Friday, February 22, 2019

Mid-range calibers: filling the efficiency gap

by Megan Morris (writer), , January 29, 2018

Is light armor condemned to fight wars of its own, away from main battle tanks and ground infantry?

Armament industries in the world have always faced a difficulty: both light infantry weapons and heavy-duty fire power is easily available for anyone with the funds, but how does one fill the gap in the middle? Intermediate vehicles and weapons have always been caught in the middle, with too little firepower to face the big guns, and too much girth to address small and nimble fighting units.

Light vehicles, such as HMMWV (which stretch their own category with their upgraded armor versions), Land rovers, militarized civilian-based SUVs, etc. form the first level of military vehicular mobility. Despite being barely armed (a .50 caliber machine gun is usually the most powerful to be found on such vehicles), they bring enormous value to the armies with the freedom of movement they provide. General purpose vehicles (initially called GP, which gave Jeep its name) enable rapid carrier movements, extended patrols, enhanced payload, ammunition and equipment capacity, provide electronics and radio capacity to troops on the ground. However, their high mobility is compensated by their very weak protection - when they have any. For this reason, Hummers were gradually replaced with MRAVs in recent deployments.

On the other end of the spectrum, heavy armor holds the title of queen of battles: it is able to overcome all types of ground units, up to enemy tanks themselves, and can even prove a threat to aircrafts, with modern fire control systems. However, due to their size and necessary support, tanks have limited mobility. Military historian Thomas Ricks illustrates this paradox with the use of armor in Iraq in the early 2000s : “In the early 2000s, brigade combat teams based on the eight-wheeled Stryker were created in an effort to strike a balance between the infantry brigade’s lack of vehicle mobility and the armored brigade’s inability to deploy quickly. In Iraq, the Stryker provided infantry units with mobility, except sometimes in mud and rough terrain, but lacked sufficient lethality and protection.” They can hold areas unchallenged, but that will leave the enemy the initiative to fight or not, which is rarely a good thing in tactics.

Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) in the middle are trapped in between. Here again, the fire to movement paradox applies. Facing smaller units can be problematic, as they can use their superior mobility to seek refuge in areas which mid-range vehicles such as IFVs cannot reach, but this simply results in absence of combat. The bigger problem occurs when an IFV finds itself facing heavier units than it. Here, two options arise: either avoid combat using stealth, which is what the Puma does, or upgrade weapons, with new-generation weapons.

The Puma reduces its noise signature and ground footprint with its new generation mobility system and relies on its advanced electronics to detect enemies before it is spotted, leaving the commander the choice to engage or to withdraw. In fact, whereas Puma is one of the most expensive IFV of all time, its primary armament is a Rheinmetall 30 mm MK30 autocannon, which could be considered as a little light on a 40-tons IFV.

The abovementioned Puma highlights the efficiency gap which tacticians around the world need to fill. The German Puma combines heavy protection and high mobility, despite its weight, but its armament will leave it on an even field with far cheaper IFVs, from former generations. BMP-3s, for instance, which go back to the 1980s, fitted with a low-velocity 100-mm rifled gun, and a 30-mm dual feed autocannon. Alternatively, commanders can opt for the Stryker MGS, which carries a fearsome 105-mm caliber tube, but the weight of which severely limits the protection and mobility, adding to its reliability issues. In fact, the paradox has remained mainly in the West: Russia found its way out of it by mounting various types of turrets, starting at 30mm up to above 100, on its highly flexible BMP-3. However, new calibers may allow armies outside the CIS to break the conundrum.

IFVs can now mount superior weapon systems, such as the T40 turret, which can be fitted with the new CTA 40 caliber gun, and MMT missiles, in order to match their opposing force. This was hardly an option until recently, as recent medium calibers (30 to 40-millimeter cannons) were not much of a threat to tanks, or even sometimes to other IFVs. But new-generation turrets like the T40 can guarantee an IFV superiority over another standard IFV, and will even give a fighting chance against heavier units, especially if MMT missiles are mounted. CTA 40 (Cased Telescoped Ammunition) uses a new technology which embeds the round completely within its powder and holds up to four times the range and power of traditional shells. US Navy tests on it revealed it to be “a new generation CIWS effective against supersonic sea-skimming missile thanks to the airburst ammunition, as well as against asymmetric threats… while having about the same “footprint and weight as a 25mm system.” Developed by the British and the French, it has caught the eye of the Americans and may soon be bought by Qatar.

It had been a while since technological advances large enough to re-shape the battlefield had occurred. While an efficiency gap remained between light units and heavy ones for a long time, the latest IFVs are able to tackle smaller enemy forces with increased mobility, and pack a more powerful punch for heavier targets. In the three levels of ground movement, a general upgrade both of firepower and protection seems to be occurring, although keeps it dominating position on the battlefield. If MRAPs (Mine-resistant ambush protected) are to replace Humvees, they can hardly be dubbed “light” vehicles anymore. And with new-generation machine-gun calibers which prove harmful to heavy armor, are IFVs still to be called IFVs, or are they becoming a weapon system of their own?

About the Writer

Megan Morris is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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