Armor: The Comfy Chair

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April 7, 2009: Combat aircraft and armored fighting vehicles were developed within a few years of each other, nearly a century ago. While the tremendous advances in cockpit design (head-up displays, side stick flight controls, multi-function displays, ejection seats and so on) get lots of publicity, you don't hear much about similar advances in the design and layout of armored fighting vehicles, particularly tanks.

Compared to an aircraft cockpit, a tank is a much more complicated work space. This is especially true of the turret, where the commander, gunner and loader work. What complicates the design of the turret space is the main gun. Over the years this has grown in size, from 37mm early in World War II, to 105mm two decades later, to 120mm today. The gun dominates the work space, and everything else has to be designed around it.

In the 1970s, the Russians complicated the matter with the introduction of the automatic loader, to replace the human loader. It took the Russians several decades to get the autoloader working reliably and safely. Most Western tanks still don't use it, but that may change with the next generation of tanks. What Western tanks do have a lot of is electronics. In this respect, they kept up with cockpit design.

Another problem was space. The Russians and French designed their tanks to be compact, and requiring that all crew be less than 68 inches (1.7 meters) tall. These tanks were smaller, lighter and harder to detect and hit. But they were also cramped and uncomfortable. Russian and French engineers went to great lengths to come up with all manner of little touches to make life more comfortable, and efficient, in those cramped vehicles. That included more comfortable seats, sometimes heated.

The other major tank producers (the U.S., Britain, Germany and Israel), produced roomier tanks, with more crew amenities, and plenty of electronics. These tanks are air conditioned and plugged in. The Brits were the first to install an electric cooker (so hot tea could be brewed), and that proved to be such a morale booster, that other nations made similar arrangements.

If you ever get a chance to climb into a U.S. M-1 tank, the fact that you just seem to "fit in" the vehicle is no accident. It's the result of over 80 years of trying to get it just right.

 


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