Two Light Tank Prototypes Battle for the Future of Army Firepower

Two Light Tank Prototypes army-mpf-tank: Soldiers are testing two prototypes of the tank at Fort Bragg, but only one is slated to become the Army’s new light tank.

The most famous American image of a tank is the Army’s, M1A1 Abrams. While heavy main battle tanks like the Abrams have duked it out in classic cinematic tank battles, it’s the light tanks that have often been the foot soldier’s best friend. They may be small and no match for main battle tanks, but light tanks like the M3 Stuart and M551 Sheridan protected American troops from light armored vehicles, mortars, and heavy machine guns during WWII and the Cold War.

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Now, U.S. Army soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division are testing the limits of a new generation of light tanks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The results of these tests — and feedback from the soldiers themselves — will likely crown the winner of the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) acquisition program.

With the MPF, the Army is trying to give its airborne and light infantry units something they haven’t had since the 1990s: a light tank that increases their firepower and light armor in natural or urban terrain. Helps them penetrate closed, medium-gun defenses. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the M551 Sheridan filled this role, but it was retired and its replacement, the M8 Buford, was canceled later in the decade.

It took more than 20 years for the Army to return to providing light tank capability to its Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs). These tanks will be more lethal, easier to maintain, and able to sustain the vehicle transport of the new IBCT infantry squad. They would need to be air transportable by C-17 cargo plane, ready to fight on landing, and able to learn new combat maneuvers as they age.

After eliminating several proposals, only two prototypes remain one from General Dynamics Land Systems (GD) and the other from BAE Systems (BAE). The service eventually wants 504 of these new tanks. Production of an initial 26 will begin in 2022 when a head-to-head soldier evaluation will help determine the winner.

By early 2021, each company had already delivered a dozen of its light tank prototypes to the Army, with four examples of each delivered to Fort Bragg. General Dynamics made the deadline, and BAE’s prototype isn’t far behind.

When the full complement of MPF prototypes arrives at Fort Bragg, Soldiers will learn their capabilities and determine whether an IBCT can consistently keep light tanks rolling. They will also have a basic choice to make – whether to recommend a lighter tank or an even lighter tank.

Bigger and bigger

Anything that meets the definition of a tank is not small. But there is a big size difference between GD’s tanks and BAE’s tanks, each following a design lineage that stems from its manufacturer’s previous vehicles. General Dynamics built the Army’s main battle tank, the 68-ton M1 Abrams, designed to defeat enemy tanks and heavy weapons. BAE makes the 28-tonne Bradley Fighting Vehicle, designed to carry infantry or scouts with armor protection.

The two have cobbled together bits of mechanical DNA from these two vehicles to bring their MPF prototype to life.

Tank
BAE Systems

BAE’s tank is derived from a design developed for the Army’s Armored Gun System (AGS), an air-transportable light tank to replace the M551 Sheridan. Developed by one of BAE’s corporate ancestors, the result was the M8 Buford (pictured), and the first prototype arrived at Fort Knox in 1995.

But the Pentagon canceled the AGS program in 1997, suffering from unfavorable evaluations and defense shortages in the late 90s. Although the M8 never made it into active service, it formed the conceptual basis for BAE’s MPF.

“We decided to stay within the same size, weight, space envelope that we had for the AGS program,” Jim Miller, BAE’s director of business development, told Popular Mechanics. “We think that’s what the military really wants.”

BAE describes its MPF as somewhere between the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and the Stryker infantry carrier in terms of size. Its weight is in the low to mid-20-tonne range.

Size has implications for everything from thermal and electronic signatures to armor protection, personnel, and transportation. The Army has specified that two MPFs need to fit inside a C-17 airlifter to transport them to airfields to support expeditionary forces.

According to Miller, a C-17 would carry three fully armored BAE light tanks, and after removing its armor, could also fit the Army’s workhorse, C-130 Hercules. “You can get your hands on a C-130 in a war theater,” Miller said, referring to the Herks’ larger numbers than the C-17s.

BAE’s MPF has a crew of three (a commander, gunner, and driver) like its M8 predecessor, and a smaller crew requires less support in the field. BAE says additional advantages of the tank’s size include a smaller profile as well as a smaller radar cross-section, making targeting more difficult.

General Dynamics

“From the chassis to the bridge, the vehicle’s basic design, electronic architecture, and power generation all offer advancements,” GD Land Systems Director Tim Reese told Popular Mechanics. The growth potential stems from the fact that the company’s MPF is large, somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 tonnes. Reese says a pair of its light tanks will fit on a C-17 as needed by the military.

General Dynamics’ prototype is described as combining a chassis with elements of the M1 Abrams turret design from its AJAX family (pictured) of light armored vehicles and its Griffin tank demonstrator. Reese says the new tank “applies its lessons to a purpose-built vehicle” while adding some advanced technologies that he says are “unique.”

The size of GD’s MPF enables it to better accommodate technological advances, including new sensors and protection systems, the company says. It also makes it easier to add a new battery (possibly lithium) and power management system.

According to MPF program director Scott Stilson, with more available space in its turret and driver’s station, the tank also provides better accommodation and division of labor for its four-man crew (a commander, gunner, loader, driver). does. “If you have to spend more time in the vehicle, the fighters should look less tired.”

The additional real estate tank offers five exits for the commander and crew, including hatches on the side of the hull. “These are lessons learned during rollover situations from Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Reese.

