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09/12/2017

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George V

I'd like to hear from the tanker guys on the pros and cons of an autoloader.
The cynical engineer side of me says it's one more thing to break, might not be as fast as having a human loader, and placing all the ammo in a ring around the turret as depicted in the graphic looks deadly. I read somewhere that a human loader is another pair of hands for repair and maintenance.
But that's just me and I'm not in the business. What do the tank crews think?

Karim Khaldy

I can't abide by an autoloader. The loader provides desired ammunition by verbal command, adds to situational awareness, is extremely mechanically reliable, allows ammunition to be stored on the other side of a blast door, is fast, and gives an additional machine gun topside of the tank.

The autoloader lets you crew more tanks with less people, allowing for a smaller tank. There's an advantage in that, but I'm not convinced the tradeoff is worth it.

I believe that logistically, it's easier to have an additional crew member to support (aside from food and water, once in the field you don't have to do a lot) than it is to have another piece of equipment to maintain.

You know who is in favor of them? The Chieftain, of Wargaming fame, Nicholas Moran. I'll tag him to get his side of things.

Nicholas Moran

Thanks, Karim... :P

There is a reason that new designs seem to be coming with autoloader by default. The designs that do not are generally legacy designs, such as Abrams and Leopard.

There are two types of advantage to the autoloader: Strategic and tactical.

On the strategic side, you simply don't need as many soldiers to have about the same combat power. A battalion of tanks is, say, 58 tanks in US Service. 232 personnel that need to be trained up, that get medical care, pensions, and so on. All of which costs money. And who are not available, in your overall force cap, for other roles such as infantry which cannot be automated. Three-man crews drop that figure to 174 tankers.

On the tactical side, there are a few benefits.
Firstly, you have a higher sustained rate of fire. Look at one of the first reliable autoloader tanks, the Strv-103. It had a 45-round ready rack, and the remaining five rounds were easy to get to. Compare with the contemporary M60, which had 6 rounds in the bustle and an additional 16 on the turret floor. The rest were scattered around. That's a special case. On the other hand in a more modern example, the ready rack for an M1A2 is 18 rounds, 15 for a Leopard 2. Leclerc has 22 rounds ready to go, Type 90 has 20. All of which can be obtained at a constant rate of fire. For a manual-loading tank such as M1, there is a 'sweet spot' in the ready rack in which the rounds can be obtained particularly quickly. In between engagements on the gunnery range, you will see loaders move the ammunition around in the ready rack so that they can reload faster. Thus, in a sustained engagement, no only will the M1 or Leopard run out of ammunition on fewer targets, it will take longer to service them as the loader firstly gets tired, and secondly, has to start accessing rounds from less convenient parts of the ready rack. The next benefit is on the sheer size of the tank. By reducing the crew size, you can reduce the amount of volume which needs to be armoured. This thus means that your tank can be smaller (and thus harder to hit) and lighter, for the same level of protection, making it more nimble with the same engine as well as able to go places your 70-ton monster can't go. And, of course, if your tank gets killed, only three people are at risk, not four.

There are three arguments against autoloaders. One is that having a fourth man aids with security and maintenance tasks. One wonders if Armor Branch made a similar argument when US tanks dropped from 5 men to 4 in the M48. There are two counters to this. One is that technology has made maintenance a little easier, and the other is that if you really do want to have that fourth man, there is no requirement that the fourth man be in the tank during combat. A French platoon consists of both tanks and VBL s, the 'fourth tanker' being transported in the APC. And, while he's at it, in combat the 'fourth man' may be used in a light infantry/scout role. When the tank lagers up for maintenance or rest, the fourth man joins the tank.

The second major argument is that there is a second pair of eyes sticking out the turret. That is a very good argument and becomes part of the overall cost/benefit calculation. If, for whatever reason, you are willing to drive around in your bigger, 70-ton machine just so you can have a fourth man in the crew, that doesn't mean you can't still get a number of the autoloader benefits: Witness the Abrams autoloader developed by Meggitt: It fits behind the breech, has a 34-ready-round capacity, and still leaves the loader in his hatch to look around, feed the machinegun, muck with the radio and make smart comments.

The argument that an autoloader might break is daft. Anything in the tank might break. If the transmission breaks, is the fourth man going to get out and push? Before fielding, a tank and its autoloader is going to undertake service evaluation. It'll be acceptably reliable. It also isn't likely to suffer particular malfunction if a 3mm piece of fragmentation from somehow hits it. Human loaders tend not to react well to that sort of thing.

The argument that the ammunition is going to blow up is also not a viable one. Firstly, the ammunition which blows up on a T-72 tends to be the ammunition not in the carousel. It's the ammo stored elsewhere in the hull. Secondly, most tanks don't use carousel autoloaders anyway. There is no blast door between a Leclerc or K2's ammo and the crew. There is a solid metal wall between the ammunition and the crew compartment, with a small port which opens up just enough to allow a single round of ammunition to pass through. This makes the autoloader even safer to the crew than the regular manual-load-with-blast-door.

TLDR version. I see no viable argument against using an autoloader. I can see at least discussion as to whether there should be a fourth crewman in the tank, but that is a separate question not required by the presence, or not, of the autoloader. I also don't believe it to be worth it, but that's a judgement call.

Quartermaster

Another question, which Nick Moran alludes to, but doesn't treat much, is reliability of the autoloader. The Soviets had reliability problems with theirs, iirc, which led to a number of discussions. Any machinery can break, and that includes the wetware meat machines as well. But, and this is the question with any machinery the military uses, how often does it break down and how hard is it to fix when it does?

Krag

RE: "The argument that an autoloader might break is daft. Anything in the tank might break. If the transmission breaks, is the fourth man going to get out and push? Before fielding, a tank and its autoloader is going to undertake service evaluation. It'll be acceptably reliable."

This is unpersuasive. Machinery makes sense when it performs beyond human capacity - no one doubts the transmission or engine far exceed human muscle, so you take the lumps of mechanical (un)reliability for the vast increase in performance. Not so with an autoloader. It is doing a job quite easily done by a human while introducing a new source of critical failure to the entire system that is the tank. Failure that can and will occur without the added stress of combat simply because it is machinery and machinery breaks far more often than humans do. It is silly bordering on stupid.

It is a solution for a unique situation requiring minimal manning/optional manning (UGVs?), but not a general solution for tanks at large and countries that can find men willing to serve.


Casey

I have a question. When was the last time we saw the kind of sustained combat Nicholas mentioned? Is it still a valid metric?

I ask because so many pilots (or wannabees) obsess over having a gun in a fighter, when the last gun kill was something like 30 or 40 years ago.

That's not to mention there are other tank-killers out there such as the venerable Warthog and smart mines.

I'm also leery of minimal-personnel-based arguments. That kind of thinking got us the LCS.

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