DARPA seeks high-tech alternatives to armor
By David Szondy
August 20, 2014
As a quick visit to any armored division will make obvious, tanks are big ... really big. A Challenger 2 main battle tank, for example, weighs 62.5 tonnes (68.9 tons) and costs about £4.2 million (US$7 million). And as anti-tank weapons get better, tanks can only get bigger. To avoid armies of tomorrow having to pay for land-going battleships, DARPA’s Ground X-Vehicle Technology (GXV-T) program aims at developing lighter, more agile successors to the tank that protect themselves with more than ever-thicker walls of steel.
Ever since the first tank took to the battlefield during the First World War, there’s been an arms race between gunnery and armor. Some of the first tanks weren't much larger than a modern SUV, yet they produced a revolution in warfare that continues to dominate strategic thinking to this day. Over the years, the guns used to fight tanks became bigger and were then augmented with rockets and missiles, and tank designers responded with thicker armor, composites like Chobham, reactive armor, and even electric countermeasures to detonate warheads before they make contact.
The result of this is a spiral of larger weapons, leading to larger tanks, leading to larger weapons until the mainline tanks of today have become behemoths so large they can only be travel on certain roads and bridges, are very difficult to deploy in a timely manner, and are so expensive to develop, build, and maintain that only fighter planes rival them in cost. If this goes on, tanks could one day become so heavy and costly that they’ll no longer be practical to field. To prevent this, DARPA wants to not just produce a more advanced tank, but one that moves away from relying so heavily on armor for survival.
"GXV-T’s goal is not just to improve or replace one particular vehicle – it’s about breaking the ‘more armor’ paradigm and revolutionizing protection for all armored fighting vehicles," says Kevin Massey, DARPA program manager. "Inspired by how X-plane programs have improved aircraft capabilities over the past 60 years, we plan to pursue groundbreaking fundamental research and development to help make future armored fighting vehicles significantly more mobile, effective, safe and affordable."
GXV-T is intended to pursue technologies that move away from armor with the goal of making tanks 50 percent smaller, needing crews half the present size, able to move at double the present speed, make them capable of operating over 95 percent of the terrain, and make them harder to detect and engage. What this amounts to is finding ways to build tanks that can barrel around the battlefield like off-road rally cars, can dodge incoming fire rather than standing and taking it, reposition its armor to its most effective angle, provide the crews with full situational awareness similar to that afforded fighter pilots, and make them stealthy against both infrared and electromagnetic detection.
To achieve this, DARPA is soliciting blue-sky thinking and new technologies. The agency says that it hopes to see new GVX-T technologies emerge two years after the first contracts, which are slated to be awarded in April next year. These contracts include the development of subsystems in a number of areas, so the new technologies can be fast-tracked into demonstrators.
A Proposers’ Day is scheduled for September 5 at the DARPA offices in Arlington, Virginia.