Making T90s Future Ready
Sub Title : Enhancing the operational capabilities of tracked combat vehicles in general and T90s in particular
Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2022
Author : Lt Gen NB Singh
Page No. : 20
Category : Military Technology
: December 15, 2022
The Ukraine war has amply displayed the vulnerabilities of tanks. Our T90 tanks deployed at the LAC have similar inadequacies. This article aims to identify technologies that could enhance the operational capabilities of tracked combat vehicles (TCVs) in general and T90 in particular. Another important facet covered is the need to have the ability to provide a maintenance surge
The conflicts in Armenia and Ukraine have amply indicated that a revolution in tank warfare has arrived. The power of precision targeting using a host of platforms including drones – aptly referred to as civilian air power- has been enormous, with the Russian Army, suffering big losses in hardware. Having lost over 800 tanks and news reports that the vintage T62s are being considered for refit aptly illustrates how absence of maintenance surge on the battlefield can send the reputation of a vaunted force southwards. The linkages of advanced sensors, precision weapons, drones, stealth technologies and ability to strike multiple aim points can cause enormous destruction of conventional platforms. The large concentration of complex platforms lined up at the LAC in an effort to mirror PLA deployment has to be provided a survivability dome else tanks, ICVs, SP guns and other hardware may find themselves more as targets than shooters in any future conflict at the LAC.
Our northern neighbour has once again reiterated a firm resolve to establish a system of strong deterrence, based on new domain forces and combat capabilities centred around data dominant technologies like AI, IOT, quantum computing , battlefield support and integrated logistics. It aims to deter conflicts and win local wars like the LAC standoff. In its single minded pursuit to achieve technological parity with USA, it could well achieve technological dominance over us. The implications of such an eventuality on the offence defence balance at the LAC is not difficult to foresee. Unmanned and increasingly autonomous robotic systems, AI enabled platforms and electronic warfare can usher a local revolution in military affairs as happened against USSR in 1980s. The next few decades are likely to be the most disruptive as Chinese military continues its quest for killer or game changing technologies.
To start with, the platforms positioned at the LAC need to be technologically fortified to enhance their staying power. This article aims to identify technologies that could enhance the operational capabilities of tracked combat vehicles (TCVs) in general and T90 in particular; that is yet to see serious combat operations anywhere. Being from the same design house as the T72 it is axiomatic to assume that it could be having similar vulnerabilities that have been demonstrated in Ukraine. It is important to plug these vulnerabilities so as to make it future ready for combat. Two vulnerabilities that have stood out in the ongoing conflict are survivability and agility. The nature of terrain at the LAC precludes meeting engagements – risk of large calibre fires on the frontal arc of the tank. In mountainous terrains as in urban areas – top half-sphere (lowest ballistic protection) and sides of TCVs are more prone to attack leading to large scale destruction.
The war in Ukraine has shown that the current stage of development of combat vehicles, missiles and PGMs indicates that anti tank weapons are winning the race between the ballistic protection of armour and destructive capabilities of projectiles. A top attack munition is likely to penetrate the armour and blow up the ammunition surrounding the crew. Hence, arises the need to focus on enhancing survivability and physical agility. Fig below shows the flight path of fire and forget top attack missiles that have been very effective against T series tanks.
For providing protection to tanks, vehicle designers were constrained to use heavy armour on parts of the vehicle that were expected to be hit more often. In conventional combat with tank vs tank battles, that meant the frontal arc. Tanks and infantry vehicles designed in the 1980s could have up to two feet of armour in front and around 2 to 3 inches on the sides. With anti-armour weapons continuing to increase in lethality and all round targeting, survivability of platforms is becoming a challenge. Some advanced countries have designed weapons that employ infrared or radar sensors and guidance to attack the top or engine compartments of TCVs. Mines have been designed to attack the floorboard and improvised explosive devices employed to attack the sides. TCVs deployed at LAC need to have capabilities to counter these threats.
Given the growing capabilities of anti armour weapons, designers have evolved a multi layered problem solving approach aimed at preventing the tank from being engaged at all, to enhance its survivability. Called the ‘survivability onion’ this approach has solid armour as the last line of defence. For increasing survivability of TCVs a host of measures have been considered. These are :-
- Long Range Engagement. By destroying enemy platforms beyond their engagement ranges using long range sensors and precision fires.
