Armor: Recycled Tanks For The Infantry


August 1, 2007: While Israel pioneered the modification of older tanks, to be heavy armored personnel carriers, they are not the only ones to go this route. Recycling older Merkava tanks for this is nothing new. In fact, other such vehicles have been developed, not just by Israel, but also by other countries. In essence, these are vehicles designed to handle the special challenges of military operation in urban areas.

Urban areas are not optimal tank habitat. This is because there are plenty of places for the enemy to hide, armed with man-portable anti-tank systems like the ubiquitous RPG or something like the M72 or AT4. All of these systems, if aimed at a tank's side, rear, or top armor, can immobilize a tank. It's worse for armored personnel carriers (APCs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), which have less armor. In many cases, APCs and IFV have it worse - because a damaging hit can not only take out a track, it can do bad things to the infantry it carries. That means the tanks and IFVs have no infantry support - and that lets the opposing force hit them on their terms.

Obviously, something with a lot more protection than the average IFV or APC is needed - something that can carry the armor and still hold a decent amount of infantry. At the same time many countries find themselves with a lot of old tanks on their hands. The match was obvious. Perhaps the first to try was Canada during World War II. The Kangaroo was initially converted from self-propelled howitzers, but eventually from tanks. It carried twelve troops. It was unarmed, though. Its purpose was to carry the troops. Support? Troops had to rely on tanks for that - and tanks often fight other tanks, leaving the poor grunts in the lurch.

Israel's Merkava tank was probably the first heavy infantry fighting vehicle. With a rear compartment that could carry a half dozen troops, it also had a 105mm gun, two 7.62mm machine guns, and a 60mm mortar. The problem was, that in order to carry the maximum number of troops, you had to offload most of the 105mm gun ammo. That did bad things to the tank's ability to support the troops.

Eventually, Israel decided to use captured T-55s as APCs. Called the Achzarit, it has a crew of three and carries seven infantry. It was also equipped with three 7.62mm machine guns. However, the crews had to get out via hatches on top. That would make a person stand out - and standing out on a battlefield is not very healthy. This was followed up with an APC version of the Merkava, the Nammer, which had a rear exit. It can carry 11 troops and a stretcher, and carries a .50-caliber machine gun and a 7.62mm machine gun.

These are nice, but in terms of supporting infantry, they are a little on the light side. Russia, though, went one step further. They began to develop heavy infantry fighting vehicles by converting obsolete T-55 tanks. Now, the grunts had fire support. The BTR-T had a number of choices when it came to weapons (30mm gun, a 30mm automatic grenade launcher, Kornet anti-tank missiles, or a 12.7mm machine gun). BTR-T carries five troops. However, like the Achzarit, the crew needs to get out on top. One advantage that this vehicle has is the fact that well over 90,000 T-55s have been produced and the T-55 has served in over 60 countries. This is a large potential export market.

The Ukraine, though, has two heavy infantry fighting vehicles. The first was the BMT-72. This was Ukrainian effort to upgrade the T-72 into a heavy IFV. It carries the turret of the T-72, complete with a 125mm gun and 30 rounds, plus the 12.7mm and 7.62mm machine guns. It also could carry five grunts. The bad news was that like the BTR-T and Achzarit, troops had to get out via top hatches. The Ukraine solved that with the newer BTMP-84, which was a variant of the indigenous T-84. This heavy IFV had the T-84's turret, including the ability to carry 36 rounds for the main gun. Like the BMT-72, it carries five troops.

Heavy IFVs and APCs are here to stay. The Israelis may have mainstreamed the concept of using former tanks to give infantry more protection in urban areas, but the maximum potential of the concept is being realized by the Ukraine, with Russia running a close second. The Ukraine's vehicles are easily the best of the lot, carrying some infantry, but being able to back them up with plenty of firepower. No grunt will ever complain about having too much firepower or backup. - Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




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