threat posed by the evolution of offensive weapons should be addressed not through a constant strengthening of the tank's defensive structures, but through safeguarding the human component of the system, i.e. the crew.

A few days ago in Telford, at the factory Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL), the eighth and final prototype of the British tank was presented Challenger 3, which, precisely on the armor front, presents some innovative trends.

Il Challenger 3 - which is a modernized version of the Challenger 2, a tank currently supplied to the British Army and also entered combat in Ukraine - has been heavily renewed in terms of armament and armour.

As for armor, i Challenger 3 they will fit an APS or active protection system trophy di Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. British defense procurement has also opted for the Israeli proactive defense system Rafael, already mounted on the MTB Merkava and on the APC Namer of the IDF, as well as on tanks Abrams Books of the US Army and US Marines.

Also optioned by the German Army for the Leopard, The system trophy it was developed to destroy hollow point ammunition and protect the tank's crew, according to a typical Israeli concept of efficiency in MTB defense. trophyFurthermore, it makes it possible to share threat awareness between multiple vehicles, identifying and reporting the position of the opposing shooter through its own Battle Management System (BMS – Battle Management System).

All integrated with a new generation modular armor, EPSOM type on the outside and Farnham inside, which modernized the pulverized ceramic tile armor of the armor chobham, created in the 60s by the British Defense research center on land vehicles, Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment.

even the Leopard 2 German Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), in its A8 version - which will be produced under license for the Italian Army - has reactive armor with a trophy, which is added to the composite armor of steel, tungsten, plastic and ceramic. Some previous versions, such as the 2A7HU (destined for the Hungarian Army), have adopted improved protection for the turret, while the 2A7V is characterized by the presence of composite passive armor on the front part of the hull.

The most general trend in the field of armor appears to be linked to an improvement in the armor existing today, which due to the type of materials used can guarantee, in addition to high protection of the tank - therefore survival of the crew that occupies it - also a better maneuverability of the vehicle.

Having been overcome in the naval field, after the end of the era of large battleships, the comparison between artillery and armor remains in force in the land domain.

Photo: Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land (RBSL) / web / KNDS