The most dangerous part of operating a mine-clearing vehicle, is operating a mine-clearing vehicle. Even protected inside an armored vehicle, the crew of such a vehicle could be severely injured or killed when operating in an area heavily saturated with explosive devices. How do you negate this danger? By removing the crew.
The M60A3 Panther and M1 Panther II Mine Detection & Clearing Vehicles or ‘MDCVs’ were designed to do exactly that. These specially adapted tanks can operate with a human crew inside, or via a remote control from a safe distance.
These turretless tanks can breach and clear minefields under combat conditions. Just six of each of these vehicles were built and used by the US Army. They have seen action in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Background: Bosnia, Operation Joint Endeavor
The United States’ mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 highlighted a need for a mine-clearing vehicle that was capable of clearing heavily saturated minefields quickly and safely. The US entered the war as part of NATO’s Implementation Force (IFOR), codenamed: ‘Operation Joint Endeavor’. It was believed that there were between 750,000 to 1,000,000 mines placed along the separation zone between the two countries. It was projected that if the mines were cleared via a non-mechanical method, i.e., by hand, it could take decades.
Back in the States, with its troops deployed in Bosnia, the military began developing a mine-clearing vehicle that could be remotely controlled. The chosen testbed was the M60A3, a plentiful resource with many surplus vehicles in Army stocks. Six tanks would be converted and used as prototypes, with the variants gaining the name ‘Panther’.
Take 1: The M60 Panther
The Panther followed on from a very similar project from the 1980s, designated the XM1060 Robotic Obstacle Breaching Assault Tank or ‘ROBAT’. It was a turretless, remote controllable M60 that as well as a mine roller carried two line-charge launchers. The special feature of this vehicle and that of the following Panthers is the ability to be remotely controlled.
To make room for the remote control unit, the turret, including the basket, was completely removed. The hull was mostly unchanged. The engine was the same 750hp Continental AVDS-1790-2 turbocharged diesel engine which propelled the vehicle to a top speed of 31 mph (km/h). Armor on the bow was also identical at 4.29 in (109 mm), which was sloped at 65 degrees. For its mine-clearing operations, the vehicle was equipped with a Mine Clearing Roller or ‘MCR’ that was mounted on the bow. There was still room for a small crew, consisting of a Driver/Operator in the usual spot in the hull, and the Commander, who had a position where the turret once was, under a simple armored cover.
The six prototypes were completed and a despatched to Bosnia in 1996. Three Panthers were credited with detonating nearly 350 mines and clearing more than 800 km (500 miles) of roadway in one mission. Whilst in Bosnia, the vehicles struck up a good working relationship with the M728 Combat Engineering Vehicle (CEV), another variant of the M60. The Panther operator would control the vehicle via a remote control from the M728 during clearing operations. There was a Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera system attached to the front of the Panther so the Operator could see where the tank was going through a small screen on the remote control. The radio control signal was received by a long antenna protruding from the engine deck.
The M728 also provided a good secondary clearing action by use of its bulldozer blade as it followed the Panther. It would skim the trail cleared by the Panther pushing away debris and keeping the route clear for other following vehicles, this also smoothed out the road surface and could be used for filling in craters left by any exploding mines or ordinance. The CEV was also useful for recovering the Panther right-away should it become stuck, and its boom-arm allowed easy loading and unloading of the Mine-Roller onto transport vehicles, negating the need for a separate crane vehicle. There is mention of the M60 Panther seeing service in the Kosovo War of 1998-1999. More details of its service here are unavailable, and how many served here is unknown.
Though generally a success, the M60 Panther was not in service for long. The M60s were not easy to maintain in the field, and spare parts were not plentiful. Second, to this, the Panther’s unexpectedly symbiotic relation, the M728, was retired in the mid-to-late-1990s. A new Panther was needed, and this time it would be based on the United States’ serving Main Battle Tank (MBT), the M1 Abrams.
Take 2: The M1 Panther II
The M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, named after General Creighton Abrams, entered service in 1980. Weighing in at 65 tons, it retains good mobility with a Honeywell AGT1500C multi-fuel turbine engine, generating 1500 hp and giving the tank a top speed of 42 mph (67 km/h). The hull is protected by Burlington composite armor. The specific model of Abrams chosen for what would be named ‘Panther II’ was the ‘Improved Performance M1′, otherwise known as the ‘M1IP’. As the name suggests, this was a slightly improved version of the M1. There were a few surplus hulls available for this project, and as such, the new Panther entered service in summer 2002.
