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Should General Dynamics Build a Super-Tank?

By Rich Smith - Mar 26, 2017 at 12:13PM

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The Army wants one by 2030. But will it still be relevant then?

The U.S. Army wants General Dynamics (GD 1.18%) to build it a super-tank -- an improvement over the ubiquitous M1 Abrams main battle tank that is currently the mainstay of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps.

According to recent reports, the U.S. Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) wants its new tank to come equipped with "light-weight composite armor" for defense and a light-weight XM360 120 mm cannon -- half the weight of the Abrams' current main gun. Together, these improvements should result in a tank weighing 20% less than an M1 Abrams' 72-ton mass.

Experimental small unmannned ground vehicle.

The U.S. Army wants a smaller, lighter, main battle tank in 2030. But maybe not quite this small. Image source: U.S. Army TARDEC.

This new super-tank would therefore be fleeter of foot on the battlefield, and more fuel efficient (i.e., cheaper to operate) to boot. A lighter tank would also make for a lighter burden on military aviation, permitting a wider variety of airframes to deliver it to the battlefield.

And those are just the most obvious improvements. Open the hatch, and within this new super-tank you'll find:

  • Advanced sensors permitting the tank to shoot targets "beyond line-of-sight"
  • Advanced communications gear enabling the tank to control its own drones
  • "Active protection systems," possibly including lasers, to track and destroy incoming enemy fire
  • An electric generator to power future defensive laser weapons
  • Spare room to accommodate future upgrades to engines and power systems.

Fleet of foot -- but with an Achilles' heel?

And yet, it's these same advances in technology that TARDEC is mooting that may get an investor to wondering: If it takes the Army, and General Dynamics, nearly 15 years to bring this new tank, with all its newfangled equipment, into being, what will the battlefield of the 2030s look like when it arrives? Will tanks even be relevant then?

After all, elsewhere in the military, there's a lot of talk going on about the introduction of high-energy laser weapons to the battlefield. In military aviation, for example, there's been a lot of talk about the possibility of putting laser weapons aboard C-130 gunships as early as 2020 -- and you have to expect that near-peer adversaries like Russia and China will be looking to do something similar.

Such an airborne laser, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold during a 2015 symposium, might put out as much as 200 kilowatts of power and burn "a beer-can [shaped] hole" through a target that, to opposing ground forces, is still over the horizon and invisible to sensors. And if the Air Force thinks it will have weapons that good by 2020 -- a full decade before the Army's new super-tank arrives on the field -- how much more lethal might laser weapons be by the time the super-tank does arrive?

Boeing's portable tank-killer

It gets worse. General Dynamics' rival Boeing (BA 2.28%) has already developed a prototype laser weapon that doesn't need an airplane -- or even another tank -- to lug it around. Boeing's new compact laser weapon system, demoed in 2015, is small enough to be carried into combat by a an infantry squad. Boeing's current version only puts out about 10 kilowatts of power, and probably isn't powerful enough to burn through tank armor yet -- but it might still do serious damage to a tread, and immobilize a tank.

What's more, you can bet that Boeing is working to amp up the power on its device. Given how rapidly laser weapons are evolving, there's a good chance that any tank -- however "super" -- that arrives on the field 15 years from now will find itself already overmatched by advances in laser weaponry.

So what does this mean for General Dynamics, and its $5.6 billion "combat systems" unit that builds the Army's battle tanks? What does it mean for the prospects of General Dynamics building a new tank for the Army?

Honestly, it's hard to say. On one hand, if laser weapons are coming, it's a sure thing that today's generation of M1 Abrams tanks won't be ready to meet the threat, so maybe that's an argument in favor of accelerating the push for TARDEC and General Dynamics to come up with something better. On the other hand, what if it turns out that the best tank that can be put together by 2030 is one that will be nearly as vulnerable to laser weapons as the current model?

Well, that would be a good argument in favor of rethinking whether any tank at all will be relevant in the future -- and whether General Dynamics should start thinking of finding a new line of business.

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