10 April 2011

FWS Topics: The Future of Armored Vehicles

In the continuing series about various topics withing the world of MSF, we consider the future of armored vehicles. When our wars spread off-world, how will this changed the classic tank/armored vehicle? What is the future of the great iron beasts that first limbered across the hellish battlefields of World War One?  Here are some factors concerting the future of armored vehicles in off-world combat, and how they arrive at the combat zone. 

One of the important factors in the design and deployment of the future armored vehicle is the ability for the futuristic military to transport armor and supplies from their base-of-operations to the battlefield that could be separated by many Light-Years. If one looks at Gulf War part One and Two, the US had to transport their tanks, field artillery, APCs, from their bases in the states to the port via trucks and rail. Once at the port, they had to be moved onto cargo vessels, sailed to the next port, off-loaded, put back on a truck, driving to the desert location, then dropped off. Then the military technicals had to exam the machine, and readied it for combat. This is no different than today as it will be in hundreds of years.
The future military will have to transport their machines for a base to a spaceport, then on a heavy-launch vehicle or mass driver, then picked up onto a FTL transport, manned or automated, then burn to the star system, shoot-down the gravity well dirt-side, then checked or even reassembled, then deployed. Fun, huh?
If we look to sci-fi for council on this subject, the best source is the movie ALIENS and the ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manuel. Most sci-fi works mention nothing about starlift capabilities, or even how an armored vehicle got to the front. I have seen only a few video games, like HALO and the Battletech universe mention the pain-in-the-ass getting armor from ship-to-shore and back again.
However, ALIENS, actually shows us how the future of warfare could be down. The UD-4L Cheyenne dropship is able to lift and drop a full-loaded M557 APC from the Sulaco in GSO, to the colony, then be on hot-standby for dust-off and/or airborne fire support. The small team of Colonial Marines have both aerial support and ground armored support with the M557's array of offensive/defensive weapon systems. Including inside the APC is heavier infantry weapons if needed, along with sentry cannons to allow for securing the perimeter. Adding to all of this firepower, is food, water, and medical supplies for several days without resupply drop from the GSO armed transport. Barring the enemy force is not rolling in with gunships or main-battle tanks, the M557's weapons should be able to repeal hostile forces.     

Getting the armored vehicle to the planetary combat zone is not an easy thing, sending down a vehicle that weights as much as 40 to 50 tons down a gravity well, possibly under fire, and then off-load the armor. The options for space-drop are a capsule/ drop module that is filled with a foam that prevents any damage to the tank. and these capsules could find LZs on land and water. Another option is a heavy-lift shuttle that as VTOL to delivery the tank down dirtside. Tanks could be fitted with anti-gravity sleds and dropped in high atmosphere, and eased down to the surface. It should be said, that space-drop would be needed for all armored vehicles of the future, and this would change their designs, and the craft that bring them planetside. Future tanks would not be an M1 Abrams, simply due to the size and weight.  

The Omini-Vehicle:
With the limitations of heavy starlift vehicles, the most will have be made of the vehicles that are dropped into a war zone. This could led to the future armored vehicles that are deployed off-world will be Omini-Vehicles. An omini-vehicle would have a base platform that could easily be modified for various combat roles, the base vehicle would have to serve as infantry carrier with some sort of medium-sized auto-cannon, like the Bushmaster 25mm. This would allow commanders to make the most of the vehicles they have on-hand, and storehouses of the weapon package upgrades, like turrets, could be on every colonial world, much like we had in Saudi Arabia prior to the 1st Gulf War. The best example of an omini-vehicle, is the M113 APC, that served from Vietnam onwards, and the new US Army eight wheeled Stryker vehicle. As seen in the imagine, the Stryker is about be retrofitted to meet many battlefield roles unitizing one base armored vehicle...from APC, command vehicle, band-aide transport, mortar platform, and even a mobile gun system with a 105mm anti-tank cannon!   

The New Reality of the Main Battle Tank
As we have seen in the current wars, armies now use fewer armored vehicle classes than in WWII and the Cold War...in Iraq, it seemed that the tank battles were over very quickly, and the majority of fighting later was between infantry, and the soldiers tended to use armored HMMWVs to support and suppress. During the latest wars, tanks have not played as much as a part as once thought. When I was a kid in the 1980's, it was all about how many T-72 and T-80 tanks the dreaded Warsaw Pacts had verse NATO. Since the wars after September 11th, have been mostly waged by air and infantry power...these conditions caused the US Military even cancelled the M8 Armored Gun System, (which would have been a light tank), due to the new Stryker. This shows that the future of armored vehicles will be limited to a highly mobile, highly adaptability, lethal vehicle...I doubt, with the need to get heavy armor quickly deployed via space drop capabilities, that tanks like the M1 Abrams, are going away. They will be tanks similar to the Portuguese Pandur II 8x8, the B1 Centauro Tank Destroyer of Italy, and the French AMX-10.   

Offensive Systems
The role of a tank is to delivery heavy fire down the throat of the enemy, while supporting and protecting the infantry against the enemy's own heavy armor. Tanks are the key in the spearhead into enemy territory. The main tool of the tank is their main gun. Currently, the main battle tank uses a 105mm to 120mm cannon that fire a vast array of munitions, like sabots, HEAT, and canister shot.  The future of main offensive system of the tank is either KEW (Kinetic Energy weapon) or DEW (Directed Energy Weapon). While the main gun would undergo changes, it is likely that tanks of the future would still mount several machine guns to deal with infantry.

Directed Energy Weapons?
-Laser: The use of a laser beam, like Free Electron or Solid State, is unlikely. Lasers need a fuel source, and time for the laser to burn through the armor of another tank. More over, there are a number of counter-measures for lasers, and there is still the issue of DEW trails and thermal booming. The best use of lasers on armored vehicles, would be in a defensive role.

