Active armour

Tank research and development

Tank research and development continues in many industrial countries despite the end of the Cold war. The funds involved are lower than when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a massive arms race. Most of the tank design bureaus or arsenals now function with reduced staff or have completely disappeared. The huge Kharkiv Morozov Machine Building Design Bureau which was responsible for so many innovative tank designs, is now a part of the Ukrainian government, and produces agricultural machinery as well as armoured vehicles.

General research

The latest battle tanks show a growing trend for computerization (computer controlled) and automation of components. Future tank designs such as the Russian T-95 and the US MCS are proposed with unmanned turrets, with the crew in a single compartment in the hull of the tank, from which they can control the turret remotely. The turret's automatic loading system can then fire ammunition faster and of a size too large for a human loader, as well as store ammunition more efficiently since there is no need for crew space in the turret. Because the crew are contained in a single compartment space in the hull, the tank's size and mass can be reduced. Composite designs and lighter chassis are also proposed to reduce the tank's weight further to improve deployment and logistics.

Stealth research

With tanks evolving to suit modern day conflicts, tanks have been the focus of speculation as to what role and changes they will have. Some have suggested that given the unconventional warfare that is likely to be seen in the future, more agile tanks are likely to be seen if they are used at all. Current prototypes like the British stealth tank prototype, developed alone as the TRACER when the U.S. dropped out of its FSCS part of the project, have pointed out that the future of tanks lies in invisibility rather than invincibility as modern missiles can penetrate any tank's defences. The stealth technology—similar to the one used in stealth aircraft— makes the tank nearly invisible to enemy radar, by absorbing rather than reflecting radar beams. The British stealth tank prototype also has a low center of gravity and almost crawls on the ground to avoid detection. By virtue of its light weight and size, it is more of a scout vehicle than a main battle tank.

Other invisible tanks that blend into the visual environment by controlling luminosity via the use of flares and diodes are in conceptual stages in the US and UK military. Such a tank would not only be very difficult for the radar to pick up but also for the naked human eye. Prototype technology that used cameras to video surroundings and project it onto vehicles is currently undergoing testing by the British Ministry of Defence. It has been suggested that an invisible tank could be ready for service as early as 2012, although the main obstacle was reliability of the cameras and projectors.

Armor research

In part to combat the threats of handheld anti-tank weapons, as well as to investigate ways of maintaining protection levels while reducing weight, the US and UK are investigating a series of advanced armour technologies.

One technology under development is electro-magnetic armour. Used to defeat shaped charge warheads, the armour uses a massive magnetic charge to break apart and disperse shaped charge jets. One proposed system uses a sensor net of fibre optics covering the vehicle. An impacting warhead will interrupt the flow of light through the fibre optics, registering a hit. An automated system registers the location and sends a signal to energise a powerful electric coil located behind the armour.

The spiralling electrons in the coil give rise to an intense magnetic field that interacts with the particles within the shaped charge jet. Although shape charges generate enormous forces by travelling at up to 9 km/s, the stream maintains its penetrating power over a very short, and specific, distance. The magnetic field "pinches" the charge jet, making it unstable and dispersing its force so the warhead's penetration power is significantly degraded. Other proposals use a layered electrified armour underneath standard armour. Penetration of the armour by a shaped charge results in a massive discharge of electricity powered by a capacitor array in the tank. The electricity discharges into the incoming jet of explosive gas/plasma and this disrupts its flow and direction by adding extra heat and electric charge. The electric discharge can also vaporize the molten metal used in some shape charges to increase penetration.

Using such systems could reduce main battle tanks from their current scale-tipping weight of 70 tons, down to a more manageable 20 tons, while providing superior protection. This would also have strategic implications. Current U.S. heavy armour divisions can take months to move from the continental United States to locations around the world. A lighter MBT could make deployment faster.

