Stealthier Tanks Are On The Way

A Challenger II main battle tank from the United Kingdom fires its main gun. U.S. Army Europe and the German Army co-host the third Strong Europe Tank Challenge at Grafenwoehr Training Area, June 3 - 8, 2018.

U.S. Army / Kevin S. Abel

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A Challenger II main battle tank from the United Kingdom fires its main gun. U.S. Army Europe and the German Army co-host the third Strong Europe Tank Challenge at Grafenwoehr Training Area, June 3 - 8, 2018.

Several tech trends will make tomorrow’s tanks harder to spot — and that may have strategic implications.

Truly game-changing technology does not develop in isolation. It results from the convergence of multiple trends and usually the combination of multiple technologies.

For example, today’s social-media platforms did not arise from internet connectivity alone. Rather, they evolved iteratively over multiple generations of technological development, incorporating the miniaturization of digital cameras, the increase in portable computing power of smartphones, and advances in cellular connectivity.

In that context, a cluster of technological trends may be converging to produce a potentially transformative battlefield capability: “stealth tanks.” This concept is not new and there is no certainty that these new technological developments will fully scale or prove operationally effective. But as these technologies develop they hint at possibilities that warrant serious discussion about their potential application to armored vehicles, as well as their operational and politico-strategic implications.

By “stealth,” we do not mean invisibility. Rather, it is a collection of technologies designed to reduce an object’s observable signature, thereby making detection more difficult. Even if temporary or incomplete, stealth provides a significant tactical advantage. Aircraft achieve stealth through a decreased radar cross section which incredibly complicates detection.

For a tank to be “stealthy,” its key observable qualities must be masked or concealed. Specifically, tanks are loud and emit substantial heat. Therefore, constructing a “stealth tank” would necessitate the reduction of these signatures, resulting in a quieter tank with a low infrared, or IR, signature.

Of the two, heat is the greatest concern, as most targeting systems use IR. Recent research on ion-soaked graphene sheets provides an exciting possibility. This thin and simple material can shield an object’s thermal signature and even match the surrounding temperature if actively manipulated. Applied to the surface of a tank, graphene sheets could eliminate or significantly reduce a tank’s IR signature.

If this concept effectively scales up, of which there is no certainty, it may be simpler and more cost-effective to implement than current options for IR camouflage. IR sensors are ubiquitous among modern militaries and many antitank missiles like the American FGM-148 Javelin are IR-guided. Masking a tank’s IR signature would therefore make it difficult to both detect and target them with precision munitions.

Advancements in electric vehicles may also contribute to stealth by reducing noise and heat. Currently, a team of defense contractors, including SAIC and Lockheed Martin, is working to construct the first U.S. electric tank prototype; two demonstration vehicles are expected to be built by 2022. Moreover, the U.S. has expressed interest in military vehicles which generate their own electricity.

While battery weight is a problem for electric vehicles—especially for energy-intensive tanks that would require substantial battery power—the U.S. could consider a “series hybrid” approach like the original Chevrolet Volt or a “parallel hybrid” approach like diesel submarines. This would require a careful balancing requirements against battery weight and simplicity.

Passive stealth is fine, until you need to fire a round and thereby reveal your position. But even here, there are several options for retaining the advantage of stealth. (Of course, “jockeying” and defensive maneuvering to avoid detection and counter fire is, and will remain, a fundamental skill for tank drivers.)In the medium term, advanced networks and sensors, combined with emerging robotics, could create a “gun buggy” model similar to preliminary F-35 operational concepts. In this case, “stealth tanks” would refrain from firing themselves and instead direct remote autonomous platforms to deliver ordinance. These platforms would serve as organic mobile artillery and indirect fire support in a network-centric approach to warfare, allowing the coordinating tank to remain undetected.

In the longer term, there is the possibility of stealthier weapons. Miniaturization and tactical application of early-stage advanced weapons, like directed energy or rail guns, have great potential if they develop sufficiently and overcome their current limitations, such as energy requirements. Directed energy would be truly stealthy in that it bears no visual or audible profile, but it is unlikely to be as destructive as rail guns. An ideal model might involve using both in a co-axial arrangement.

If these technologies are brought together to enable comprehensive stealth for military ground vehicles, the key benefit would be survivability. By evading detection, “stealth tanks” would be much less vulnerable and therefore could gain greater flexibility on the battlefield, opening opportunities for greater operational unpredictability.

This concept of “stealth tanks” bears significant politico-strategic implications. Greater survivability reduces political risks and could result in lighter and faster designs that might allow easier deployment, enabling more regular application of that capability. If stealth technology enabled the development of more survivable lighter and faster tanks, they could add firepower to Stryker brigades, be employed in a wider range of operational tasks, and even contribute to special operations and hybrid conflicts.

Despite the apparent advantages, there are limitations to the implementation of this technology. Significant electrical power is central to enabling most of the technology needed for stealth, but the weight and efficiency of batteries will be a limiting factor. That said, increasing adoption of commercial electric vehicles will likely accelerate developments in this area, and reducing the fuel requirements of the current armored fleet would have significant strategic and operational implications in and of itself.

All of aspects of this concept would need thorough testing to explore the opportunities, risks, and limitations of stealthy ground vehicles. However, the convergence of individually interesting, though not obviously significant, technological advancements has the potential to revolutionize one of the most critical facets of land warfare. Comprehensive stealth would have wide-ranging implications for future operating concepts and strategic decision-making. Although decades will pass before anyone truly understands these implications, it is imperative to begin conceptualizing a reality where “stealth tanks” stalk the future battlefield.

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