Around the world, infantry fighting vehicles are getting revved up
As the pendulum of warfare swings from the Cold War to counterinsurgency and back again, medium, balanced mechanized infantry units are becoming popular as the most flexible capability in many armies. And while the tracked vehicle is not going away, these combat units increasingly are relying on wheeled infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) with modern sensor and communication technology, but with enough armor to prevail against anti-tank and improvised explosive devices (IED) and enough punch to fight back.
The forerunner of IFVs, the armored personnel carrier (APC), was merely a battle taxi, supposed to get infantry as close as possible to their objectives while protecting them against small arms fire and mortar and artillery fragments. But the IFV replaced the APC, usually with increased armor and firepower—typically a light cannon, and sometimes an antitank guided missile (ATGM)—as urban and asymmetric warfare demands clashed with lessons learned from decades of state-on-state combat. Not surprisingly, with underlying demand growing despite withering budgets, designers of new IFVs are exploiting the latest technologies in their quest to develop the ultimate vehicle to meet the dynamic yet stringent combat conditions seen in the 21st century.
With by far the largest market, the U.S. military has swung toward wheeled vehicles, such as thefamily of Strykers, which did sterling work in Iraq, as well as the mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle and its all-terrain variety, the MRAP-all terrain vehicle, better suited to work in the rougher conditions of Afghanistan. But quick glances around the world show several other IFVs reflecting different philosophies.
The Israelis—facing two widely different scenarios, policing the occupied territories and hybrid warfare in Lebanon, Syria and perhaps even Egypt—actually require two distinct vehicle classes. For urban policing actions, which can frequently turn into close-in hybrid combat, especially in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) need well-protected but agile vehicles. Wheeled options such as the Rafael Golan V-shaped mine-resistant vehicle,RAM III and Plasan-Oshkosh Sand Cat could be the solution. But in fighting against an enemy equipped with the latest counter-armor systems, such as the Russian Kornet, or even more advanced ATGMs, only heavily armored vehicles could survive fire-saturated battlefield conditions. Thus, Israel's decision to opt for the Namer IFV.
Namer, pitched as an “infantry tank,” offers the firepower of at least one remote weapon station along with advanced electro-optical (EO) systems and laser designators. Its heavy and sophisticated protection from top to bottom, covering mines and IEDs, rockets and missiles, includes an active protection system. A powerful engine and an auxiliary power unit provide electricity for the hungry electronic and life-support systems, as well as sustaining extended operation. The interior space is filled with large-format displays for the crew and also some of the combatants, primarily the infantry section commanders.
Still, debate rages in the IDF. Experienced commanders argue the Namer is over-sophisticated and might malfunction or cause the crew to become overloaded in the heat of battle. They still search for an APC that renders adequate protection to carry the infantry to its target. Thus, a leaner Namer could yet be introduced, without the overhead remotely controlled firepower and sophisticated systems that make the Merkava main battle tank into a self-supporting fighting machine.
In Brazil, the Guarani program is slated to replace a number of wheeled vehicles in service with the army and then to equip the bulk of the medium infantry unit. The program started in the late 1990s when the army developed a requirement for a new family of wheeled vehicles to replace the Engesa Urutu and Cascavel. After lengthy discussions on the vehicle configuration, with the alternatives being a 6 X 6 or a bigger and more expensive 8 X 8, the army opted for the former. In 2007 Iveco Fiat do Brazil won the VBTP-MR (Viatura Blindada de Transporte de Pessoal-Media de Rodas) and developed a mockup, first shown in 2009. In December 2009 the army awarded Iveco a $3.2 billion contract to build 2,044 Guaranis through 2033. So far the army has identified nine variants, starting with the infantry combat vehicle, to be followed by a cheaper troop transport (fitted possibly with the locally designed Remax turret, mounting a 7.62-12.7-mm weapon), recovery vehicle, communications vehicle, ambulance, command post, artillery fire direction, mortar carrier (with semiautomatic 120-mm mortar), maintenance vehicle and possibly a combat reconnaissance vehicle.