Other technologies being considered for MBTs include active armour, an advancement on reactive armour, which uses radar or other sensing technology to automatically react to incoming missiles. Once the system detects hostile fire, it calculates a firing resolution and deploys counter-projectiles to intercept and disrupt the incoming fire. Again the goal is to reduce overall tank armour while maintaining protection levels. This system could present risks to friendly infantry operating in close proximity to tanks.

Weapons research

Since the end of the second world war and the general introduction of missiles, many have speculated that the modern battle tank's main cannon is obsolete. With anti-tank missiles having greater range, accuracy and ergonomics, the battle tank's main gun could go the way of the battleship's main battery: replaced with missiles. A missile-carrying tank could be turret-less, thus reducing the tanks visible profile, weight and construction costs. Missiles could be launched vertically to reduce target acquisition time and increase the rate of fire. Also a missile tank with advanced computerized missiles could target anything from airplanes, helicopters, ships and stationary targets. The advocates of better guns, as opposed to missiles, point out that advanced gun systems can do all of the above, in addition to killing enemy soldiers with shrapnel rounds, in a more cost-effective way.

Others have pointed at the development of the above mentioned advanced armor and defensive concepts as rendering the anti-tank missile useless. Modern tank armament has tended to focus on cannon fired KE penetrators, as reactive armor and the above-mentioned systems cannot defeat these very basic rounds. Increasing the velocity of gun-fired penetrators has been a major focus to increase range, accuracy and penetration. At present, research by NATO states on a new 140mm tank gun is underway. Such a large gun requires the need for automatic loading systems and caseless or even liquid propellant that can be stored more ergonomically. Conventional gun projectiles have a difficulty achieving very high velocities due to the speed of ignition of chemical explosives and the actual velocity of the explosive gas. The standard 120mm cannon used by many NATO states can achieve speeds below 2100 m/s. The 140mm cannon is projected to achieve at most 2300 m/s. Railguns and coilguns have been proposed, as these systems could provide much greater velocities and removed the need for dangerous explosives, but such systems require space-consuming generators and capacitors and have technical problem related to their mechanisms of action. A railgun is limited only by the amount of power available, but projectiles faster than 6000 m/s would be seriously hindered by atmospheric friction, putting an upper limit on projectile speeds. An intermediate solution is the use of electrically enhanced explosives or plasma impulse guns, such as Electrothermal-chemical technology. They would use electricity to vaporize or even turn into plasma an inert or explosive liquid that would propel a bullet. Gas velocities and pressures much higher than conventional explosives could be achieved resulting in greater bullet velocities, inert liquids or less-combustible explosives could be used. An electrically enhanced explosives cannon could achieve speeds of 3000 m/s.

Power plant research

The turbine engine long ago supplanted piston engines in both military aircraft and ships, but whether it will be successful in tanks has yet to be seen. Many types of alternate power-plants such as fuel cells have been experimented with.

One proposal is to use a Diesel-electric or turbine-electric series hybrid. These power plants would provide power by spinning a generator that would provide electricity to electric motors mounted inside the wheel hubs. In serial hybrid configuration allows for a huge variety of engines choices that would not be feasible with a conventional drive system, such as Stirling or Rankine cycle engine which are very efficient and are fuel flexible. Hypothetically even radioisotope thermoelectric generators could be used though the price and danger of contamination makes that unlikely. The engines can be designed for producing only constant power (other than peak power) making them smaller and much more efficient. In conjunction with electrical batteries and or ultracapacitors for storing excess and recaptured energy such a system would be far more fuel efficient than traditional tank power plants allowing for greater combat radius and less logistic support. A hybrid system could move about without running its generators, this allows for greatly reduced thermal and sonic signatures that are commonly used to target or detect tanks today. A system of this kind could be more rugged and damage sustaining with the use of multiple engine/generators and electric motors. Such a power plant could also provide electricity for energy weapons and defense systems like the ones mentioned above. A hybrid electric version of the M113 APC created by United Defence L.P. outperformed the conventional M113 in many areas, in an experimental setting.

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