How to solve Europe’s tank problem

Nearly 30 years ago, the Cold War ended and the reason for European armies to have huge inventories of armour instantly evaporated. ‘Why do we need all this? We are at peace,’ European policymakers confidently assumed.

Indeed, Russia no longer posed a threat and European countries could now take advantage of the so-called ‘peace dividend’, mainly by slashing defence expenditures and refocusing money into health and welfare.

Main battle tank (MBT) numbers were cut. Who needed them? The money spent buying that 60-ton death machine could be used to buy hospital beds or give granddad an extra boost to his pension.

116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team NTC rotation force-on-force day one

Tanks? Who needs ’em? (Photo: US DoD)

Of course it didn’t stop at tanks either, European defence spending was completely gutted and all services suffered, and are still suffering.

Back then, going to war with a severely weakened Russia was about as likely as finding little green men on the moon or, say, Donald Trump being elected as President. Totally unthinkable.

Unthinkable.

Well, it now appears we have arrived in some kind of dystopian future, one that essentially shatters all our preconceived ideas about the world as a whole. Trump being elected is one example, the Russian bear’s ominous reawakening is another.

Now slashing those tank numbers, and defence spending, seems like a bad idea. A terrible idea, in fact. One with absolutely no long-term thinking whatsoever and that could eventually jeopardise the territorial integrity of several states including the Baltics.

Some countries are slowly but surely reversing the decline in defence spending and investing in new equipment. But in some cases it is too little, too late. Some armies have been hollowed out so much that to generate a new capability will take years and cost billions.

For example, the Dutch decided to sell off most of its Leopard MBT fleet to Finland and some of its armoured vehicles to Estonia.

The UK has also come to the conclusion that it will reduce the number of Challenger II frontline tank crews it has for its remaining 227 vehicles.

The US has, in recent months, began addressing this imbalance by sending thousands of vehicles and equipment to Europe. In December, the US sent Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and self-propelled artillery systems to the Netherlands for storage. This month, a new batch of equipment arrived via a German port that will eventually filter out across Europe.

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US Army equipment delivered to Europe this month to bolster European security (Photo: US DoD)

This will bolster European security but it does not completely address European defence shortfalls.

If the Russians did decide to invade, they would use heavy armour and the only way to counter heavy armour is, you guessed it, more heavy armour. Something that the European theatre lacks.

One answer could be to boost protection for smaller vehicles, including IFVs and APCs, that would normally not survive when pitted against an MBT. A problem, however, is that many in-service vehicles are now at their weight limits so adding extra armour is not possible and would probably not help against high-velocity tank rounds anyway.

For the reasons mentioned above, it’s highly likely that European armies will look at active protection systems for their tanks and armoured vehicles in the not-so-distant future.

These lightweight systems are designed to detect, track and then target incoming missiles either by dazzling the guidance systems (soft-kill) or blowing them out of the sky with a projectile (hard-kill).

As protection against anti-tank munitions and kinetic rounds, they have already seen success fitted to Israeli tanks and APCs.

In December, BAE Systems announced that it would integrate and test the Israeli APS ‘Iron Fist’ on Dutch CV90 vehicles. A similar effort is underway by the UK MoD, which is testing a soft-kill system that could eventually be integrated onto the Challenger II. The system the MoD is testing has already been fielded by the German Army on its Puma IFV.

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An illustration of the Israel Military Industries ‘Iron Fist’ system (Photo: RADA)

My prediction for 2017 is that more countries will look to test APS and potentially field it in the future. Not all APS technology can currently counter the threat from high-energy rounds from tank cannons, but expect that capability to emerge as the demand grows.

Of course, APS is only one measure and should be tied to increasing main battle tank capabilities – which unsurprisingly is only being prioritised by those countries closest to Russia, including Poland.

One other drawback for APS is that Russia is already ahead of the game, fielding technology (known as ‘Arena’) on its new T-14 Armata MBT. It has also had several decades experience fielding soft-kill systems, which have recently seen action in Syria.

Active protection will be one way to protect European vehicles, and its adoption should be expedited, but it must not lull defence planners into a false sense of security and has to be paired with a strategy that puts main battle tanks at the fore once again in Europe.

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