Zulfiqar-3 Main Battle Tank
***Working Copy***The Zulfiqar-3 is the successor to the Zulfiqar-1 and Zulfiqar-2 tanks developed by Iran. The tank is a radical redesign compared to the earlier Zulfiqar-1 prototypes; most strikingly, it superficially resembles the US's M1 Abrams. The hull has been lengthened though is still largely based off of the M-48/60; the turret now closely resembles that on the M1. The driver sits front and center of the hull with the engine compartment at the rear with the fighting compartment in the middle with a two-man turret; the commander on right and the gunner on the left.
This article makes significant reference to a previous article on the Zulfiqar-1.
|fig. 1 (M-ATF)|
|fig. 2 (M-ATF)|
The Zulfiqar-3 was preceded by the Zulfiqar-2 which is identical to the later model save for slight differences in the storage racks and a lack of side-skirts. It is more then likely the Zulfiqar-2 and 3 are actually one-in-the-same; the original Zulfiqar-2 prototypes merely having side skirts added to them. It was reported by Jane's that the Zulfiqar-3 finished development and was entered into production in 1999.(1) Unfortunately the original reference documents talking about it in the Iranian press cannot be found at this point. Assuming that the development started in 1995 (when the Zulfiqar-1 development finished), that would give an initial timeline of four years for basic development. However, most serious Iran watchers assume that it did not enter production at this time. The three protortypes were first publicly displayed in 2003 during the Sacred Defense Week parade in Tehran. They would later emerge at yearly parades after 2003 though only two were ever seen. The next official update came in May 2010 when it was announced by Brig. Gen. Pourdastan that, despite problems with the fire-control system, the Zulfiqar had been updated and was ready to be displayed (it never was). (2) Finally, during Army Day 2011, we were given our first glance at a supposedly working model of the Zulfiqar which was based off of the third Zulfiqar-3 prototype, not the two that have been paraded for the last several years. These were also visible at this event, without the finished appearance.
There are three known Zulfiqar prototypes. The first model can be identified by its aluminum road wheels and engine exhaust grilles styled after those on the M-48A5/M-60A1. The second model has steel road wheels, engine exhaust at the center of the rear of the hull, and a different style of engine access doors. These two models have been seen for the past several years on parade in Tehran without any visible changes besides their paint scheme. The third model hadn't been seen since 2003 until it showed up again at Army Day 2011 in a theoretically operational capacity.
|fig. 3 (Various Sources)|
The hull of the tank is very similar to the hull of the Zulfiqar-1; welded plates join together to form a boxy structure with a distinctive pattern aesthetically similar to the M1's hull. It is longer then the Zulfiqar-1 hull, with seven road wheels rather then six. The added length can be found in a reshaped glacis. This translates into an aggressively sloped upper glacis and a large lower glacis welded from two plates. Since the only place enlarged was the forward section of the hull, this begs the question 'what is the purpose of the increase in size if it didn't correspond to increases in size in either the engine or fighting compartment'? One explanation might be that this was an attempt to increase armor protection on the frontal arc by better sloping the armor and allowing additional LoS thickness. Another explanation might be that it was in an effort to decrease ground pressure, and that the overall lengthening was really only a side effect of adding more track and a set of wheels.
Mounted on the front of the top glacis plate are two sets of headlights; the same type as those found on the Zulfiqar-1 as well as a set of towing/lifting eyes. Another set of towing eyes can be found on the lower glacis. It's unclear, but the exhaust from the crew compartment heater may be visible, however photographic evidence cannot confirm this for sure. No indication at this time on how the drivers compartment is configured beyond the fact that it sits at the center of the hull. The spaces on either side of the driver may hold reserve ammunition as per the Patton and T-72.
On the side of the hull is roughly the same running gear and suspension set up as that on the Zulfiqar-1. Seven steel or aluminum road wheels from the M-48A5/M-60A1 are mounted on a torsion bar suspension and are driven by a drive sprocket at the rear of the hull. Five track-return rollers along the top and an idler wheel at the front complete the circuit. In other words, almost exactly the same as on an M-48A5. The only difference is in the total length. The Zulfiqar-3 has a protective side skirt of several-mm-thick steel plate running the length of the track.
