Revisiting Battlefield Mobility: Wheeled Combat Vehicles

Sub Title : Pragmatic solutions to resolve the dilemma between wheeled and tracked vehicles

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue Mar/Apr 2019

Author : Lt Gen NB Singh, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 52

Category : Military Technology

: April 22, 2019

The changing nature of warfare and the operational scenarios prevailing in our context have generated much debate about wheeled versus tracked combat vehicles. The author analyses the issue and suggests pragmatic solutions to resolve the dilemma

“You keep moving and the enemy cannot hit you. When you dig a foxhole, you dig your grave. An Army must be capable of rapid movement’’ -Gen George S Patton

Mobility is defined as the ability of forces to move freely and rapidly over the terrain of interest, generally hostile to accomplish a host of combat objectives. Mobility, regarded as a vital component of the modern battlefield, is the ability to deliver weapon systems or combat units to their objective quickly, which can often mean the difference between victory and defeat. Armies around the world have massively increased their mobility over the last one hundred years. A weapon platform’s gross vehicle weight (GVW) and its footprint (area of the tyre or track impacting the ground) determine the resultant ground pressure that is exerted on the ground. Lesser the ground pressure, more mobile is the platform. It is a common saying that tracks are for deserts while wheels are for mountains. The Indian Army still prefers to use tracked combat vehicles (TCV) in the mountains in place of wheeled combat vehicles (WCV).

The evolving battlefield of this century will necessitate employment of self sufficient, distributed and dispersed manoeuvre groups from several directions to secure a breakthrough and allow a rapid buildup of force ratios. There will be increased focus on smaller, signature-controlled forces, with small footprints supported by precision fires. New threats demand a novel approach and different set of capabilities. On the future battlefield, if you stay in one place longer than two or three hours, you will be dead. With enemy drones and sensors constantly on the hunt for targets, force survivability will be a challenge. Even in the context of hybrid warfare and Pulwama type attacks, WCVs can enhance survivability of troops engaged in counter insurgency operations, either during move to areas of impending action or while closing in and neutralizing terrorists holed up in built up areas; actions where significant number of avoidable casualties have occurred in the recent past.

In the ongoing modernization of our northern neighbor, it is reported that the thrust for land forces has been on acquiring equipment comparable to other militaries, with capabilities to generate combat power across a wide spectrum of war fighting and a special focus on high quality human resource to carry out remote multi-dimensional manoeuvre actions and special operations using a host of breakout technologies in areas such as nuclear deterrence, power projection, cyber space, space and electromagnetic spectrum operations. China launched its highest resolution imagery satellite, Gaofen-II in July 2018. There is a discussion on new concept of operations emphasizing an effects based application of combat power to neutralize key nodes, degrade enemy’s capabilities and achieve operational objectives in quick time frames by producing mass effects on the adversary. The substantial buildup of equipment including armoured vehicles close to Doklam is reflective of this intent. The transformation of armoured and infantry units as combined arms brigades is nearing completion, as are doctrinal changes on the employment of ground forces.

To the west, recent events have reinforced the need to ramp up conventional deterrence in order to respond to the actions of a reckless and irrational nation, with its ever changing internal dynamics. Given this backdrop, the contemplated transformational initiative to create Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) in the Indian Army is a welcome step. One can hope that it propels the IBG to new levels of operational effectiveness and combat power generation with unique capabilities for precise, trans theatre, multifunctional and sustainable combat operations. A key component of such a capability would be inter and intra theatre mobility with concomitant combat force self sufficiency.

Wheels Vs Tracks

The general impression is that tracked vehicles offer low ground pressure and hence are more mobile. However in a number of contingencies, WCVs perform more effectively such as CI, riverine, mountains & high altitudes, obstacle ridden terrain and built up areas, where lateral move of TCVs is restricted. WCVs are superior for missions that require tactical roles involving more than 70% road moves and limited off road moves as in mountains. For vehicles requiring a high level of tactical mobility like 60-70% off road, WCVs are competitive with TCVs up to 25-30 tonnes GVW. Above this, WCVs become complex and big sized shifting the advantage to TCVs, as the slip increases in WCVs causing it to get stuck in soft terrains. TCVs end up tearing roads and could block vital lines of communications in mountains in case of failure during approach marches. Tracks get dislodged easily, are difficult to repair and have shorter life.

