It’s been more than a century since the first armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) quite literally burst into the theatre of war. In all that time, much like the terrains they traverse, these beasts of modern warfare have witnessed many ups and downs. Despite their turbulent history on and off the battlefield, one thing remains certain: they are here to stay.
The main question concerning their future is not, as some falsely assume, whether they will survive the 21st century’s dizzying pace of technological development in today’s militaries. The real issue is how we develop them in line with the changing nature of war, in which hybrid, asymmetric and cyber tactics are becoming increasingly common. In a world where battles are more and more conducted in cyber space, these vehicles, originally designed for conventional warfare, will undergo one of the most significant technological evolutions in their history. The real question, therefore, is what these innovations will look like and how they will fit into the battlefields and militaries of the future.
Since they were first used in World War One to break through the stalemate of trench warfare, tanks have proven their worth tactically. A few decades later in the Second World War, they came to form the backbone of one of the conflict’s most successful military strategies, this time as part of Germany’s revolutionary Blitzkrieg or “lighting war”, which prioritised above all else the need for speed in the Nazi conquest of Europe. Subsequently, tanks remained for the best part of three decades a crucial part of a military’s dominance on the battlefield.
By the 1970s, a range of anti-tank technologies had been developed, mostly involving guided missiles and minefields. Many viewed this as an existential threat to their future.
But decades on, the role of battle tanks in mechanised forces around the world remains, proving the sceptics of 50 years ago wrong. Their technological, physical and psychological contributions to militaries have so far proved irreplaceable.
This will continue to be the case. As asymmetric attacks become more common, it is increasingly difficult to protect logistical infrastructure behind frontlines. Armoured vehicles will play a key role in safeguarding these crucial parts of a military’s toolkit. But to do so, AFVs will have to adapt to increasingly sophisticated, difficult to detect and often remotely controlled threats.
In response to this changing landscape, NIMR is designing a new generation of medium-sized, lightweight and highly mobile vehicles that can travel over 700 kilometres at speeds surpassing 100kph. This allows for greater efficacy in urban environments, faster deployment times and makes our AFVs less likely to be detected by radar.
The days of tank teams operating in isolation are over. Instead, AFVs are being integrated into other aspects of a military’s presence on the battlefield. As part of a bigger operation, these vehicles play an important role in terms of their defensive firepower, enemy targeting systems and thermal imaging technology to inform decisions in difficult terrain. They have great tactical advantages for communications and the command and control of ground forces, increasing efficiency on the battlefield.
There is also a defensive need for AFVs to play a role combating the threats posed by mines and IEDs. The hope is that protective technology will be scalable, to match the requirements of different terrains and conflict scenarios.
AFVs will increasingly help protect mobility for ground troops and ensure precision when firing at faraway targets. They are a particularly effective means for a military to combat enemy defence systems. They are capable of carrying heavy duty ammunitions and materials. This serves not just a practical role, but also provides a psychological boost to armies, while intimidating enemies at the same time.
The intersection of artificial intelligence and AFV technology gives drivers unprecedented abilities to assess and analyse instantly their surrounding environment and provide feedback to friendly forces in the field, as well as the virtual units that are monitoring situations from remote locations. For the first time this makes AFVs equally valuable counterparts to human military intelligence on the ground.
If these vehicles are able to confront the future with the necessary flexibility and technological edge, they could emerge as some of the most essential assets in 21st century militaries. As NIMR celebrates its 20th anniversary, we look forward to the next two decades in which we will be pushing the boundaries of these new and exciting frontiers.
AFVs, as they did in the 70s, are set to prove the naysayers wrong. These vehicles of the future will be indispensable for all countries and militaries that consider national security a top priority.
Abri du Plessis is the CEO of NIMR, a UAE-based manufacturer of military vehicles.