-Particle: These DEW beams have more of a kinetic impact than a laser, however, they are shorter range than a laser. Particle beams require a great deal of technology to work, like circular accelerator, which is similar to the "atom smashers" of current science, they are massive and require a massive amount of energy to work.

-Plasma: In sci-fi works, like Terminator and HALO, plasma is used for the main offensive tool, however, this works require that the ionized gas, normally hydrogen, is converted from slush hydrogen, via a laser, then fired down a barrel with a EM sabot containing the ionized gas until it reaches the target, and explodes in a shower of thermal and kinetic damage. Nice, but lots of steps...and EM sabot are not yet proven science. Plasma would make a nice futuristic flamethrower or short-range mortar. If plasma and the EM sabot were a possibility, then plasma would make a good DEW system for tanks. Plasma as the advantage of being a fire-and-forget system, not need to hold the beam over the target until the armor is penetrated like lasers.

Kinetic Energy Weapons?
-Caseless Ammunition: Depending on the situation with supply-lines on the planetary battlefield, caseless ammunition may be an answer to extend the supply of main gun, due to more caseless ammo can be stored verse the convention shells used today. There are issues with this types of ammunition, cooking-off in a hot barrel, foiling, and fragility of the casing.  Some examples of Caseless ammunition are used in the American M551 Sheridan tank and the German Rheinmetall RMK30 30mm cannon.

-Gauss: One promising technology is the use of magnetic coils to propel ferromagnetic projectile at high speed. This would allow for a smaller shell, like 88mm or 90mm to have more punch than the 105mm used today. More over, if the HV shell was propelled at enough force than it could rip through most armor than could be mounted on a movable platform. One of the major disadvantages is the switching and high power needed to generate the push for a military-grade high-velocity weapon. 

-Railgun: Railguns are a massive undertaking, the US Navy as been testing a Railgun that propels a sabot at 11,500 Feet per Second, verse the 5, 200 FPS of the M1 120mm shell ! At those speeds, the armor of a normal tank would be as useful as tin-foil. However, Railguns are slow firing, massive support, and barrel length, not to mention the need to replace the rails.  

Defensive System
Tanks use their speed, armor, shealth, and numbers, to protect them from the threats on a modern battlefield. In the 1980's, I remember reading that tanks are under threat from nearly everything on the battlefield, like infantry, mines, and attack choppers. The future will be no different, you also add to the normal bag of threats to a tank's survival, UAVs, UGVs, orbital artillery, and possibly of Armored Power Suits. Tanks of the future will have more speed, better armor that may be lighter using Nanotech fibers, or carbon fiber nanotubes, or some sort of Plastic/Steel mix. The goal for will be for weight to be low, the armor protection factor will be increased and able to counter many threats, and save fuel. One future armor underdevelopment  Electric Reactive Armor, where high-volt energy charges the plates, when the projectile hits the charged armor plate, the energy transfers to the shell, and zaps it, possible breaking the shell before it can transfer its energy to the tank. 
 In addition, armored vehicles of the future battlefield will use countermeasures, like smoke, flares, and chaff, along with ablative armor, and armored that deflects or absorbs LiDAR and RADAR signs. Lasers, most likely Free-Electron, could be used as a countermeasure to incoming threats like incoming artillery shells, missiles, and aircraft/gunships. The control of the defensive FEL projector would be fully automated to counter threats while the human crew members worry about the offensive systems.  

Removing the bulk for the tank-tread and replacing it with some manner of hover technology or anti-gravity pods, would liberate the old-style tank from the limitations of the terrain, and the risk of traditional mine warfare. In the 1989 Renegade Legion RPG, the use of the anti-gravity technology allowed their tanks to fight over water, travel much faster than current tanks, and dismissed roads and certain terrains were no longer important. However, the bottom of the these tanks were the Achilles Heel, along with weapons that destabilizing the field generated by the A/G pods, and the power costs to fuel the pods.

On-Demand Tanks
In the realm of nanomaterials, futuristic material science, and using some of the ideas of Nano-based weaponry from John Scalzi's Old Man's War, we can see the possibility of a on-demand armored vehicle. Using nanomaterials and very advanced computer technology, it could be possible for a colonial world to use hulks of dense nano-metals to form all kinds and classes of armored vehicles. When an enemy force shows up, the commanders of the colonial defenses would not have to wait for the friendly warships to show up with the marines, the commander would flip a switch and press-out an army. Even more advanced would be that to remote pilot the tanks, like Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) from a central C3 location. If this technology existed than there would be no need for heavy starlift vessels...just enough nanomaterials to keep the bad guys away. I read once a quote about the limits of the Replication technology mentioned in Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manuel: "If you could flip a switch and build a starship, then you wouldn't need to..."

The Engine
Tanks are greedy...they use a great of ammunition, the crews need food and water, and the engines are thirsty. The M1A1 Abrams as a 500 gallon tank and it as a range of 300 miles. Some sources say that the Abrams gets about 0.6 mile per gallon under normal conditions, under combat conditions, with the Abrams running at 40 MPH, its Three gallons to mile...they're no Nissan Leaf! For the armored vehicle of the future, they must likely not run on fossil fuels, but on Hydrogen Fuel Cells. The US Army is currently testing the technology along with other "green tech."


Here is a link to a site devoted to OGRE and GEV RPGs

Link to a site about the hover tanks in Hammer's Slammers

Link to a fansite devoted to Renegade Legions:

Here is a great site to my favorite real-world tank: The IDF Merkava MBT!

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