Shielding Armour

The K2 is one of Asia’s most modern MBTs, but the South Korean tank does not feature a remote-controlled weapon station or hard-kill active protection system. (Gordon Arthur)

Armour, while useful in attack, needs ways and means to stop it being taken out by the plethora or weapons in now faces.

Asia possesses very capable armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) manufacturers, but various systems can improve their survivability, situational awareness, firepower and mobility on modern battlefields. Asia-Pacific militaries are slowly adopting some elements in new or incumbent vehicle fleets in response to lessons being learned from conflicts such as the war in Ukraine.

One of the largest regional AFV manufacturers is South Korea, and the country displayed future concepts at Seoul ADEX 2023. While the vehicles themselves – Hyundai Rotem’s next-generation main battle tank (MBT) and Hanwha Aerospace’s K-NIFV infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) – are themselves interesting, what is relevant is the technology proposed for them.

Tom Kim, Hyundai Rotem’s manager of Global Defence Sales & Marketing Team, told Asian Military Review that the 55-tonne next-generation tank could see one of three crew members potentially operating a second tank through manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). Apart from the 130mm main gun, it boasts a remote-controlled weapon station (RWS) on the turret roof, antitank missiles in a retractable launcher, and an active protection system (APS). Also on the turret is a counter-unmanned aerial vehicle (C-UAS) system to counter loitering munitions. The tank also carries its own UAV for independent reconnaissance. Propulsion would initially come from a diesel-electric hybrid unit, though the ultimate goal is hydrogen. Rubber tracks are likely, plus the concept features explosive reactive armour (ERA) and ceramic composite armour.

Meanwhile, Hanwha Aerospace begins development of the 45-tonne K-NIFV for the Republic of Korea Army this year, a programme expected to take six to seven years. It will feature a 40mm cased telescoped armament and antitank missiles in an optionally crewed/uncrewed turret, plus a UAV, APS and turret-top RWS.

Next-Generation Main Battle Tank
A scale model of the Next-Generation Main Battle Tank concept from Hyundai Rotem in South Korea, showing the potential direction of future MBT design. (Gordon Arthur)

Active protection

It is impossible to make AFVs impervious to every threat on the battlefield but, as can be seen with the aforementioned Korean concepts, different elements can mitigate existing and emerging threats. Mines, improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) were the biggest threat in Afghanistan and Iraq, giving rise to solutions such as bar/slat armour. Reportedly about 60 percent effective, such armour configurations are not typically seen in Asia-Pacific. Another solution witnessed in both Ukraine and Israel is overhead cope cages to counter loitering or UAV-dropped munitions.

There is regional interest in hard-kill APS, but its expense will restrict widespread application. Borne from bitter Israeli experience, Rafael developed the Trophy APS and installed it first on the Merkava 4 tank. A Rafael spokesperson told AMR that Trophy’s development started in 1995, and three generations of technology demonstrator systems were tested before there was sufficient confidence to start full-scale development of the first operational version in 2007. Even after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deployed Trophy in 2010, the system continued to mature and improve with lessons learned from operational experience.

Trophy can defeat simultaneous threats, and it automatically loads new countermeasures in turret-mounted launchers. Apart from Israel, Trophy has been fielded on US Army Abrams tanks, and will be integrated on the future M1E3 Abrams. Trophy was selected for Germany’s Leopard 2A8 and the UK’s Challenger 3 too. Rafael claims 1,700+ orders so far. Nobody in Asia-Pacific has acquired Trophy yet, but Australia could be a candidate for its incoming M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams. Last October, Hyundai Rotem signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the integration of Trophy on K2 tanks for export.

Rafael pointed out: “The tremendous engineering challenges that must be overcome to develop an operational and effective APS can be appreciated by noting that, even after 13 years in service, Trophy is still the only operational and combat-proven APS in the world. This record is in spite of the billions of dollars of research and development (R&D) funding that has been investing in dozens of failed APS projects worldwide.”

