Up until recently there were some commentators, and even some militaries, who predicted the days of the main battle tank (MBT) were numbered. A classic example is Canada, which decided to retire its tank fleet and instead rely on LAV III 8x8 armoured vehicles. A Mobile Gun System (MGS) variant armed with a 105mm gun was to take on the ‘quasi-tank’ role.
3rd Jun 2012
“TANKED UP” - REGIONAL MAIN BATTLE TANK PROGRAMMES
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong
Up until recently there were some commentators, and even some militaries, who predicted the days of the main battle tank (MBT) were numbered. A classic example is Canada, which decided to retire its tank fleet and instead rely on LAV III 8x8 armoured vehicles. A Mobile Gun System (MGS) variant armed with a 105mm gun was to take on the ‘quasi-tank’ role. However, counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan caused a swift about-face, with Canada despatching Leopard C2 tanks to the land-locked country in October 2006.
This was followed by a decision in February 2007 to borrow 20 Leopard 2A6M tanks from Germany, and to purchase 100 Leopard 2s from the Netherlands. Afghan combat experience has demonstrated manifold advantages of the MBT. The 25mm cannon of the Canadian LAV III proved totally inadequate when dealing with thick mud walls in Afghanistan, plus the MBT offers better mobility than wheeled vehicles in soft terrain and when negotiating watercourses. Furthermore, the heavier armour of the Leopard offers better protection against improvised explosive devices (IED), the insurgent weapon of choice.
The fact that several countries (Canada, Denmark and USA) have deployed MBTs to Afghanistan – a country with notoriously challenging tank terrain – shows these are still viable military weapon systems. Asia’s love affair with the MBT is still growing, unlike the waning passion of many European countries. Indeed, there are ongoing indigenous MBT programmes in China, India, Japan and South Korea, while other countries like Malaysia and Singapore have recently obtained MBT fleets for the first time. In terms of MBT production, the Chinese ZTZ99 and ZTZ96, Indian T-90S and Pakistani Al-Khalid are dominating international markets, calculated to account for 60.38% of all new production through till 2017.
Technologically advanced Japan has forged its own path in MBT production. In service are the Type 74 and Type 90, products of a bygone Cold War era. Japan inducted 341 Type 90 MBTs, but one disadvantage is its strategic mobility/transportability in the small and crowded country. Because of its 50-ton weight, these tanks are only deployed in two regions – Hokkaido and Mount Fuji.
Japan started developing the Type 10 in 2001, which tips the scales at just 44 tons. This Mitsubishi Heavy Industries design offers a number of improvements, including greater road and rail mobility. Introduction of the Type 10 will allow eventual retirement of the ageing Type 74. After taking note of lessons learned by countries like the USA in Iraq, Japanese designers sought a balance of mobility; firepower; armour protection; and command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I). A new 120mm L/44 smoothbore gun is fitted and it can fire a newly developed APFDS round that offers improved penetration. A remotely controlled .50-cal M2HB machine gun is mounted atop the turret. The Type 10 was unveiled in February 2008, and funding for 13 units was approved in the FY2010 budget. It is expected 68 units will be funded through to FY2015. Like the Type 90, it operates with a three-man crew thanks to the fitment of an autoloader.
The Type 10 was designed with asymmetric warfare in mind and its modular armour system can be arranged according to threat levels. This allows easy replacement of damaged modules, and offers protection levels equal to the heavier Type 90, and even enhanced protection on the flanks. Its battle management system (BMS) allows instant communication with other vehicles and headquarters. A 1,200hp diesel engine coupled to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) allows the tank to theoretically drive as fast in reverse as it does forwards. Like its predecessors, the Type 10 features hydropneumatic suspension that enables the vehicle to kneel and tilt.
South Korea is another country to create its own tank designs. The Hyundai Rotem K1 and K1A1 were developed with assistance from General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), designer of the M1 Abrams. Some 1,500 K1/K1A1 tanks were produced. Even though the capabilities of South Korea’s tank fleet surpass those of North Korea, the country felt the need to develop an even more capable design known as the K2. Full introduction of the K2 Black Panther will allow the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) to retire its M48A5 fleet. Original plans called for 400+ K2s, but budgetary pressures will cause this number to be slashed. Induction of the 55-ton K2 has been delayed by reliability problems with the locally produced 1,500hp engine from Doosan DST and automatic transmission from S&T Dynamics. Prototypes featured MTU-890 engines and RENK transmissions, so there is a possibility South Korea could resort to imported power packs if local industry does not come through. Officials have stated the ROKA will not deploy the K2 until 2013.
The K2 has all the bells and whistles. It possesses a 120mm L/55 main gun and an autoloader that reduces the crew to three. It will feature indigenously designed hard-kill and soft-kill active protection systems (APS). The latter is fully developed while the former has been undergoing four-season field testing. It is reported the APS can intercept attacks 0.2-0.3 seconds after detection. A Hyundai Rotem spokesman told Defence Review Asia the company will be targeting K2 export sales in South America, South Asia and the Middle East. One spinoff for South Korea’s defence industry has been involvement in Turkey’s Altay MBT programme. Approximately 20 engineers are supporting Otokar with the Altay’s basic development, 120mm gun and protection system.