General Dynamics maintains that size helps accommodate future sensors and weapons, possibly even lasers. The ability to separate the ammunition storage from the turret is another advantage.

Photo: General Dynamics

Speed ​​and power
The speed of a light infantry brigade is usually the speed at which its soldiers march and overcome the opposition. But with the advent of the airborne ISV, forward elements of IBCTs can now move cross-country at speeds up to 60 mph.

Tank tread
BAE Systems

The M8 Buford can reach a top speed of about 47 mph depending on the conditions, and BAE says its MPF can reach 45 mph. Reports say BAE will use a 550-horsepower turbodiesel, and Miller says MTU (Detroit Diesel) is BAE’s supplier, suggesting the engine could be a version of Detroit’s 15.6-liter DD16.

BAE has also considered hybrid electric powertrains although there are no current plans to integrate them. The company won’t reveal the MPF’s range, but with the same weight/size as the M8 Buford, the new tank can match its predecessor’s range by about 280 miles.

BAE’s MPF rides on a traditional torsion bar suspension but uses a composite rubber track (CRT) manufactured by Susie Defense (pictured) instead of a traditional steel track. The CRT produces better fuel economy, braking, and acceleration, reduces noise and weight, and produces a better ride.

“We didn’t really understand the benefit of the Susie track,” admits Miller. “When we started driving the vehicles, we noticed a big difference. You don’t have the constant bounce and vibration of a steel track.

Any light tanks that support these fast-moving troops from the 82nd Airborne will need to keep pace. But Reese is confident that his firm’s MPF (pictured) “can continue to shape whatever it’s doing.”

The company won’t say what powerplant its tank uses or what speeds it can reach, but reports suggest it has an 800-horsepower turbodiesel capable of a top speed of around 45 mph. (Depends on terrain and armor level).

General Dynamics also won’t go into specifics about what range the tank might have, but past light tanks like the Sheridan and M8 have published ranges of 250-350 miles. Reese says the GDK MPF has “a lot more capability than previous vehicles”, suggesting the range may fall short of those numbers.

According to General Dynamics, the tank will ride on conventional steel tracks using a lightweight road wheel design with improved stability and reduced noise and vibration. Its advanced suspension eschews the traditional torsion bar set-up in favor of external hydraulic suspension units, bolted from the hull, which provides a better ride and protection.

The MPF “will be a real joy for motocross cross country. The troops will love it. It has great speed, good tactical range,” Reese says.

Firepower and protection

A light tank is basically the artillery for an IBCT.

As Brigadier General Ross Coffman, director of the Army’s Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team, told The Army Times in 2018: “There is no precision weapon for taking bunkers off the battlefield, shooting into buildings in dense urban areas. … The MPF will be used to disrupt, breach and breach these protected defense zones.

The military required several common elements in both competitors, including the main gun. The GD and BAE will use the 105 mm NATO standard M35 low-recoil cannon. Sources put its maximum range at about 8,975 yards (8,200 m). Both will use a second-generation FLIR sight/sensor system made by Raytheon, and both will have expandable armor, capable of being installed or removed in the field.

Tank

BAE Systems

BAE’s armor can be installed by its crew using onboard tools in about three hours. It’s a bolt-on, bolt-off affair that allows security tailoring to anticipated threats. The tank also sports a new hull design to combat IEDs that were not envisioned when BAE designed the M8.

“The front end of the car is so sloped and so low that it’s very difficult to hit,” says Miller. “If you get a shot at it, the shape and size limit the chance of damaging the vehicle.”

The crew will use a 21-round autoloader, which will fire at a rate of up to 12 rounds per minute. Miller says the loader also allows crews to the chamber and then return rounds to the exact spot they were in the magazine.

Like its competitor, BAE’s tank will have a turret-mounted 12.7-mm heavy machine gun linked to its fire control system. It also features a futuristic Active Protection System, or APS — a radar-guided system that would typically fire a pattern of explosives to defeat incoming rocket-propelled grenades or anti-tank guided missiles. Is. BAE says flat-panel radars and launchers can be easily removed for such a system.

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, 1st Tank Battalion, clean an M1a1 Abrams main battle tank at Noble Pass at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., April 14, 2009. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance C.P. L. Kelsey J. Green Release

General Dynamics

“We take advantage of the V3 fire control system of the Abrams tank,” Reese says.

In fact, GD has stated that its MPF turret has the same display, architecture, and power distribution as the M1 Abrams SEPV3 turret (pictured). The IBCT does not have Abrams personnel, but some of this personnel will assist in the completion of the new MPF and will be part of the military evaluation of these new tanks.

Reese added that the turret has a purpose-designed commander’s independent thermal imager, similar to that used by the Abrams but with new features. “It’s a capability we offer that we don’t think our competitors do.”

One reason for the larger crew complement may be that the GD’s MPF uses a manual loader instead of an autoloader. The company won’t share details about its magazine capacity (likely larger than BAE’s due to size) or rate of fire, though a dedicated loader crew could put it on par with BAE’s rounds per minute.

With future APS in mind, Reese cited GD’s previous experience with Rafael’s Trophy APS system on its Abrams tank. “We have the electronic architecture, power, and physical capability to mount whatever APS the Army chooses [for the MPF].”

Support and Serviceability
The Army has indicated that it wants to keep it’s IBCTs agile and that it “does not anticipate a significant increase in IBCT field maintenance to support the MPF.” This makes serviceability incredibly important.

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