It’s hard to tell what exactly is going on with the Piranha vehicle. It would appear that the time has come, today, for the Piranha 3 vehicles to be phased out, but that’s a problem, in itself. When so much noise was made just a few years ago, to ensure that the Piranha 3 would meet tactical requirements for decades to come, it is politically slippery to retire them so soon. Which is probably why industrials and army officials are being so quiet about it.
Piranha 3 comes from a long way since the first one ran. And yet, it could be in the race for the new 8x8 fighting vehicle which General Nick Carter, Royal Army Chief of staff, has required for its forces (1), in a renewed equipment program after the FRES program fell through. But where did the Piranha come from precisely? The Piranha fighting vehicles (2) are an entire family of vehicles designed to bring increased mobility and firepower to rapid deployment units. They are built under a variety of names (LAV-3, LAV III, Piranha 3, Stryker, etc.), proprietary or licensed, and have been bought by many armies around the world. Because infantry units could move very fast but lacked firepower, while armor units had plenty power but moved slow both on the battlefield and off it, the Piranha fighting vehicles squeezed in to maintain high-speed mobility, but with high levels of firepower, with weapons systems ranging up to the 105-mm cannon on its automated gun-pod. Because it is unmanned and controlled from within the cabin, it provides added protection while delivering a heavy punch. On the other hand, its decreased mass makes it transportable by air for instance – even the heavy Piranha 5 has managed to stay within the 30-ton weight envelope which grants it access to the cargo hold of the A400M. In addition, as their weight is around 15 tons (20 tons for the Piranha 3), they can rather easily be transported on roads, with slightly adapted trucks, whereas very specific high-powered and large-dimension trucks are needed to displace main battle tanks.
However, when engineers create a new generation of a weapons system which has existed for centuries, such as rifles or howitzers, they can capitalize on centuries of experience. In the case of the Piranha vehicles, many kinks were to work out to find the best possible balance point between lightening the vehicles to make them faster and arming or protecting them. It helps to know, for instance, that rifles, tanks and howitzers have been through many major conflicts, which is hardly the case for Infantry fighting vehicles, the closest equivalents to which are infantry transport vehicles, such as gun-mounted half-tracks.
The Piranha 3 initially received a warm welcome from infantry units, which enjoyed the added protection and increased firepower. But the stretch marks of the project, along with its youth marks, quickly appeared. The stretch marks were mostly linked to how much equipment and power the engineers from GDLS had managed to cram into the reduced volume. A Piranha 3 is basically 7 meters on 3, in which must be fitted the engine, electronics, weapon and life space, down from a 10mx4m layout for a main battle tank. Non-essential elements were therefore removed, but soldiers quickly learned at their own expense that some option are not as optional as they seem, such as air conditioning for instance. In 2008, the MGS (the gun-mounted variant of the Piranha 3) was exposing operators to temperatures of 150 degrees in Iraq, with serious health hazards (2). The very limited space also made movement within its hull dangerously difficult, in case a speedy exit were necessary.
Is it really being phased out? The arrival of the Piranha 3 in the US Army (and others) was accompanied by such political support that each supporter of the vehicle feared that the early phasing out would disavow their previous position. Very little comments are therefore to be found online on the matter. But there is one key indication: the brigades built around the MGS-variant Stryker vehicles have quietly reduced the numbers to a mere 10. David Axe, in a 2014 article (3), says “Tacitly admitting that the gun-Stryker doesn’t work, the Army is cutting the number of MGS in each of its nine Stryker brigades to just 10 vehicles. In their place, the Army wants to add 30-millimeter cannons to some infantry-carrier Stryker, replacing the vehicles’ smaller .50-caliber guns.”
The Piranha 5 has worked out some of the mis-designs of its predecessor. It has a reinforced hull, to protect it from IEDs, which have now proven the threat was here to stay, throughout current deployment theaters. It has increased its engine power, along with its electrical power production output, to ensure the wheel-based vehicle could match tracked vehicles on rough terrain. The internal volume has been increased for more flexibility and better exit times. And overall, the electronics have been upgraded for a better battlefield integration. As a result, the Piranha 5, while still not being the best piece of kit out there, is able to run against its competitors, which the Piranha 3 was simply no longer able to do.
Despite sometimes fierce opposition to the entire family of vehicles, it would be unfair to the Piranha 3 to consider it a complete disaster. Of course, its critics are considering its de-commissioning as a victory, validating their old theories that the vehicle is a disgrace. But what they are decrying as political anomaly is in fact rather standard, in the military world: newer versions replace outdated ones. The first deployments of the Piranha 3 go back to 2001, in Eritrea (4); 15 years between version switches is somewhat on the short side but not completely unheard of. When a version has completely exploited its potential, it makes sense to start a new version. That’s what the Piranha 5 is here for. It may compete somewhat weakly, given that it has inherited a few of its ancestor’s flaws, but it is still a valid competitor.