Looking for an Effective Turret Solution for an Infantry Fighting Vehicle? IFV Boxer: 30mm Cannon Vs 12.7mm Machine Gun
By Donatas Palavenis
The current war in Ukraine highlighted the need for armed forces to have weapons capable of destroying enemy equipment, weapons, and manpower behind cover from a longer distance. In order to deter a potential opponent and prepare for a possible conflict, the Lithuanian armed forces (LAF) are armed with modern weapons systems. Currently, various systems are being purchased for LAF, including 120 units of IFV Boxer, which should reach Lithuania in 2024. It is known that some of them would be armed with a 30 mm cannon, and others with a 12.7 mm machine gun. Currently, LAF has 88 pieces of IFV Boxer (Lithuanian version is called Wolf) (Fig. 1), which are armed with 30 mm MK-44S cannons, manufactured by the US company Northrop Grumman, anti-tank missiles "Spike LR" manufactured by Israel company Rafael and a 7.62 mm machine gun foreseen for close protection.
Figure 1. IFV Wolf with 30 mm cannon
In this analysis, the efficiency of the 12.7 mm and 30 mm armament, which is expected to be installed in turrets of newly acquired IFV Boxer by LAF, is assessed. First of all, the realities of the war in Ukraine are reviewed. Secondly, the choice of weapon types that are mounted onto other NATO/EU countries’ IFVs are evaluated, Thirdly, the progress of the national IFV Wolf program is evaluated, and lastly, the technical characteristics of ammunition used in different weapons are considered. The analysis is closed with a discussion part. The data used in the analysis is collected only from open sources.
Conclusions on the effectiveness of the use of weapons in the Ukrainian war
Below are fragmented excerpts from the report prepared by RUSI, which provides an overall picture of the war and the effectiveness of used weapons:
"The shelling [from the indirect fire] caused heavy losses to Ukrainian units, and 30mm cannon fire [launched from BMP-2, BMP-3, BMD-2, BMD-4, BTR-82] was devastating in close combat."
"The sheer volume and calibre of artillery [equipment] and 30mm cannon fire enabled the Russians to advance".
Judging other sources, it could be seen that the 30mm cannon can also inflict damage to better protected equipment like the T-72 tank. The use of this and larger calibre weapons cause significant impact and destruction of lightly and moderately armoured combat vehicles, manpower hiding behind cover or positioned in buildings. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the use of 12.7 mm or 14.5 mm machine guns in the Ukrainian war is not particularly highlighted in open sources.
Types of weapons used on IFVs by NATO/EU countries
Tanks never operate alone on the battlefield and are usually supported by IFVs, which may as well be tracked. In recent years, due to increasing costs and the changes in warfare, more and more NATO / EU armies are gradually switching to wheeled IFVs. If IFVs work individually on the battlefield, the need for combat power increases, therefore, in most cases IFVs are equipped with 20-120 mm cannon, long-range, or medium-range anti-tank systems.
France has already replaced the Nexter AMX-10P tracked IFV with wheeled 8x8 IFV VBCIs, which can be equipped with manned or remotely operated turrets armed with 25 mm or 40 mm cannons and a 7.62 mm machine gun (Fig. 2). It is also possible to mount anti-tank guided weapons on the VBCI.
Figure 2. IFV VBCI 2 with manned T40 two-man turret that is equipped with 40 mm cannon and 7.62 machine gun
The Italian army is also moving to wheeled IFVs. IFV Centauro could be armed with a 105 mm or 120 mm cannon. IFV Freccia, which is equipped with a two-person manned turret, is armed with a 25 mm cannon and a 7.62 mm machine gun (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. IFV Freccia equipped with Hitfist turret that has an installed 25mm cannon
The United Kingdom is currently replacing IFV Warrior with the IFV Boxer which will be equipped with a Kongsberg RWS turret with a mounted stabilized 12.7 mm machine gun. It looks like the UK will be the only army in entire Europe with only the lightly armed 8x8 type IFV. This choice is based on the fact that IFV Boxer will work on the battlefield alongside the updated Challenger 2 tank.
Meanwhile, many other NATO/EU countries retain existing or acquire new tracked IFVs, but there are rare cases as tracked IFVs are armed with a 12.7 mm machine gun. In most cases, the armament of the turret consists of a 20-120 mm cannon (e.g., IFV Marder 1 armed with a 20 mm cannon MK 20 Rh-202; IFV Puma and Lynx - 30 mm cannon MK 30-2 ABM; IFV CV90 - with different types of 30, 35 mm and 40 mm cannons) and a 7.62 machine gun.
Interestingly, the US Army, and in particular its units deployed in Europe, the Second Cavalry Regiment, are also changing the type of armament mounted on the Stryker combat vehicle (Fig. 4). After the events in Ukraine in 2014, the capabilities of the US military were reassessed and a decision has been made to increase the firepower available to the forces and the range of its impact, so a 30 mm cannon was installed instead of the 12.7 mm machine gun or MK19 automatic grenade launcher. This change significantly increased the combat power of the Stryker, and the range of the shot changed from 1800 m to 3000 m. It is planned that by 2027 the six US Stryker-equipped brigades will be retrofitted with a more powerful system.
Figure 4. Stryker combat vehicle with 30 mm cannon
In summary, NATO/EU countries are slowly transitioning to wheeled IFV platforms, while countries that do not have tanks or only have light units are looking to increase the firepower of the available IFVs by installing cannons instead of machine guns. Also, IFVs are made more efficient by additionally installing anti-tank combat systems on them, e.g., Javelin, MELLS, Spike.
