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Tank Tech Race: US, Germany, and South Korea Battle for Supremacy

軍 미래형 ‘전차’ 청사진은…韓 ‘K3’·獨 ‘KF-51’·미 ‘에이브럼스 X’ 누가 셀까[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
The Korean next-generation tank ‘K3’ concept. Photo provided=Hyundai Rotem
軍 미래형 ‘전차’ 청사진은…韓 ‘K3’·獨 ‘KF-51’·미 ‘에이브럼스 X’ 누가 셀까[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
The Korean next-generation tank K3 concept. Photo provided=Hyundai Rotem

Tanks, often called the “princes of ground warfare,” have regained their importance through the war in Ukraine, prompting advanced nations to accelerate the development of future-generation tanks. Tanks, pushed back by various advanced weapons and even deemed useless, are now being highlighted again, with efforts being made to create new tanks equipped with cutting-edge technology suitable for future warfare.

Advanced tank nations primarily focus on enhancing the punch of the main gun, the smoothbore gun, and strengthening their self-defense capabilities against enemy missile attacks. At the same time, they are engaged in a competition to develop state-of-the-art tanks equipped with artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous driving, and stealth capabilities. It seems to be a three-way struggle between the world’s largest “military powerhouse,” the United States, the traditional “tank corps” Germany, and the rising ‘K-defense’ South Korea.

The U.S. GDLS’s next main battle tank, Abrams X, emphasizes its strengths in reducing combat weight and operational personnel, as well as unmanned turrets, automatic reloading, hybrid power packs, manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T), and autonomous capabilities. Germany’s Panther KF-51 is pushing the next main battle tank by adding a digital backbone (backbone) and increasing lethal attacks and survivability by applying all-new technologies such as unmanned turrets based on Leopard2A4. K-defense Hyundai Rotem is promoting the K3 stealth tank, applying future technology to mobility, firepower, and defense capabilities, and applying an AI-based vehicle operation system and a manned-unmanned combined operation concept suitable for the network-centric future battlefield environment as the next-generation model following the K2 tank.

軍 미래형 ‘전차’ 청사진은…韓 ‘K3’·獨 ‘KF-51’·미 ‘에이브럼스 X’ 누가 셀까[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
German defense company Rheinmetall proposed the ‘KF-51’ tank. Photo provided=Rheinmetall

The future tank is divided into six major areas, and we looked at the characteristics of each tank.

First, the most important is the combat weight. This is not simply the weight of the battle platform. It includes the total weight of all necessary combat personnel, equipment, and supplies. In the case of tanks, the main gun’s caliber, the body’s size, the power pack, the amount of fuel loaded, and the armor defense capability are typically factors that affect the combat weight.

Some tanks, such as the U.S.’s M1A2 and Germany’s Leopard 2A7, considered the strongest, exceed 60 tons in combat weight to increase firepower and enhance defense capabilities. However, if the combat weight exceeds 60 tons, the mobility in the field is reduced, and it is challenging to expect further improvement, which is a general view.

Due to these factors, the KF-51 suggested 59 tons. The Abrams X also released a press release emphasizing that it reduced weight to improve mobility. The K3 indicates a combat weight of less than 55 tons, the same as K1A1 and K2. It is argued that tactical transport capabilities are considered suitable for our country’s terrain and operational environment characteristics.

Increase firepower by extending the caliber and length of the main gun and gun barrel

The tank’s main gun is responsible for destroying enemy tanks or armored vehicles on the battlefield or sturdy facilities. Typically, the caliber or length of the gun barrel and the muzzle energy are increased to enhance firepower. Initially, thermochemical guns or railguns were expected to be future tank guns, but it seems complicated to envision them as weapon systems in the near future.

The Abrams X mounted a 44-caliber 120mm smoothbore gun, and the KF-51 and K3 suggested a 130mm smoothbore gun. The caliber of the main gun mounted on the rotating turret is currently limited to 155mm, and it is known that the United States and Germany have considered a 140mm main gun but have given up.

The 130mm smoothbore gun of the KF-51 was designed to be mounted on the MGCS (Main Ground Combat System), which is being jointly researched and developed by Germany and France, with the goal of completion in the mid-2020s, as a tank to follow the current Leopard 2 (Leopard 2) and Leclerc (Leclerc). It has a high and low angle of -9 ° to 20°, and new ammunition suitable for this main gun, such as a new wing-stabilized separate armor-piercing projectile, was introduced. It is reported that the kinetic energy for the power of the projectile has been improved by 50%, which is more than 120mm.

