Killer Drones versus Battle Tanks
Airplanes versus Tanks
Currently the US military is using its supreme anti-tank missile, the Hellfire, fired from unmanned drones like the Predator against Middle East insurgents and terrorists. I am curious if on some future air/land battlefield if the Hellfire and UAV combo will be used in the missile’s original role against the main battle tanks of better armed aggressor nations.
It is true that aircraft and armored vehicles have been at odds since each’s inception in the early decades of the 20th Century. Their development coincided with the mechanization of warfare and both came of age during World War 2. Aircraft were viewed by some as an economical way to blunt the German superiority in armored blitzkrieg tactics, and specialized tank busting planes were built or modified from existing designs for this purpose. Some of the notable ones then and since include the German Ju-87 Stuka, the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik, the British Hawker Typhoon, as well as the long-serving A-10 Thunderbolt II.
Fearsome land Goliaths like the German Tiger II, the Russian T-34, the British Centurion, and the American M-1 Abrams managed to survive the Age of Airpower and even thrive. Today they are still the dominance force on the land battlefield and no respectable Army would be without some type of tracked battle tank.
It appears likely due the advent of missile weapons equipped with precision technology, the reign of these very large and expensive behemoths might be at an end. Of course, the demise of the tank has been predicted before, but where we think the change will come is in the form of these fragile new unmanned planes now being used to good effect in the Wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, now armed with Hellfire and highly accurate smart bombs, there is no longer a place to hide.
Bridging the Gap
The UAVs close the gap between high flying and fast manned attack planesand their land-based quarry. These robot planes rely on their very fragility to defeat more powerful foes. They are slower and smaller than the larger anti-tank planes and helicopters. This loitering ability coupled with persistence, allows the killer drones to wait for its intended target for as long as necessary without putting a human pilot at risk. Some like the new Fire Scout can hover while waiting patiently for its target, up to 8 hours without refueling. Advanced terrain sensors also allow the armored vehicles little of its traditional cover, even in overgrown areas.
While the new unmanned combat vehicles (UCAV) have so far been used exclusively as “flying artillery”, the weaponry most often carried were originally geared for the anti-tank missions. Wikipedia reveals as much on Fire Scout which:
…include weapons such as Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and in particular pods carrying the “Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS)”, a laser-guided 70 millimeter (2.75 inch) folding-fin rocket, which the Army sees as ideal for the modern battlefield.
Of course, all this is conjecture, since the two weapons, one new, the other well-tried and proven in combat have yet to face off in battle. Still, the use of increasingly powerful missile weapons launched either from the ground or the air, with the rapidly improving lethality of combat UAVs, it appears that heavy tank advocates have further need to worry for the safety of their armored chariots.