The first Guarani prototype was delivered to the army in 2010 and a total of 16 test vehicles are being built. Extensive testing started last fall, including firing trials with the Israeli Elbit UT30BR turret. If the trials are successful and the army gets its requested funding, series production could start as soon as this year. Brazil hopes to find international customers for its 6 X 6. Presentations have already been made, although few details are offered. The army is still debating but likely will decide to use the Guarani to replace the armed reconnaissance vehicle Cascavel.
Likewise, funds permitting, the Polish army would gladly replace its aging fleet of tanks and tracked APC vehicles which, although modernized over the years, are reaching the end of their service life. The relatively small number of PT-91 Twardy main battle tanks (MBT) is not enough to equip the whole Polish tank force. While there is no money to develop an indigenous MBT and only second-hand tanks could be acquired in quantity, the story is different for the IFV. An interesting project being pursued by the army involves the development of a family of tracked combat vehicles in the 25-35-ton bracket, built around a light tank, and designated WWO Anders. The prototype was assembled in 2010 and is actually more of a technology demonstrator. The assembly of this vehicle was made possible by the contribution of local and international companies to supplement defense ministry funds. The concept derives from the Anders hull and components family.
The Anders chassis is brand new and features six road wheels. It comprises four compartments, with the forward-right space hosting the engine, the forward-left for the driver, the central one under the turret for the gunner and the commander, and an aft space for a squad of four infantry soldiers, able to deploy via a rear door. The engine is a German MTU 8V 199 TE2O delivering 720 hp, while an electric motor powered by a small diesel engine provides power for “silent” operations and adds another 163 hp. Given the combat weight of 33 tons, the Anders has a favorable power/weight ratio and can reach a top speed of 75 km/hr. (47 mph) and a range of about 500 km (310 mi.).
The turret is revolutionary, equipped with a Swiss Ruag CTG 120-mm/50-cal. gun with coaxial 7.62-mm machine gun and automatic loader, which holds 12 rounds and allows a 12-rounds-per-min. maximum firing rate. An additional 10 rounds are carried inside an external magazine but these rounds have to be reloaded manually.
Anders has successfully carried out firing trials. An infantry combat demonstrator has been developed, fitted with an Oto Melara Hitfist 30P turret that carries a 30-mm ATK Mk44 gun and two Rafael Spike missiles.
In theory, the mechanized infantry battalions of the Polish army could receive a combination of Anders light tanks, for fire support, and IFVs, with a tentative requirement for 636. Poland would be expected to try to sell the new family on the international market, where it has already scored in Malaysia with the Pendekar evolution of the PT-91 tank. But before this happens, the Anders family needs to be ordered by the local customer and put in service.
Italy, meanwhile, is conducting an overall modernization of its army and is going to replace many of its tracked vehicles with wheeled vehicles such as the Freccia and medium-protected VTMM. At the same time it wants to replace its heavy 8 X 8 Centauro IFV—once one of the most advanced in its class, featuring a 105-mm stabilized gun—with the Centauro 2, which is going to combine a modified Freccia chassis with a new turret, advanced “vetronics” (vehicle electronics) and full integration with the army netcentric system. The Centauro 2 program started with a feasibility study in 2009 and funding to build two prototypes was approved at the end of 2011 for the Iveco-Oto Melara consortium. Centauro 2 will receive the new three-crew Oto Melara Hitfact turret featuring a lightened 120-mm/45-cal. gun with reduced recoil. The army has asked for an improved fire-control system, an upgrade to the already advanced one fitted on the Freccia. The army also requested an improved protection level and mobility, with a desired power/weight ratio of 25 hp/ton. This will require an engine capable of delivering more than 700 hp, compared with the 520-hp unit of the first-generation Centauro. The initial army requirement is for 74 vehicles to be assigned to the Pozzuolo del Fruili cavalry brigade, with a long-term need for as many as 150-200 IFVs.
