“CLOTHE THE TANKER”
Written by: Capt John Kim and WO Marvin MacNeill
Note: The following article contains the opinions of the authors and should not be construed as the position of the CF, the Canadian Army, or LdSH(RC) on this issue. It is provided in this venue for discussion purposes only.
With the re-introduction and re-integration of armour into combat operations for the first time since Korea, the need for protective clothing for crewmen is apparent. Like air crews, tank crewmen fill a unique occupation where soldiers are more susceptible to flash buns from POL products, Home Made Explosives, and semi-combustible ammunition used by the Rheinmetall L55 120mm smooth bore gun. Evidence from WWI and WWII also proves that more tank crews fall victim to fatal injuries based on burning than succumbing from enemy fire.
With respect to the 120mm gun of the Leopard 2A4 and A6, semi-combustible casings are used to enable disposal of spent cartridges in the cramped confines of the tank. The semi-combustible cases used in the Leopard 2 are designed to be consumed during propellant ignition, leaving behind only the short metal cartridge containing the spent primer. Consequently, storage and handling of the spent cartridges, measuring 3x5 in., is much more convenient than wrestling with 2 ft. long metal cases, such as those of a 105mm tank round found in a Leopard C2.
Semi-combustible cartridge cases have a tubular body made of a moulded or wrapped cardboard mixture of wood fibre, Kraft cellulose, nitrocellulose, and a stabilizer. The outer surface of the case body is impregnated with a plastic resin such as polyurethane to protect the case from humidity and abrasion and add strength to the casing. The case has a density gradient of resin spread across the walls of the casing. This gradient is necessary in order to ensure complete case combustion, as the resin itself is a combustion inhibitor.
The tubular body is conventionally glued to a combustible adapter which attaches to the obtruding ring of a projectile, having its rear end extending through the adapter into the combustible cartridge case. The adapter is generally a tubular cone which allows the case to fit the diameter of the gun. The rear end of the adapter is glued to the case body and the front end of the adapter is bolted, glued, or snap-fitted onto the obtruding ring of the projectile.
The combustible case of ammunition must be protected against thermo-initiation, which results from the high temperatures caused by the weapon during firing. Without the adapter case (at temperatures of 350° to 400° C), the propellant of the ammunition can catch fire as soon as it makes contact with another round inside the hull. If this occurs while a loader is carrying a round to reload and the spent primer rod bounces off the gun basket and touches the held round, results can be catastrophic. This rare albeit possible scenario occurred to a US M1A1 tank crew in Fort Hood, TX, in the early 90s. The crew commander and loader were instantly killed and the gunner sustained serious injuries. The only thing that saved the lives of the gunner and driver of that tank crew were the NOMEX crewsuits that are standard issue to crewmen in the US armour corps.
Another concern is the ammunition component of the 105mm HESH (High Explosive Squash Head) used on the Leopard C2, Composition B. Extreme temperatures found in places like Afghanistan in addition to hydraulic systems, can cause the metal containing HESH to expand, causing Composition B to leak from the round. If this substance is exposed to an electrical flare, say when a tank comes under contact from an IED explosion, the round can detonate inside the tank hull. Again, the results would be catastrophic. Although there is no documented event of this occurring to CF crewmen overseas, the potential for it to occur remains at hand. NOMEX suits can mitigate this danger.
It is significant to note that all NATO forces, except the CF, issue NOMEX fire retardant crewsuits for their tankers. Indeed, most safety regulations, such as those of the US, UK, and Germans, do not even permit its soldiers to operate a tank if they are not properly dressed in fire retardant clothing. There was a time when the CF did recognize that a crewman works in a unique operational environment and offered him/her the option of donning a crewsuit. For example, when Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) [LdSH(RC)] Battle Group deployed to Bosnia for Op CAVALIER in 1994, troops were issued US NOMEX crewsuits. Further, when the first tank squadron deployed to operations in Afghanistan in 2006, as part of 1 Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group in Op ATHENA Roto 2, LdSH(RC) soldiers deployed with air force crewsuits as an interim solution to mitigate the dangers of being a crewman in combat. Unfortunately, not fully understanding the unique trade characteristics of an armoured squadron, the Battle Group dress policy did not permit tank crews to wear their protective suits. To our detriment, this practice continues within the CF.
The standard issued CADPAT worn by crewmen offers little to no protection against massive fire inside a tank, given its confined space, its need to operate in a “hatches down” environment during hasty or deliberate breaching, and chemical properties of its ammunition. Exacerbated by the two-piece shirt and pant system, the current CADPAT does not customise to crew extraction harnesses and often gets caught on protruding equipment inside the tank. The US Army provides their tankers with specialized footwear, gloves, and helmets to further protect troops from potential injuries inherent to the trade.
All of these concerns were raised when the Leopard tanks were sent to Afghanistan in October 2006. At the time, the CF equipped the first LdSH(RC) squadron with white navy flash hoods and green air force two-piece flight suits. It was an effective short term solution, as the CF already had these suits on stock, however, the efforts were negated by the fact that soldiers were ordered not to wear them overseas due to stringent and inflexible dress policy. As the CF comes to the end of its combat mission in Afghanistan, it is hoped that this safety concern will not be ignored as a case to no longer be worried about. With the fielding of the Leopard 2 tanks in the CF, the intent of which is to rebuild, and finally, to maintain its armour capabilities, it is the chain of command’s responsibility to ensure that crewmen not only have the right fighting vehicles to be able to carry out their duties, but to also ensure that they can do them safely with an ergonomically field-tested clothing such as the NOMEX crewsuit.