Meet the Army’s MPF Tank

BAE Systems MPF prototype during a test fire. Courtesy of BAE Systems.

The popular American image of a tank is the Army’s M1A1 Abrams. While heavy main battle tanks like the Abrams have slugged it out in classic cinematic tank battles, it’s the light tanks that have often been a foot soldier’s best friend. They may be smaller and no match for main battle tanks, but light tanks like the M3 Stuart and the M551 Sheridan protected U.S. troops from light armored vehicles, mortars, and heavy machine guns throughout WWII and the Cold War.

Now, U.S. Army soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division are testing the limits of a new generation of light tanks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The outcome of those tests—and the opinions of the soldiers themselves—will likely crown the winner of the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) acquisition program.

With MPF, the Army is looking to give its airborne and light infantry units something they haven’t had since the 1990s: a light tank to augment their firepower and help them penetrate lightly armored, medium-gunned defenses in natural or urban terrain. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the M551 Sheridan filled that role, but it was retired and its replacement, the M8 Buford, was canceled later in the decade.

It has taken the Army more than 20 years to get back to providing light tank capability to its Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs). These tanks will be more lethal, easier to maintain, and able to keep up with an IBCT’s new Infantry Squad Vehicle transports. They’ll need to be air transportable via C-17 cargo aircraft, ready to fight upon landing, and capable of learning new combat tricks as they age.

After cutting through a number of proposals, only two prototypes remain, one from General Dynamics Land Systems (GD) and another from BAE Systems (BAE). The service eventually wants 504 of these new tanks; an initial 26 will begin production in 2022 after a head-to-head soldier evaluation helps determine a winner.

As of early 2021, each company was supposed to have already delivered a dozen of its light tank prototypes to the Army, including four examples of each to Fort Bragg. General Dynamics made the deadline, and BAE’s prototype isn’t far behind.

When the full complement of MPF prototypes arrives at Fort Bragg, soldiers will learn their capabilities and determine whether an IBCT can consistently keep the light tanks ready to rumble. They’ll also have a fundamental choice to make—whether to recommend a light tank or an even lighter tank.

Big & Bigger

Anything that meets the definition of a tank isn’t small. But there’s a big size difference between GD’s tanks and BAE’s tanks, each following a design lineage that stems from its maker’s previous vehicles. General Dynamics builds the Army’s main battle tank, the 68-ton M1 Abrams, which is designed to defeat enemy tanks and heavy armor. BAE builds the 28-ton Bradley Fighting Vehicle, designed to transport infantry or scouts with armor protection.

Both have drawn bits of mechanical DNA from these two vehicles to bring their MPF prototypes to life.

Speed & Power

The speed of a light infantry brigade is generally governed by the pace at which its soldiers march and overcome opposition. But with the arrival of the air-droppable ISV, forward elements of IBCTs can now move at over 60 mph cross-country.

Firepower & Protection

A light tank is essentially artillery for the IBCT.

As Brigadier General Ross Coffman, director of the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team, told Army Times in 2018: “There’s no precision munition to remove bunkers from the battlefield, to shoot into buildings in dense urban terrain…The MPF will be used to disrupt, break in and breach those secure defensive zones.”

The Army required several common elements in both competitors, including the main gun. GD and BAE will use a 105 mm NATO-standard M35 low recoil cannon. Sources put its maximum range at about 8,975 yards (8,200 meters). Both will use a Raytheon-made third generation FLIR sight/sensor system, and both will have scalable armor, capable of being installed or removed in the field.

Support and Serviceability

The Army has indicated that it wants to keep its IBCTs agile, and that it “does not anticipate a significant increase to IBCT field maintenance to support the MPF.” That makes serviceability incredibly important.

The Soldiers Decide

The Army’s Ground Combat Systems office acknowledges that personnel at Fort Bragg are “excited about being able to be the first soldiers to operate a cutting-edge new combat platform.”

The tanks that GD delivered immediately stirred curiosity, Reese says. “The soldiers were climbing all over them. They were excited. They wanted to hop inside and see how they worked.”

Miller expects a similar reaction from the troops when BAE’s prototypes show up at Fort Bragg. “We’ll get sense for whether [a simplified logistic model] is valued by the crews and commanders, and whether they’re willing to trade off some other things to get that footprint.”

It’s worth noting that MPF isn’t the most friendly of competitions, with both players aware of what’s at stake. The winner could also win over the Marine Corps, which has already decided that its M1s are too heavy for future amphibious warfare; a light tank replacement could be the perfect solution.

Whoever wins, the future of infantry firepower will be fought—and found—on the fields of Fort Bragg.

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