After 100 Years, What's Next for the Tank?

By Rich Wordsworth on at

One-hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme was killing soldiers on both sides by the tens of thousands. Midway through the four-month conflict that would kill or wound more than a million people combined on all sides – on September 15th, 1916 – British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, rolled out what he hoped would be a decisive secret weapon: the world’s first ever battle tank. It was called (somewhat unimaginatively) the Mark 1.

The Mark 1s were not exactly tanks as we’d recognise them today. They were slow, trundling forward ponderously at a speed of just two or three miles per hour. Visibility for the crew was poor, with the inside compartment almost completely pitch black. When they first grunted their way into battle, the Mark 1s had no on-board radios and had to communicate using carrier pigeons (which were often terrified and drunk on petrol fumes).

Mark 1 image via Wikimedia

They also weren’t very reliable. Of the 49 Mark 1s deployed at the battle of Flers-Courcelette – then every operational tank in the British military – only 15 of them reportedly managed to get into the actual battle. Around 17 (reports vary) didn’t even make it to the front line.

But Churchill loved the Mark 1s. He affectionately called them his “land battleships”, and by the end of the War, Britain’s complement of tanks had grown to around 2,500-2,600. They were slow, and initially unreliable – but they terrified German soldiers, whose bullets would ping off their armour ineffectually even as the tanks bore down on them with agonising languor, like the steamroller scene from Austin Powers.

Video footage of Mark I at Flers-Courcelette in september 1916

After the war, everyone started building them.

A century later, the technology has changed, but the tank’s purpose has not. Tanks are powerful, impenetrable and terrifying. So in memory of the tank’s 100 year anniversary, what we want to know is: where will they trundle in the future?

Tomorrow’s battlefields

If you look at the wars we predominantly fight today, you might plausibly ask whether we need tanks at all. Tanks do a lot of things well: taking and holding positions, scaring off infantry, fighting other tanks, and so on. But they’re not so useful for fighting insurgents, terrorists or in built up areas with lots of civilians milling about. Today, the battlefield is very different to the trench warfare of the First World War, which the tank was designed to dominate. So how much use will they find in the future?

“The thing that you can’t get away from that the tank provides is that psychological, symbolic impact of an immensely powerful and invulnerable presence on the ground."

“The MoD spends a lot of time looking at how they expect the future operating environment to evolve and differ from where it is now,” says Peter Quentin, Military Sciences Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “Essentially, they’re expecting to operate in [environments which are] urban, densely populated, packed with structures in which it will be quite difficult to distinguish adversaries from civilian populations… It’s very hard for heavy armour to operate in those sorts of environments – [look at] the way we employed armour in Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t take Challengers to Afghanistan at all, [because] the environment would not have enabled them to manoeuvre well. In Iraq, the vehicles are so large that it’s quite difficult for them to have full manoeuvrability.”

Challenger II image via Wikimedia

But even in adverse circumstances, the one undeniable advantage a tank has is just how bloody scary the sight of it is to anyone who has to fight one.

“The thing that you can’t get away from that the tank provides is that psychological, symbolic impact of an immensely powerful and invulnerable presence on the ground,” says Quentin. “So whether that’s conventional force-on-force [conflict], or counter-insurgency… it’s a show of force.”

How do you protect a tank?

But things like size, noise and heat signature also make tanks juicy targets to enemies both on the ground and in the air.

“[One of the main] threats from is direct-fire weapons: from small arms, because lightly armoured vehicles can be penetrated at close range by small arms; from cannon, and also from tank main guns,” says Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The need to protect against these more and more diverse threats sparked decades of rapid advancement, with some decidedly sci-fi results.

Over the years, there have been continuous developments in tank armour, adding on additional thicker armour plates on top of a regular vehicle (called ‘appliqué’ armour), composite armours (different metallic and/or synthetic materials sandwiched together), and ‘reactive armour’ – plates of high explosive covering outside armour that explode outwards when hit by a projectile, deflecting or deforming it and preventing penetration of the hull (and, more importantly, the crew).

A Merkava Mk IVm Windbreaker, fitted with Trophy APS. Image via Wikimedia

But as newer, more dangerous weaponry develops, armour is only one way that militaries plan to protect heavy armour in the future.

