“Olifant” The African Elephant Mk2
The Olifant Mk2 takes its Afrikaans name from the African Elephant. The Elephant is the largest land animal and, conversely, the Olifant Main Battle Tank (MBT) is aptly named as it is the heaviest military vehicle in service with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The Olifant Mk2 was adapted for the African battlespace based on the lessons learned from the South African Border War (1966-1989). It was designed and produced at a time when South Africa was no longer subject to international embargoes. Set against the backdrop of a relatively stable Southern Africa, the need for large numbers of new MBTs was put aside in favour of agiler and air transportable vehicles for peacekeeping missions in Africa under the umbrella of the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU).
The official planned replacement of the Olifant Mk1A was evaluated in the 1990s. Possible contenders were the French Tropicalised AMX-56 Leclerc (developed for Saudi Arabia) and the British Vickers Defence Systems Challenger 2E. Initial SANDF requirements asked for 96 new MBTs, six armored recovery vehicles and four armored vehicle-launched bridges on a similar chassis. However, in 1998, the South African government announced that no new MBT was to be funded in the foreseeable future, as the Air Force and Navy required a complete overhaul. Originally an entirely new hull would have been built but due to a lack of funds, the only solution available to the SANDF was to upgrade the existing Mk1Bs which were on hand to the desired specifications sought by the South African Armoured Corps. The Olifant Manufacturing Company (OMC) was tasked with improving on the shortcomings of the Mk1B with the Mk2.
Externally, the Mk2 looks identical to the original Mk1B but features an upgraded Continental 29 Litre turbo-charged V12 diesel engine that produces 1040 hp. The only prominent identification feature is the box-shaped commander’s sight. Additional improvements included an upgraded Fire Control System (FCS) and Computerised Battle System (CBS) which gave the Mk2 a fire-on-the-move, all-weather, day or night fighting capability. Furthermore, the Mk2 features the much sought after hunter-killer mode which enables the commander and gunner to hunt for enemy targets independently, thereby maximising the chance of achieving the first hit probability as well as better target tracking and management. This makes the Mk2 superior to any other MBT currently in Southern Africa.
A total of 26 Mk2 were built from 2005. The Mk2 is in service only with the SANDF, which is using four for training at the School of Armour at Tempe while the remaining 22 are in storage.
The design, development and production of the Mk2 were undertaken to correct the shortcomings of the Mk1B. It was particularly feared that T-72M MBTs would be acquired by some of its neighbours, which would require a much more lethal South African MBT.
Although the African battle space favours a wheeled configuration, the Mk2 would retain its predecessor’s role as an MBT. The Mk2 can ford 1.5 m of water without preparation. With regards to mobility, the Mk2 kept the Continental 29 Litre turbocharged V12 diesel engine of the Mk1B, but improvements to the engine raised the overall performance to 1040 hp, with an increase of the power-to-weight ratio from 14.4 hp/t in the Mk1B to 17.19 hp/t in the Mk2. This is a significant improvement considering that the Mk2 only weighs 1.5t more than the Mk1B.
The Mk2 retained the Mk1B’s automatic transmission (AMTRA 3) which was manufactured by Gear Ratio and provided double-differential steering (four forward gears and two reverse), a two-speed mechanical steering drive and a hydraulic retarder. The additional 190hp, coupled with the automatic transmission, allowed the Mk2 the same top speed of 58 km/h (36mp/h) on road as the Mk1B, albeit accelerating 25% quicker than the Mk1B. The Mk2 also retains the Mk1B’s torsion bar suspension system with hydraulic dampers and bump stops fitted to the first and last pair of road wheels which dramatically improved off-road mobility. The overall result is a less taxing driving experience, especially over rough terrain. The steering of the Mk2 also remained the same as the Mk1B, which is done via a yoke.
Endurance and logistics
The fuel capacity was reduced from 1382L (328 gal) in the Mk1B to 1285L (339 gal) in the Mk2. The reduction in fuel capacity had little impact on the overall range the Mk2 could travel and remained the same as the Mk1B, namely 360 km (224 mi) on-road and 260 km (162 mi) off-road. Having retained the same engine as the Mk1B, no further changes were made to the size of the engine compartment. The road wheels retained the polyurethane surface, which has an operational range of 1200 km. The Mk2 also retained the same number of track links (109). The grease nipples on the road wheels were reduced from 108 in the Olifant Mk1A to 12 in the Mk2, which significantly reduced crew fatigue.
The Mk2 is equipped with one 7.62 mm coaxial machine-gun which has a 2000 round ready bin with 6600 rounds of 7.62 mm being carried. The Mk2 features tactical radio communication, allowing for reliable command and control and enhancing the tank’s force multiplier effect on the battlefield. Improvements were made to reduce acoustic noise, thereby improving situational awareness and reducing crew fatigue.
