In recent years, developed countries have intensified processes to create fundamentally new tanks, but, despite this, the vehicles of the third post-war generation remain the basis of the armored forces. Main battle tanks are regularly upgraded with the introduction of modern solutions and components, which allows them to maintain their characteristics at a high level, corresponding to current challenges.
The American MBT M1 Abrams entered service almost 40 years ago, and since then there have been several major and fundamental upgrades. The latest version of the updated "Abrams" was previously designated as M1A2 SEP v.3, and now carries the M1A2C index. Not so long ago, the serial modernization of equipment for this project began.
The SEP v.3 project proposed measures to enhance protection and increase survivability. For this purpose, additional armor blocks are installed on the turret's forehead and on the bottom. Other elements of the frontal and side projections are covered with reactive armor ARAT (Abrams Reactive Armor Tile); the entire tank is guarded by the active Trophy defense. Based on the operating experience of previous modifications, the auxiliary power unit was removed to the engine compartment, under the protection of armor. The performance is enhanced by the VHMS (Vehicle Health Management System) diagnostic system.
The main armament remains the same, but receives an improved fire control system. Thermal imaging devices and some other electronics are under replacement. The ADL (Ammunition Data Link) device is being introduced into the LMS to work with programmable fuses. New types of shells for various purposes are introduced into the ammunition load. A low-profile combat module CROWS RWS with a machine gun is mounted on the roof of the tower.
According to the results of the latest MBT upgrade, the M1A2 gains weight and loses mobility, but receives enhanced protection and improved survivability. The updated LMS gives advantages in target detection and weapon guidance; new types of projectiles should provide an effective solution to all combat missions. Serial upgrades have already been launched, M1A2Cs are still being produced only for the US Army.
Throughout its stories German tank Leopard 2 regularly underwent modernization with various innovations. In 2019, the supply of MBTs began, serially updated for the Leopard 2A7V project (the designation "2A7 +" was previously used). It is argued that such modernization provides an increase in tactical, technical and economic characteristics.
In terms of protection, the new Leopard 2A7V differs from the previous 2A7 in enhanced mine protection and Saab Barracuda multispectral camouflage coating. Combat stability should be affected by the introduction of the APU with internal deployment and a number of other systems. For the greater convenience of tankers, a climate control system is used.
Tanks of modifications "2A6" and "2A7" in the course of modernization must retain the 120-mm smooth-bore gun of the L55 modification. On older machines, it is proposed to replace the guns with modern L55A1. New shells are being introduced into the ammunition load, incl. fragmentation ammunition with a programmable fuse. The MSA is being replaced by a full-fledged IFIS combat information management system. It includes Airbus ATTICA thermal imaging sights, MKM programmer, etc.
In terms of characteristics, the newest Leopard 2A7V corresponds to the previous modification "2A7", but at the same time it receives a number of new features. Such innovations mainly affect the fighting qualities of equipment and bring them in line with modern requirements. At the same time, the project allows for the modernization of equipment of various modifications, incl. fairly old MBT Leopard 2A4. Currently, German tanks are being upgraded to "2A7V"; there is a similar order from Denmark.
The newest Russian model of the third generation is the T-90M "Breakthrough" MBT, which has recently entered the series. This modernization project affects all major areas and leads to a sharp increase in combat and operational qualities. An important feature of the T-90M is the use of a number of components borrowed from the fundamentally new T-14 tank of the next fourth generation.
The T-90M features improved protection. Outside, the building is covered with a modern "Relikt" DZ and lattice screens; installation of KAZ is possible. The internal volumes have been rearranged and equipped with anti-splinters, which reduces the risks to people and units. A tower of a new design with a developed aft niche was used. The tank receives a V-92S2F engine and an auxiliary power unit. Due to this, the increase in mass is compensated and the same mobility is maintained.