- Preventing Detection. By use of electromagnetic masking, radar absorbent paints and coatings, geometry & dimensioning, stealth materials, camouflage and other signature reduction techniques.
- Preventing Being Hit. Using evasive manoeuvres, electronic spoofing like IR and radar jamming, laser spot imitators, acoustic sensors, 360 degree situational awareness systems, laser, radar and missile threat warning systems and active protection systems. Electronic countermeasures however cannot guarantee complete protection in a contested electro magnetic environment and battlefield obscuration which most likely will prevail at the LAC.
- Preventing Penetration. By hull shaping and installing additional armour like passive armour, modular armour using ceramic plates, slat or bar armour, ERA panels and electromagnetic armour.
- Preventing Casualty. Compartmentalization and redundant design are two approaches to improve survivability. Compartmentalization aims at separating two or more parts of a vehicle to prevent spreading of ammunition fires . Functional and fail safe fire fighting and NBC systems could save crew lives; a neglected area as its serviceability check requires painstaking efforts.
Going by text book definition, agility is defined as the ability to identify and capture relevant opportunities faster than enemy, to rapidly adjust priorities and shift resources to the main effort. For a platform it comprises physical mobility and situational awareness so as to facilitate decisiveness & risk mitigation by the commander. Physical mobility is primarily related to system capabilities. The ratio of engine horsepower to vehicle weight is a metric that can be used to evaluate potential mobility. The higher the ratio, the better the mobility. TCVs will lose power by 35 to 40 % in super HAA and with power to weight ratios plumetting to 10-13 hp/tonne, these will be more like lumbering machines. This has several demerits like increased fuel consumption, noise and smoke and increased wear and tear. It also results in making the engine and drive line run HOT. The excessive heat has to be masked to prevent thermal detection and avoid being hit by terminal homing projectiles. Mobility improvements can be achieved with higher horsepower-to-weight ratios, low ground pressure, improved suspension systems and by use of high altitude compensated engines.
Providing physical mobility to the TCV is a conflicting requirement wrt protection due to weight increase. Modern AFVs are impressively mobile as can be seen during demos and parades. But keeping them that way is a back breaking activity. Ask any EME technician or a tank crew. Moving 45-50 tonnes of armour around in high altitudes is not easy, it puts a lot of stress on the TCV mobility system. TCVs end up tearing roads and could block vital lines of communications in case of failure during approach marches. A lot of time is spent in fixing faults, the operational implication of which is lesser No of TCVs being operationally available at any instant of time. Hence, ARVs constitute a critical component of combat teams and often end up in the leading troop on roads, tracks and closed terrain. In our context of deployment at LAC, ARVs have to be custom built with very high draw bar pull and direct winching and lifting capabilitities. Innovative employment of ARVs enabled the Army to launch a capability surprise on the adversary at Zojilla in 1948.
Capability Enhancement of T90S
The Army has been operating in counter insurgency environment for the past three decades. Yet it still is finding it difficult to fully secure villages and country side from an elusive enemy. Conventional operations in mountains and high altitudes too have their peculiarities. Terrain and battle induced obscuration due to smoke/dust could impact accuracies of PGMs on the one hand while uncontrolled exploitation of platforms can give away own position on the other. Apart from enhancing protection and physical mobility, a host of other measures can increase the staying power of the T90. Near real time situational awareness using tactical internet, tactical satellite communications and information fusion to keep track of own or hostile forces are such capabilities. Battlefield agility can also be greatly enhanced from an extensive system of networked sensors that would provide near-complete situational awareness around the vehicle. Condition based monitoring can help map non mission capable rates as also residual equipment capability of the platforms at LAC. Given below are some concrete ideas on capability enhancement of the T90S:-
Internal combustion engines end up losing up to 40 % of their power in high altitudes, impacting physical mobility. It is important to replace the existing 920 hp engine with a more powerful 1300-1350 hp modern engine offering higher reliability and better fuel efficiency. This will provide a high power to weight ratio for propulsion. Higher reliability and engine life of around 2000 hours will ramp up operational availabilities and hence staying power of these machines. A de-novo power pack upgrade would be more beneficial than uprating of the existing engine which seems to have reached its peak power technologically. Any attempt to flog the dead horse will only result in delays and time overruns of the kind seen in the much delayed T72 engine upgrade programme.
