Opinions that the main battle tank (MBT) has had its day as the queen of the battlefield have been voiced for decades. Yet the world’s armed forces still bristle with ‘steel beasts,’ albeit perhaps not in the volumes seen at the height of the Cold War. Whilst procurement of new MBTs is slower than in the species’ heyday, upgrade and enhancement programmes abound in every corner of the globe.
Companies like Rheinmetall have poured significant efforts into developing these upgrade offers and are reaping the benefits in the form of contract awards on several continents. Although all three of the elements of the ‘magic triangle’ hierarchy of needs – protection, mobility and firepower – have been taken into consideration, the last of these remains foremost in the minds of many operators. The imperative for increased lethality in the face of ever increasing threats has exercised the best technical and engineering minds at Rheinmetall. And the result has been a series of developments that hold great promise for the continued longevity of the MBT as a powerful, vital and flexible sovereign of the future battlespace.
Programme Manager for all 120mm armament and ammunition programmes at Rheinmetall, Dirk Gerthenrich, told an audience in Berlin on 7 October that crises such as Ukraine and Syria have fuelled a willingness among the company’s customers to re-evaluate the effective4ness of their MBT fleets and to supplement rather than replace MBTs with medium weight weapon systems with similar firepower. “There is also increasing concern about the effectiveness of large calibre ammunition against modern protection such as that on the T-14 Armata introduced in 2015 – and that is prompting consideration of an improved KE round such as the DM73,” he said.
He believes there is strong evidence to support the fact that only two calibres will survive beyond the next few years as far as MBT main armament is concerned: 120mm smoothbore for ‘Western’ designs and 125mm smoothbore as the Russian and former Warsaw Pact nations standard. Despite this, there is still interest in the L51 130mm future main armament Rheinmetall unveiled last year – the advantages of an increased chamber volume and chamber pressures up to 880MPs offer an improvement in performance that is just too good to turn down.
Customers, however, need to become more savvy in order to derive optimal benefit from investment in improving anti-armour performance, according to Gerthenrich. “There are some customers who still demand performance evaluation based on the ability to penetrate RHA (Rolled Homogenous Armour), despite the fact there is not a current generation MBT out there that still depends on an RHA protection solution. Such tests are expensive and time consuming – and are now of very questionable value,” he said.
Rheinmetall’s current 120mm smoothbore range consists of three models: the L/44, the L/47LR (Low Recoil) and the L/55 – which he characterises as, “the normal one, the smooth one and the quicker one,” respectively. The first and the last of have under feasibility studies examining the development of an ‘A1’ version of each, featuring higher gas pressures capable of getting maximum utility from new performance-enhanced kinetic energy rounds. Further development will have to be customer financed, the company has decided, but Gerthenrich revealed that, “the pilot customer for the L55A1 is going to be the German Army.”
In addition to KE munitions, he points to a trend towards ‘multi-purpose’ secondary ammunitions (HE MP) as being a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the increasing range of targets faced by MBTs in the broader range of operational scenarios now common to most armed forces: deployed troops, missile positions, light/medium armoured vehicles, infrastructure, field fortifications – even helicopters.
Rheinmetall’s proposed solutions address the continuing viability of the MBT’s future as a vital component of a wide range of responses to operational requirements. Rumours of the Queen’s death, it would seem, have been grossly exaggerated!