RATTLING along in the “washing-machine environment” of an armoured personnel-carrier (APC) on steel tracks can vibrate the soldiers inside to the point of exhaustion according to Dan Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think-tank in Arlington, Virginia. Meanwhile J.G. Brunbech, an APC expert at the Danish Army Material Command in Oksboel, observes that the crew’s limbs are prone to becoming prickly and numb, and their hands get tired because they must hold on tightly to the safety handles inside a vehicle’s cabin in order to try to avoid being jostled.
The vehicle itself suffers, too. The vibrations cause rapid wear and tear—not to mention outright damage, especially to its electronics. In the past, engineers have tried to reduce these vibrations by fixing rubber pads to the treads. The results, however, have not been satisfactory. The pads wear out quickly, and often rip apart or even melt. But now tough, new rubbers have come to the rescue. Moreover, these rubbers are not being used just as pads. Instead, they are crafted into enormous rubber bands that replace the steel tracks completely. As a result, the Danes are converting their entire APC fleet to rubber tracks. This means they have raised the amount of time a soldier can safely spend on board from one and a half hours to ten.
Details of how the new super-rubbers are made are still classified information, but the results are not, and they are impressive. Rubber tracks weigh less than half as much as their steel counterparts. That, in turn, allows the weight of the track-suspension system to be reduced by 25%. The result is a reduction in a vehicle’s fuel consumption of as much as 30%, according to TACOM, the American army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command.
Rubber tracks also provide more traction, in part because, being lighter, they can be made wider than steel tracks. That means vehicles fitted with them do not get stuck in the mud. Those vehicles accelerate faster, too, and drivers say they handle almost as well on paved roads as wheeled vehicles do. On top of this, they are quieter. That has two benefits. One is that their crews are often able to talk to each other without resorting to intercoms. The other is that it is harder for the enemy to hear them coming. According to Curt Aspelund, the head of tracks and suspension development at BAE Systems, a British defence firm that is collaborating with TACOM to design a new APC called the Manned Ground Vehicle (MGV), rubber tracks will reduce the distance from which the vehicle can be heard by 40%.
Rubber tracks are more reliable, as well. Tracked military vehicles are notorious for breaking down. On average, the segments of a steel track must be repaired or replaced after just 400km of use. Carrying the spares needed to do this adds to a vehicle’s weight. Rubber tracks, by contrast, usually last more than 3,000km.
They are also kinder to roads. Traditionally, of course, that did not matter much. The whole point of a tank or an APC is that it is the ultimate off-road vehicle. But the growth of peacekeeping operations in which showing the flag to the locals is an important tactic means that road-friendly vehicles are becoming more desirable. The locals certainly will not love you if you chew up their tarmac and make their streets impassable.
As a result of all this, Soucy International of Drummondville, Quebec, one of the firms that makes the tracks, reports booming business. The armed forces of both Canada and Norway have converted almost all of their APCs to tracks made by Soucy. Those of several other countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore and Sweden, are following suit or are in the advanced stages of testing the tracks. France plans to start tests next year. And although America has not sent APCs with rubber tracks into action, they form part of the Future Combat Systems, the Department of Defence’s principal modernisation programme.
At the moment, rubber tracks can support only vehicles weighing less than 20 tonnes. They are not strong enough for 50-tonne battle tanks. But this is changing. The MGV, for example, will weigh 30 tonnes, and, earlier this month, Canada began a trial of rubber tracks on the Mobile Tactical Vehicle Light (MTVL), a 22-tonne APC. If the MTVL passes muster it will join Canada’s rubber-tracked 20-tonne M113 APCs in Afghanistan. Soucy, meanwhile is developing rubber tracks for full-sized tanks. Warfare, it seems, is about to get quieter.