Armor: All Seeing Eyes For Tanks


May 14, 2019: British defense firm BAE has developed an add-on external camera system for armored vehicles that enables each member of the crew to view the outside of the tank via one or more of four high-res (1920x1200) external vidcams. These external vidcams are the heart of the MVP (Multifunction Vehicle Protection) system that not only provides external views day or night but can also link to various ADS (Active Defense Systems) on the vehicle. ADS can intercept incoming missiles or rocket-propelled armor piercing warheads (RPGs) and is more effective the more data it has about incoming threats.

Each camera provides 120 degree vertical and 75 degree horizontal views and together provide 360 degree (all around) views of what is going on outside. With this capability, vehicle commander no longer has to stick their heads and shoulders up through a turret hatch to get a better view. MVP can also link to audio sensors that work with video sensors to automatically detect where enemy fire is coming from. The United States is testing MVP on their M2 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle). The American M1A2 tank already has a similar system and is upgrading that to a more advanced version (M1A2 Sep 3) that adds more protection from armor-piercing tank shells as well as missiles and RPGs. The virtue of the MVP is that it can easily be added to the many tanks that lack such visibility features. This approach has been tested in combat by the American M1 for over a decade so there is no doubt that it, and various upgrades during the last decade, provides a considerable advantage.

The U.S. Army began their SEP2/3 (System Enhancement Package) upgrades in mid-2017 and these were meant to build on visibility features MVP provides. The SEP program is upgrading M1A2 tanks to the new SEP3 standard as well as upgrading more M1A2SEPs to the SEP2 level. These upgrades keep the M1, or at least some of them, competitive with more recently designed and built tanks. The U.S. (mainly the army) has about a thousand of the SEP2 upgrade M1A2s and wants to up to half of that upgraded to SEP3 by 2020, the earliest date for the M2A3 upgrade will show up. That one will have major upgrades to the tank software and whatever upgrades are available for the engine, armor and electronics. A major upgrade is adding the capability to use advanced (some guided missiles) projectiles from the 120mm smoothbore gun. There may also be an ADS added as well. The specifics of M1A3 were not set until 2018 because much of the tech was still in development or getting its first combat experience. What isn’t ready in the early 2020s can be added with the M1A3SEP. MVP notes this integration of multiple systems in the SEP program and makes compatibility with other systems a key feature of MVP.

The original M1A2SEP was developed in the late 1990s and upgraded the armor and a few other minor fixes. There were other urban warfare upgrades, because of what was encountered after 2003 in Iraq. This was called TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit) and evolved into the SEP2 upgrade. TUSK was installed on hundreds of tanks headed for Iraq as well as several hundred more M1s that had battle damage repaired and TUSK upgrades installed at the same time.

TUSK entered service in 2007 with reactive armor panels for the side and rear of the tank, to provide added protection from RPGs. A slat armor panel protects the engine exhaust outlet of the tank from RPGs. A 1.5 ton belly armor kit, which can be installed in two hours, provides additional protection from mines and large bombs. Enhancements also include night vision for all crew members. There is also a telephone added to the side of the tank, so that infantry can more easily communicate with the crew when the tank is "buttoned up" (all hatches closed). The complete TUSK kit costs about $500,000 per vehicle and takes about twelve hours to install all the components. Later additions to TUSK included a rear-view camera for the driver and RWS (remote weapons station) so the commanders' .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun could be operated from inside the tank. This is particularly useful if the tank is taking a lot of small arms fire. This led to providing all-round vidcam views of what was going on outside the tank.

The M1A2SEP2 made most of the TUSK items standard and added more improvements like the RWS for the 12.7mm machine-gun as standard, as well in computer hardware (including color flat screen displays) and software (including a new operating system) improved TUSK ERA (explosive reactive armor), making the external phone standard and upgrading the transmission to make it more reliable.

The SEP3 that enters service in 2017 includes more improvements in the TUSK armor and RWS, electricity generation and distribution (for all the electronic gadgets that need recharging or whatever), upgraded communications and networking, installation of VHMS (Vehicle Health Management System) and the use of LRMs (Line Replaceable Modules) to make it easier to upgrade or repair problems. The new communications features include ADL (Ammunition DataLink) to use airburst rounds. There are also an improved counter-IED armor package, an upgraded FLIR (night vision heat sensor) and an APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) under armor to run electronics while stationary instead of the engine.

So far over 10,000 American M1 tanks have been produced and most of them subsequently updated at least once (mainly in the 1990s). The army is planning to maintain and upgrade its M1 tank fleet (some 7,000 of them) into the 2030s. The M1 has already been in service since the 1980s and may become the first MBT (main battle tank) design to stay in service for half a century. Technically, some World War II tanks achieved that dubious goal but not in the service of a major power.

The electronics on the M1 have undergone several upgrades so far, in addition to the larger main gun. More equipment has been added for urban warfare (an outside phone, cameras, reactive armor side panels, thermal sights, and shields for the external machine-guns) and new ammo types for the main gun have been developed. A major enhancement was depleted uranium armor, which made the M1 virtually invulnerable from the front.

The one remaining item in need of major improvement is the 1,500 horsepower gas turbine engine. Past improvements here included electronic monitors on many engine components, an electronic logbook (to record all pertinent engine activity), and a maintenance program that makes the most of all this data. If the engine is monitored closely and constantly, it's possible to carry out maintenance in a more timely (before something fails) manner. The army would also like to develop an improved (more efficient and less expensive to maintain) engine, but that is also a costly item they can't afford at the moment.

New anti-tank weapons are always being developed and the army wants to at least be able to afford new gear to deal with new threats. One threat that is currently ignored is top attack warheads (that put a shaped charge type attack against the thin top armor). There are also new types of mines and electronic threats. If the M1 is to survive for half a century it will have to evolve, as well as endure.

The M1 Abrams tank is considered the best combat proven tank in the world. But there are many different models of M1s, which vary considerably in their combat capability. The earliest model is only about half as capable as the M1A2 SEP model. The first of 3,273 M1 Abrams tanks were produced in 1978. This version had a 105mm gun. The first of 4,796 M1A1s (with a 120mm gun and depleted uranium armor) was produced in 1985 (plus 221 for the U.S. Marines, 555 co-produced with Egypt and another 200 M1A1s for Egypt). Production of the M1A2 (with improved fire control systems) began in 1986, with 77 for the US Army, 315 for Saudi Arabia, and 218 for Kuwait. Another 600 M1s were upgraded to M1A2 standards. Deliveries of these upgrades began in 1998. In 2001 the army began to upgrade 240 M1A2 tanks with better thermal imaging and fire control equipment as well as communications and computer equipment that would allow tanks to operate a full color "battlefield internet" with each other, as well as headquarters and warplanes with similar equipment. By 2013 the army had upgraded 700 tanks to the M1A2SEP standard and built another 240 new M1A2SEP vehicles. The goal is to get at least 2,000 upgraded to M1A2SEP or higher by 2020.




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