A lesson for Kim Jong-un: tank warfare is changing fast
The modern battlefield is rapidly changing and old assumptions about the use of tanks and other armor are in doubt. This means that some adversaries who lack the latest up-to-date systems may find themselves in big trouble. Especially North Korea.
In 1975, on the last leg of a Middle East trip, I visited the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. One of the defense attachés there told me Israel was well along on developing its own battle tank, but that the embassy didn’t know much about it. Early the next morning I met with Israel’s Defense Minister, Shimon Peres.
He made the error of asking what he could do for me. I responded by saying I wanted to see the new tank. Surprisingly, he immediately agreed and later that morning I was bundled off to the Israel tank center at Tel HaShomer in south Tel Aviv, near Ramat Gan. There I got a stiff lecture on security meted out by an unhappy colonel. But after the lecture, I met up with General Israel Tal (1924-2010), known by his nickname Talik. He was probably the world’s leading tank expert and he had set out on a mission to improve Israeli tanks in light of the beating they took in the 1973 war. Himself a very-left-leaning Labor party member, when it came to the security of his troops he was quite ferocious. And he was a great expert on tank warfare and an admirer of Rommel.
Tal took me in hand and explained the multiple tragedies of 1973, including the heavy losses of tanks – especially American M-60 Patton tanks, which suffered the biggest losses against a new generation of Russian anti-tank weapons, including the Sagger, that had shown up on the battlefield. Unlike the British Centurion tanks, which were able to survive hits, the M60s were not so lucky.
Some think armor warfare is a thing of the past – but take a look at China, or North Korea, or Russia, or the United States, and you get a different impression. North Korea in particular has a very heavy armored force, if not the newest one.
The United States armor force is also aging, with America’s main battle tank being the M-1 Abrams. The Abrams has plenty of advantages: very strong composite armor and a big, German-origin Rheinmetall 120mm gun, plus the latest electronics. But as ISIS has demonstrated, Abrams tanks can still be destroyed.
The Abrams was the first big improvement in American tanks: it offered a much better fighting silhouette, a super-powerful turbine engine (although it’s also a gas guzzler), an excellent suspension and other significant upgrades over previous models. But the Abrams tank has seldom been used in high intensity combat against a professional military, still leaving questions about its performance either against foreign tanks such as Russia’s T-90 or emerging Armata, or against the latest generation of Russian anti-tank weapons, including the Kornet (the 9M133). The improved version of the Kornet model EM is claimed to be able to defeat reactive armor added to tanks for additional protection.
Hezbollah, operating in Lebanon in 2006, claimed to have destroyed four Merkava tanks and hit others. This led Israel to put active protection systems on some of its tanks using an Israeli-designed solution called Trophy. In 2014, in fighting in Gaza, Israeli tanks with equipped with Trophy intercepted 15 anti-tank missiles fired at them, destroying all of them. Most were Kornets. Trophy also directed the tank guns to be able to locate and destroy a number of the launchers.
Russian has developed three different active protection systems, although one of them (Drozd) is obsolete. One called Arena is designed to counter rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank missiles. Manufactured by the Kolomna Machine Building Design Bureau (KB Mashinostroyenia, or KBM) near Moscow, the Arena-E has been exported to South Korea and is being used on South Korea’s K2 tanks. (The South Koreans also say they have developed their own active protection system.)
The most advanced active protection system produced by Russia is known as the Afghanit, also produced by KBM. What makes it special is that it is supposed to be capable of defeating projectiles with depleted uranium cores. The Russians see the Afghanit as an answer to US “DU” (depleted uranium) tank shells. While DU is controversial, because of its latent radioactivity and potential long-term health effects, the US continues to use it, including in Syria. The Russians also have DU, so both sides are fully cognizant of the risks but want DU because it is the best armor penetrator available, far ahead of tungsten carbide, the nearest competitor.
The US does not currently have an active protection on its Abrams tanks and armored vehicles (namely the Stryker combat vehicle and the Bradley fighting vehicle). There has been some considerable controversy as to why not. The US Army stubbornly pursued its own active defense system in a project that stretched for some twenty years. However the system never was qualified.
Cheap anti-tank weapons could turn Kim’s tanks on the battlefield into nothing more than junkyard wrecks
Recently the Army decided to buy some off the shelf systems from three suppliers, two of them Israeli. These included the Trophy, made by Rafael, Iron First from IMI and Artis’s (Virginia-based) Iron Curtain. Of these, Trophy is being installed on a tank brigade and is being deployed in Europe. The first 100 units are under delivery. The Artis system has run into technical problems and may or may not end up being fully tested.
The decision to upgrade the Abrams, plus the Bradley and Stryker, comes from recent experience in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has released footage of an Abrams tank being hit and destroyed, and this was not the only Abrams destroyed. Clearly Russian improvements in anti-tank systems, as evidenced by Kornet, demonstrate the challenge facing armor systems.
It would make a lot of sense to get active protection on US tanks in South Korea, sooner rather than later. The US Army has not impressed anyone by its lethargy in modernizing tanks and fighting vehicles.
If proof is needed, look what happened to the Leopard II, a greatly admired tank. The Turkish Army, in its attacks on the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, has been experiencing significant tank losses against a poorly equipped adversary. In particular, Leopard II tanks from Germany –often well thought-of as superbly designed tanks – have been blown up by the underequipped Kurds, who do not have any armor of their own. The two losers are the Turks, because the Leopard is performing far below the standard expected of it, and the Germans, because their tank is not so great and the promise they allegedly extracted from the Turks not to use the Leopard against the Kurds isn’t worth the paper it was written on.
The Leopard II, like the Abrams, does not have active protection.
In regard to Korea, where a clash of armor could be most likely, Kim Jong-un is at a big disadvantage as he lacks upgraded systems and has no active protection capability. Cheap anti-tank weapons could turn his tanks on the battlefield into nothing more than junkyard wrecks.