Despite appearing dimensionally larger, the power-pack at the rear of the hull also closely resembles that on the Zulfiqar-1. The majority of the extra "bulk" at the rear of the hull on the Zulfiqar-3 comes from the rather large storage bins that run the length of the tracks on top of the fenders. These might not even be storage bins, as evidenced by the lack of fasteners for the lids. They may be spaced armor components like on the Chinese Type 99. Another possibility is that they could be fuel panniers. One feature from the Patton series that disappeared on the Zulfiqar-1 but then reappeared on the Zulfiqar-3 is the towing pintle mounted at the lower-rear of the hull. The Type 3 prototype which was shown in 2011 had a secondary metal plate, about the same thickness as a side skirt, attached to the rear of the hull. Since the armor value of such a small plate is negligible, there appears to be no valid explanation beyond visual modification. Another difference is the absence of covers for where the drive sprocket meets the hull (I apologize for not knowing the technical term for this part).
|fig. 4 (M-ATF)|
Because it is roughly the same size as the engine compartment on the Zulfiqar-1, and because they share similar exhausts, it's reasonable to assume that the engines - the AVDS-1790 - are the same. However this doesn't preclude the rumored 1,000 hp engine associated with the Zulfiqar-1. Different exhaust routing systems indicates that, at the most basic level at least, that Iran has been fiddling with the internal arrangement of components which actually does provide some credence to the explanation that Iran has uprated their AVDS engines. The fact that the exhaust system has had its configuration modified in some way may point to the existance of turbochargers which aligns perfectly with the '1,000 hp' claim. Predictably, the air intakes louvres are located on top of the hull, running parallel to the engine.
However if the engine was the old AVDS-1790-2 with 750 hp then there an obvious problem since the Zulfiqar-3 is a larger tank then the first generation and would logically be underpowered. While the exact weight is unknown, it's reasonable to assume that the tank weighs somewhere between 36 and 50 tonnes, more then the Zulfiqar-1 (36 tonnes) but less then the maximum capacity of the Babr-400 tank transporter (50 tonnes); unfortunately this isn't a very narrow range. (3) Welded, rather then cast construction (compared to the Patton-series tanks), as well as the potential use of composites would serve to reduce weight; however the fact that the tank is longer and has a larger turret would likely tip the scales the other way.
Configuration - Turret and Fighting Compartment
The turret and the rest of the fighting compartment is located in a conventional manner at the center of the hull. This is easily the most intriguing part of the tank so far because a) we know so little about it, and b) it's easily the most important when talking about the overall battlefield-effectiveness of the tank.
Part of the reason we know so little about it is that it's not based off the M-48A5/M-60A1 design like the hull is. Aesthetically, it's quite similar to the design on the M1 with angled, flat slaps on both the turret face and sides. The storage bins and turret bustle are also dead ringers for the basic M1 configuration. To say that Iranian engineers probably drew inspiration from the American design would be an understatement. Some have suggested that Iran may have gained intelligence on these tanks during the early days of the occupation of Iraq. However the Zulfiqar design predates this event by quite a few years.
|fig. 5 Basic profile of the Zulfiqar-3 turret (Google Sketchup)|
The primary concern surrounds the fitting of an autoloader to the 125 mm main gun. This was reported in the same article that mentioned the 1,000 hp engine. However, like the 1,000 hp engine, this didn't turn up in the Zulfiqar-1 prototype which was fitted with M-48A5/M-60A1 style ammunition racks. It's also possible that the autoloader in question isn't based off the T-72 carousel design, but is instead of unknown, possibly indigenous origin.