Although production is focusing on the K2, Hyundai Rotem has also been developing an upgrade package for the K1A1. This package includes BMS, GPS, identification friend-foe (IFF) system, and driver’s thermal viewer and camera. The ROKA has been testing the modernised K1A1.
While on the topic of the Korean peninsular, the US Army’s 2nd Infantry Division has replaced its M1A1 AIM Abrams with the latest M1A2 SEP version. This was done simultaneously with the update of the M2A2 Bradley fleet to the newer M2A3 configuration. The 2nd Infantry Division has two combined-arms battalions based north of Seoul, each equipped with 29 M1A2 tanks.
Taiwan depends heavily on the M48 MBT, with an estimated fleet of 450 CM11 Brave Tiger tanks. These hybrids were created by installing M48 turrets onto M60A3 chassis. The original 90mm gun was replaced with a license-built 105mm M68A1 gun, and their fire control systems (FCS) were modernised with a ballistic computer and Raytheon AN/VSG-2 Tank Thermal Sight (TTS). Taiwan’s most sophisticated tank is the M60A3 TTS, with some 480 examples being procured in 1996-97. Taiwan still operates some 50 M41D tanks in its army, while the Marine Corps has M41A3s. As an island territory crisscrossed by steep mountains and numerous rivers, Taiwan is not ideal tank country. For the time being, Taiwan is focusing on inducting its CM32 8x8 armoured personnel carrier (APC) and any modernisation of its tank fleet has been placed on the backburner. Realistically, because of the threat of Chinese economic sanctions, the only country with the potential to supply new MBTs to Taiwan would be the USA.
China has been making giant leaps forward in the capabilities of its tank fleet. The latest MBT type in service is the NORINCO Type 99A1. It is based on the ZTZ99 that entered service in 2001, and it features significant advances in explosive reactive armour (ERA) protection. It has a 125mm ZPT98 main armament and an autoloader that reduces the crew to three. The ZTZ99 has never been offered for export. The latest version under development is the ZTZ99A2, which has improved ERA, modified rear hull, new panoramic commander’s sight, upgraded FCS, digital BMS and APS similar to the Russian Arena. A prototype fitted with a 140mm smoothbore gun has also been tested.
Because of the expense involved in this top-end ZTZ99 (estimated at USD2 million each), the backbone of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) armoured divisions is the Type 96 MBT. The ZTZ96 is the largest MBT production programme globally, with an estimated 1,500+ tanks in service at the present time after production commenced in 1997. The newest version unveiled in 2006 is the ZTZ96G that incorporates ERA modules and weighs 41.5 tonnes. It is reported the ZTZ96 has been deployed in Tibet since 2010.
The Malaysian Army has been transforming into a conventional force under the auspices of the “Army 2 10 Plus 10” plan. In 2003, Malaysia ordered its first ever MBTs from Poland in the shape of the Bumar Labedy PT-91M Pendekar. Fitted with a Polish ERA package and Sagem SAVAN 15 FCS, the first 45.3-ton examples were shipped in August 2007. The country specified a number of modifications such as new 1,000hp PZL-Wola Type S-1000R engines and RENK ESM350M transmissions, and their integration caused initial difficulties. However, a total of 48 tanks are now serving with the 11th Royal Armoured Regiment, which was declared fully operational on 1 September 2010. While additional MBTs would be desirable, any decision has been indefinitely deferred while other assets are prioritised for procurement.
Singapore followed suit soon after in 2006 when it procured ex-German Army Leopard 2A4 MBTs. A total of 66 refurbished Leopards were purchased, as well as 30 platforms for spare parts. These tanks have since been updated with advanced modular armour from IBD, mine protection, and bar armour fitted on the hull and turret rear. Because of the small size of its territory, Singapore performs much of its armour training externally in countries such as Australia. Introduction of the modern Leopard 2 will allow Singapore to gradually retire its AMX-13 SM1 fleet that was upgraded by ST Kinetics beginning in 1988.
Media reports have debated Indonesia’s planned acquisition of 100 second-hand Leopard 2A6 tanks from the Netherlands. The latter, as part of cost-cutting measures, is selling off its entire tank fleet. The Indonesian military is benefitting from a more generous defence budget after years of underfunding, but a potential deal has met opposition from both Dutch lawmakers and Indonesian parliamentarians. Although Indonesia needs a modern tank, it is questionable whether the sprawling archipelagic country with underdeveloped road networks can accommodate the 57.6-ton vehicle. So far the government has allocated US $280 million for the deal. It is unclear how serious the Dutch government is, but it is insisting any sale must be Government-to-Government. Negotiations continue, and if they are successfully concluded, this would give Indonesia its first ever MBT. Alternatively Indonesia has the option of buying tanks directly from Germany.