Based on the lessons learnt during the South African Border War with the Mk1A, the Mk2 is equipped with two drinking water tanks (one left and one right) inside the turret with a combined capacity of 101 litres. The water can be accessed from the commander’s and loader’s stations and reduces the necessity to leave the tank and continue water replenishment from the echelon. The addition of a fume extractor fan helped clear the interior crew compartment of excess fumes.
The Mk2 carries a standard complement of four crew, consisting of the commander, gunner, loader and driver. Further changes were made to the interior layout to enhance the ergonomics of the fighting compartment to maximise efficiency and reduce crew fatigue.
The commander’s station is located on the right side of the turret and is equipped with a more modern cupola, offering a 360-degree field of vision. The commander’s station also features a digital screen which is linked to the gunner’s sight. The commander received a Commander’s Observation Platform (COP) which is fully stabilised and equipped with thermal imaging which significantly enhances situational awareness and combat ability. The COP located on the turret roof is the most prominent feature distinguishing the Mk2 from the Mk1B. It should be noted that the COP is removed when not in operational use.
On the right side of the turret, below the commander’s station, is the gunner’s station which is equipped with day/night capabilities that are displayed on a digital display screen. The loader also sports an episcope for better situational awareness. Entry and exit for the former and latter are through the commander’s hatch and, in case of emergency, the loader can escape through a hatch above his station.
The driver’s station retained the ergonomic overhaul, digital instrument panel and a yoke-type steering stick from the Mk1B which improved comfort and reduced driver fatigue. Driver visibility consists three episcopes, allowing better visibility, thereby increasing situational awareness. The central episcope can be replaced with a passive night driving periscope allowing full night capability. The driver can enter and exit his station through a single-piece hatch above their station while an emergency escape hatch is located under his seat in the floor.
The Mk2 retained the South African produced 105 mm GT3B rifled gun barrel manufactured by Lyttleton Engineering Works (LEW). A standard thermal sleeve and fume extractor helps sustain accurate fire and reduces barrel droop due to heat by as much as 70%-90%. The Mk2 is issued with four types of main gun rounds. The High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) (effective against soft and lightly armoured targets) and White Phosphorus round (used to mark targets and making a smoke screen to mask movement ) has a muzzle velocity of 730 m/s and an effective range of 7.5 km (4.6 mi). The M9210 High Explosive (HE) round (used against infantry and soft targets) has a muzzle velocity of 700 m/s and an effective range of 7.5 km (4.6 mi). The M9718 Armour-Piercing Fin-Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) rounds travel at 1455 m/s (4774 ft/s) with a maximum effective range of 3 km (1.86 mi) can penetrate 580 mm (22 in) of Rolled Homogenous Armour (RHA) at 10 m (3 ft) range and 450mm (17 in) RHA at 3 km (1.86 mi).
The fighting compartment saw safety improvements with a total of 64 main gun rounds carried, some in protected stowage bins below the turret ring, while a number is kept in ready bins for immediate use. The extended bustle (compared to the Olifant Mk1A) not only allowed for more room for crew equipment but also helped balance the overall turret weight distribution. This, in turn, puts far less strain on the new solid-state electrical gun control system and turret drive which could traverse the turret a full 360 degrees in 16 seconds.
Fire Control System
The Mk2 features a completely integrated FCS. The FCS allows to gunner or commander to target an enemy which engages the auto-tracking feature to keep the main gun on target while the tank is moving. The gunner makes use of a digital display screen to select a target and which displays the results of the integrated ballistic computer. The laser rangefinder is integrated into the system and is accurate to up to 10 km. Data from the rangefinder was by design fed into an integrated ballistic computer, which applied elevation to the main gun. Tests revealed that the system was accurate within 30 mm x 30mm at 2 km which was perfect for the South African Lowveld (open stretches of grass plains).
An additional feature that makes the Mk2 so lethal is its hunter-killer capability. This allows the commander and gunner to independently scan for targets thereby maximizing the chance of spotting and engaging an enemy first. The commander can override the gunner’s aim with the flip of a switch to put the main cannon on target. A well-trained crew could lase a target, load the main gun round and fire every 8 seconds.
The Mk2 retained the Mk1A armor, which consisted of 118 mm (4.64in) on the frontal glacis at 60 degrees, 152 mm frontal turret (6in), 51mm (2in) on the sides, 40 mm (1.57in) on top and 19 mm (0.7in) in the rear. An armor upgrade program took the form of several passive composite armor packages, one over the frontal glacis plate and several on the turret (front, sides and top). A gap was left in-between the original Centurion turret and the added armor package to act as spaced armor. The total thickness and composition of these armor packages are classified. However, given the threat level posed, it would be reasonable to argue that they would be sufficient to stop a 115 mm HEAT rounds used by the T-62 tanks.