|fig. 6 Eagle-eye profile illustrating provisional turret configuration with carousel autoloader (Google Sketchup)|
At the rear of the turret is the bustle, visually similar to the one the M1 (unsurprisingly). However, unlike the M1's bustle, the one on the Zulfiqar is actually relatively small - just over half a meter tall. Combined with the fact that the tank likely uses an autoloader there is little chance that this would serve as the tanks primary ammunition storage. However the presence of communications equipment is likely given the configuration of the Zulfiqar-1. Pictures also indicate the presence of a turret ventilator like on the Zulfiqar. It's also possible that the bustle serves as reserve ammunition storage. This would make the tank more vulnerable by increasing the chance of a direct hit on rounds by placing them above the level of hull. However bustles can more easily be fixed with blowout doors which redirect the blast away from the crew compartment and the ammunition carousel for the autoloader. There is no indication at this point whether or not the Zulfiqar-3 has this feature or not.
Tank Commander's Station
|fig. 7 Commanders periscope (M-ATF)|
The commander is armed with a 12.7 mm DShK machine gun in a traversable cupola mount. It is possible the commander may also operate the DShK mounted semi-coaxially in a remote weapons station (RWS).
|fig. 8 KAT-72 gunners sight (M-ATF)|
One major difference in the Zulfiqar-3's development is that the gunner sits on the left side of the hull. This is indicated by the position of the gunners sight; in the Zulfiqar-1 it was in front of the commanders cupola but in the latest model of the Zulfiqar-3 the sight is located on the left side hatch. While this is somewhat hard to see in the parade photos, the shadow cast by the gunner's MG3 machine gun can be seen on the sight housing. (fig. 8)
The fact the gunner sits on the left of the turret and the commander on the right indicates that the loaders position has been removed and replaced with an autoloader. The reason this is the case is that when talking about any relatively-large caliber gun, such as the 125 mm, the loader needs the full half of the turret in order to move around and load shells from the various locations around the turret. Putting them in front of another station isn't really possible. It is worth mentioning that any gun using two-part 125 mm ammunition really should be equipped with an autoloader to maintain a steady rate-of-fire.
If the autoloader was imported from the T-72 this would give us further clues as to the internal configuration of the turret. While exact dimensions of the autoloader are impossible to find, some rough ones are avaible. The carousel itself is about 1.91 m in diameter and .46 m tall. The autoloader mechanism and breach form a box shape that is approximately 1 m high, .57 m wide and 2.51 m long. Of this, the breach comprises the front 1.5 m. With these dimensions, the autoloader could easily fit on the inside of the Zulfiqars turret, in fact, the length of the autoloader corresponds, more-or-less with the length of the turret without the bustle. (fig. 6)
The gunners sight in question belongs to the EFCS-3-55 fire control system produced by the Slovenian Fotona company. According to Fotona, Iran imported them during the mid-1990s, presumably for their Safir-74/T72Z program. However after sanctions were imposed on Iran by the Slovenian government Fotona broke all relations with Iran. Iran now manufactures the EFCS-3-55 under the name 'KAT-72' since at least 2005. According to Gen. Pourdastan, one of the major problems with the Zulfiqar-3 was in its fire control mechanism. What this may mean is that Iran was slated to equip their Zulfiqar-3s with these systems in the late 1990s (supposedly when development of the tank finished) but was prevented from doing so by the break in relations. Certain unknowns remain in this potential hypothesis, specifically: when relations were broken, just how far along was development and/or production techniques and tooling in 1999, and why, if the problem was fixed in at least 2005, we haven't seen any more development of the tank until just now - 12 years for reverse engineering of an FCS is a long period of time.
At any rate, the KAT-72 features a stabilized day/night sight. The daylight channel has 10x magnification and 6-degree field of view. The nighttime channel is a second generation passive image-intensifier type (which operates by measuring the radiation from sources like starlight which reflect off of objects.) It has a 7.5x magnification and a 7-degree field of view. It's also equipped with a laser rangefinder, a standard piece of equipment on any modern FCS. The LRF operates in the 1.06 micron wavelength which indicates it's a neodymium laser. It has a quoted accuracy of + 7.5 m and a range of 10 km. This, along with data such as air pressure and temperature, propellant temperature, and cross wind are input into the digital ballistic computer which then generates a firing solution. (4) It is unclear just how much of the entire fire-control process is automated and how much of it is done by hand.
