Armor: Puma Performs Poorly


January 5, 2023: After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, all European NATO members sought to double-check the readiness of their military equipment. Using reports from Ukrainian forces actually fighting the Russians, NATO training exercises sought to practice and learn the combat tactics the Ukrainians used. The combat troops appreciated this unexpected interest in expensive and lengthy field exercises. This kind of training has largely disappeared, especially in the German forces, after the Cold War ended in 1991. During the Cold War, West Germany provided the largest land combat force; a dozen armored or mechanized divisions equipped with modern weapons and support units. These divisions underwent frequent and realistic field training, which was expensive in terms of fuel and ammo expended and wear and tear on the vehicles. In the 1990s communist East and democratic West Germany merged and their combined armed forces shrank considerably. Military budgets were sharply reduced, with less frequent upgrades or new equipment production and hardly any large-scale training exercises. In 2022 Germans agreed that the Russian threat had returned and a more capable German army was needed. Military budgets were substantially increased and more realistic training exercises were conducted to evaluate the readiness of German troops and their equipment. These field exercises showed most major systems performed as expected although there was a long list of improvement and fixes. One major system, however, was a major disappointment. That was the new Puma (since 2015) Puma IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle). In one exercise the 18 Pumas involved all failed. Sixteen were soon completely unusable and two Pumas ended the exercise with limited usefulness. The list of Puma systems that broke down was long and major changes were obviously needed to make the key systems operational and reliable. Germany promptly suspended an order for 299 more Pumas until they could verify that Pumas they had were truly operational. It is unclear how long that will take and how much it will cost.

This fix is complicated by the fact that in 2017 Germany began upgrading the first hundred or so Puma IFVs they received in 2015 and 2016. This cost $135 million, or over a million dollars per vehicle. The upgrades included new flat screen color displays that show the crew what is outside their vehicle. This greatly improves situational awareness for the entire crew. Previously only the vehicle commander, with his head and shoulders exposed as he viewed the surrounding situation from an open hatch, was the only one aware of the situation outside. The upgrade also included a new turret-independent secondary self-protection weapon system (TSWA) for the Puma. There were also new training simulators that lowered the costs of crew training and wear and tear on the vehicles. Completing this Puma upgrade was delayed because TSWA was still in development and was not declared complete until mid-2022. The verification tests are still underway and won’t be completed until sometime in 2023. It will take time to finish that.

The army in general and the troops who were using Puma believe the vehicle agreed that the IFV is an unreliable mess that has long had these problems but there was no effort to deal with that. Now there is.

The German Army began receiving its first production Puma IFVs in mid-2015 and all 350 were delivered by 2020. The late ones will have the display upgrades built in. The basic Puma model has a remote (from inside the vehicle) control turret equipped with a new 30mm automatic cannon. This type of system has worked well in Iraq, where it was widely used in American vehicles. The Puma armor protection comes in three levels. The Germans have settled on the 31.5-ton version as the standard. This one gives all round protection from 14.5mm machine-guns, and some protection from autocannon shells up to 30mm.

Puma has a crew of three (commander, gunner and driver) and carries up to eight infantrymen (or cargo) in the rear troop compartment. The Puma is also "digital." Noting now the U.S. Army had successfully equipped their armored vehicles with "battlefield Internet" communications equipment, the Germans did the same with Puma. The Puma is 7.4 meters (24 feet) long and air conditioned. Top road speed is 70 kilometers an hour.

Puma's 30mm cannon can fire computer-controlled shells that will detonate inside of buildings or over troops taking cover behind a wall or in a trench. The 30mm cannon can fire up to 200 rounds a minute, and has a range of 3,000 meters. The vehicle carries 400 rounds of 30mm ammo, and over two thousand rounds for its 7.62mm machine-gun. Optional weapons include a guided missile launcher for two Spike ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) or an automatic grenade launcher. The 30mm gun also has an armor piercing round that is also effective against personnel (FAPIDS-T, or Frangible Armor Piercing Incendiary Discarding Sabot - Tracer).

The new TSWA will increase protection from infantry or armed civilians. TSWA is expected to be particularly useful in urban environments. TSWA consists of a remotely controlled weapon station mounted on the rear deck of the vehicle where it can be activated without rotating the turret and having to use its main armament. The TSWA fires 40mm grenades out to 400 meters. TSWA can use either lethal (explosive) or non-lethal (like tear-gas or flash-bang) grenades.

The display upgrades will replace the current monochrome (black and white) monitors and gun sight optics with state-of-the-art, high-resolution color displays. This will provide the commander and gunner with a highly detailed view of the surrounding terrain and the current tactical situation which will increase combat effectiveness.

The new simulator does not use an entire vehicle, just that portion of the Puma where the commander and gunner sit while controlling the vehicle or operating the 30mm autocannon, ATGMs and other weapons systems. The displays use combat simulation software that accurately present combat situations. Another Puma simulator enables maintenance personnel to learn and practice inspection, maintenance and repair procedures without taking a Puma out of service. Simulators completed deliveries in 2021.

The Puma problems do not leave the German army with no IFVs because most of the German IFV force still consists of the Cold War era Marder IFV. This vehicle entered service in the 1970s and has been regularly upgraded and refurbished. Marder IFVs were scheduled to remain in service until the mid or late 2020s. Ukraine asked for German Leopard II tanks and Marder IFVs. Ukraine may still get the Leopard IIs, but Germany needs all the Marders it has. Ukraine is not interested in Pumas. All of the NATO IFVs Ukraine has received are older Cold War era vehicles that work. The Ukrainians consider reliability a major priority. If needed, Ukraine can add additional weapons, armor and other equipment. During the Cold War Ukraine was one of main suppliers of new armored vehicle tech and production as well as upgrades for older equipment. That industry was much reduced after 1991 but did not disappear because Ukraine had large stockpiles of modern (in 1991) Soviet armored vehicles and created a profitable business of upgrading and exporting a lot of these inherited armored vehicles to export customers looking for effective and reliable bargains. Since 2014 (the Russian seizure of Crimea and parts of east Ukraine) the Ukrainian arms industry has expanded and been busier than ever.




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