Emerging technologies will change the way tanks are designed and perceived
It seems fashionable to proclaim that the ‘the end of the tank is near’. However, even as the debate rages, 10 major Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) programmes are going on throughout the world at an estimated cost of USD25 billion. These programmes range from the Russian T-14 Armata, the Polish PL-01, to the Chinese MBT 3000, the Japanese Type 30, US M-1 A3 Abrams, the Indian Arjun Mark II, a Franco-German joint development programme and even a US futuristic tank design programme under the name DARPA GXV-T. The pursuance of these programmes indicates that nations see an extended future for the tank, and perhaps the impending demise of the tank is highly exaggerated.
Yet, there is a change in tank design. The emphasis is not so much on the traditional norms of mobility, protection and firepower, but on developing the ‘brain’ of the tank—i.e., its situational awareness. Emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, Miniaturisation, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are being gradually incorporated which can help the machine virtually think for itself and make it completely integrated with its crew, the terrain and elements on the battlefield. The virtual intelligence which is being provided will bring a new dimension to tank warfare.
By 2030 or so, these new technologies would have become an integral part of life and society itself (especially AI and the IOT which would have permit machines to ‘talk’ to each other and make their own decisions). Their incorporation on the battlefield would also be but a matter of course. To see how they could be used, let us have a look at a fictional—or maybe not-so-fictional—scenario of a tank battle in 2030 and beyond.
Tank Battle 2030
Year 2030. A Combat Group, which is part of a Combat Command based on MBT 2020, moves across the Ladakh plateau. Hostilities had broken out 24 hours earlier and in the short intense war that was envisaged, they had been tasked to destroy the enemy’s mobile reserves in the area. The tanks moved easily across the high-altitude desert, their tracks adjusting their tension automatically as per the ground. Each tank was an intricate connection of sensors that enabled it to diagnose itself, and also keep track of the health of the engine, its components and sub-systems, heat and acoustic signatures and even the consumption of fuel, water, lubricants and ammunition. These ‘smart’ machines definitely made life easier for their crew, especially since they were also equipped with other niceties such as self-erecting camouflage nets, automatic temperature regulation and automatic logistics. Though each tank and ICV were buttoned down, the crew had complete situation awareness thanks to its Battlefield Management System (BMS) which provided complete and real-time information of the terrain, friendly forces, the enemy and the overall environment around it.
The Combat Group Commander peered down at the display unit of his own BMS. On the screen he could see a rolling terrain map, which indicated the going of the area ahead, giving audio and visual alarms when he approached areas of difficult going. His own position was clearly marked on the map with a prominent blue ‘X’ and small blue circles denoted the positions of each element of his Combat Group. He could see his squadrons, down to individual tank and ICV level, moving in formation on both flanks followed by the mechanised company, his engineer and air defence elements, and his immediate replenishment group and logistics echelons moving one bound behind. He zoomed out and expanded the area covered and could also see the position of his Combat Command Headquarters and flanking units. So far so good. All units were in place and seemed to be moving in perfect unison.
The image on his computer screen was viewed on the screens of each tank commander providing a level of situational awareness unheard of in earlier times. He was approaching the Key Battle Area now—an area where he hoped to contest an enemy Combat Group. His display unit showed no indicators of enemy activity, which would have been streamed directly to him from the drones operating ahead. Photo images from aircraft to satellites could also be downloaded directly on his BMS. He decided to send his recce elements further and ordered his recce troop to a bound around 10 kilometres ahead. No words were passed. He merely marked the location where he wanted his recce troop to move to with his stylus pen, drew a diagrammatic order for his recce leader and sent on the BMS. The order was received instantly. His BFSR beeped as the recce troop leader acknowledged it and then he smiled with satisfaction as the dots depicting his recce vehicles on his map display hurried away towards their designated position.
Another beep on his BMS informed him that his recce troop had reached its position. But they were still unable to detect anything. He would have to send them further ahead, but that would put them out of supporting range. So, his recce troop leader merely took out a miniaturised Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) just 3’x2’, tracked, capable of moving anywhere silently and loaded with thermal cameras, optical sensors, seismic sensors, laser designators and detection devices. The ROV had a range over 30km, endurance of over 12 hours and could be remotely operated from over five km away. Its solar batteries enabled auto solar charging even when on the move, allowing it to operate for long durations independently.
The ROV moved to the next dune, guided by a joystick held by the recce troop leader who activated its thermal cameras and seismic sensors. Its seismic sensors picked up movement towards the North East, and he manoeuvred the ROV towards it. As the ROV closed in, the troop leader remotely switched on its thermal cameras, scanned the area and homed on to a combat group size force moving towards them.
The images captured by the thermal cameras of the ROV were beamed back to the Combat Group Commander’s console in real time. He zoomed in and could identify the tanks—around a combat group of the enemy. The shadowing ROV now sent an invisible laser beam onto the enemy tank formation which was reflected back sending the exact GPS coordinates of their position. There was no embargo on GPS now, nor any fear that the satellite signals would be corrupted. Ever since India launched its own IRLSS programme, the military had its own safe and secure GPS communication channel.
The enemy coordinates showed as a red blip on his map display which was simultaneously visible to his entire Combat Group providing them advance information. Yet, he needed to confirm the information and asked his Adjutant to send up a hand-held UAV—now authorised to each unit. The UAV was hand launched and took off like a kite, guided on its flight path by a toggle switch, its movement monitored by a tablet. The UAV was invisible from the ground, using spectral camouflage, which deflected beams of light coming towards it. The UAV moved overhead unseen and its cameras scanned the ground below giving a virtual bird’s eye view of the enemy and its activities which was transmitted directly to the Combat Group Commander’s monitor of his BMS.