The entire hull can shrug off the feared 23 mm armour piercing (AP) rounds. The threat posed to the Olifant Mk1A by Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG-7) is negated with the mentioned upgrades to the Mk2 armor. Additionally, the armored steel skirts of the Mk1A were redesigned for the Mk2 to protect the running gear from incoming missiles by prematurely detonating incoming HEAT rounds. The constant threat of landmines in Southern Africa necessitated the addition of a double armored floor (with the torsion bars between the floor plates). A new fire suppression system (automatic and/or manual) was installed in the crew and engine compartment to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic fire or explosion if hit.
The Mk2 has two banks of four smoke grenade launchers fitted to the rear of the turret, which lessens the possibility of damage when “bundu bashing”. Additionally, the Mk2 can also generate a smoke screen by injecting fuel into the engine exhaust. The hull headlamps are armored, and a V-shape bush basher bar can be added to the nose of the hull.
The Mk2 addresses the shortcomings originally found in the Mk1B to make the tank fightable by incorporating the hunter-killer capability. Furthermore, a more powerful engine improves the tank’s overall performance. The Mk2 is a leap forward in protection, mobility and firepower and is currently the pinnacle of tank technology in Southern Africa. The role of MBT’s is essentially to act as a deterrent to outside aggressors. MBT’s are prohibitively expensive to operate and maintain, are often only deployed during times of war which makes the justification to fund them very difficult to the general public. The South African defence industries ingenuity has stretched the life expectancy of the Olifant MBT impressively. It should, however, be noted that the fleet needs to be replaced as the hulls are essentially nearing 50 years.
Olifant Mk2 Specifications
|Dimensions (hull) (l-w-h):
|8.30 m (26.3 ft.)– 3.43 m (10.8 ft.)– 3.04 m (9.64 ft.)
|Total weight, battle ready
|Continental 29 litre turbo-charged air-cooled V12 diesel engine produces 1040 hp @2400rpm. (17.19 hp/t)
|Torsion bar with hydraulic dampers
|Top speed road / off-road
|58 kph (36 mph) / 30 kph (18.6 mph)
|Range road/ off-road
|>350km (217 miles) / 240km (149 miles)
|105mm GT3B semi-automatic quick firing gun (L7)
1 × 7.62mm co-axial Browning MG
|118mm (4.64in.) glacis @ 60 degrees + add-on armour package
152mm (6in.) turret + add-on ceramic armour package
51mm (2in.) sides
40mm (1.57in.) top
31mm (1.22in.) rear
|Total Production (Hulls)
Olifant Mk2 Mobility Track
Carroll, S. 2017. Olifant Mk2. Date 2-4 Oct. SA Armour Museum, Bloemfontein.
DEFENCEWEB. 2011. R96.8m for Olifant, Rooikat ammo.
Erasmus, R. 2017. Olifant Mk2. Date 2-4 Oct. SA Armour Museum, Bloemfontein.
VEG Magazine. 2005. The development of the Olifant Mk1B & Mk2. Issue 8. Victor Logistics.
Voortrekker Monument Military Festival. 2018. SANDF information display: Olifant Mk2 Main Battle Tank.
Olifant Mk2 Illustration by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
South African Armoured Fighting Vehicles: A History of Innovation and Excellence, 1960-2020 (Africa@War)
During the Cold War, Africa became a prime location for proxy wars between the East and the West. Against the backdrop of a steep rise in liberation movements backed by Eastern Bloc communist countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union, southern Africa saw one of the most intense wars ever fought on the continent.
Subjected to international sanctions due to its policies of racial segregation, known as Apartheid, South Africa was cut off from sources of major arms systems from 1977. Over the following years, the country became involved in the war in Angola, which gradually grew in ferocity and converted into a conventional war. With the available equipment being ill-suited to the local, hot, dry and dusty climate, and confronted with the omnipresent threat of land mines, the South Africans began researching and developing their own, often groundbreaking and innovative weapon systems.
The results were designs for some of the most robust armored vehicles produced anywhere in the world for their time, and highly influential for further development in multiple fields ever since. Decades later, the lineage of some of the vehicles in question can still be seen on many of battlefields around the world, especially those riddled by land mines and so-called improvised explosive devices.
South African Armoured Fighting Vehicles takes an in-depth look at 13 iconic South African armored vehicles. The development of each vehicle is rolled out in the form of a breakdown of their main features, layout and design, equipment, capabilities, variants and service experiences. Illustrated by over 100 authentic photographs and more than two dozen custom-drawn color profiles, this volume provides an exclusive and indispensable source of reference.