The following is one in a series of regular analysis pieces by deputy editor Sydney Freedberg.
Video after video shows Russian armored vehicles burning in Ukraine, which has raised the question of whether armored vehicles are simply a tool of the past. But that’s not the right question. Instead, the question is whether American armored forces would fare any better — to which the answer is yes, with some caveats.
Primarily, American forces would have more success because of better training — the secret sauce we are seeing exposed in the Ukrainian conflict. But the American military is also making investments in three key technologies that would amp its armor in a future war.
If the US Army has its ways, instead of manned vehicles blundering into ambushes, the first machines into the danger zone could be robotic scouts. Vehicle-mounted active protection systems would intercept anti-tank missiles before they hit, while specialized air defense vehicles would use guns, missiles, and even lasers to shoot down drones. All three technologies are works in progress, but based on the lessons so far from Russia’s invasion, these three investments should set America up well against the near-term threats their fleets of armored vehicles may face.
The most revolutionary — but also, speaking realistically, the furthest away — of these developments is the Robotic Combat Vehicle program, a family of relatively expendable reconnaissance machines: Qinetiq’s seven-ton RCV-Light and Textron’s 10-ton RCV-Medium. (A prospective RCV-Heavy would be 30 tons).
RCV is still experimental, and the Army’s putting the Qinetiq and Textron proto-prototypes through years of field trials with no commitment to buy either in quantity. There are plenty of technical problems to work out, especially the balance between artificial intelligence and remote control: Offroad terrain is a much more confusing and cluttered environment than the empty air, so ground-vehicle autonomy lags behind aerial drones, and the current RCVs require constant direction from human operators. That’s labor-intensive – two humans per robot, currently — and vulnerable, since adversaries could potentially jam the control link. The Army hopes to make the robots more autonomous and ultimately allow one human to supervise multiple RCVs.
But excited tacticians are already talking about a “forward line of robots” preceding human troops into danger zones. And while the current generation of remote-controlled RCVs isn’t ready to replace manned vehicles in all-out combat, they have real possibilities as scouts, with the human operators using their sensors to scope out potential ambush sites.
Now, experienced enemies wouldn’t reveal themselves by firing at the first robot to trundle down the road; they’d try to hold their fire until manned targets came along — but that becomes a lot harder if an RCV drives right up to your hiding spot and starts nosing around. Capable of carrying heavy machineguns and Javelin tank-killer missiles, an RCV is a threat the enemy can’t ignore, potentially forcing them to either abandon their position or reveal it by wasting shots on a mere robot.
On the flipside, US forces need protection against opposing robots, especially the drones that have proven increasingly ubiquitous and effective on battlefields from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine. Those are difficult targets for traditional air-defense systems, especially since they tend to be small, slow, low-flying, and cheap — often cheaper than the missiles that would be used to take them out. So the US is fielding a Short-Range Air Defense (SHORAD) variant of the eight-wheel drive Stryker armored vehicle, armed with both Stinger missiles and anti-aircraft guns. A laser-armed version enters testing in September: Lasers still lack the power to burn through vehicle armor, but their high accuracy and unlimited ammo (they can keep firing as long as they have power) makes them highly effective against drones.
Of course, some threats will always make it past the drone-killers and the robot scouts, so it’s important to upgrade the manned vehicles themselves. Here, US armored vehicles already have one sizable advantage over their Russian counterparts: They tend to be bigger.
The American main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, grew from 60 to 75 tons as it was uparmored over the years, while the latest upgrade of the Russian T-90 is just 51 (46.5 tons metric, according to the official Rosoboronexport site). The main US troop carrier, the M2 Bradley, is up to 40 tons in its latest A4 model, while the Russian BMP-3 is just over 20. Even the Stryker, originally purchased specifically as a lightweight alternative to tracked vehicles and spec’d at 19 tons, has grown to the mid-twenties with various uparmor packages and other upgrades. All that weight makes American machines more expensive, more fuel-hungry, and less capable of crossing many bridges, but it also allows for a lot more armor protection.
Nonetheless, even the mighty Abrams has fallen to man-portable anti-tank missiles in Yemen, albeit in a Saudi Arabian model that lacks some US-only upgrades like high-density depleted uranium armor. (Saudi tactics are also poor). So back in 2018, the US Army decided to upgrade several brigades of M1s with the Israeli-made Trophy Active Protection System, which detects incoming projectiles on radar and shoots them down. The smaller Bradley is getting the similar Iron Fist-Light, also Israeli-made, although the Bradley must be upgraded to the latest model, the A4, to generate enough electrical power to run it. While such systems have little success against the solid shot fired by tank cannons – that kind of projectile flies too fast and it’s too tough – APS’ have proven effective against high-explosive missiles, which are (relatively speaking) slower and more fragile.
At least some Russian tanks have similar defenses. “Ukrainian [soldiers] complained bitterly about the ‘magical shield’ that sends their AT-5 guided missiles off in the sky or to the ground out of control just as the missile is about to hit the [Russian] tank,” the Potomac Institute’s Philip Karber wrote in 2015. But those AT-5s (aka the 9K113 Konkurs) were a Soviet 1970s-vintage design, and the targets were the latest Russian tank, the T-90. In the current invasion, by contrast, the Russians have deployed large numbers of the older T-72 and T-80.
Meanwhile the Ukrainians are now using advanced Western missiles like the US Javelin and the British NLAW: These are “top attack” weapons that aim for the thinly armored turret roof, coming in at a steeply vertical angle where most countermeasures can’t intercept them. While the older tanks have suffered heavily, at least some T-90s have been destroyed as well, according to open-source intelligence website Oryx. That suggests the top-attack missiles are overcoming even the latest Russian defenses.
Would Trophy do better against top attack? While that’s a highly sensitive question, with no clear answer in open sources, our sources suggest it would. “Fielded active protection systems have capability against top-attack threats,” one Army official told me. “Specifics would be classified.”
Three US Army vehicle upgrade programs look smart after Russia’s Ukraine debacle is written by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. for breakingdefense.com