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Just How Do Tanks Defend Themselves from Incoming Missiles?

U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank defends against missiles

Tanks are large, fast-moving and heavily armed military vehicles, and seen as the primary offensive weapon of modern armies. For the past 100 years, engineers from opposing countries have been locked in an arms race to figure out the best way for protecting their own tanks and destroying others. Typically, protecting tanks consists of adding new and increasingly heavier armour plating, but there are new kinetic Active Protection Systems (APS) that are becoming popular alternatives.

Over the last century, the average weight of tanks has quadrupled, as one of the first tanks ‘Little Willie’ weighed 16.5 tonnes, and today’s American M1 Abrams are approximately 70 tonnes. Most of the weight is down to the armour, and though the armour is effective and keeps tanks moving, it also comes at the cost of size, weight, speed and the mobility of the vehicle. Long term, increasing the size and weight of a tank is unfeasible.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was protecting its investment in having a superior task force and began researching new countermeasures, one of which was the concept of APS. APS involves rigging a tank with sensors, typically wave radars that detect incoming rockets and missiles, along the tank’s frontal arc. When an anti-tank missile is close enough, the APS launches and interceptor rocket to take out the incoming missile. Active Protective Systems are lightweight, effective and also cost a lot less than bulking up a tank with armour.

One such modern example is the Russian ARENA system, which has been developed by the KB Mashinostroyeniya Design Bureau near Moscow. ARENA automatically detects incoming targets at approximately 50 metres away and has an astonishing .07 second reaction time. Anti-tank rockets and missiles such as the Russian RPG-7 and the American TOW travel 300 metres per second, making them slow enough to be intercepted. However, at that speed, the ARENA system can’t be operated manually.

Tanks which have the ARENA system are equipped with 22 to 26 interceptor rockets, and interception will happen within about 10 feet from the tank; though there is no say on whether it could intercept fire from airsoft pistols... Not that they would do much damage to a tank anyway!

It is not just Russia who have the technology, as other nations are catching up to implement APS on their tanks. Israel’s Trophy system protects Israeli tanks from rockets and missiles in terrorist hands; South Korea is equipping its K-2 Blank Panther tank, and the U.S. Army is testing APS with their Abrams tanks and several other infantries fighting vehicles. Active Protective Systems will definitely be part of the upgrades for many of the army’s armoured vehicles.

Image credit: Joseph A. Lambach

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