Rafael claims Trophy defeats all shaped-charge anti-tank threats (RPGs, recoilless rockets and antitank guided missiles [ATGM]) with a kill performance of over 90 percent. The spokesperson noted: “The ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza clearly demonstrate that APS is a game-changer for armoured vehicles, enabling them to perform critical missions while manoeuvring in dense, urban, hostile environments. No army can expect to prevail on today’s battlefield without APS installed on its tanks, armoured personnel carriers and combat engineering vehicles.”

Rafael claims Trophy can be integrated onto any armoured vehicle, even lightly armoured ones. Nonetheless, one issue with hard-kill APS is the significant weight it adds to a vehicle, around 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) for a medium-weight system. Another argument against hard-kill APS is they do not protect against aerial threats. Rafael acknowledged this: “Active protection systems need to evolve in order to meet evolving threats such as attack drones and precise artillery shells. The Trophy system is evolving in accordance with a funded, multi-year development roadmap that is generating incremental enhanced capabilities.”

China fields its own hard-kill APS, the GL5. Norinco demonstrated the GL5 to dignitaries from 50 countries in 2017. With four radar detector units, four launcher units (with three rockets each) and a control terminal, it detects incoming rounds at 330 feet (100 metres) and countermeasures destroy them at 10m±1.5m with a fragmentation screen. An armoured vehicle’s protection zone covers 360 degrees in azimuth and 20 degrees in elevation. However, this reveals a weakness of APS in that currently they cannot defend against top-attack missiles. Norinco offers APS on the VT5 light tank, with one Chinese military expert commenting: “Compared to a heavy main battle tank, a light tank like the VT5 carries lighter armour, meaning weaker passive protection. Using an active protection system would be a great choice.”

GL5 active protection system
This picture shows the various components of the GL5 active protection system from Norinco in China. There are four turret-mounted radar antennas and four launchers. (Gordon Arthur)

Hanwha Systems developed the Korean Active Protection System for the K2 tank, but only soft-kill components like multispectral screening smoke grenades are installed. However, Hanwha Systems was contracted last year to develop core APS technology for future IFVs.

The Indian Army has grand ambitions in this direction, despite being hamstrung by underperforming state-run R&D agencies. The army granted an acceptance of necessity for 480 new Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicles (Tracked) in 2022 to begin replacing its Russian designed BMP-2s. Specifications listed a cannon of at least 30mm calibre, a stabilised RWS and potentially an uncrewed turret. The army wants modern protection such as laser warning systems and an APS too. Laser warning systems are commonplace on heavier Asian AFVs; able to detect rangefinders, target designators and beam-riding laser-guided weapons, they are typically coupled to smoke grenade systems for automatic launch.

Passive protection

If APS is beyond the financial reach of many Asia-Pacific militaries, then applique armour and explosive reactive armour (ERA) are cheaper options. Yet getting heavier is not the answer to increase protection on AFVs, for this impinges upon mobility. Highly favoured by the Russia (and USSR before), ERA has been common since the 1970s. Western rounds are probably more lethal than Russian ammunition, but conflict in Ukraine has shown that two rounds are often necessary to score a kill in tank-versus-tank engagements – a high-explosive round to remove the ERA and a kinetic round to neutralise the target.

ATGMs have tandem warheads to defeat ERA, and this armour type is common on Asian MBTs such as Chinese, Indian and South Korean types. Conversely, the Japanese Type 10 MBT relies on composite armour. The advantage of reactive armour is that it can be retrofitted, and Rafael told AMR it was a pioneer in developing reactive armour. “Rafael is one of the few defence companies that can design an optimal combination of add-on passive armour, reactive armour and active protection. Rafael is able to synthesise a combined solution that exploits the synergy between passive, reactive and active capabilities in defeating the full spectrum of threats to the vehicle. For example, Rafael has developed a lightweight version of its reactive armour for platforms with the Trophy APS.”