Thailand is also modernising its MBT fleet. In September 2011 the Thai government signed a contract for 49 T-84 Oplot MBTs from Ukraine for an estimated US $240 million. This followed earlier contracts for BTR-3E1 8x8 APCs, and it has further cemented Thai-Ukrainian military cooperation. There was some controversy over the selection of the Oplot with its autoloader system, with local media reports suggesting servicemen actually preferred the South Korean K1A1. Up to 200 Oplots could eventually join the fleet to allow retirement of decades-old M41A3 tanks.
India and Pakistan field very large armoured formations, with the Rajasthan plains providing ideal terrain for tank combat. India, via the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), has worked on the indigenous Arjun for 40 years but it was not until 2004 that the Indian Army grudgingly signed off on an acquisition of 124 Arjun tanks. In 2010 a comparison test against the T-90S finally granted some semblance of self-respect for the Arjun. The DRDO has been working on an improved Arjun Mk.II that features 93 modifications such as an infrared jammer, panoramic sight with night vision, ERA, navigation system, improved tracking and the ability of its 120mm gun to fire the Israeli Laser Homing Attack (LAHAT) missile. The Mk.II is considerably heavier at 66 tons, and it will be powered by an indigenous 1,500hp engine. The DRDO is also collaborating with Elbit Systems on a laser-warning receiver. A total of 124 Arjun Mk.IIs were ordered on 9 August 2010, and the first should be introduced in 2014/15. The unit cost is estimated at US $8 million apiece.
Because of incessant delays with the Arjun, India turned to Russia in the interim and purchased the T-90S Bhishma that had the advantage of logistics commonality with the T-72. Follow-on batches of the T-90M are now being assembled locally by the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi in Tamil Nadu. The T-90M includes Western technology such as the Thales Catherine thermal sight and an Israeli environmental control system, as well as Russian Kaktus K-6 ERA. The first locally produced T-90Ms were inducted on 24 August 2009 and full-rate production continues. Up to 1,000 T-90 tanks are expected to be eventually inducted and their survivability is to be improved with the addition of a hard-kill APS. A request for 1,657 systems to be retrofitted on the T-90S was issued in April 2008, and one contender that responded was Saab Avitronics with its LEDS-150 system.
The bulk of the Indian Army’s tank fleet comprises some 1,900 T-72M1 Ajeya vehicles and these are being upgraded via Project Rhino. One of the T-72’s main disadvantages is its night blindness, so the army is exploring how to include a Thermal Imaging Standalone System (TISAS) within an integrated FCS. To this end Raytheon has partnered with Larsen & Toubro to offer a stabilised sight assembly. The full Project Rhino upgrade includes a Drawa-T FCS, Tadiran radios, muzzle reference system, gyro-based navigation system, upgraded gun stabilisation, ERA package and new 1,000hp engine. However, this blue-ribbon standard is not being applied to the complete fleet. Because of the age of the T-72M1 fleet, a replacement will be needed around the 2020 mark. The DRDO is currently conducting feasibility studies on the 50-ton Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) that is slated as its replacement.
Pakistan relies primarily on Chinese-sourced tanks, but it turned to Ukraine for 320 T-80UD MBTs that were delivered from 1997 onwards. However, it has been collaborating closely with Chinese industry on the MBT 2000, known locally as the Al-Khalid. This MBT, based on the Chinese Type 90-IIM, entered service in 2001, and the Pakistan Army is expected to eventually induct some 600 examples. It features a 125mm gun with an autoloader, and is powered by a Ukrainian 1,200hp KMDB 6TD-2 diesel engine. At 46 tonnes it is lightweight compared to Western tank designs, but it incorporates technology such as ERA and Varta APS (derived from the Russian Shtora). Incidentally, Bangladesh also decided to acquire 44 MBT 2000 tanks from China, with delivery due over the next two years.
An upgraded Al-Khalid I began testing in 2009, with improvements including increased ammunition storage, enhanced FCS, faster autoloader, Varta electro-optical jammer, and Sagem thermal imager. It is believed an Al-Khalid II is in the early developmental stage as well, with redesigned turret, upgraded modular armour and 1,500hp power pack. Two prototypes are thought to exist.
The strength of MBT programmes shows that Asia is not fully following the European trend towards lighter and more mobile military forces. Instead, a significant number of platforms are being acquired across the region via indigenous designs, licensed production or second-hand imports from European countries. Asian militaries continue to “tank up”.
The Type 90 serving in the JGSDF is a capable tank but it was designed primarily to take on a Russian amphibious invasion during the Cold War. (Gordon Arthur)
The Hyundai Rotem K1A1 features a 120mm main gun, the same as that found on the American Abrams. The K2 will eclipse its capabilities. (Gordon Arthur)
The pride of China’s MBT inventory is the Type 99A1, an example of which is seen here participating in Beijing’s 2009 military parade. (Gordon Arthur)
Singapore is small but its military is very capable. The Leopard 2A4 can circumnavigate the entire country several times on a single tank of fuel! (Gordon Arthur)
India opted for domestic development of the Arjun, but the programme has proved costly and failed to deliver a workable solution until recent times. (Gordon Arthur)