Across the English Channel, many still scratch their heads about why the U.K. seems to have found it so difficult to procure new IFVs after nearly two decades of trying. With the last Warrior mechanized infantry combat vehicle (MICV) delivered in the early 1990s, Britain has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on possible new IFVs, with nothing to show in-service as of yet except for one honorable mention. And even under the most optimistic plans, the newest contracted IFV, the Warrior Capability Sustainment Program (Warrior CSP), will start to see deliveries only around 2017-18.
Warrior CSP is already looking as if it might see an expansion. Under a $1.65 billion deal,UK has been contracted for a vetronics architecture to allow for better collection, use and distribution of data, as well as some repackaging of existing equipment, and a new turret mounting the Case Telescoped Ammunition (CTA) 40-mm cannon. But there are already talks underway to consider whether other enhancements can be made as the vehicles are extensively upgraded and overhauled.
A major power train upgrade to future proof the system is one possibility, as are other mobility upgrades such as band tracks. Further out is whether there should be a new hull for the Warrior CSP. The experience with the remanufacture of the Scimitar Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (tracked) light tank in Afghanistan proved modern metallurgy can provide higher levels of protection than were possible in the 1970s and 1980s, and at negligible cost. But with money as much an issue in the U.K. as anywhere else in the West, it remains only a prospect.
Otherwise, London has taken a rather stop-and-go approach to new IFVs. The Future Rapid Effects System (FRES)—an increasingly discredited name for a program that has run close to 13 years —has yet to deliver any vehicles, despite having spent at least $475 million and likely much more.
The current version of the program is a tracked vehicle family, with initial emphasis on a reconnaissance vehicle. General Dynamics UK won the contest in early 2010, with an offering based around the Ascod (Austrian-Spanish Cooperation Development) MICV. However, the contract let so far is only for an assessment and development phase. Official statements to date, including that in the mid-May announcement that the U.K. defense ministry's procurement budget was now “balanced,” have also stated that a decision on procurement of Scout or any other variants will be made in 2015, around the time of the next general election. The current development phase for Scout and the common chassis that could become the basis of a future IFV family for the U.K. is estimated to cost between $791 million and $2.4 billion, depending on which set of ministry figures one looks at. Procurement of any vehicles would be extra.
The “honorable exception” for British IFV procurement was the urgent operational requirement (UOR) request that saw delivery of roughly 1,200 mine-protected vehicles in a variety of guises for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. To date, some $2.4 billion has been spent on such vehicles since 2006, with hundreds of millions of dollars extra on sensors, protection systems and counter-IED protection. The future of these vehicles is now central to the future shape, size and equipment of the British Army and other services.
It has been hoped by some optimistic officers that the UOR vehicles would be used for Iraq and Afghanistan, and then disposed of, with new IFVs being bought for new roles. This school of thought said that vehicles such as the Force Protection/General Dynamics Mastiff and Ridgeback were only capable of “protected mobility” missions, whereas the army requires “fighting vehicles.” Even in times when budgets were not as pressured, this was a vain hope—most taxpayers cannot see any real difference between the roles and missions that the UOR vehicles were bought for, and many future roles that might crop up.
So the planning now is for the army to absorb the overwhelming number of the UOR vehicles. This is complicated by the fact that no one has fully budgeted for this process, which could end up costing more than $3.2 billion to “buy” the vehicles. (Believe it or not, they are not “owned” by the defense ministry, but rather by the treasury.) It will take well over $1.6 billion to bring them up to a standard where they can be allowed to operate in the U.K. and Europe.
The natural conclusion from the fact that the UOR vehicles will become part of the established British army is that there will be a smaller requirement for “new” IFVs, if at all. Older plans had talked about needs for 1,200-1,600 8 X 8 wheeled IFVs, with a new tracked vehicle fleet adding some 800-1,400 other IFVs. Few observers now believe this will occur.