The main armament is the 2A46M gun, which is compatible with shells and guided missiles of various types. In the past, the possibility of installing a more advanced 2A82-1M cannon with increased combat characteristics was mentioned. Used modern fire control system "Kalina" with combined sights of the gunner and commander. There is a DBM with a large-caliber machine gun.
The first modernized Leopard 2A7V at the handover ceremony, October 2019 Photo by the German Ministry of Defense
The T-90M project is intended to update and improve the T-90 and T-90A MBTs, bringing their characteristics to meet the current requirements. The project developers and the military are talking about a significant increase in the overall combat effectiveness of the modernized tank, and such opportunities will be actively used. The first T-90Ms have already entered the troops; Since 2017, several contracts have been signed for the production and modernization of 160 tanks.
"99" from the PRC
Since the beginning of the century, China has been building Type 99 MBT of various modifications. The most perfect is "99A", however, it has already reached the need for modernization. According to foreign sources, in the tenth years in the PRC were created modernization projects "Type 99A1" and "Type 99A2" with various innovations.
The main direction of development in projects with the letter "A" is the strengthening of protection, primarily the frontal projection. Initially, an updated and improved front of the hull was introduced, then various variants of dynamic protection were introduced. The latest modifications are of a built-in type. In addition, Type 99A2 can be equipped with KAZ. The most important feature of MBT "99" is the JD-3 laser optical suppression system. With the help of a high-power laser, the enemy's optics or organs of vision are destroyed.
In the course of all the upgrades, the Type 99 retained the Type 125 98 mm cannon, a copy of the 2A46M. The gun can use unlicensed copies of Russian shells and proprietary rounds. The complex of guided weapons has been preserved. It is reported that in the latest modernization projects "Type 99" received a full-fledged BIUS with combined sights and other modern equipment.
"Type 99" was originally a typical modern MBT, created taking into account all foreign developments and ideas. Its modernization projects are also similar to foreign ones - they provide for the replacement of equipment without radical reworking of the hull, power plant, etc. At the same time, for the first time in world practice, a Chinese tank received a laser weapon.
In the coming years, the Israel Defense Forces will continue to operate the MBT "Merkava Mk IV", and this equipment will receive a new upgrade, dubbed "Barak" ("Lightning"). The approach to upgrading tanks offered in this project is very interesting. The focus is on upgrading the onboard electronics to ensure that key performance increases.
The armor of the Merkava Mk IV Barak tank does not change and corresponds to the basic design. Also, KAZ "Meil Ruach", introduced during one of the previous modernizations, is preserved. At the same time, the need to modernize the KAZ was mentioned in order to increase the automation of work and, accordingly, combat effectiveness. The safety of the crew is proposed to be improved through new means of vision. The commander will no longer need to conduct surveillance through an open hatch, which has been a serious problem for many years.
The latest modifications of the Merkava Mk IV have 46 computers and computing systems for various purposes. "Barak" also receives the so-called. computer tasks with elements of artificial intelligence. It will receive data about the environment from sensors and from other vehicles, process them and issue ready information to the commander. At the expense of the "task computer" it is planned to increase the speed of detection and identification of targets, the generation of data for fire, etc. In addition, it will reduce the burden on the commander.
The main observation tool for the crew will be the IronVision system. It includes a set of cameras outside the tank, signal processing devices and helmet-mounted crew monitors. With its help, tankers can literally look through the armor. Tank crews' jobs are being modernized. New systems are being introduced to make driving easier. The training of tankers will also be simplified. For this, a "virtual reality" mode is envisaged, in which computers simulate a real combat situation and issue the corresponding picture and data to the crew consoles.
Protection and fire characteristics of the MBT "Merkava Mk IV" generally meet the requirements of the IDF. For this reason, the modernization of the tank is now carried out by replacing and rebuilding the electronic equipment - using the most modern technologies. However, the real results of the Barak project will appear later. The updated tank will be accepted into service only in 2021, and then the modernization of the available vehicles will be launched.
