The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in 2020 and the now heavy losses suffered by Russian and Ukrainian armoured units in their current conflict have led to some rather excited commentary in segments of the press about the “death of the tank”.
From a historical perspective, this is just repeating a tired mantra that flares up every time tanks get thrown into combat – generally with insufficient all-arms support – against weapons designed to destroy them and suffer for it. In fact, this is just the latest iteration of the same old pendulum swing between weapon and armour that has taken place since some ancient warrior fashioned the first shield – both have engaged in a continuous race to counter the other.
But it must be admitted that tanks have been looking a little like falling behind, which considering the situation in armoured warfare development for the last forty-or-so years, is understandable.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s, the impetus to continue the development of the Main Battle Tank largely dried up. The last tanks developed in that era were truly formidable war machines, utilizing advanced armour designs, huge powerplants, cutting edge optics and night vision equipment and terrifyingly powerful cannons. As such they have been perceived as more than sufficient to deal with whatever was required of them for the last thirty years.
Improvements have been made to these baseline Cold War warriors over those decades, which admittedly have been substantial overall. But they have effectively been incremental in nature and added on to the existing designs as limited budgets have allowed, with most of these improvements having been of the nature of improved data networking and electronic suites.
While increasing the effectiveness of these tanks tremendously, the fact that most basic designs largely date back to the 1970s means that you are dealing with many old concepts and technologies in reality. It also means that many of the world’s tank factories have closed down through lack of need.
Tanks developed in the 1970s for service in the 1980s, even with substantial upgrades, have therefore begun to fall behind in the arms race as cheap electronics have made weapons capable of dealing with them far cheaper and much more widespread. We now have the situation where civilian drones that cost a couple of hundred dollars are quite capable of being used to knock out an MBT, a situation that is currently a matter of routine.
As a result new designs and concepts in tank design are becoming pressing needs – especially with the Cold War stockpiles both aging and being used up. There have been a few new tank concept projects initiated, such as the Russian Armata but few that sought to fully integrate new technologies that have developed recently in cyber architecture, new armour methodologies and improved firepower into one package.
Meet the Rheinmetall KF51 – named the “Panther”.
(Never let it be said that Rheinmetall don’t grab a marketing opportunity when they sense one)
The Panther was unveiled on the 13th of June at the Eurosatory 2022 defence show in Paris. And it certainly appears to be impressive. For starters the Panther has the new Rheinmetall 130mm L/52 smoothbore gun. This is the new Future Gun System that is also the German contender to be the main armament in the proposed future Franco/German joint tank to replace their respective Leclercs and Leopard IIs.
The 130mm is reportedly capable of making kills against current tanks at fifty percent greater range than the current 120mm guns that are largely the NATO standard. The cannon is fed by a bustle auto loader which holds twenty rounds of ammunition and is kept separate from the crew for enhanced survivability.
Secondary weaponry is a pintle-mounted .50 calibre Browning with 250 rounds, plus a 7.62mm machine gun fitted in a Natter Remote Weapons Station which is mounted at the back of the turret and carries 2,500 rounds of ready use ammunition. This can act as a close in protection system, but its primary role is as a counter-UAV weapon.
For this it can elevate up to 85 degrees, practically vertically, and is, according to Rheinmetall, fully automated, though they do not reveal the nature of its target acquisition systems.
The use of the autoloader allows the crew to be reduced to three; a commander, gunner and driver. However, the Panther retains the option of a fourth crew member. This can be a unit commander, a mission specialist or, intriguingly, another weapon operator.
Because Rheinmetall are actively advertising the Panther fitted with a four-round launcher for HERO-120 loitering munitions. This Israeli weapon is operator controlled and has a range of 60km, a loiter time of sixty minutes and carries a 4.5kg warhead.
This means that the Panther could act as tank, long-range anti-tank and precision artillery – all in a single vehicle. That’s the sort of capability that could mean a complete restructure of military units, either making them cheaper by stripping out the ancillary vehicles, or else a lot stronger by swopping said units for more multi-purpose tanks.
And if you’ve read some of my articles on unmanned ground combat vehicles that have been or are being developed, well, the fourth crew position on a KF51 would make an excellent and well protected control point for those as well. Indeed, Rheinmetall state that the intention is that, as upgraded equipment evolves the Panther will reduce crew and even possibly become unmanned themselves.
This also highlights the key advance with the Panther – the electronic architecture. Instead of being added effectively as after-thoughts in existing tanks, with the KF51 this is arguably the most important feature of it design. Sensors and weapon operations can be transferred instantly between crew members with each operator being capable of undertaking the tasks and roles of other crew.
The Panther is also intended to network straight into compatible systems through the NATO Generic Vehicle Architecture, which will include other vehicles, UAVs and other intelligence assets. Combined with miniature cameras that will provide the crew with a 360-degree view outside the tank while buttoned up, the idea is for the Panther to be the most aware vehicle possible on the battlefield, even when in combat operations.
In terms of armour, Rheinmetall are being understandably quiet. All they’ll say is that the Panther is the first MBT to ever to be designed with “…an integrated survivability concept of on and off-platform sensors coupled with active, reactive and passive protection and a dedicated top attack protection system.” The latter is assumed to be a development of their StrikeShield APS which is in production currently.
The Panther will also be equipped with the Rheinmetall ROSY rapid smoke generations system, which produces an instantaneous and dynamic multispectral smoke screen that can mask moving vehicles.
In terms of mobility, the Panther uses a chassis derived from the Leopard II, and my assumption is that retains a similar powerplant to the older tank – a derivative of the MTU diesel that produce 1,500hp.
This retention of a legacy engine might seem odd – if that is indeed the case – but the MTU, despite its age, is still an excellent engine and thoroughly proven. Plus, because the Panther utilizes modern armour and protective technologies, it in fact weighs less than the later models of Leopard II, coming in at 59 tonnes. This means that performance will be improved over the Leopard on a power-to-weight ratio alone, without considering any computer driving aids that are almost certainly integrated into the vehicle’s drive train.
The Panther is still effectively a demonstrator, and no orders have been, as far as is known, been placed yet.
But one thing can be deduced.
The tank, far from being dead, continues to rise to the occasion.