In a defence world that has been depleted of genuine novelties over the past few years, the DSEi visitor will be glad to see that some companies are looking down the road and investing in heavy projects.
Eric H. Biass
An 8×8 Caesar
One of these projects is the “8×8 Caesar” shown in development test bed form – a truly impressive project on which Nexter embarked at the beginning of the year. The reason behind this effort stems from the fact that the concept of the Caesar needed to be freed from the straight jacket that the “C-130-compatible” label constituted. Indeed, while potential customers of the 6×6 Unimog or Renault chassis-based Caesar marvelled at the mobility characteristics they also regretted that C-130 compatibility rules imposed such rigid limitations in terms of semi-automatic loading, extra on-board munitions and charges, and possibly extra cabin armouring.
High mobility, range, and larger volumes parameters (but avoiding the many costs associated with juggernaut gigantism) led Nexter to turn to Tatra. Not only is Tatra not new to Nexter since the Czech manufacturer is already the selected supplier of the highly agile Titus armoured car, it also is a regular winner of some of the toughest off-road rallies and trials around the world, including the original Paris-Dakar cross-desert competition. This agility is much due to the Tatra’s swing-axle suspension design mated to pneumatic dampers which afford phenomenal wheel stroke and constant contact of the wheels with the ground and therefore optimal traction.
Unlike other competing 155mm howitzer-on-wheels designs, the 8×8 Caesar gun is mounted to fire forwards and retains the 6×6’s general configuration with rear-deploying stabilising spades. For direct fire, the 155/52 barrel can be lowered to the side of the cabin. Beyond this, however, the 8×8 Tatra base opens up the variety of options that may be required by customers, like various autoloading levels as well as cabin protection to Level 2A or 2B. It could be adapted to carry 40 rounds. Broadening customer options, the T815 chassis itself already comes with a choice of engines besides the standard Tatra air-cooled 410 horsepower Diesel, including powerplants from MAN, Sizu and Renault/Volvo.
As said above, the vehicle presented at DSEi is a first gun-to-chassis mating adaptation test-bed – not even a prototype. At the forthcoming Eurosatory exhibition (by which time Nexter will have already gathered quite a number of potential customer wish-lists) the vehicle will boast a new stretched cabin (the current one being the standard civilian type) to accommodate five crewmen. Depending on the options selected by the customer, the 8×8 will tip the scales between 26 and 30.5 tonnes.
The other novelty to be seen on the Nexter display is a new iteration of the Véhicule Blindé de Combat d’Infanterie, the VBCI-2 (or Dash Two). The French Army VBCIs have seen harsh times in Afghanistan and more recently in Mali where, much to the satisfaction of their occupants, have survived heavy hits. The VBCI was largely designed around French Army requirement, but it has also been hard-tested by several nations in extreme cold and hot environments. Also, a number of the 630 French Army VBCIs are currently undergoing an upgrade to incorporate many improvements to, amongst other things, boost its gross weight to 32 tonnes. But these retain the existing hull.
Many of these improvements actually result from solutions retained to give the vehicle a fresh lease on life on the export market. The sheer number of modifications would have actually warranted an entirely new name for the vehicle, but in spite of the fact that only the very basic welded aluminium hull is retained, it was decided to keep the now famous denomination and give it a “Dash Two” suffix.
Externally Visible Changes
In fact, all the changes spiral out of the frame as it was being “tampered with” to accept the desired improvements in terms of payload, mobility, firepower, vetronics, maintainability, ergonomics and versatility – to keep the list short. Physically, what tells a Dash Two from the original VBCI are: the horizontal roof plate ahead of the turret now features a downward kink before reaching the more resolute slope of the forward section in a move to improve driver visibility, this because extra electronic driving aids have pushed him substantially backwards; then immediately apparent to the eye are the much larger 16.00R20 tyres whose outer diameter of 1.343 metres better fill the “wheel arches” (since nothing in this world comes for free and each naked tyre (sans rim) weighs a mere 112 kilos, shock absorber rating also went on the up). Three types of tyres are however available to match the demands of terrain natures in terms of grip.
Closer up, one will notice a major difference with the earlier type between the wheels, particularly between the two centre axles. Indeed the large armoured gondola suspended under the chassis has gone and is replaced with a noticeably thicker armoured floor pan. This is by the way flat (as opposed to V-shaped). As no details are available on the nature of the flooring in which the protection is embedded, one has to trust Nexter’s experts when they say that tests have shown that the hull survived not only a standard 10-kilo mine but also one with a 20% higher charge. Officially the mine protection reaches L4A-4B “and above”, which probably refers to the afore-mentioned 20%.
As seen here, the vehicle has L5 ballistic protection (30mm APFDS) with potential growth to L6. Also built in are provisions for the integration of active protection, with several solutions being worked on, according to Nexter officials.
Turning to the back of the vehicle, and before climbing into the rear cabin, a quick look under the rear ramp reveals yet another major change to the Texelis-made suite of suspension and drives in that the rear assembly is now steered to improve the car’s turning radius to 17 metres. Indeed one of the drawbacks of wheeled vehicles is that the fatter a steered tyre gets, the less it can be steered before rubbing against the hull. To improve the situation, the Dash Two also steers “a la tank”, or nearly, by blocking traction on one side and lets the wheels on the opposite side turn the vehicle around its shoulders.
In spite of the fact that the presence of the T40 CTA gun’s basket cannot allow a straight visual comparison, the rearrangement of the spall liners (of a new type) and various other items have enabled Nexter to improve the overall internal volume to 13cubic metres. New seats with different anchoring points not only improve protection from violent vertical acceleration but also provide better comfort and a more optimal leg stretching.
A multiple function display in the rear compartment confirms what could be suspected from the presence of numerous cameras outside, namely that a particularly efficient peripheral vision system has been installed to operate on Nexter’s Crew Share vetronics suite. This actually incorporates two channels, one dealing with the distribution of outside views to the crew (there are eight cameras), and the other with anything that has to do with vehicle mobility function (which includes the powertrain, inertial navigation, and overall power management). Naturally the various optronics and speech systems from the variety of turrets options will connect directly to the Crew Share network.
Besides being moved backwards in the vehicle as mentioned before, the driving station is entirely new and includes thermal camera with images displayed on a driver-dedicated multiple-function screen. The position also incorporates a digital periscope.
As a Result…
Increasing a vehicle gross weight to 32 tonnes, increasing air conditioning performance (proven in over 50°C conditions), payload capactity to 13 tonnes and additional electric power supply does not come without a serious revision on engine output. The VBCI-2 is powered by a Volvo D13 diesel delivering 600 horsepower to a ZF seven-speed automatic gearbox. A noteworthy point is that the engine, gearbox and cooling system are arranged as a single package.