The M1s went through the same modification process as the M60s, ie, the complete removal of the turret and its accompanying components. In its place, a new position was created for the vehicle’s commander. A seat for the commander was installed on a metal floor that covers the torsion bars of the tank’s suspension. A small round collar-like superstructure surrounded the top of the position. Installed atop it was a vision cupola taken directly from the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). To this cupola was mounted the Panther’s only armament, a Browning .50 Cal. (12.7mm) M2 machine gun intended for defensive purposes. For this purpose, there was also two M250 Smoke Grenade Launchers, each with 6 launch tubes. These were placed on the left and right of the commanders’ position. Behind the small superstructure was a basket used for storage of equipment and crew items.
The Driver’s position in the front of the hull was almost identical to the normal M1 Tank, barring the addition of the ‘Mine Clearing Control Panel’ or ‘MCCP’. This is used to control the mine-clearing equipment mounted on the front of the hull.
Unlike the M1 tank, the Panther is not NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protected. As such, the crew is equipped with Mission Oriented Protective Posture IV (MOPP IV) HAZMAT (Hazardous-Material) suits.
Remote Control Systems
The Panther II is operated remotely via a ‘Standard Robotic System (SRS)’. These systems were designed and produced by Omnitech Robotics of Colorado, USA. The majority of the robotic systems were placed on a rack to the left of the Commander’s seat. These systems included a Vehicle Control Unit (VCU), four High Integration Actuators (HIAs), a Video Transmitter Unit (VTU), the feed for two colour video cameras with Manual Pan/Tilt Units (MPTUs), two System Input/Output Units (SIOs), a Safety Radio Unit (SRU), a manual/auto switch-box, a speedometer/tachometer, a Transmission/Throttle Interface Unit (TIU), and an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS).
All of this is controlled from an Operator’s Control Unit (OCU), a laptop-like device that contains all of the control interfaces and two live, color video screens. These controls include vehicle engine start/stop, brakes, steering, throttle, transmission, parking brake, and gear shift functions. As well as automotive controls, the device also controls the mine-clearing equipment. These include power on/off, blade/roller select, roller/blade release, right/left blades select, and lower/raise blade.
A number of safety features are built into the OCU. If radio communication is cut off between the onboard systems and OCU, the vehicle automatically stops. The same is true should the onboard systems be disrupted, or any critical pieces of equipment on board malfunctions. There is also a ‘Big Red Button’ on the OCU to initiate an emergency stop and an SRS cut-off. The manual/auto switch box is located over the driver’s left shoulder. When the switch is set to auto, the Panther can be operated both remotely and manually. When the switch is set to ‘manual’, the vehicle can only be operated manually, ie, with the crew on board. Using the OCU, the Panther can be operated from up to 2,600 feet (800 meters) away.
Mine Clearing Equipment
Depending on mission requirements, the Panther II could equip either a Mine Clearing Roller (MCR) or a Mine Clearing Blade (MCB). The Roller was intended for use on rocky to semi-soft soil, while the Blade was designed for use on sand, sandy soils, and loose topsoil.
Mine Clearing Roller
These were the same rollers used on the M60 Panther. The MCR consists of two heavy push-arm assemblies. On the end of these arms are the rollers comprised of five individual wheels. The rollers move independently from each other, following the contours of the chosen terrain. The roller unit weighs 9-tons (8.1 tonnes), and can detonate Single-Pulse, Pressure-Activated, Anti-Tank and Anti-Personnel mines, either laying on the surface or buried up to 3.9 inches (100mm) underground. The rollers exert a higher ground pressure than a tank, this ensures the detonation of pressure-activated mines before they are rolled over by a tank. Each roller covers an area approximately 3.6 feet (1.12 meters) wide.
There is a 6 foot (1.8 meters) gap of unrolled ground between the rollers. This area is home to the Anti-Magnetic Mine Activating Device (AMMAD), a small roller about the size of a beer keg connected to each arm via a chain. This device detonates magnetically-triggered mines in an area the width the of the host vehicle. The same device also triggers Tilt-Rod type mines laid in the middle of roads or trails.
On long road marches, the roller was dismounted and had to be transported by a heavy transport truck, such as the M985A1R. It took 20-45 minutes to install/remove the roller. An M88A1 Armoured Recovery Vehicle (ARV) was used to hold the roller in place as it was removed.
