Op-Ed: Turning war into a video game — Happening, but slow with OMT tank

Posted Jan 11, 2021 by Paul Wallis
As old systems are retired, the question becomes what to replace them with. The problem is that the new systems are entering a very vaguely defined new environment. Replacing the M1 Abrams tank is a case in point.
US military personnel and M1 Abrams tanks in Germany ahead of war games in February 2020
US military personnel and M1 Abrams tanks in Germany ahead of war games in February 2020
Patrik Stollarz, AFP/File
The tank replacement IS controversial. The new battlefield isn’t the environment for which the Abrams was designed. The successor tank has an identity crisis. Called the Optional Manned Tank (OMT) the new tank is a work in progress in an uncertain future range of combat environments.
The OMT is basically a redesigned M1/Merkava hybrid, with standard features. One of the stimuli for the new tanks is supposed to be the Russian Armata, itself a lighter-weight conventional tank with new systems. This whole line of argument regarding design and roles is based on the need for combat forces which fit the current methods of combat.
That’s fair enough. You need new platforms which can work with the existing systems and combat requirements. What’s changing, however, are the basic combat requirements, in multiple ways. “Complex warfare”, aka guerrilla warfare/terrorism/non-state wars, however, aren’t the whole picture.
The much bigger global combat environment is equally uncertain and badly defined. Tides of new systems, new ideas, and “novelty” systems are coming in. The armaments industry isn’t what it was. It has diversified. There’s always plenty of room for cheap kill systems, for example.
This is where it gets tricky but interesting. There are now thousands of contributors to combat systems and they don’t have to follow the market at all. The arms race has been privatized, and that’s where the war is being designed.
Governments don’t necessarily have a say in any of this. DARPA may dictate official weapons systems in the United States, for example. but there are many other ways of new systems entering the combat space. This is where “a new tank” turns into “a totally different new kind of war”. (Other fighting vehicles are also in the mix for the new systems, and the overall picture is understandably murky at best in terms of what happens next.)
Let’s clarify – A tank is a weapons platform, no more, no less. Tanks and tank variants can fire anything. The classic requirements of tanks are speed, protection, and firepower. That still holds true, but each of these has to be considered in comparison to new systems. Speed relative to what? Protection against what? Firepower to achieve what?
Tanks were designed to achieve decisive combat outcomes. They did that. They also dictated the massive emphasis on tank-fighting systems which saturate most combat platforms. Modern tanks are extremely dangerous and likely winners unless they’re countered effectively. So the new OMT is expected to deliver on all these requirements, in a possibly totally new combat environment.
There’s another legacy fundamental problem facing the new tanks – Logistics. They’re big, they’re heavy, they need maintenance, they’re not fast relative to other systems. They need a lot of fuel and technological support. These aren’t new problems. In the past, these issues were managed by expert organization on the ground and proper tactical handling. Despite these issues since their inception, tanks have overcome the “handling issues”.
The new problem is how tanks and their supports fit into an emerging automated battlefield. The need for mobile combat platforms remains, but what’s going to do the job of the tanks? A few tanks can make mincemeat out of an opponent at much lower risk and lower casualties than infantry. They can shatter enemy forces if they’re not stopped. They can’t be ignored in any combat scenario.
…But not if they’re not able to deliver due to outdated combat systems. The new “fight by wire” thing is here, and it’s not going anywhere. Tanks will have to automate, to a considerable extent, much like fighters. This is where the video game wars begin.
Video games as real warfare
To a much larger extent than most realize, war is already a video game. Artillery systems work with digital maps. Markers and overlays permeate most systems in some form. There’s a hideous and very real danger here.
If you’re not aware of the history:
• Big expensive combat systems have fought primitive systems and lost.
• If you put in too much effort to producing the military equivalent of grand operas, you can spend a lot of money on things that don’t work.
• If your big systems don’t work or can’t fight against new systems, you lose.
Sticking with the OMT tank as an analogy – All current combat systems are facing “automation creep”. Ironically, the super-soldier of the future is likely to be a highly trained one-man army, a thankless target in any combat environment, and he’ll be highly automated, too. These guys, and all other systems, will be using video game technologies as much as they breathe.
The mere ability to direct fire onto a target or multiple targets is already here and has been for some time. Properly trained and equipped, a few guys could take out an entire country. They don’t even have to be in the country. “Boots on the ground” is becoming a progressively obsolete, (as well as obscene), idea in more ways than one. This is actually cheaper and much less risky than the usual process of giving all the laundry work to air forces and missiles, too.
The fundamental economics of cheap kill have never been in doubt. That’s what automation is bringing, and it’s arriving fast. The need is for combat systems that can manage multiple roles, multiple environments, and survive to do their jobs.
In the case of the OMT tank, for example, you could look at its role very differently. There are quite a few no-brainers here:
1. It needs to be easily deployable.
2. It needs to be easy to maintain and support.
3. It needs to have multiple capabilities, not a one-trick wonder.
4. It doesn’t have to be a “tank” in the conventional sense. It just needs to be able to work wherever it goes.
5. Agility and speed in combat improve survival.
6. It should be easily upgradable to manage new issues ASAP.
7. It should be able to handle any known threat in its operational context.
8. Firepower should be a range of easily portable options, not just a big gun.
9. Any new system must have good reliable communications.
10. Training needs to be thorough, but also include strong tactical understanding and knowing how to take combat initiatives.
The OMT tank, however, has the problems of its generation. It’s a transitional combat vehicle. It has to manage the gap between the existing and emerging combat realities. That means this generation of tankers have to understand the existing and emerging issues and adapt as required. The OMT tank may not go down in history at all if there’s no war, but it will be the beginning of the future.
The Optional part of OMT is well-named. I can see a future where tanks aren’t manned unless they’re taking combat specialists into a combat zone. “Drive by wire” without tactical awareness and decision-making isn’t yet an option, but it’s an obvious development.
Watch the ideas as this system develops. The future of war is being made right now.