Thursday, January 7, 2016

The old and the new #tank

From 1992 to 1996, all frontline armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) in the Singapore Army were older than the full-time National Servicemen who enlisted during that period*.

These old AFVs packed quite a punch.

Had they been deployed for operations against AFVs typically found in this region, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Armour Formation would have had little problem demolishing its assigned targets. Swiftly and decisively, one might add.

Unpublicised at the time, the project to upgrade ageing 1960s-era AMX-13 light tanks to SM1 standard hinged principally on the success of upgrading the tank's firepower. The new engine and transmission were of secondary importance. The APFSDS round that resulted from Project S led to the go-ahead for Project A, the umbrella project title for the AMX-13 upgrade that included better known aspects of the modernisation such as the quieter and fuel efficient (i.e. greater range) Detroit Diesel engine, ZF transmission (i.e. easier to drive), Dunlostrut suspension (i.e. smoother ride for a more alert crew) and so on.

That the SM1 was a much better killing machine that could punch holes into AFVs well above its weight class was a factoid the SAF kept under wraps for many years more.

If an old AFV is still a good warhorse, then a brand new one designed from a blank sheet (or screen, as the case may be) would be even better? One would hope so.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the unveiling of the Bionix (BX) infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), the first troop-carrying armoured vehicle designed and built in Singapore. Since the first generation BX joined Singapore Armoured Regiment battalions, defence labs worldwide have made enormous progress making various pieces of defence electronics smaller, more reliable and robust enough for use in a vehicle built for rough terrain.

So Moore's Law has proven itself. And that handheld communications device that some of you are using to read this post packs capabilities unheard of when the BX1 first appeared.

With some creativity, wiring up an AFV can transform the vehicle into an armoured node in a battlefield network that presents her crew with unrivalled situational awareness. This is a boon to armoured vehicle operations in urban and vegetated areas which typically present challenges for the AFV crew buttoned up under armour.

The ability to sense-make is likely to be derived from a lot more than the AFV's suite of onboard cameras, which, to be blunt, are really no big deal. Such cameras (albeit less robust ones) are commonly found on civilian vehicles too to help the driver check blind spots when reversing and to record the road situation in the frontal aspect.

The new sensor suite is far more than a parking aid. But the ability to "see first, see more" as part of a networked fighting force counts for little if one cannot reach out and kill the enemy, especially targets who lurk out of line-of-sight, at the earliest opportunity.

The SAF's long experience with such hardware, which predates the introduction of the Spike anti-tank guided missile, has given our defence planners and engineers a good idea of the potential of non-line-of-sight guided munitions.

The SAF's experience operating the AMX-13 - Singapore's 300-plus strong AMX-13 tank force was for many years the biggest AMX-13 fleet in the world - has also rewarded our defence engineers with a good idea of what a reliable autoloader should look like and how one should function. The autoloader aboard the AMX-13 worked effectively without an oversized turret because of its oscillating turret design which kept the 75mm gun breech and revolver magazines in line at all angles of gun elevation/depression.

One should also recall the defence engineering community's success in giving the AMX-13 a more lethal punch with the same main gun. This was not easy considering the SM1 was one of the few AFVs in the world that fired a sabot round from a barrel with a muzzle brake. The dimensions of the round were therefore constrained by the size of the ammunition carousel - which would have been more straightforward from a design standpoint for a hand-loaded tank gun as the length of the dart penetrator would not face such size limitations.

In short, the ability to destroy better protected enemy armour need not necessarily call for a large cannon as there are many ways to defeat the threats.

The fact that the Leopard 2SG, Singapore's third MBT, has a loader in its crew underlines one downside of buying foreign equipment which, by their off-the-shelf nature, are not designed for one's specific operational requirements.

With Singapore's total fertility rate on the decline, the future SAF must be mindful of maximising the contribution from every citizen soldier.

If technology can serve certain functions in fighting a tank, why not?

A smaller armed force puts a premium on protecting the AFV crew to the maximum extent possible.

And one would imagine a project team complemented by sound ops-tech integration would have made provision for maximum protection by design and by function of additional devices.

The curtain is still down.

But one is eager to see what emerges when the time is right.

