The crew of the Polish T-72 loads ammunition into the automatic loader. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of Poland
The Polish army is armed with several types of main battle tanks, and new ones are expected to appear in the future – foreign or of their own design. When forming plans for the development of tank forces, the command has to solve several different issues. One of the main ones is the creation of an automatic loader. In general, the military is interested in such equipment, but their desires do not always correlate with the capabilities.
A significant part of Poland’s tank fleet is still made up of MBT T-72 of various modifications, incl. of our own design. Such equipment was supplied from the USSR, and in 1979-1995. licensed production was carried out. Since the early nineties, several PT-91 modernization projects have been completed with different features, according to which new equipment was built and the existing one was updated.
At the moment, the army has approx. 130 T-72A / M1 tanks and over 230 PT-91. In total, more than 260 vehicles of the T-72 family continue to serve, and a comparable number of tanks of older modifications are in storage. The total number of Leopard 2 MBTs of two modifications has not yet reached 250 units.
The design of the AZ of the T-72 tank and its modifications. Russian Defense Ministry graphics
T-72 and PT-91 of all modifications have a standard Soviet-designed automatic loader (AZ). Its main element is a horizontal conveyor for 22 cassettes for single-case loading shots. With the help of a lift, they are brought to the chambering line and sent to the chamber. Despite all the upgrades, incl. of our own design, the design of the AZ did not undergo significant changes.
As a result, tanks retain all the characteristic advantages and disadvantages. So, there is no need for a fourth crew member while ensuring a high rate of fire. At the same time, the ammunition in the AZ is small, and its design limits the possible length of shells, primarily armor-piercing sub-caliber shells.
At the concept level
Several years ago, the Polish concept of the promising PL-01 tank made a lot of noise. In this project, OBRUM proposed using an advanced solution – an uninhabited combat module with firepower at the level of modern MBT. In the automatic turret, isolated from the crew, it was planned to put a 105 or 120 mm cannon equipped with an automatic loader.
Demonstration model of the PL-01 tank. Photo Wikimedia Commons
In view of the conceptual nature of the project, the issues of creating the AZ, most likely, were not deeply worked out. The PL-01 promotional materials lacked technical details on this topic. However, the possibility of placing automatic ammunition racks for 45 shells was mentioned.
The contours of the PL-01 prototype made it possible to assume that the ammunition load of the first stage would be placed in the aft niche of the tower, in a mechanized belt or drum-type stacking. The rest of the shells had to be in the hull, and a system for their supply was required directly to the gun or to the AZ in the rear of the tower.
Despite all the bold statements, big plans and a real advertising campaign, the PL-01 project did not progress further than demonstrating a layout with a minimum set of components and assemblies. Whether a full-fledged development of an uninhabited tower and AZ for it was carried out is unknown. By now, all work on PL-01 has been stopped. Accordingly, proposals for certain units have no future.
Drum machine from ZM Tarnów. Enterprise Graphics
For future projects
In December 2015, Zakłady Mechaniczne Tarnów announced the development of its own automatic loader project, suitable for use in various projects. It was assumed that such an AZ from the very beginning would be used to create one of the promising MBT. Also, the use of such an AZ was not excluded when modernizing Leopard 2 tanks.
The assault rifle from ZM Tarnów is made in the form of a module in an armored casing, suitable for mounting on the rear of the turret of various tanks – with one or another modification. Such a module is maximally isolated from the fighting compartment; for the supply of shells, a hatch of minimum size with an armored valve was provided.
Inside the AZ body, two drums with cells for unitary shots were placed side by side, drives and other devices were located next to them. The dimensions of the module made it possible to store and feed 16 tank shells of 120 mm NATO standard (2 x 8). Means were provided for choosing the type of shot supplied. Estimated rate of fire – 8-12 rds / min.
Automatic loader in the form of a module for mounting on a tank. Graphics ZM Tarnów
Materials on the automatic loader from ZM Tarnów were actively discussed in the press and were shown at exhibitions. However, such attempts to promote a promising project have not been crowned with success. Over time, the developer stopped advertising the original AZ. Moreover, materials on this project have disappeared from its official resources. Probably, the project was sent to the archive due to the lack of prospects.
Until 2035 Poland plans to purchase 500 tanks of the new model. Together with others, the South Korean corporation Hyundai Rotem with the MBT K2PL project is applying for the army contract. It was developed on the basis of the K2 Black Panther serial tank and retains its main features. In particular, a modified version of the original fighting compartment with a 120-mm cannon and an automatic loader is used.
On the K2 and K2PL, a tape-type AZ is used. The mechanized stacking is located in a developed aft niche with upper ejection panels. In the cells of the conveyor there are 16 unitary shots longitudinally. Another 24 shells are placed in the stowage of the crew compartment and must be supplied by the crew manually. The maximum rate of fire reaches 15 rds / min.
Tank model K2PL. Photo by the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea
The future of the K2PL project is still uncertain. Earlier it was reported about the interest of the Polish military in the South Korean MBT. In September, Hyundai Rotem presented a mock-up of the “Polish” version of its tank for the first time. Which tank Poland will eventually choose is unknown. It is also unclear when this choice will be made. The search program for a new MBT is still in its early stages.
Desires and possibilities
In general, the Polish army has a positive attitude towards automatic loaders. Over four decades of operating main tanks with such equipment, she has accumulated a lot of experience and appreciated all the advantages and disadvantages of such systems. In this regard, when creating new combat vehicles or when choosing ready-made projects, certain attention is paid not only to the weapon, but also to the auxiliary means.
However, not everything is so simple. More than half of the tanks of the Polish army have AZ, but they all belong to the same family of equipment. At first, these were T-72s of Soviet and licensed production, and then they were supplemented with modernized PT-91s – without cardinal modifications and innovations. Newer tanks with AZ in the series and in service are not yet available. So, the newest in the army are the modernized Leopard 2PL MBT with manual shells.
Conveyor AZ tank K2. Photo by Fighting-vehicles.com
In the past decade, Polish companies have made two attempts to create automatic loaders for use in promising projects. None of these developments have progressed beyond the display of promotional materials. In the foreseeable future, a foreign tank with a ready-made AZ of foreign design may enter service.
The reasons for this situation lie on the surface. First of all, it is the general difficulty of creating an effective and reliable automatic loader. Another important factor is the direct connection between the future AZ and MBT, for which it is being created. If the country has the desire and ability to produce new armored vehicles, the machine gun and other equipment for it will go into series. Otherwise, all developments run the risk of going to the archive as unnecessary.
As you can see, the real achievements of the Polish tank building so far end with the PT-91 project and various options for its development. This tank was based on a Soviet design – and used a Soviet automatic loader. The next attempts to create your own tank, incl. with the original AZ have not yet ended in success, and the newest tank of the Polish army and the expected vehicles are of foreign origin. Whether it will be possible to correct this situation by restoring its own production of tanks and individual components is a big question. And a positive answer to it is unlikely.