Mine Clearing Blade
The Track-Width Mine Plow (TWMP), as it the name suggests, clears a path the width of the host vehicle. In the case of the Abrams hull, that is 12 feet (3.66 meters). With extensions, however, it can be widened up to 15 feet (4.47 meters). The plow weighs 3 tonnes (3.4 tons) and can plow at depths of 8 to 12 inches (200 – 305 mm).
The plow lifts and clears explosives out of the ground via teeth that penetrate the ground and pushes them safely to the side, away from the vehicle creating a safe path. The plow consists of two blades, each blade has six-teeth. On the inside of each blade is a skid that oscillates with the ground allowing the blades to closely follow the contours of the terrain. As with the MCR, the AMMAD can be installed between the blades on a chain where it fulfills the same role. When not raking the ground, the plow can be elevated via hydraulics for road travel.
During route clearing operations, the M1 Panther is always the lead vehicle, followed closely by a Control Vehicle (CV) a vehicle from which the Operator controls the Panther using the OCU. This is usually an M113A3 APC or a High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) ‘Humvee’.
With the roller equipped, the Panther is driven into the area that needs clearing. The Panther advances until a mine is located, either by a detonation or sight. The Panther then backs off, and another Panther (or even a standard M1 Abrams) with an MCB equipped will then be brought forwards. The MCB equipped vehicle will then sweep the path and once clear, the roller equipped Panther will take the lead once more and the process begins anew.
Just six M1 Panther IIs were built. In summer 2002, the first two vehicles were posted to the 54th Engineer Battalion of the 130th Engineer Brigade, based at Warner Barracks, Bamberg, Germany. The 54th Engineers would go on to use their Panthers in Spring 2003 during the Iraq War (2003 – 2011), also known as ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.
In 2004, when the 54th rotated back to Germany, they left the two Panthers in Iraq, handing them over to the 9th Engineer Battalion and the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.
Unfortunately, as they are quite rare and obscure vehicles, not much more is known about their time in service post-Iraq. It is unclear where the other four Panthers ended up. They have all now been retired from service, but it is not clear when this happened as they were still taking part in training operations in 2009. It is not known whether any of the M60 Panthers have survived either.
M60 Panther in Bosnia, 1996. Just 6 of these vehicles were built, serving as little more than prototypes for the following M1 Abrams-based version. They saw a good deal of use in Bosnia and struck up a strong working relationship with the M728 CEV.
M1 Abrams-based Panther II of the 54th Engineer Battalion in Bamberg, Germany. Like the M60, only 6 of these vehicles were built and operated with the vehicle entering service in 2002. The M1s were only ever painted in this olive-drab scheme, with the crew’s names on the back corners of the hull.
Both Illustrations are by Alexe Pavel, based on work by David Bocquelet.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||25’11” x 11’11” x 9’5″
(7.91 x 3.65 x 2.88m)
|Total weight, battle ready||65 short tons|
|Crew||2 (Commander, Driver)|
|Propulsion||Honeywell AGT1500C multi-fuel turbine 1,500 shp (1,120 kW).|
|Transmission||Allison DDA X-1100-3B|
|Maximum speed||45 mph (72 km/h) governed, road, 30 mph (48 km/h) off road|
|Suspensions||High-hardness-steel torsion bars with rotary shock absorbers|
|Armament||1x Browning M2HB .50 Cal (12.7mm) Heavy Machine Gun|
|Equipment||Track Width Mine Plow (TWMP)
Mine Clearing Roller (MCR)
|Armor (hull/turret front)||600 mm vs APFSDS, 900 mm vs HEAT|
Links & Resources
R. P. Hunnicutt, Patton: A History of American Main Battle Tank Vol. 1, Presidio Press
R. P. Hunnicutt, Abrams: A History of the American Main Battle Tank, Vol. 2, Presido Press
Haynes Publishing, M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, Owner’s Workshop Manual, Bruce Oliver Newsome & Gregory Walton
Tankograd Publishing, M1 Abrams Breacher: The M1 Assault Breacher Vehicle (ABV) – Technology and Service, Ralph Zwilling & Walter Böhm
Osprey Publishing, New vanguard #268: M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank 1993-2018, Steven J. Zaloga
www.military-today.com (M60 Photos)
www.military-today.com (M1 Photos)
Article on www.riley.army.mil