Modern AFVs are impressively mobile as can be seen during demonstrations, exercises and parades. But keeping them that way is a back breaking activity. Ask any EME technician or a tank crew. Moving 50-60 tonnes of armour and weapons around in open country or in mountains and high altitudes is not easy, it puts a lot of stress on the tank`s mobility system, implying that TCVs need a lot of maintenance to keep these up and running. A heavy armoured formation in the US Army has about 20% maintainers. A lot of time is spent by technicians and crews fixing track pin breaks, track sheds and faults in mobility system, the operational implication of which is lesser number of TCVs being available after a road march. WCVs are capable of self deploying over long distances and the crew arrives in the operational areas relatively less fatigued. In 2004 in Iraq, after a 27 hour road march in the Stryker ,a quick reaction force under Gen Patraeus reached the site in a ready to fight condition because of the comfort provided by the mobility system of the Stryker.

WCVs are far more reliable and 50% faster than a TCV in general. They are more manoeuvrable on roads/ tracks and in the mountains where cross country movement is limited. TCVs are closer to the ground and hence more blast energy is transmitted to the hull. In Iraq and Afghanistan IEDs with 5-15 kgs of explosives produced minor damage on WCVs. Even a 40 kg IED flipped the WCV, but the crew walked out safely, thanks to the V- hull bottom. With brake steering transmission technology, WCVs can even execute skid steer, which is very handy while operating in built up areas.

Employment of WCVs

WCVs are better in moving large masses of troops over long distances thus facilitating rapid deployment. Due to non linearity of the battlefield and likelihood of long range precision fires, survivability of Infantry assumes great importance and herein come the WCVs, offering protection against artillery fragments and small caliber direct fires. In the context of war fighting up North, the need for light ground forces riding on wheels comes into prominence, for rapid response or intervention in the initial stages of preemption. They are more appropriate than the traditional carrier (2.5 tonne based) for patrolling and domination of large stretches of land, because of the wide weapon mix that can be carried and enhanced survivability of Infantry. Future technological breakthroughs can give WCVs combat power exceeding today`s standards. Technologies like soft recoil and rail gun could compensate for weight loss. It would be feasible to develop a 30-35 tonne wheeled tank in the future for the northern borders, in place of the 40-45 tonne TCVs of today. One major advantage of WCVs is the lean engineering support and logistic footprint needed to support them. Certain operational advantages of WCVs are discussed below:-

• Mobility. Mobility has generally been defined in terms of three recognized levels of warfare: tactical, operational, and strategic. Tactical mobility is the ability to move under fire. Operational mobility is the ability to move men and military material to the decisive point of battle. Strategic mobility is the ability to move a formation to the area of operations. Most WCVs fall in the sub 25 tonne weight class and score over TCVs wrt strategic mobility. As far as operational mobility is concerned these can relocate within a theatre rapidly as they need less fuel to cover longer distances and have higher average marching speeds due to lesser rolling resistance, a big advantage in mountains. Tactical mobility comprises mobility needed when in direct contact with the adversary; good off road mobility to evade offensive enemy action and exploit gaps , as well as agility – a combination of high speed, pick up and manoeuvrability for situational response. The TCVs score here due to their low ground pressures of 200 -270 KN/m square in soft terrains like sand and snow. On winding roads and tracks of the mountains and in high altitudes WCVs will excel offering higher operational reliability and availability.

• Protection. Without adequate protection a lean, agile combat force will not be able to move in accordance with the operational tempos planned. Survivability can be considered under active, passive and signature reduction. Active protection entails all types of hard and soft kill options to divert or destroy incoming guided weapons. Active protection is generally suited for WCVs over 25 tonne GVW. Passive protection comprises sandwich armour and reactive armour. Reactive armour is ruled out for vehicles below 30 tonne GVW, in any case the concept is now passé as it is less effective against tandem charges and kinetic energy projectiles besides becoming life threatening to dismounted infantry. Adjustable armour in the form of modular armour packs are also used against shoulder fired rockets and cannons. WCVs can withstand mine damage and limp back to operating base and offer better underbelly protection than TCVs e.g. the German ATF-2. TCVs do offer low silhouette but WCVs too are giving similar advantages with advanced power trains and trailing arm suspension. Acoustic signature of WCVs is lower than TCVs.