The Abrams X is equipped with a 120mm smoothbore gun XM-360. The XM-360 is known to be 952kg lighter than the M256, a 44-caliber 120mm gun of the M1A2, but has the same power.

軍 미래형 ‘전차’ 청사진은…韓 ‘K3’·獨 ‘KF-51’·미 ‘에이브럼스 X’ 누가 셀까[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
The shooting appearance of the KF-51 was equipped with a 130mm/L42 smoothbore gun and new types of shells. Photo provided=Rheinmetall

Unmanned turrets and remote-controlled firing control systems (RCWS·Remote Controlled Weapon Station) have been applied in common to the three Abrams X, KF-51, and K3 tanks. The unmanned turret is a system that operates by installing shells, automatic reloading devices, and firing devices without placing crew members. It is already being applied and operated in Russia’s latest T14 Armata (Armata) tank.

If the caliber of the tank main gun is 120mm or more, it is difficult for people to reload continuously due to the length and weight of the shell. Hence, an automatic reloading device is inevitable. The automatic reloading device does not require ammunition to secure the corresponding space. Therefore, it contributes to the reloading speed and safety during movement. It also has a positive effect on reducing size and weight, such as being able to lower the height of the body.

The Abrams X has an RS6 Protector remote control system in the unmanned turret. The RS6 can integrate a 30mm chain gun equivalent to an armed helicopter, a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun, and an anti-tank guided weapon. The KF-51 applied an RCWS that operates a 7.62mm RMG fully automatically. The unmanned system optionally mounts a HERO 120 that can attack non-visible targets with a suicide drone. The K3 suggests a laser gun (remote weapon device) and a multi-purpose missile system as secondary weapons.

Stealth maneuver, thanks to hybrid power units

Until now, power units for tanks and armored vehicles have been developed in the direction of hybrid electric engines and hydrogen fuel cells. The calculation is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by reducing fuel consumption and increasing range by installing these new engines.

In response, Abrams X and K3 introduced hybrid diesel-electric power units. On the other hand, it is known that the KF-51 will continue to use the liquid-cooled MTU MB873 Ka-501 engine, which is currently equipped in the Leopard 2 series. The hybrid diesel-electric power unit is a compound engine system that uses a diesel engine to generate electricity to power the motor. Thanks to the motor directly driving the endless track, it can achieve smooth movement without a gearbox.

As a result, Abrams X’s hybrid power unit is lightweight compared to the M1A2’s gas turbine power pack and superior in fuel efficiency. It can travel the same tactical range with 50% less fuel consumption and is capable of stealthy or low-noise mobility. Hyundai Rotem’s K3 has also increased its range to 500 km through a hybrid power unit. It is reported that it can move 4 km in stealth mode.

GDLS

The trend for future tanks is reducing operating personnel, i.e., the crew. Reducing the number of operating personnel is almost essential to align with population decline and automation. KF-51 and Abrams X are designed to be operated by three crew members. This allows adding one more crew member, such as a tank-mounted drone operator. In particular, the interior of the K3 tank is designed with 2-3 “capsule-type crew compartments.” Also, the Korean future tank “K3 Stealth Tank,” which follows the K2 Black Panther tank, stands out with its gray camouflage paint in a stealthy shape.

GDLS

The next-generation tanks of the three countries have applied differentiated strengths for future warfare, but they all have one thing in common: tank drones.

With its hybrid engine, Abrams X significantly reduces noise, allowing the tank to remain hidden from enemy surveillance for an extended period. Most importantly, it is equipped with cameras that will enable the tank crew to attack enemy tanks from a distance with drones while also monitoring the outside situation within the tank, similar to a regular passenger car. For example, it can deploy the Switchblade suicide drone that was active in the Ukraine conflict to attack distant enemy forces. Crew members perform the control and operation of drones separately within the tank. It has also improved its multi-layer defense with radar and active protection systems to intercept enemy tank attacks.

The German KF-51 operates the HERO 120 suicide drone to attack enemy forces outside of its firing range. This drone is designed to perform reconnaissance missions as well, in addition to anti-tank attacks.

The K3 also features a stealth design to minimize the risk of detection by enemy radar. In addition, it is equipped with remotely controlled laser guns, small drones, and active protection systems. It also includes a 360-degree situational awareness device. Crew members can safely assess external situations from within the tank without extending their bodies outside, even in the face of enemy gunfire threats.

According to Ahn Seung Beom, the CEO of Defense Times, “The K3 incorporates a variety of future technologies that can increase mobility, firepower, and protection, including an artificial intelligence (AI)-based operational system and a combination of manned and unmanned concepts.”

By. Hyun Ho Lee

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