One technology that is just on the cusp of becoming mainstream is the active protection system (APS). An APS is a system that detects an incoming projectile and either screws with its targeting systems to make it miss (called ‘soft-kill), or fires a projectile of its own into its path, destroying the incoming weapon (‘hard-kill’). Currently, as Barry says, they are “optimised against handheld, RPG-type weapons and anti-tank guided weapons”. A good example is the Israel Defence Force’s Trophy system, which fires a shotgun-like blast of fragments at incoming rockets or missiles.

But APS, by its nature, assumes the tank you’re sitting in has already been spotted by someone who wants to blow you up. What if you could make a tank an enemy didn’t even know was there?

“It’s very James Bond. And not a good James Bond – a Pierce Brosnan one."

Stealth in ground vehicles is extremely difficult, because vehicles tend to get dirty and muddy and dusty extremely quickly, and mud and dirt and dust are, by their very nature, unstealthy,” says Barry. “So you could, for example, coat an armoured vehicle in the same sort of stuff that stealth aircraft are coated [with], but very quickly the armoured vehicle would get covered in dust and mud and dirt, potentially obviating the stealth covering. People are looking at more active camouflage, but again that faces the same problem.”

“[There’s a lot of] talk about ‘chameleon plates’, the ability to project on one side of the vehicle what is being recorded on the other,” Quentin clarifies. “It’s very James Bond. And not a good James Bond – a Pierce Brosnan one. But at the lower end you will start seeing more [traditional camouflage methods]. It’s pretty mad to think that the best means of camouflage remains a lick of paint and some camo netting.”

One other method of stealth being investigated is thermal camouflage. The PL-01, a concept tank being developed by Polish defence company Obrum and BAE, uses a system of interconnecting, temperature changing plates on the hull to mimic the thermal signature of its surroundings. You’ll still – at least when the tank enters service in 2018 – be able to spot it visually, but at night the idea (well, the hope) is to make the PL-01 completely disappear.

AJAX tank image via Ministry of Defence

However, next-gen defences come with their own next-gen weaknesses. Take the futuristic sensor suites being built for vehicles like the British Army’s new AJAX vehicles, which include acoustic sensors, laser warning receivers and day/night all-weather cameras. In the future, it may not be necessary to destroy an enemy tank – you might be able to blind or otherwise disable it far more easily and inexpensively.

“There are several developments that are going to have implications for armoured vehicles, but they’re not necessarily [specifically] armoured vehicle developments,” says Barry. “One is the fielding of directed-energy weapons. Now, it’s going to be a long time before there’s a laser powerful enough to burn through the armour of an armoured vehicle, but the laser could very easily damage [its] sophisticated sensors. I think also the prospect of fielding radio frequency weapons, or non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons, could [potentially] have a lethal effect on armoured vehicles’ electronics.”

Rise of the robots?

Of course, as these threats evolve, we only have to look at today’s aerial drones to see the most surefire way to protect a crew is to not have them in the vehicle at all. Several militaries around the world – including, of course, the British – use drones like the Reaper, Predator or its Chinese knock-offs to project force sometimes literally from the other side of the world. If we can do it with aircraft, why not with tanks?

“[Unmanned] technology is clearly applicable to armoured vehicles,” says Barry. “The Russians already claim to have fielded a remotely operable, mini armoured vehicle. There’s nothing new about this. BAE displayed a technology demonstrator in the US ten years ago. The British actually have an armoured vehicle called ‘Terrier’, which is an armoured engineer vehicle… Armoured engineer vehicles tend to get into very dangerous situations, so if you can remotely operate them, at least you remove the risk to the crew.”

Terrier Armoured Digger image via Wikimedia Commons

“I’d question [whether we’ll ever have unmanned battle tanks],” Quentin cautions. “The reason why a main battle tank has to have that level of protection is because you’re putting personnel on the ground. If you’re not [using a crew], then why not just have a swarm of UGVs that are more mobile, lighter weight, and require less protection?”

The conclusion from all this, then, is that the technologies which define the next generation of tanks – be they offensive, defensive, or some combination of the two – can already be seen, albeit mostly in their teething stages. The next ten years for AFVs, then, will be a race to see who can field which technologies first.

“I don’t know is what’s going on in various nations’ black programmes,” says Barry, of how far away these systems are from seeing actual combat. “When it comes to radio frequency weapons and non-nuclear EMP weapons, I don’t think it will be too long until we see those fielded. But let’s be absolutely clear: the sort of technology that’s being used by nuisance civilians to blind airline pilots won’t need much of an upgrade to blind tank drivers.”

Peter Quentin is the Military Sciences Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Ben Barry is the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.