Economic History Case Studies: The MAFV (Pt. II of II)

The technological developments of the Armored Fighting Vehicle (AFV) began in the trenches of the First World War. The British, French, Germans, and Russians were among the first ones to begin their forays into this then-emerging branch. That concept was developed in response to the futility of Trench Warfare rendering prewar cavalry charges impractical and the infantry forced to remain at their trenches. Both came as a consequence of the Maxim heavy machine gun.

The Maxim gun made short work of prewar cavalrymen by cutting them and their horses down with ease. Ironically, the design philosophy behind the Maxim gun was intended to discourage war itself through the damage that it could create on the battlefield. The idea of a rapid-firing weapon designed to kill large numbers of personnel was the Intent of the American Englishman who invented it, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim. A 1985 New York Times article documented Sir Maxim came to devise the weapon:

“In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States. He said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.’”

As for those on the receiving end, Ernst Jünger recollected the experience perfectly in his 1957 novel, The Glass Bees, as it had occurred in World War I from the perspective of the novel’s fictitious war veteran:

“We had proudly worn our handsome and colorful uniforms, which could be seen glittering from a distance, yet we could no longer see our opponent. Invisible marksmen took aim from long range and unhorsed us. If we managed to reach them, we found them bedded in a web of wires, which cut through the fetlocks of the horses and was impossible to jump. This was the end of the cavalry. We had to dismount.”

It was under those circumstances that the AFV was originally conceptualized by the British Army to accomplish two goals. There needed to be a machine capable of supporting infantry offensives and simultaneously launch its own offensive operations. The AFV likewise fulfilled both roles, its technological development beginning in the middle of World War I, and later continuing throughout the rest of the 20th century.  The military doctrine that began its infancy in World War I and became perfected in the first half of World War II (1939-1945) saw the conceptualization of two AFVs. An “Infantry Tank” designed to fight alongside friendly infantry and a “Cavalry Tank” intended to supplant the prewar role of cavalry.   

This particular military doctrine is also upheld in the pages of Heinz Guderian’s book, Achtung-Panzer!, where he outlined their theoretical potentiality and capabilities in 1937. His ideas would later form the basis behind the trend of the German Army fielding two different sets of AFVs using a three-tier classification scheme. Organized around the weight of their chassis, there were Light AFVs, Medium AFVs and Heavy AFVs. While Light AFVs eventually became deployed to serve reconnaissance and anti-infantry roles due to their mobility and agility, the real workhorses were the Medium and Heavy AFVs. The prevalence of Medium AFVs and Heavy AFVs began to erase the distinctions between Infantry Tanks and Cavalry Tanks.  

Should all AFVs operate the same way? Could certain AFVs be designed to fulfill specific roles or negated altogether in favor of versatility? AFV design throughout the first half of World War II revolved around those two questions, and the general idea behind the three-tier classification scheme came as a result. In essence, organize all Light, Medium and Heavy AFVs based on their Armaments, Mobility and Armor. If engineers were balancing between whether an AFV should have superior Mobility or superior Armor, then the Armaments were the spigot. Thus, Light AFVs emphasized more on Mobility and less on Armor, whereas the complete opposite occurred among Heavy AFVs. The Medium AFV, on the other hand, offered a balance between mobility and armor.  

If an AFV is capable of emphasizing Armor and Mobility as well as Armaments, why continue with the three-tier classification scheme? Without that classification scheme, there would be no point to having some AFVs to perform certain roles and allow others to be more versatile. The British were arriving at that conclusion in the first half of World War II, allowing them to justify the post-1945 conceptualization of the “Universal Tank” that would eventually become the Main Battle Tank (MBT). The latter half of World War II (1945-1990), the so-called ‘Cold War’, saw the MBT becoming increasingly challenged by the prevalence of cheaper antitank weapons carried by a lone infantryman. Since most developing countries are incapable of fielding large fleets of MBTs without bankrupting themselves like Ba’athist Iraq, antitank weapons have gained an impressive advantage over the MBT design overall.

Conversely, similar challenges were also presented from attack helicopters and warplanes. Post-1945 warplanes are faster, more maneuverable and deadlier with the introduction of air-to-ground missiles and precision-guided bombs. As the Persian Gulf War’s infamous Highway of Death had demonstrated in 1991, an entire column of MBTs can be attacked from afar without having to come within range of antiair defenses. Both attack helicopters and post-1945 warplanes are capable of achieving similar results.

The real problem with the MBT is its ridiculous cost of procurement, production, deployment, and maintenance. The loss of a single MBT has become more unacceptable in the face of a growing number of antitank weapons. Given these implications, it should not come as a surprise that there has been a growing interest in Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) to supplement, but not fully outright supplant, the MBT concept. Whether that is due to the current limitations of UGV technology or not is an open question, but one thing is certain, however: the MBT is an invention that should never have made it past the drawing board.

The Miniaturized Armored Fighting Vehicle (MAFV) represents a Conversative Revolution in Military Affairs, reconfiguring the older technologies of yesteryear to suit a different epoch. The concept on its own, assuming it is well-designed and built for a long service life, is more than capable of challenging and eventually triumphing over the MBT.

The potential is there for a revival of the old three-tier classification scheme of Lights, Mediums, and Heavies as well as the specialization that came with it. It should not be dependent on trying to achieve a balance between Armor and Mobility, but between Electronics and Versatility. How many MAFVs should be remotely controlled by a human crew and how many would be operating on a pre-programmed Artificial Intelligence? Are MAFVs meant to be easily manufactured so as to be disposable supplements to MBTs or are they meant to be capable of displacing them? And if we are to assume that the MAFV’s civilian counterparts, the MATV (Miniature Automated Tractor Vehicle) and MARV (Miniature Automated Repair Vehicle), are designed to fulfill specific roles, what sort of roles will there be for the MAFV as a concept?

Therefore, in terms of Versatility, I can envisage the MAFV’s Armaments featuring either a coaxial or casemate turret sporting a plasma cannon and laser machine gun with a hull-mounted laser machine gun for a fourth crewman to operate. The energy weapons in question would be powered by onboard energy cells installed in an ammunition compartment somewhere in the MAFV’s chassis.  And as for Electronics, I am convinced that the MAFV will need onboard electronics and computers to facilitate the steering, targeting and navigation systems. The power supply is separate from the energy cells intended for the onboard weaponry. Instead, it will be coming from a gasoline engine behind the turret in the rear of the chassis.  

The MAFV is designed to be operated by its crew from elsewhere, preferably inside a control room or the back of a vehicle like a truck or halftrack. There would be handheld controllers for a driver (to propel the chassis), a radio operator (to man the hull-mounted laser machine gun), a gunner (to operate the turret), and a commander (to control a roof-mounted turret). It is possible that the controller would be as a small as the controllers of most conventional gaming consoles. Each crewman wears a headset with a visor that connects their consciousness to a number of closed-circuit cameras built into two viewports at the front and another two into the turret.

Even though technologies in MAFV design already exist, they are still in their infancy and have yet to realize their fullest potential. The most obvious limitations are in terms of Armaments, Operability, and Connectivity. Miniaturized energy weapons would eliminate the need for larger and bigger cannons, allowing the chassis to have smaller turrets. Aside from the need to miniaturize the Armaments, there is the problem of how far the MAFV is capable of operating away from its crew and their controls. Then there is the issue of whether the MAFV crew should be connected to a battle network vulnerable to enemy cyberattacks and electronic jamming that interferes with the controls. While these problems are beyond the immediate purview of the MAFV, I am still convinced that the potential for such a concept is there for any nation interested in fielding a massive armed forces.

Categories: Economic History

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