Armor: Barbeque and Bubbles for Tanks


April 22, 2024: Modern warfare has been radically changed by the introduction of FPV (first person view) UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). These UAVs are an omnipresent aerial threat to armored vehicles and infantry on foot. Each FPV UAV costs less than a thousand dollars. Operators use the video camera on the UAV to see what is below and find targets. Armed FPV operators are several kilometers away to decide when their quadcopter FPV UAVs will drop explosives on an armored vehicle, which has thinner armor on top, or infantry in the open or in trenches. To do so the UAV operators often operate in pairs with one flying behind the other and concentrating on the big picture while seeking a likely target. When such a target is found by the reconnaissance UAV, the armed UAV is directed to the target. The two FPV UAV operators are usually in the same room or tent and can take control of new UAVs, which are lined up and brought outside for launch when needed. The reconnaissance UAVs are often unarmed so they can spend more time in the air looking for targets.

The Ukrainians developed the FPV UAV in 2022 when only a few FPV UAV attacks were recorded. The Ukrainian Army was the first to appreciate the potential of FPV UAVs. By the summer of 2023 the Russian Army also began to use FPV drones in greater numbers. Since then, the number of FPV UAV attacks has grown exponentially on both sides. By early 2024, there were over 4,000 Russian FPV UAV attacks and the Russians kept video records of each one. Only twelve percent of those attacks led to the destruction of the target, which could be a vehicle or group of infantry or even a sniper who was firing through a window from inside a building. In this case the armed FPV UAV would fly through the window and explode in the room the sniper was in. The only defense from this was having a nearby open door the sniper could run to or dive through as the FPV UAV approached. Sometimes that isn’t possible because the armed FPV UAV is coming down from above the window and then in. You don’t see those coming until it is too late. Many FPV UAV attacks miss completely or barely and inflict no injuries. All the FPV UAV activity does make sounds and troops in the vicinity fear the sounds and feel quite anxious when those are around. While only twelve percent of FPV UAV attacks caused fatalities or serious injuries, another fifteen percent did some damage. Another twenty percent missed their target, or it was not possible to prove what happened.

Both sides now use the FPV UAVs but there are substantial differences on how the FPV UAVs are put to work in combat. The Ukrainians seek out high-value targets like armored vehicles, Electronic Warfare equipment, anti-aircraft systems and storage sites for munitions or other supplies. Russian trucks carrying supplies are another prime target.

This new threat had led to work on improved defensive measures. First priority goes to ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) systems which armored vehicles, trucks and even troops on foot require to survive FPV UAV attacks. There is another problem when the attacker changes the control frequencies their UAVs use for effective remote control. This is more of a problem for Russian defenders than Ukrainian as the Russians are controlled by slow bureaucratic leaders and production systems while the Ukrainians are much more flexible. Many FPV UAVs have a backup system for these situations that include returning to the launch site or completing an attack on a target that has been sighted and the FPV UAV is already headed for. This means the range of the defensive ECM signal must be more than 100 meters to avoid getting hit by a FPV UAV programmed to continue heading for the target if its control signal was jammed or lost because of FPV UAV equipment failure.

Another requirement for adequate defense is the presence of metal screens or grills to defeat FPV UAV attacks that get past the protective ECM signals. Note that the thinnest armor is over areas on the top side of the tank, particularly the turret and especially behind the turret, where the engine is. Damage the engine so that the tank can no longer move, and the suddenly immobile target becomes easier to destroy. Tank crews will often abandon their immobile vehicle.

Another way to improve FPV UAV defenses is to modify existing APS (Active Protection System) equipment to recognize and attack FPV UAVs. Most NATO nations now have APS on their tanks. Germany successfully completed acceptance tests of the Israeli Trophy APS they were purchasing for their Leopard 2 tanks. The October 2021 tests consisted of firing ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles), RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and shells from tank guns or artillery that often fire such shells equipped with shaped charge warheads at tanks, at a Trophy equipped Leopard 2.

This is not the first Leopard 2 to use an APS. Turkish Leopard 2 and M60 tanks were equipped with the Ukrainian Zaslon APS in 2018 and were successful enough for Turkey to obtain a manufacturing license to build Zaslon. Several other countries have ordered Zaslon because it is one of the few APS systems that proved itself in combat. Moreover, Zaslon is more flexible to install as it uses individual modules and can be used on tanks equipped with ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor). On the downside, Zaslon will injure nearby infantry, which is a major problem for many nations. Zaslon has been in service for as long as Trophy and worked against Russian weapons in 2015, but saw little exposure to combat after that until the Turks noticed it.

Trophy is considered the most useful and combat proven APS, and over 2,000 systems have been installed or are on order for Israeli Merkava, American M1 and Leopard 2 tanks as well as other Israeli and American armored vehicles. For example, in mid-2020 American M1 tanks arrived in Europe equipped with Trophy APS. The Israeli manufacturer began delivering 261 M1 APS kits in late 2019. These equip all the M1 tanks in four combat brigades. A few Trophy equipped M1s are also available for testing and training.

The United States was late in adopting APS, mainly because few American operated M1 tanks seemed to need it and the army procurement budget was shrinking. By 2012 APS came to be seen as a necessity. In 2018 the army finally got the money to upgrade M1 tanks with Trophy. This came after Trophy had been tested on the M1. Trophy was added at the same time 62 ARAT (Abrams Reactive Armor Tiles) were installed to cover the running gear and tracks as additional protection against RPGs, which are often fired at this area to cripple tank mobility. The ARAT tiles add another two tons, in addition to about a ton for Trophy.

Trophy has been around since 2009 and has spent a lot of time exposed to ATGMS and RPGs. Between testing and actual combat, Trophy has been fired on over 6,000 times and successfully defeated all attacks. Trophy has accumulated over a million operating hours so far and no vehicle equipped with Trophy has had a crew member injured. Like earlier active defense systems such as the naval Phalanx, you cannot leave the system on if there is no threat. That wears out the electronics and there is always a small risk of the system being accidentally triggered by something other than a threat.

The U.S. eventually noted that Western tanks, like the M1 and Leopard 2 are increasingly vulnerable to ATGMs and improved RPGs. This was demonstrated in northwest Syria from 2016 to 2018 as Turkey lost over a dozen Leopard 2 and older American M60 tanks to Kornet and other ATGMs. Turkey tried several different defensive solutions but finally selected the Ukrainian Zaslon APS for their tanks. Israel was not considered because since 2000 Turkey has been ruled by an anti-Israel government.

Most tanks in Ukraine have APS because there is still a threat from ATGMs and RPGs. It makes sense to modify existing APS equipment to help deal with the FPV UAV threat.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close