His ROV and UAV had given enough information about the strength, disposition and move of the enemy for the Combat Group Commander to decide on his options. (Though his BMS had a function to generate options, he, like most commanders, preferred to rely on his own instincts for decision-making.) He gauged the direction and speed of the enemy and decided to establish a pivot around three km ahead with a squadron and mechanised company and use two squadrons as a manoeuvre force to destroy the enemy. He zoomed in on the map showing the area ahead, with a few bold strokes of his stylus pen drew a rapid diagrammatic plan marking the composition and location of each element. He sent the orders with one click and then watched his elements move into their positions.
His holding force moved rapidly into position with the self-erecting camouflage nets of his tanks and ICVs coming up over each tank and ICV. His engineers laid a self-laying minefield, using a cluster round that dispersed hundreds of small mines which burrowed their way into the soft sand. Each mine would be activated by a radio signal just when the enemy was approaching and also had a self-destructing mechanism and emitted their 10 figure GPS map coordinates to recover or destroy in situ depending on the situation. On his computer console, the commander could see each tank and ICV move into position. He also saw his artillery guns move to their gun areas and his logistic elements creep to a bound behind, but he still peered out of his cupola to watch. No matter how effective the technology, it could never match a physical look.
His holding force and manoeuvre elements were just in position when the enemy approached the killing ground. He waited till the bulk of the enemy’s forces entered and then his pivot opened up.
For over two hours, a heavy tank versus tank battle raged as his holding elements engaged the enemy and the enemy manoeuvred to get out of the killing ground. Fortunately, his BMS gave updated positions of each movement and in spite of the dust and smoke, he could still see through the fog of war. He waited till the moment was right and the bulk of the enemy had entered the killing area. Then he launched the manoeuvre force from the right flank—all with one stroke of his stylus pen.
As the manoeuvre force moved on to the right flank and the holding force continued their torrent of tank and missile fire, it was a melee. Hit and burning tanks dotted the entire landscape. With advanced technology each tank had a first round hit probability of over 95 per cent and invariably a round that hit, succeeded in penetrating the target. Yet in spite of the chaos, each commander was aware of the position of his friendly elements, and fratricidal casualties, the bane of manoeuvre warfare, were at a minimum.
The battle went on all night and just before dawn, the Brigade Commander who had been watching each detail of the battle with his own BMS launched the reserve Combat Group which struck to the rear of the trapped enemy.
Surrounded by three sides, the enemy Combat Group was decimated and by noon the area was littered with dead and burning tanks. There had been heavy casualties on both sides. The CG commander was aware of each hit received by a friendly tank on his BMS. Each tank hit was depicted on his system with a cross over it—a horribly impersonal way of depicting the loss—but then that was the computers way of perceiving it.
Twenty-eight people were killed and 17 others wounded in his regiment. The smart vests that each man wore recorded the blood pressure, sugar level, blood loss, and damage sustained by each casualty, and relayed the information directly to the doctors in the field hospitals. The medical helicopters were already overhead and landing right in the battlefield itself. But they were not there to evacuate the casualties. Rather, the helicopters carried surgical teams and equipment to establish a portable surgical centre in situ. The doctors who were already aware of the nature of casualties could reach a rapid diagnosis and conduct life-saving surgery on site in the Golden Hour itself, the vital time immediately after the injury.
The Immediate Replacement Groups were moving in as well. Expenditure of fuel, ammunition had been recorded on each tank through its smart vehicle diagnostics systems, the total figures computed and relayed back to the logistic echelons who would replenish just the exact quantity and type required. Extensive damage had been incurred on equipment, which now needed to be repaired. Most major components were modular and the entire part was immediately changed, but of course there were many small components which needed to be replaced. These components were manufactured in situ using three-dimensional printing. All that had to be done was feed the image of the component into the three-dimensional printer and it would be prepared, layer by layer, at the site itself. The entire minor repair echelon could thus be virtually carried on a pen drive.
His smart vest beeped informing him that his blood pressure and sugar had risen and that his hydration level was low. He needed to replenish himself and popped three energy pills. The pills were not a patch on the good, hot, simple khichdi he used to have as a troop leader in his younger days, but it provided an instant dose of high energy and brought his body parameters back to normal. He followed it up with a hydrating pill and felt his mouth fill with coolness. Ever since Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) developed these hydrating pills, the logistic intake of carrying thousands of litres of drinking water had reduced, but they could never replace a cool glass of water or a good hot tea.
His tablet buzzed repeatedly indicating messages. There was a flood of congratulatory messages right from his GOC, his Corps Commander and even one from the Chief complimenting his Regiment on its victory. He did not know it then, but the entire battle, had been relayed and witnessed in Army Headquarters in real time. Footage of the battle was also sent to the Social Media War Room, where teams of young college–going IT wizards, under the watchful eyes and guidance of a core team of military professionals, sifted through thousands of gigabytes of information, prepared a comprehensive footage and sent out live updates of the battle on every social media platform across the world. Even as the battle unfolded it was being viewed live on social media, heralding a great victory, creating awareness and shaping perception across the world. This would help in winning the war of perception, which was as essential as the physical victory.
With the incorporation of emerging technologies, the scenario painted above could well become a norm of war-fighting. Tactics and doctrines will change as new technologies such as AI, Robotics, and the IoT, make their way onto the battlefield. Perhaps visualising how these technologies could be utilised will help us to incorporate them in our doctrines and be better prepared to adapt to them in the future.
(The writer is a former Armoured Corps officer and author of several books including ‘The Battles that Shaped Indian History’, ‘A Spectrum of Modern Warfare’ and ‘Through Orphaned Eyes’ and ‘India’s Battlefields from Kurukshetra to Balakot)