* Frontline AFVs from that era include the first MBT, AMX-13 light tank and M-113 armoured personnel carrier. While the M-113s with 6600 MID-series numberplates were introduced in the early 1970s, the M-113s with 9000 MID-series numberplates joined the SARs in the 1980s. Am using the in-service date for the M-113s acquired in the 1970s under Project S in this context.


D-Boy said...

Firstly, Happy New Year to David and the other readers of this fantastic blog!

I've been wondering what's happening with the AMX-13 replacement. While some say the Leopard serves as the AMX-13 replacement, they forget that the Leopard is a replacement of 'another capability' rather than the AMX-13. Furthermore, the retirement of the AMX-13 takes away a lot of firepower from the Amour battalions. Whilst the 30mm of BX2 is respectable, it cannot replace the 75mm gun of the AMX-13 which the Coalition forces missed in Iraq and Afghanistan where MBTs were not really suitable. Firing a 120mm HEAT round into a building to dispense with 1 insurgent is not efficient especially where collateral damage is problem.

So, while the M113s are replaced by BX, what will replace the AMX? I agree with David's POV on protection and situational awareness / network capability being paramount. It should serve in a capacity similar to the Russian BMPT Terminator as an infantry fire-support tank which superior firepower and can take on MBTs if the need arises (and maybe have a NLOS capability). Personally, I would think the Namer platform would be ideal considering its high protection levels ability to mount weapons and other equipment.

That being said, our Terrex are currently under-gunned with 7.62mm, 12.7mm guns or 40mm AGLs. The US are already requested up-gunning their Strykers with 30mm RWS and other such as the Polish have the 30mm and Spike capabilities with their wheeled AFVs. Not that I know of any such plans but I would think that this would be a natural evolution for our fighting vehicles.

Keep up the thought provoking, albeit cryptic, blogs!

XPeriment626 said...

Just a quick comment about the Leopard having a human loader, which given our manpower situation, is a disadvantage from the autoloader of the AMX-13. It is useful to note the direction that NATO armies have taken in avoiding an autoloader in an MBT despite the technology being used by the Soviets/Russians for decades. The tradeoff here is that the increased crew size is extremely useful for non-combat related duties, which arguably take up the bulk of the time, especially for a nation not actually at way. This includes, maintenance, cleaning, loading of supplies, guard duty, and other general tasks. It can be argued that the increased efficiency and effectiveness of the slightly larger crew provides better overall bang-for-the-buck than having more tanks with smaller crews each, performing sub-optimally because the crews are exhausted from the rigours of keeping the MBT operational on a long-term basis.

Benjamin said...

When the defence minister showed the map plan for SAF 2030 there will be the next generation bionix.Is that next generation bionix the new light tank related to the bionix family or a new class of a light tank or is the nex generation bionix a replacement for the currently serving bionix 2 with 30mm gun?

Crimson Crusader said...

I think that the Bionix Light Tank would be a heavily-modified variant of the original which will be armed and armored similarly to the CV90120-T:

Personally, I would like Singapore to be the first nation to adopt and produce directly in Singapore what I strongly believe should be the true successor to our SM1 AMX-13 tanks, which is the M8 Expeditionary Light Tank, previously known as the Armored Gun System:

Unknown said...

The main reason why the M1 Abrams, the Leopard 2’s cousin, has no auto loader, even when the technology and know-how was available, according to its program manager at the time, there was no guarantee that the system can work 99.99% of the time, which is true.

But that said, if the auto loading system can be made to work reliably, then use it. The South Korean K2 Black Panther and Japanese Type 10 are good examples

XPeriment626 said...

With all due respect to the South Koreans and Japanese, neither have fought a modern tank battle and had little experience with tank operations in a modern combat environment apart from training situations. Hence, with limited manpower, it makes sense to have 3-man tanks, which allows you to deploy a larger tank corps in peacetime.

The U.S. army, in contrast, has fought in a number of wars using MBTs in the last fifty years, and is still actively involved in several warzones with heavy armour. Hence, decisions relating to MBT design come from real experience. The autoloader issue I understand is more than about reliability, but considering the overall combat effectiveness of a tank over a extended operational period, a crew of four will maintain readiness far better than a crew of three.