Armor: Modernized Minitank

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December 16, 2019: Germany has decided to upgrade its fleet of 196 Wiesel (Weasel) armored reconnaissance vehicles. These were originally designed and built to support airmobile troops but found other uses as well. The Wiesel is the smallest manned tracked armored vehicle in service. Weight of the Wiesel depends on the mission. Wiesel rarely weighs more than three tons and usually carries two crew, but can handle three. Wiesel armor only protects it from 7.62mm rifles and machine-guns as well as most shell fragments. Wiesel is one armored vehicle that gets little publicity but to thousands of troops it served with in peacekeeping and counter-terrorism missions, Wiesel was a lifesaver in more ways than one.

Wiesel has been around since the early 1980s and 343 were built by the time production ended in 1993. It was then that it was discovered that Wiesel, as a very lightweight tracked vehicle, did not set off most land mines and that this was a very valuable trait in peacekeeping missions. Tracked vehicles exert lower ground pressure than wheeled vehicles of the same weight. The area they cover is much larger than four or six tires. This mine immunity was discovered in 1993 as the Germans began to use Wiesel for peacekeeping missions. The first of these was in Somalia, for about a year. That was followed by the Balkans for the rest of the 1990s. By 2002 Wiesel showed up in Afghanistan where it served for nearly a decade. Thus because of its two decades of active combat, Wiesel was deemed worth refurbishing and upgrading so it could serve for another decade at least.

Now the remaining 196 German army Wiesels will undergo repairs, chassis improvements, including better ballistic and mine protection, and upgrading the vehicle communications. This contract worth about $85.5 million and will keep Wiesel 1 relevant till 2030.

Moreover, the TOW anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) used on the tank destroyer version will be replaced with MELLS ATGM. This is a license-produced Israeli Spike LR missile. MELLS is a state-of-the-art missile capable of destroying modern armor at ranges of up to 4 kilometers. The guidance is achieved by the use of a fiber-optic cable so that the operator can literally drive the missile to the target, although the missile can also be used in "fire and forget" mode.” It is unclear if this will be the 2 missile module tested on Puma IFV or a four module version. The refurbishment is scheduled for completion in 2022.

The Wiesel 1 family of vehicles is rather unique for today’s standard. Development of the Wiesel dates back to 1970s when the German Army requested a light armored multi-purpose vehicle designed to conduct reconnaissance or support airborne troops. Manufacturers presented their proposals but due to budget problems,  the program was put on hold until 1984. At that point, the Wiesel prototypes were quickly turned into production models and Wiesel entered service.

Wiesel was designed as a very light tracked vehicle with a weight of less than 3 tons. Between the two World Wars (1920s and 30s) such a vehicle was classified as a light tank but few survived beyond 1940 and none were used again until Wiesel came along. The last time the Germans used a tank this small and light was the 1930s era, 5.4 ton Panzer 1, which had a crew of two and two machine-guns in the turret. Panzer 1 entered service in 1934 and got some combat experience in Spain until 1938 but until 1943 only served as a command or training vehicle. The Spanish Army inherited some and continued using them until 1954. Some other nations used French tanks of similar size and weight into the 1950s. After that, no one expected a tank this small and light to return to service, but Wiesel not only did that but proved useful in combat and mine clearing.

Wiesel is smaller and lighter than armored American hummers. Moreover, Wiesel is very small with a height of 1.9 meters (six feet) and 3.55 meters (11.4 feet) in length. The small size makes it easier to conceal itself behind terrain obstacles. This is extremely important considering the fact that its armor provides protection only against rifle (7.62mm) fire and shell fragments. Furthermore, Wiesel is famous for its excellent cross-country capabilities provided by special tracks and an 87 HP five-cylinder Volkswagen turbodiesel engine. Wiesel 1 top speed is about 70 kilometers an hour on roads but it can keep up with infantry in rough terrain. This is what made it so useful in Somalia, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Irregular troops found the 20mm autocannon armed Wiesel demoralizing and often fatal because the 20mm cannon was accurate and fatal when fired from two kilometers away. Another advantage was that Wiesel would often show up in remote areas where the enemy did not expect to see armored vehicles. Wiesel was air transportable using CH-47 or CH-53 helicopters. Both can accommodate two Wiesels one internally and one via sling load under a helicopter. In this way, they could be sent to assist special operations troops in remote areas.

The German Army is the sole user of Wiesel, Most were armed with a Rheinmetall MK 20 Rh202 20mm autocannon which provides outstanding firepower at targets up to 2,500 meters distant. The second model was fitted with a TOW ATGM. A third model had weapons removed and replaced with a ground-penetrating radar for spotting landmines, which were then cleared by an armored, remotely controlled bulldozer (the 26 ton MineWolf). In effect, Wiesel could use three different turrets but the most popular ones had either the 20mm autocannon version or the ground-penetrating radar. Wiesel was much less useful carrying a pair of TOW ATGMs. That kind of fire support could be supplied by aircraft or helicopter gunships while the 20mm autocannon and mine detecting radar provided something air support could not.

Wiesel was tested and evaluated by the U.S. Marines in 2015 and an unmanned variant was a contender in US Army Robotic Combat Vehicle competition. The one time Wiesel got much publicity was in 2010. That was when Germany sent seven IED (improvised explosive device) and mine clearing systems to Afghanistan that used Wiesel. Each team consisted of a 2.5 ton Wiesel equipped with a ground-penetrating radar and two remote-controlled armored bulldozers. The Germans already knew that Wiesel was too light to set off anti-vehicle mines or many anti-personnel mines.

Working with the Wiesel was the remotely controlled MineWolf mine-clearing system. Minewolf is a 26 ton armored bulldozer, equipped with flails and cutting equipment that enables it to take down trees up to six inches in diameter. This addresses a major problem where vegetation has grown up in a minefield over a decade or more. This sort of thing can complicate mine-clearing considerably. The Minewolf is eight meters (24 feet) long and can also be operated by remote control (via a wireless link of up to 1,000 meters). Depending on accessories, each Minewolf costs about a million dollars. A Minewolf can clear 15,000-30,000 square meters a day. Minewolf is currently used in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Jordan, and Sudan. The vehicle is particularly useful for clearing dirt roads of mines, which is a big problem in Afghanistan, which has few paved roads. --- Przemysław Juraszek

 


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