Battles of the future: Type X tanks and Thunder guns

Next-generation hardware which further advances prospect of drone warfare unveiled at major defence exhibition

Type-X tank. It could herald the future of robotic warfare. Photo: Kongsberg
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Drone tanks and robotic artillery which will be used to fight future wars, reducing the need for humans on the frontline, have been unveiled by leading defence firms.

The Type-X tank and the K9 Thunder gun are both tracked armoured vehicles that will be able to travel off-road and fight the enemy with their guns controlled by humans using a joystick.

This will lead to fewer human casualties and significantly increase firepower for armies that possess the weapons, defence executives told The National at the DSEI defence exhibition in London.

“The value of human sacrifice is unbearable and everybody feels it’s better to send out a robot instead of a human being onto the battlefield,” said Paul Huh, of Hanwha, the South Korean company that builds the K-9. “It will lead to less casualties in war.”

Mr Huh also admitted that military robotics becoming more dominant was a “trend and we're headed towards that direction”.

South Korea also has the lowest fertility rate in the world with fewer than one child per woman, meaning that its population will soon significantly decrease. This in part has driven Seoul’s military to reduce manning on its equipment.

“We realised that worldwide there's a trend for population decrease and it's harder to recruit soldiers and to keep the military personnel intact so the automation process is a must for us,” said Mr Huh, project manager for the gun.

“So now instead of the 30 people that you need to man six of our original K9 guns, three people can operate six K9A3s to deliver the same firepower.”

A key aspect is further developing the technology for extreme off-road driving that will be far more challenging than that created for Tesla self-drive cars.

Tanks will have to be able to determine routes through forests, water, steep gradients and judge the terrain including whether soil is navigable or too muddy or sandy.

That technology is now advancing with the prototypes ready to join armies.

Type-X tank

Carrying a 30mm or 50mm gun, the Type-X can speed at 80kph over terrain and manoeuvre into the “most dangerous positions and provide equal or overmatching firepower” compared to current infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), said Kuldar Vaarsi, chief executive of its developers Milrem Robotics, based in Estonia.

The 12-tonne tank, which he said would cost significantly less than the $9 million for an IFV, automatically performs its own ballistic computations while travelling over difficult terrain “making targeting easier even in the most challenging scenario”.

The Type-X also comes with its own “quadbox”, housing a quadcopter drone that emerges from an armoured box on the rear and flies forward seeking out enemy positions or obstacles while feeding the information back to the tank and soldiers in command vehicles.

In combat the Type-X would act in tandem with a manned main battle tank that could send a handful of the robotic vehicles forward using them for reconnaissance or to take out initial enemy defences.

“The firepower and mobility is equal to or better than infantry fighting vehicles,” said Mr Vaarsi. “That significantly increases the safety of human systems as you can use them in more dangerous positions, manoeuvring into places where you wouldn't send the manned vehicles.”

But the boss of Milrem, which is part owned by UAE defence company Edge, insisted there would always be a human in the loop making decisions for targeting and opening fire.

While the extreme off-road travelling technology will not be in place for a decade the Type-X can currently be deployed on certain missions with a range of 600km using its hybrid engine.

“The Type-X gives you significantly more firepower while you still have the same amount of troops,” said Mr Vaarsi. “It also gives you increased safety.”

With less armour and no crew, it was also significantly cost effective, with a buyer from a Nato country likely to be announced soon.

K-9 Thunder

With technology advances the K9 gun has gone from having five crew to three, then two and with the development of the K9A3 version, none.

Gunners will be able to direct a battery of three guns on the battlefield. The drones will travel to a selected location on their own and once in position will automatically load up shells and charging explosives from racks within the gun turrets.

On command they can open up with a thunderous volley of nine rounds per minute for each gun, sending devastating firepower onto enemy positions.

With its new long 58 calibre barrel the K9A3 version will be able to send shells 70km, the equivalent range of HIMARs missiles currently being used in Ukraine.

Each gun carries 48 shells but for every two K9s there is an armoured K10 resupply vehicle that uses its robotic arm to refill the turret within ten minutes.

Loading the projectile and setting the fuse are all automatic but if something goes wrong a soldier can enter the turret.

South Korea currently has a huge artillery park of 1,700 K9s, originally developed in 1999, and expects this number to increase to 2,500 worldwide with exports.

Poland has purchased 24 with some of its locally manufactured Krab variant currently active in Ukraine.

The size of South Korea’s arsenal also suggests that it has a significant stockpile of 155mm rounds that are desperately needed by Ukraine for their counter-offensive as Europe’s armoury is depleted.

Updated: September 14, 2023, 2:00 PM