The third generation MBT remain relevant and retain their place in the armored forces. The leading tank-building powers continue to develop their equipment and bring it in line with current goals and objectives. At the same time, both general trends and unique solutions are observed.
Almost all of the MBT considered in the course of modernization receive additional means of protection. This is due to the experience of local conflicts in recent decades, which showed and confirmed certain problems with the stability and survivability of tanks. To increase these parameters, new armor blocks are being introduced, DZ is being improved and KAZ is being installed.
The only exception is the "Merkava Mk IV" - this MBT already has developed protection, taking into account the threats on its characteristic battlefields. However, the Barak project also provides for the improvement of active protection and other measures that reduce risks to the crew.
Customers and developers prefer to keep the existing weapons. The increase in combat qualities is provided by ammunition with increased characteristics. The main trend in this area is ammunition with a programmable fuse. There is also a constant development of the LMS and even the creation of full-fledged BIUS. Network-centric technologies are also being developed that directly affect combat effectiveness.
In the context of onboard electronics, the MBT "Merkava Mk IV Barak" looks the most interesting. It looks like this is the first modern tank to receive a computer with AI elements to unload the crew. Other innovations are also of great interest. It is possible that the Israeli innovations will pay off, and in the future new foreign tanks will also receive similar equipment.
Goals and objectives
It is curious that due to similar ideas and solutions, tank builders solve different problems. New projects provide the growth of certain characteristics, but the goals of such work in different countries are different - and affect the overall development processes of tank building.
So, the American projects of the SEP series are designed to improve the M1A2 tanks, which will remain in service for a fairly long time. The processes of creating a fundamentally new MBT have slowed down, and the Abrams will not leave service yet, so it needs constant modernization. The production of M1A2 SEP v.3 / M1A2C tanks has now begun, and the next modification with new improvements is expected in the near future.
The situation is similar with the German "Leopard-2". The development of a new tank has already begun, but it will appear only in the distant future, and therefore it is necessary to maintain and improve the existing equipment. In parallel, the Bundeswehr plans to increase the number of MBTs in service. All this leads to the emergence of modernization projects. It is very likely that current processes in the future will lead to another update, and the Leopard 2A7 + / 2A7V will cease to be the newest modification.
The situation with the Chinese tanks remains unclear. So far, the "Type 99" remains the newest MBT in the PLA, but it cannot be ruled out that a new, more advanced tank has already been developed in the PRC, which still remains secret. Also, the development paths of Chinese tank building remain unknown.
From the point of view of goals and objectives, the T-90M looks the most interesting. Together with him, two other upgrades of existing MBTs were put into production, and in addition, a fundamentally new tank has already been developed - now it is being prepared for production. Thus, the "M" project and other modern developments will modernize a significant part of the available tank fleet and ensure the reinforcement of troops before the appearance of massive T-14s.
Israel has already begun development of a new combat vehicle, but until its appearance, the "Merkava Mk IV" will remain in service - thanks to timely updates. At the same time, components and solutions suitable for use in future projects will be tested on current tanks.
The best of the best
Obviously, a direct comparison of tanks in terms of published tactical and technical characteristics does not make much sense. Simple comparison of millimeters, kilometers per hour, etc. allows only the most general differences to be established. A more detailed study, allowing to draw full-fledged conclusions, is not always possible due to the secrecy of the necessary data.
However, it is clear that all modern modernization projects are based on requirements developed taking into account the experience, needs and capabilities of specific armies. Ready-made tanks confirm their capabilities and go into series production. The considered M1A2C, Leopard 2A7V, T-90M, Type 99A and Merkava Mk IV Barak have been put into production or are being prepared for it - which indicates that the customer's requirements have been met.
Thus, choosing the best modern MBT or modernization project is hardly possible. However, we can say that all such vehicles from the advanced powers are the best examples of their class, created on the basis of available technologies and meeting the requirements of specific armies. In other words, they are all good in their own way.