With Russia in Mind, BAE Revives Light Tank from the ’90s

BAE Systems M8 tank

U.S. military brass say Russia is the top threat, so companies are pitching arms for a new European battlefield…even if there is no money to buy them.

As the Army steps up the complexity of its combat training, companies are looking at new, futuristic arms tailored for high-end war with Russia and China. But some old ideas are being revived as well.

That’s how a small tank, built and tested in the 1990s, found its way back to the exhibit hall at the largest military trade show in the United States.

“The intent of what we have out here is a conversation starter,” said Deepak Bazaz, BAE Systems’ director of New and Amphibious Vehicles, standing by his company’s M8 Armored Gun System.

Army leaders of yesteryear envisioned a tank that could be dropped onto the battlefield by a C-130 cargo plane. Now Army brass is considering a fleet of lighter, more agile vehicles that could reach the battlefield faster, from the sky instead of from ships.

The Army does not a formal requirement yet for what it calls a mobile protected firepower unit, but it could soon, prompting BAE to bring the unit to the Association of the U.S. Army annual gathering in Washington.

The Army suspended work on a similar project in the mid-1990s, “but the need really remains,” Bazaz said. “It’s emerging again with the changing world that we live in.”

Next to the tank, a flat-screen television played grainy two-decade-old video clips. Unlike armored vehicles and tanks now on the battlefield, the light tank here has no bells and whistles yet. The plan is to put modern electronics and sensor gear on after the Army figures out what it wants.

“There’s a lot of interest that’s starting to form,” Bazaz said. The “82nd Airborne still sees this as a very valid requirement that has remained unmet.”

The tank essentially would replace soldiers on the battlefield. It could destroy enemy tanks or larger vehicles that can withstand handheld weapons.

“The intent would be to drop this behind enemy lines to take an airfield,” Bazaz said. “[Then] you could start bringing in your heavier equipment.”

The Army practiced this type of combat assault of a guarded airfield during a major exercise at the National Training Center in August.

BAE built six of these tanks back in the ’90s. They all still exist, but the condition of each prototype varies with the testing they received. Some have been dropped from cranes, others C-130s to make sure they could withstand the force of an airdrop.

The new tank, the M8, is similar to the Sheridan tanks that the Army used in the Vietnam War.

The tracked tank sports a 105-millimeter cannon, carries a three-man crew, and weighs 35,000 pounds. With additional armor, its weight can pass 50,000 pounds. It can speed along at 45 miles per hour. One can fit in a C-130 airlifter; three can fit inside a larger C-17.

Company officials say more modern equipment could reduce the tank’s weight. For example, the M8 has an older-model 500-horsepower Detroit Diesel engine. A more modern engine could free up hundreds or even a thousand pounds, Bazaz said.

The Army has asked companies how they could fill its needs for a light tank. But whether it could afford the project is a different story.

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