Tensions between Russia and the West continue to build, as the US announced last Tuesday that they would be moving tanks and heavy artillery to strategic locations across Eastern Europe. The decision comes only weeks after Russia debuted a new fleet of armored vehicles, including the much-hyped T-14 Armata main battle tank (MBT), which represents a major jump in MBT design. Together, these are among several leading indicators that heavy armor may be coming back into style after decades of post-Cold War neglect.
While the US and their allies spent billions on vehicles like the MRAP, which was used in Iraq and Afghanistan, those are the combat equivalent of the armored trucks tasked with maintaining your neighborhood ATM: they have enough armor for everyday protection against small arms and IEDs, but you wouldn't want to drive one into a slugging match with a tank. Tanks and their armored brethren — collectively referred to as armored fighting vehicles — are designed specifically to go toe-to-toe with other heavily armed and armored vehicles.
The T-14 Armata, Russia's new cutting-edge tank, was introduced on May 9, at the Victory Parade in Moscow. The Armata is one of the newest and most radical tank designs seen in more than 20 years.
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The most drastic change is the introduction of an unmanned turret. The remote-controlled turret allows the gunner to stay protected inside the tank rather than being exposed, as they are in other tanks. It also features a new active protection system, which offers a 360-degree view of the tank's environment and allows the crew to shoot down both incoming missiles and tank rounds.
You need big things, heavy things, well-protected things.
And while the tank's features come as no real shock to industry insiders, Jon Hawkes, of IHS Jane's, said that Russia's new armor still puts other nations on notice, and will of course influence plans as other countries begin upgrading their own aging fleets.
"The reveal of Russia's new vehicle fleets bore no major surprises from the expectations that had been built up over the past two or three years," Hawkes told VICE News. "The exact configuration and design was not quite as envisaged, but the approximate capabilities and specifications are essentially as we predicted."
Germany will be among the first European tank makers to take on the Russians — at least on the design front — as they announced their own plans to update their MBT, the Leopard 2, less than three weeks after the Russians debuted the Armata. The Germans will be conducting joint capability studies with France, set to run through 2018, before deciding on a design.
But new tanks aren't the only ones the Germans want. In April, the German military announced that they will be buying back 100 used Leopard 2s that they'd sold off several years ago and which have been in storage ever since. They plan to modernize the older tanks to get them back in service — a way to build up their forces while they wait for newer, more capable vehicles.
While the timing of Germany's announcement could be mere coincidence, that's not the whole story, said Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher for the Arms and Military Expenditure Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). After the Cold War, there was a very significant reduction in the number of heavy armored vehicles. Most countries expected to be participating more in peacekeeping or out-of-area operations, for which lighter vehicles, such as the MRAP, were ideal. But as tensions between Russia and the West have increased, so has the desire for heavy armored vehicles.
"In Europe, with the tension with Russia, there is a very growing fear that to tackle that you need top-end armored vehicles, and you see the Germans reacting to that with their Leopard 2 tanks by buying back from the industry what they sold a number of years ago and preparing for new tanks and buying new heavy infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers," Wezeman told VICE News. "You can't go in there with a light armored vehicle, light helicopters. You need big things, heavy things, well-protected things."
The US, Wezeman added, will not be left out. "Heavy armored vehicles, tanks, a successor to the M1, and certainly new infantry fighting vehicles are things we need to invest in, because what we have is just not good enough for potentially fighting against an enemy that is very heavily armed or at least is very strong and capable at tank weapons," he said.
And yet, the US doesn't currently have a new MBT planned; the upgraded M1A3 model of the Abrams tank, originally slated to be combat-ready by 2017, has been pushed back, with research and development now set to start sometime in the 2020s. Instead, the Army has been working for years to develop something to replace the M2 Bradley, which has been in service since the early '80s. Plans for the new vehicle — the current incarnation is called the Future Fighting Vehicle (FFV) — come two years after the cancellation of the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program, the last bid for a new IFV.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman, speaking to VICE News on background, was quick to say that these developments did not point to a resurgence in armor — as armor had never died in the US. Unlike the European countries, the US has always maintained its armored vehicle fleet. "In the US, there has been a much longer idea of keeping those heavy armored forces," Wezeman told VICE News. "The US hasn't forgotten what happened in the Gulf War and in 1990, '91, when they were the ones who bore the brunt of the combat fighting, and they haven't forgotten what happened in 2003 in Iraq or Afghanistan, for which you needed heavy equipment."
Though only the FFV is currently in development — $28 million contracts have been awarded to BAE Systems, the makers of the Bradley, as well as General Dynamics Land Systems to develop design concepts — there are three more potential vehicles in the pipeline, including an air-transportable light tank.
While the sudden uptick in orders for armored vehicles appears to represent a resurgence of interest in a sector of the defense industry that has long laid dormant, the industry itself doesn't seem to consider it much news at all. The firms behind some of the biggest armor projects — Germany's Kraus-Maffei Wegmann, Russia's UralVagonZavod, and the US's General Dynamics Land Systems — couldn't be reached for comment. BAE Systems declined to comment, telling VICE News that they couldn't speculate on the future of the US military's armor program, or what it means for the industry.
Indeed, NATO's secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, swore up and down that this is not the start of another arms race. It's simply time for everyone to update their military vehicles to keep pace with the changing threats, he told reporters on Wednesday. And apparently that just happens to magically coincide with the debut of brand new Russian tank.
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And though the Western firms seem to want to keep mum, China's tank manufacturer, Norinco, has been unable to keep quiet about their own advancements. The Chinese firm appeared eager to join the fray when, following Russia's exhibition in May, they began trolling Russia's military on social media. The firm turned to WeChat, China's social networking app, to hype the VT-4, their own new — yet rather conventional — tank.
"The T-14's transmission is not well-developed, as we saw through a malfunction taking place during a rehearsal before the May 9 parade," Norinco said in a Chinese-language post on its official WeChat account. "The VT-4 has never encountered such problems so far. Our tanks also have world-class fire-control systems, which the Russians are still trying to catch up with."
Though the US has long been talking about a strategic direction more in line with rapidly deployable and strategically mobile forces not dissimilar from the MRAPs used in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hawkes told VICE News that the new developments seem more suited to the environment of Eastern Europe. Surely, between tensions increasing in Europe and a growing Chinese military, it's getting harder to tell for certain if the industry and government are merely responding to Putin's bluster and Russia's shiny new toys, or if there's a legitimate concern that a high-intensity, full-spectrum war is going to be back on the table after a multi-decade pause.
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Photo by Vitaly V. Kuzmin