The current situation in Lithuania
The contract for the delivery of 88 IFV Wolf was signed back in 2016, according to which the manufacturer was committed delivering IFVs by the end of 2021. According to the total amount of the contract, it could be assessed that the average price of one IFV is 4.38 million euros. According to open sources, it is known that the delivery of a part of IFVs will be delayed until the end of 2022 due to "observed deficiencies that require more time to resolve, [in addition] to the process being affected by the global pandemic and consequent disruption of supply chains."
It is known that "during the operation of the first IFVs, frequent malfunctions of the electronic fire control systems, for which the Israeli manufacturers are responsible, became apparent." Additionally, other shortcomings were noticed. Commenting on the shortcomings of the IFV Wolf project, Minister of National Defence Arvydas Anušauskas said that "it is related to certain spare parts, because, as you can see, looking at the Boxer, the lower part is German, the upper part is an Israeli turret, the equipment is from the US." As it can be seen, the challenges related to IFV Wolf are not hidden from the public and it is clearly seen that responsible persons make every effort to eliminate the shortcomings.
It could be assumed that by the end of 2022, according to the management of the Ministry of Defence, the remaining IFV Wolf with 30 mm cannons will be delivered to LAF and all IFVs would work without major defects. It is likely that the various manufacturers of the IFV Wolf would have solved all the system integrity and engineering problems associated with the use of the 30 mm cannon. Six years is the optimal period to fully harmonize the system that IFV Wolf has.
Technical characteristics of the ammunition used
It is appropriate to examine the technical characteristics of the ammunition used by the 30 mm cannon and the 12.7 mm machine gun. The firing range of both ammunition types is different. The 12.7 mm round for machine gun can effectively destroy a target at a distance of up to 1800 m, and the 30 mm cannon round can effectively engage a target at a distance of up to 3000 m. The kinetic energy of a 30 mm round is 10 times greater compared to a 12.7 mm machine gun round. Depending on the type of ammunition, the effect they create also differs. The 30 mm MK-44 cannon, which is installed in IFV Wolf, can use different types of 30x173 ammunition, which are produced by different manufacturers: high explosive-incendiary, armour-piercing, multi-purpose, armour-piercing incendiary. Armour-piercing 30x173 type ammunition fired from a distance of 1000m can penetrate armour up to 100 mm thickness.
Meanwhile, 12.7 mm ammunition is also of several types: incendiary, armour-piercing, incendiary, and tracer. The armour-piercing 12.7x99 type ammunition fired from a distance of 500m can penetrate armour up to 19 mm thickness.
It is clear that ammunition used by the 30 mm cannon and the 12.7 mm machine gun have different characteristics, especially when comparing their armour-piercing abilities. The 30 mm cannon provides more effects on the battlefield while destroying not only lightly armoured targets, but also other IFVs.
The outcomes of the war in Ukraine, the actions were taken by other NATO/EU countries in strengthening the firepower capabilities of existing IFVs, and comparison results of two types of ammunition provide a firm ground to consider the most optimal configuration for future IFV Boxer that would be acquired by LAF. Below you can see arguments that stress that all IFVs Boxers acquired by LAF have to be armed with 30 mm cannons.
The armies of NATO / EU countries that do not have tanks or only have light units seek to increase the firepower of the available IFVs while considering the installation of ≥ 20 mm cannons.
Units equipped with IFVs, armed with 30 mm cannons, could successfully conduct delay, defence actions but also counterattack in favourable circumstances.
The current manufacturers of IFV Wolf are making every effort to correct the existing malfunctions. It can be assumed that by the end of the year, all the problems related to the integrity and interoperability of the turret could be resolved. Therefore, if the same configuration of IFV Boxer were to be continuously purchased, all the previous problems should be resolved.
When purchasing IFV Boxer with a 12.7 mm machine gun (Fig. 5), it would be necessary to carry out work on system alignment and integration again. Even if a Samson MK II turret from the same manufacturer would be chosen, it would be necessary to start all over again, as this type of turret currently mounts 25 mm or 30 mm cannons. If a turret would be chosen from other manufacturers, the same adjustment steps would be carried out again, which could take a long time. It is noteworthy that anti-tank systems are very rarely installed on the turrets which are equipped with 12.7 mm machine guns.
Figure 5. IFV Boxer with 12.7 machine gun
It is likely that the IFV Boxer version with a 12.7 mm machine gun could be cheaper, but this would not be a significant amount when considering the total purchase price of the IFV (about 5 million euros). From a cost-benefit perspective, choosing a cheaper IFV configuration with lower firepower and a shorter firing range may not seem like an optimal choice.
It should be mentioned that it would be more appropriate for LAF to install 12.7 mm machine guns on the newly purchased 200 pieces of JLTV (Joint Light Tactical Vehicle) that were manufactured by the US company Oshkosh Defence.
It is understandable that the acquisition of armaments is guided by political realities, however, it should be noted that German manufacturers have a very wide range of armaments and military equipment that could be considered suitable to strengthen Lithuanian land or other types of forces.
 Barnes, Frank C., Cartridges of the World, U.S. Army .50 BMG Cartridge Specifications, DBI Books (1989), ISBN 978-0-87349-033-7, p. 432