The war in Ukraine continues to drag on, and China seems ready for a copycat war with Taiwan. Every week we see weapon systems in the news. Today’s front-page stories resemble those of the Cold War era. Whether they are real, exaggerated, or imagined… military threats are always newsworthy! Especially when full-scale war with Russia or China is just a small insult or political incident away. If you loved the Cold War, then it’s Deja Vue all over again as big weapon systems are our top news story!
By now everyone is familiar with Russia’s failed tanks. Russia had similar failures in the Air and on the Sea, but tank wreckage is just a lot easier to see. Planes and helicopters tend to disintegrate before they hit the ground. Sunken ships end up inconveniently on the bottom of the sea. The blown-up and burnt-out carcass of a tank is a much better photo-op. One picture and the story just writes itself. A smiling Ukrainian farmer with a wrecked Russian tank in their front yard requires little explanation.
Until the Ukraine war, the West (and Russia) had very-high opinions of Russian tanks. Yet, at the same time, the West said that Russia’s massive corruption was undermining its military. Even well-designed military equipment was poorly manufactured. And anything that went into storage was usually stolen. The tanks that Russia has put into service were broken before they even reached the battle. Once on the battle line, 1,000 – 2,000 Russian tanks were destroyed. The 10,000 “reserve” tanks that remain are probably in worse shape. Rumors that Russia’s warehouses filled with spare parts hold little more than empty boxes.
Russia’s defense plans are heavily based on tanks. Without those tanks, Russia is in a VERY vulnerable position. In 2010 Russia planned to completely replace their old tanks with 2,500 Armata 14 tanks. These very modern tanks would make Russia capable of fighting the US and Europe. Only, the money allocated for the tanks… ahhh… disappeared. Only an estimated 20 prototypes were built. With no new tanks, and with a failed tank strategy against a much weaker opponent, Russia’s Army no longer has the ability to fight any off NATO.
Russian military equipment was often considered second-rate, especially the equipment they sold to the International Arms markets of the world. But their products were cheap. Half the price, or less, than US or European alternatives. Third-world dictators could always buy Russian tanks secure in the knowledge that they could at least reliably fight against unarmed civilians. But the war in Ukraine has proven that even a simple drone that costs a few thousand dollars can kill a $500,000 “economy” Russian tank. If you’re trying to suppress Democracy on a budget, Russian tanks just aren’t the bargain they used to be.
All of this is quite disappointing for Russia, since they are the #2 arms dealer in the world, and their products are (quite literally) being destroyed on the evening news just about every night. That’s really bad for sales. I’m guessing that a lot of former customers are thinking of a trade-in.
While it is not the end of the tank, it may be the end of the cheap tank. Next year, the biggest arms show in the world, the Defence and Security Equipment International Show, will take place in London. We can expect to see new tank models with bigger guns and thicker armor. But we may also see a new type of tank. A tank without a tank crew.
A traditional tank is basically a heavily armored box with a big gun on top. In Europe, tanks are limited to around 50 tons. Any heavier, and bridges will collapse. Europe has a LOT of rivers and lakes and mountain passes that can only be navigated by bridges. Interestingly, Israel has one of the most highly rated tanks in the world, the Merkava IV. But they have zero sales in Europe. Why? This 65-ton monster would collapse most European bridges. But in Isreal, with very few rivers or lakes, the Merkava reigns supreme.
If you remove the crew (2 to 6 soldiers) the size, weight, and cost of tanks drop. A crewless tank could be 10 to 20 tons lighter, even with the same gun and armor thickness. A lighter tank would be faster, more maneuverable, and could operate in more environments. A lighter tank would also be easier to move around by air in a war zone. And, without a crew, the politics of tank warfare would change. Using tanks without the risk of killing your citizens would revolutionize tank warfare. Perhaps, in a very, very bad way.
Without a crew, how do you operate the tank? Well, if we believe that self-driving cars are possible, why not self-driving tanks? We’ve been using self-flying sky drones for decades. A crewless tank could be run remotely, from secure facilities. If drones lose the connection to their operators, then they can drive themselves… at least until they can get the signal back.
Once crewless tanks are perfected, much smaller tanks would be possible. A 10-20 ton tank might have a smaller cannon, or it might drop the cannon and carry a small fleet of flying drones. Crewless tanks under 10 tons, perhaps as light as 1 ton, could mount a heavy machine gun, carry supplies, or even act as an armored ambulance for wounded soldiers. The more ground drones are deployed, the fewer actual soldiers will be needed in war zones. That would reduce casualties (a good thing), but without the messy politics of dead citizens, a more automated tank corps could mean more border skirmishes between unmanned weapons and more wars.
The rise of drones and high-tech weapons from the US and Europe, along with the abysmal performance of Russian weapons, will have a big impact on future weapons sales. Much of Russia’s $40 billion in annual weapon sales will transfer to the coffers of other major weapons manufacturers, like the US, Germany, and the UK. If autonomous driving systems become the differentiator between tank manufacturers, we will see new weapons manufacturers entering the market. Tesla is already dominant in self-driving consumer cars, and in commercial launch vehicles. Is a Tesla Tank by 2025 that much of a stretch?
Will the next super tank be based on a bigger cannon and stronger armor? Or will the intelligence of the tank decide who wins and loses in a tank war? Give us your opinions, our readers want to know what you think!