The spokesperson added, “Rafael’s Armor Shield is a reactive armour design that defeats tank-fired armour-piercing, fin-stabilised discarding sabot long-rod penetrators in a low-cost, maintenance-free, add-on module. The combination of Trophy and Armor Shield ensures a highly reliable and low-cost protection suite against a wide variety of very dangerous and challenging threats.” Armor Shield is used on Bradley IFVs and AAV7 amphibious assault vehicles, for example, the latter used by six Asian countries.

Remote-controlled weapon stations

Apart from improving protection, AFVs can be made more lethal too. As the Ukraine war has taught, loitering munitions and UAVs carrying warheads pose a serious risk to AFVs. One solution is RWS, an example being the Slinger C-UAS that EOS Defence Systems of Australia launched last year. Featuring a radar, electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) sensor, 30mm cannon and proprietary stabilisation and pointing technology, the Slinger can be mounted on vehicles as light as pickups, or on AFVs. Matt Jones, executive vice-president of EOS Defence Systems, said the Slinger was a response to international demand for advanced counter-drone technologies. “We have applied the hard-won lessons from the battlefields, including Ukraine, to our Slinger system, ensuring it will give real edge to those looking to hit back against the growing threat of drones.”

Directed-energy and high-power microwave weapons are in their infancy, but they possess the potential for organic air defence and C-UAS tasks. For instance, EOS Defence Systems unveiled in 2021 a T2000 turret that integrates directed-energy weapons. Grant Sanderson, the company’s CEO, explained, “All APS suffer from targets that are coming directly from overhead. You end up with a doughnut of protection around a vehicle, with a significant hole at the top.” The T2000-DE turret plugs that hole with a 35kW laser coupled to a 360 degree radar and EO sensor that can blind or destroy UAVs at greater ranges than ballistic weapons; it gives 360 degree dome-like protection around a vehicle. The laser can quickly change targets during swarm attacks as well. Alternatively, the T2000-DE can use an RWS-mounted hard-kill weapon against lower-flying UAVs or loitering munitions.

Sanderson noted that it is difficult, and carries higher risk, to retrofit older turrets with such systems. However, the T2000 has been designed from the outset to integrate directed-energy capabilities. Incidentally, Rafael rightly noted: “Although directed-energy systems are becoming smaller and more lethal, they are still large and heavy, suffer from high acquisition costs and require considerable onboard power. Consequently, they will only be incorporated into specialist C-UAS force protection vehicles.”

Kongsberg is a well-known producer of RWS, and its Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station Low Profile will be installed on the Australian Army’s 75 pending M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams MBTs. The advantages of RWS are yet to be truly exploited in Asia-Pacific, however, as even the latest South Korean K2 and Japanese Type 10 MBTs do not feature an RWS.

Situational awareness, digitisation and mobility

It is common for more powerful engines to be retrofitted to AFVs to improve performance, but new types of propulsion such as hybrid-electric and even hydrogen could eventually find their way onto heavier AFVs. Thales Australia has developed an all-electric Bushmaster 4×4 protected mobility vehicle. Unveiled in 2022, the ePMV employs 3ME Technology batteries and two hybrid electric drives that produce 140kW. The existing diesel engine acts as a range extender, and the Bushmaster’s optimised power management system gives an estimated range of 125-186 miles (200-300km) and 24-36 hours of silent watch on battery power.

The Australian military lists the following benefits of AFV electrification: superior signature management, instantaneous acceleration, deep-water fording, superior robotic and autonomous connectivity, simplified maintenance, resilience to battle damage, reduced demand on supply chain, favourable to evolutionary development, increased fighting compartment volume and power for subsystems (such as directed-energy weapons).

For tracked vehicles, composite rubber tracks are becoming more popular. Soucy Defense is one supplier, and the Australian Army’s 129 AS21 Redback IFVs will employ such monolithic tracks. Soucy says more than 1,000 vehicles have been outfitted so far, and even claims that rubber tracks are “arguably the most significant technological development in mobility since the invention of armoured tracked vehicles”. Composite rubber tracks improve performance (up to 70 percent reduction in vibration and 13dB reduction in noise), reduce vehicle weight (up to 50 percent of steel tracks), minimise rolling resistance (up to 30 percent less fuel consumption) and reduce maintenance (80 percent less maintenance, and thus greater vehicle availability rates).

