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U.S. Armor Developments: After Abrams

Part 4 of U.S. armor developments

The follow-on to the Abrams was to have been part of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS), a family of vehicles designed together to function in a highly networked battlespace. When FCS was canceled by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2009, individual components were split off as independent programs. Among those was the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), the first component of which will be an advanced Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). At this point, the GCV program office has no directive to design a new tank, but some of the development efforts going into the IFV may be adaptable to a future MBT.

M1A1 Abrams tanks from 1-72nd Armor Regiment line up in preparation to assault a town during Warrior Focus, a training exercise involving the entire 1st HBCT, Feb. 10, 2009 at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, South Korea. The Army will soon ask industry for proposals to build a new Ground Combat Vehicle that will surpass capabilities of current vehicles such as the Abrams tank. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christen Best

M1A1 Abrams tanks from 1-72nd Armor Regiment line up in preparation to assault a town during Warrior Focus, a training exercise involving the entire 1st HBCT, Feb. 10, 2009 at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, South Korea. The Army will soon ask industry for proposals to build a new Ground Combat Vehicle that will surpass capabilities of current vehicles such as the Abrams tank. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christen Best

“We expect threats to get more and more lethal, but since we can’t make a 200-ton vehicle with the mobility and affordability we need, we will have to have armor that is much more mass efficient. It takes 10 pounds of steel to stop a given bullet, but I’d rather have 5 pounds of ceramic or 2 pounds of composite, going as light as we can to maintain the mobility and transportability we need,” Dr. Douglas Templeton, deputy associate director for ballistic protection at the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center (TARDEC) said. “We’re also concerned about the overall effect on the vehicle. Humvees originally were designed to replace the jeep and carry people around. In Somalia and into Iraq 2, a vehicle meant to carry 2,000 pounds is now being weighed down with thousands of pounds of armor, which impacts its automotive performance.

“Active protection includes active intercept and electronic countermeasures, what some people call a ‘soft kill.’ Some anti-tank weapons are laser-guided and you can put a brighter laser spot on the ground away from your vehicle and divert an incoming missile to that spot. A nice thing about the electronic soft kill is you do have an unlimited magazine.”

“We’re taking years of lifetime off vehicles in months, which is an issue and a cost impact for the nation. That’s one reason we’ve gone to MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) – they give us an ability to handle some of the specific threats we’re seeing in-theater. But MRAPs are a point solution and not usable everywhere. In Afghanistan, we’ve had to go to the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), which is more agile.”

For Templeton, this is a combination of mass efficiency and looking at an integrated solution rather than just piling on more armor.

“In the past at TARDEC, we looked at things from the outside in – the survivability onion: Don’t be detected, targeted, hit, penetrated, killed. In the last year or so, we’ve re-looked at that and determined the onion still exists, but we need to look at it from an occupant-centric design, from the inside out. We start with the driver and crew and improve the vehicle as we work out. That includes seats, restraints, soft armor inside the vehicle; one big problem we’ve had is people survive the basic explosion, but then get hit by things that break lose and fly around inside the vehicle.”

Future armor may make extensive use of magnesium alloys and aluminum alloys, but also multifunctional capabilities, he added, using a material or assembly of materials to accomplish a number of key goals.

“Ideally, I would have a composite ‘armor’ that not only stops a bullet but also acts as part of the structure of the vehicle. Historically, that’s how steel tanks were built – the armor and structure were one and the same and so, you could argue, they were multifunctional. But as they got heavier, more of the weight became associated with the armor than what the structure needed,” Templeton said.

“Today we are working to eliminate parasitic weight, so all the material used not only handles the armor needs, but also structural loads. Then I can tailor the vehicle to address the threats I expect to go up against. And if the worst threat I expect to see is an AK-47, I don’t need an armor package that stops the main gun projectile from a T-72 tank.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...