While the tank is well protected against frontal attacks, an analysis of its vulnerabilities will point to the need for hardening from sides and against top attack. The T72s have been seen lately with slat armour, possibly as a protection against HEAT projectiles. Its effectiveness is however questionable. ERA panels could become an exercise of diminishing returns as it will constrain tank crews to operate with hatches down and inhibit infantry from moving too close to tanks. A primary requirement of armour in mountains is to shield infantry and punch through defences that come in the way as was done in Zojilla. I would recommend fitment of modular composite armour comprising ceramic, composites and titanium tiles on top that would be effective against both ATGMs and Self Forging Fragments. Costs would be an issue but that price will be duly offset by the increaed survivability from top attack. Active protection systems may be evaluated for efficacy, specially in HAA both from the reaction time (less than 300 milliseconds) as well as battlefield clutter which could induce latency in detection by the system.
Tactical Internet and Satcom
Tactical internet is essential to pass battle command and situational awareness data.Communications are a very crucial function of a complex system like a tank. It permits not only radio communication but also sensors to communicate. It is important to plan for operations in a contested electromagnetic spectrum. It is time to work on a layered system of computers, radios and software to enable real time processing and fusion of information to provide a common operating picture. Low data rate satcom terminals (2mbps) and medium data rate terminals (20 mbps) could form part of combat teams to provide redundancies in communication. The tanks needs to have abiities to communicate securely in HAA, something the designers had never envisaged.
Masking and Hardening
Masking of thermal, IR and optical signatures is important as real time surveillance could play a significant role in degrading the combat power of a fighting force. The PLA has a clear advantage in the sphere of remote sensing and hence suitable preventive measures need to be put in place to retain surprise. In addition, selective hardening of tank electronics against high powered microwave attacks needs to be considered.
Condition Based Monitoring
The tanks at LAC need to be sensor enabled to allow condition monitoring of selected systems to assess residual equipment capability. To start with predictive monitoring of the engine, transmission and running gear could be taken up to ensure that a predetermined residual combat capability is always available in the tank to cater for any unforeseen requirements.
The Army needs to understand the difference between obsolescence and vulnerabilities. Managing obsolenscence requires plugging of vulnerabilities during overhaul. The Merkava, Abrams and Leapord are all designs of the eighties but have incorporated major lessons from Yom Kippur war and other conflicts by inserting technology to keep these platforms operationally effective in the modern battle field. On the other hand, despite the vulnerability of T series TCVs being evident since the T62s, little effort was made to address the same. However, now that the the present conflict has demonstrated serious capability gaps, Army needs to look at options to make the T90s tougher, capable of taking hits and continue fighting with band aid measures. The ability of maintenance surge in the TBA, something that was a major limitation of the Russian side is indispensible. A well planned close engineering support capability is critical to regenerating platforms, providing a tactical advantage. One has to recall the widely acclaimed efforts of Israeli maintainers to regenerate close to 300 tanks in 2-3 days, after the initial battering by the Egyptian Army using Sagger ATGMs. This sudden ramping up of force ratios enabled the Israeli Army to restore balance. This diminishing art perfected by Rommel`s Spanner Patrols needs to be revived as an indispensable part of any operational strategy at the LAC. Modern maintenance engineering practices like equipment capability gap assessment, medium refits, additive manufacturing and self sufficiency of ready to fight spares need to intitutionalised as best practices, to be monitored by the commanders themselves
The current conflict in Ukraine has emphatically demonstrated that short, sharp wars are a fallacy. The narrative built over the years of intervention by big powers and international institutions has been proved wrong. We need to be prepared for protracted fights of varying intensity with the stronger power calling the shots. The Army has to accept that its deployments at the LAC could be effectively challenged some day. It is therefore important to build all round integrated capabilities. This requires a well planned acquisition and technology insertion strategy linked to capability gaps. Time to innovate ahead of the world and create bespoke weapon platforms that have the staying power for protracted operations at LAC.