Redback from Hanwha Aerospace
The 42-tonne AS21 Redback from Hanwha Aerospace is bursting with technology such as Soucy rubber tracks, T2000 unmanned turret, EOS R400S Mk2 RWS, Iron Fist APS and IronVision head-mounted vision system. (Gordon Arthur)

Reducing the visibility of an AFV is helpful for improving survivability too, and so external camouflage systems for both the visual and infrared spectrums can be fitted. Patrik Stäringe, director marketing at Saab business unit Barracuda, described the advantages of the Barracuda Mobile Camouflage System (MCS). “Providing protection on the move for all kind of vehicles, the MCS is a tailor-made product that is designed to fit the specific vehicle/platform in order to give full multispectral protection (visual; near-infrared; shortwave, medium- and long-wave infrared; and radar) without interfering with the ability to use the vehicle in combat situations.”

Saab offers MCS for 200+ different platforms, and Stäringe said more than 5,000 sets have been delivered worldwide. He added: “Barracuda MCS is combat proven and works extremely well in all environments and terrains – for example, desert, woodland, winter environments.”

Saab Barracuda Mobile Camouflage System
The Saab Barracuda Mobile Camouflage System, fitted here on a CV90 IFV, creditably reduces the visual, infrared and radar signature of an AFV. (Saab)

Digitisation can hugely improve the capability of AFVs, something made far easier by open architecture in vehicle subsystems, which allows modern computer, surveillance and communications systems to be added incrementally. Battle management systems (BMS) greatly enhance situational awareness. For instance, Saab offers the 9Land BMS, and Pär-Åke Anderkrans, marketing and strategy at Saab’s Tactical Support Solutions business unit, said: “Saab offers a modular architecture where the vehicles can be upgraded as new requirements, and therefore added funding, is available. An example of this: start with one driver’s vision system that can be upgraded with added functions like BMS or Visual, by adding more computers, screens and switches from Saab.”

Vetronics undoubtedly improve vehicle performance. Anderkrans of Saab pointed out: “Using digitalised equipment in armoured vehicles support several functions in the vehicles that contribute to combat effectiveness. Local situation awareness systems increase the operational capabilities, with all-weather views for the crew, and they are not limited to the driver. The 360 degree view from inside the vehicle can also increase crew protection as there is no need to open hatches.”

digital backbone
A digital backbone is critical for modern AFVs, as various communications, battle management system and networks can all be connected more easily. (Saab)

One of Asia’s most advanced digitised vehicles is the Hunter IFV from ST Engineering. Operated by the Singapore Army since 2019, ST Engineering describes the 29.5-tonne Hunter as “the world’s first fully digitised AFV”. It features Rafael’s Samson unmanned turret, and has a 13-camera, 360 degree-surveillance system and open architecture to mitigate obsolescence issues. A vehicle health and monitoring system promotes fleet-wide maintainability and quicker turnaround for repairs, plus the Army Tactical Engagement and Information System (ARTEMIS) is integrated.

A future direction for the Hunter entails integrating uncrewed technology such as UAVs and uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs). At Singapore Airshow 2020, ST Engineering showcased its See-Through Armour system where images are projected to the crew wearing goggles, although the company is exploring other means such as a wrap-around screen for displaying this imagery. This See-Through Armour system can be retrofitted to vehicles.

Hunter IFV
ST Engineering designed the Hunter IFV for the Singapore Army. This advanced vehicle has highly digitised systems that mitigate obsolescence issues down the track. (Gordon Arthur)

The Australian Army’s AS21 Redback must surely serve as the exemplar for regional IFVs, with many of the elements discussed in this article being integrated on the finished design. Fitted with Soucy tracks and boasting extremely good armour protection, it also has the Iron Fist Light Decoupled APS fully integrated onto the T2000 turret, as well as the IronVision see-through-armour system.

by Gordon Arthur