This FCS is paired with the 2A46M 125 mm smooth-bore cannon, manufactured locally under the name HM-50. It fires two part shells, the propellant and the projectile. Available 125 mm ammunition includes HE-FRAG, APFSDS and HEAT rounds which are comparable to corresponding Soviet ammunition. However, Iran does produced a unique APFSDS design that is close to the BM-26 or BM-29 design. The gun is also capable of firing the AT-11 ATGM known as the Tondar. While this gun is still the largest caliber in widespread use across the world it remains insufficient for modern tank battles primarily because of the poor performance of available rounds. Guided missiles, while effective are prohibitively expensive from being deployed en masse. APFSDS-rounds are restricted to certain lengths by the demands of the autoloader and are usually held to less demanding standards then HEAT projectiles (though who knows if that's true in Iran). HEAT rounds on the other hand are effected less but are still fundamentally restricted by the size of the autoloader. In fact, none of the rounds used by Iran (except for ATGMs) can penetrate the frontal armor of the frontline MBTs of the GCC (>550 mm RHA equivalent).
A coaxial gun may be fitted to the left of the main gun (as it is on the T-72), but the picture is too unclear to know for sure. (fig. 9)
|fig. 9 Possible Coaxial gun circled (IRINN/YT)|
|fig. 10 RWS mounted on the turret, note the TV camera on the right-hand side (IRINN/YT)|
Like the rest of the tank, details on the armor composition of the Zulfiqar-3 remains limited at best. The defining feature of the tank, the slab sides, do shed some light on the tanks armor; many have interpreted the slab sides to mean that the Zulfiqar-3 uses ceramic or composite armor. This is true...to some extent.
However from what I have seen, there is some confusion as to why this is the case. Early techniques of casting turrets was conducive to curved shapes like the needle-nose on the M-60, or the distinctive profiles of Soviet T-XX turrets. Laminate armor on the other hand, composed of many different layers of armor sandwiched together, is much harder to curve; this producds the flat faces we see on tanks like the M1 or Challenger. The logical conclusion with regard to the Zulfiqar-3 then is that it also most likely uses some form of laminate armor. Another, more cynical perspective would be that since the whole tank is obviously vismodded to look like the M1 Abrams, the flat faces don't really indicate anything substantial.
It's not all that unreasonable to assume that Iran could design and manufacture the different materials required for a modern design. Early forms of composite armor were first used en masse in tanks like the T-64 and T-72 40+ years ago. Iran certainly appears to have a comparable industrial base and is capable of producing high hardness steel, various alloys and the different types of industrial ceramics used in armor (5) Of course, even with this established there are still a wide array of different materials that could be sandwiched together and in different ratios or configurations which would all produce wildly variable results, and until we cut open a Zulfiqar-3 it's unlikely we'll ever know exactly what we're dealing with.
One key component would be steel; the bread and butter of any tanks armor. This typically forms the majority of tank. Even if the Zulfiqar has ceramic or rubber inserts, steel would still be the material of choice for non-critical locations and general structural support; it's the best compromise of cost and strength.
[Armor section to be continued]
More details and conclusions as they come.
(1) Jane's Armour and Artillery 2005-2006. Edited by: Christopher F. Foss, William Cook Defence.(2) Iran to Unveil New Generation of Zolfaqar Tanks. Fars News. May 18th 2010
(3) Iranian Armour. ACIG Forums. User: "PeeD" on October 3rd 2003.
(5) I'll qualify this statement by saying I don't know much about this issue; Iran is a regional leader in steel production and appears to have a well-developed metallurgy infrastructure. Likewise, we know Iran is producing the usual types of ceramics associated with armor like Silicone Carbide (among others)
Vasiliy Fofanov's Modern Russian Armor Page. http://www.russianarmor.info/
Tank Net. http://184.108.40.206/forums/index.php?act=idx
Jane's "The Technology of Tanks"
Paul Lakowski's "Armor Technology"