• Firepower. WCVs have been equipped with 105 mm guns like the Chinese ZBL-09. Even a 120 mm soft recoil gun has been experimentally mounted. Rail and coil guns could be lighter but need more space for ammunition stowage. WCVs are good to mount artillery systems as these do not fire on the move. Firing lighter weapons (30-50mm) at higher rate of fire could provide a first round organic direct fire capability to the Infantry, sufficient to meet majority of threats in today`s context.

• Reliability. WCVs are less prone to running defects due to simpler design and ability to run flat for certain distances. These can easily do 6000 to 8000km without mission critical failures. The broke to fix time is also shorter than TCVs.

• Costs. WCVs have a significant acquisition cost advantage due to use of COTS items; besides, operating and support costs could be one third of TCVs.

Family of Vehicles

Infantry heavy formations could be developed either as a full spectrum rapid response force or aself sufficient specialized mountain warfare outfit capable of taking on a first rate adversary – an exercise best left to the Brains Trust of the Army. I will only bring out that most missions of these outfits could be adequately met by a family of WCVs as under:-

• A light 4×4, 3 to 4 tonne category capable of carrying a squad (4-5 soldiers) for reconnaissance/patrolling and area domination missions along the fence and LAC. A pair of such vehicles could operate as a section strength team. It could also be used as a command and control vehicle. A bespoke 4×4 MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) version can be developed for operations in the valley.

• A medium 6×6, 15-20 tonne category for rapid move of infantry men in full battle loads as a rapid intervention or rapid response vehicle to battle areas where the WCV could provide precision high caliber organic fire support to dismounted infantry, like anti terrorist operations in the valley or incursions in the north. From survivability angle, not more than half a section need be carried, so as not to put too many eggs in a single basket. It could also be used by sappers, air defence, casualty evacuation teams and repair & recovery elements.

• A heavy 8×8, 30-35 tonne category could be developed to carry heavy tube artillery, MLRS, missiles, tank destroyers, heavy armoured gun system.

A ground force equipped with such a family of vehicles, suitably armed could execute a wide spectrum of combat missions in the emerging military landscape, with good survivability. Going by the fundamental philosophy of preemption that is ingrained in the battle procedure of our adversary, rapid response will always be sine qua non for combat operations. Rapid response forces need to build up in quick time in the intended area of operations either to stabilize a situation or exploit a breakthrough and nothing better than a build up initiated by a light category of WCVs, followed by medium and finally heavy elements. Such forces could also be deployed in a host of combat tasks in plains, deserts and amphibious territories. Heavy armoured elements while being effectively employable in deserts and plains end up being of limited use in mountains and HAA because of limited deployability and the resultant chaos caused once a single system gets immobilized on the line of communication, due to enemy action or mission critical failures. If one track is hit, it is done for the TCV. The operational effectiveness of WCVs in counter insurgency operations has been widely demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The versatility of WCV (LAV III) was established in “Op Medusa“ in Afghanistan in Sep-Oct 2006, a battle fought entirely by motorized infantry against an enemy with substantial number of anti armour weapons.

India Specific Performance Parameters

Needless to mention that such a family of WCVs will have to be engineered with India specific features by our own innovators. It needs to be centered around an indigenous duty cycle. Though the Stryker was designed around a duty cycle of 20% road only and 80% cross country moves, it ended up being used for 80% road moves in Iraq. For deserts and plains the duty cycle would have to be configured differently. Indian WCVs will have to have some unique technical features like derateable powerpacks, CV/mechanical transmissions, battery heating, solar battery charging, electric drives, cold start, retarders, EMP proof electronics, two stage radiator, dual start, etc. In addition, these vehicles must offer specific advantages from the systems engineering point of view, like modularity, reliability, high combat pulse availability, thru life readiness and low life cycle costs.

The ongoing reorganization of the Army has to be complemented by purposeful revamp of personnel and hardware i.e. soldier readiness and equipment readiness. Mere organizational changes and forward basing of formations are not enough. It has to be supported by core operational capabilities that remain mission capable 24×7, 360 degrees. IBGs have to adopt the mantra of integrated readiness and combat force self sufficiency of all its components. The development of a family of wheeled combat vehicles along with customized weapon mounts could be a start point, mobility being a fundamental principle of war. It is sure to turbo charge defence manufacturing, providing the armed forces with bespoke weapon platforms proudly Made in India.