Author Topic: Tank Thermal Sights in the Cold War  (Read 2183 times)

Offline Logan Hartke

  • High priest in the black arts of profiling...
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Tank Thermal Sights in the Cold War
« on: March 17, 2020, 04:50:06 AM »
Hi everyone,

I've dipped my toe into a topic that I previously new next to nothing about and still find myself woefully under-equipped for. Long story short, I'm trying to determine which tanks had thermal imaging sights prior to the Persian Gulf War. Please correct my errors (I'll edit this post) and add to my very incomplete knowledge.

    Here is a rough timeline of the MBTs that I believe started getting thermal sights before 1991
    • 1979 - Texas Instruments' AN/VSG-2 Tank Thermal Sight (TTS): The first M60A3 TTS tanks begin arriving in Germany. To my knowledge, these are the first tanks with thermal sights to enter front line service.
    • 1980 - Hughes' Thermal Imaging System (TIS): The M1 Abrams enters service with the US Army. They are still called the XM1 at the time and will not be accepted for full production, type-classified, and named for another year.
    • 1981 - The first M1 Abrams units begin to arrive in Germany in September 1981. This is the first tank type to designed and equipped from the start with
    • 1982 - Zeiss WBG-X with EMES 15: The first Leopard 2A1s with EMES 15 would enter service. Earlier Leopard 2s would be upgraded with the EMES 15 and thermal sights to the Leopard 2A2 standard between 1984 and 1987. All subsequent variants of the Leopard 2 (2A3, 2A4, etc.) would have thermal sights as standard.
    • 1983 - Zeiss WBG-X with EMES 15: The first Dutch unit is equipped with the Leopard 2, the 41st Armoured Brigade in West Germany.
    • 1984 - Barr & Stroud/Pilkington Optronics' Thermal Observation and Gunnery System (TOGS): The Challenger Mk 2 (variant of the Challenger 1, not the Challenger 2) enters service equipped with the TOGS thermal imagining system. I've read from a German source that this was inferior to the American and German thermal sights, but I have no further detail on this. It seems TOGS-equipped Challengers were still rare in BAOR in Germany even by 1987, too.
    • 1986 - Zeiss WBG-X with EMES 18: The first Leopard 1A5s are delivered to the Bundeswehr. A key part of this upgrade is the EMES 18 equipped with thermal sights. I don't know if any Leopard 1A5s entered service with any other armies prior to the end of the Cold War.
    • 1987 - Hughes' Thermal Imaging System (TIS): Introduction of South Korean K1 Type 88 tank equipped with the Hughes-designed Gunner Primary Sight, including thermal sights very similar to that found on the M1 Abrams. I still have some open questions about this equipment versus the VSG-2 TTS-derived VSG-2(V) GPTTS that would replace the GPS on the first 450 K1s, but that change seems to have happened after 1993, so outside of this timeframe.
    • 1988 - Barr & Stroud/Pilkington Optronics' Thermal Observation and Gunnery System (TOGS): The first Chieftain Mk 11s are fitted with TOGS.
    • 1988 - Zeiss WBG-X with EMES 15: The first Leopard 2s would enter service with the Swiss Army as the Panzer 87.
    • 1990  - Mitsubishi Fire Control System (FCS): The first Type 90 Kyū-maru tanks enter service with the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force.
    • 1990  - Zeiss WBG-X with EMES 18: The first Danish Leopard 1s are converted to the Leopard 1A5 standard.

    So, from what I can see, by 1990, the tanks in service with thermal sights are US Army M60A3s with TTS, M1 and M1A1 with TIS, West German Bundeswehr Leopard 1A5s with EMES 18 and Leopard 2 with EMES 15, Royal Netherlands Army Leopard 2s, British Royal Army Challenger 1 Mk 2 & 3 and Chieftain Mk 11 with TOGS, South Korean K1 Type 88 with TIS, Swiss Army Panzer 87s, JGSDF Type 90 Kyū-maru, and finally Royal Danish Army Leopard 1A5s.

    Some sources seem to list the T-80UK command tank as roughly concurrent with the T-80U (1985), but the most reliable sources I've found state that delays with the Agava thermal sight meant that it didn't even enter Soviet Army service, just development and test models. It would enter Russian and export (Cyprus and South Korea) service in the mid-90s, but the T-80UKs were always the last in a batch delivered, suggesting they were still having trouble procuring individual systems as late as 1997.

    Open questions I have:
    • Did the US export the M60A3 TTS to anyone prior to 1991?
      I saw that at least Spain (M60A3), Taiwan (M48H), Turkey (M48A5, M60A3), and Saudi Arabia (M60A3) had TTS-equipped tanks by the mid-90s, but I don't know when they first got them. What about some of the other early M60A3 users (Austria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, etc.)?

    • Did anyone other than Germany and Denmark upgrade their Leopard 1s to Leopard 1A5 standard with thermal sights prior to 1991?
      I originally thought the Belgians had, but then I read their 1A5 upgrade program didn't start until 1993. I read somewhere that the Canadians were going to, then I read a later source that said only a handful of C1s ever got thermal sights (prior to the C2 program), and even that may not have been prior to 1991. I suspect that the Dutch Leopard 1s may have been upgraded to the 1A5 standard before the end of the Cold War, but I can't say for certain.

    • When did the Merkava Mark IIB enter service?
      I think this was the first Merkava to get thermal sights and it seems the Merkava Mark II was in production from 1983-89, but I don't know if the IIB was a mid- or post-production modification.

    • Did the Swedes look at thermal sights prior to the Strv 103D upgrade program of the mid-1990s?
      The Strv 103C program was concurrent with the German Leopard 1A5, but I can't see that thermal sights were ever part of the 103C program.

    • Did any tank destroyers or recon vehicles use thermal sights during the Cold War?
      I know the Marder 1 and Luchs had the same WBG-X as the Leopard 2 and Leopard 1A5, but I'm not sure when they got them. I suspect it may have been before 1991.

    • Did anyone seriously offer thermal sights as a drop in upgrade kit for Main Battle Tank in the 1980s?
      I have a Jane's Armour and Artillery Upgrades from the late 90s that's chock full of them, but the importance of thermal sights were well known at that point and the technology had advanced such that the technology was more readily available.

    • Related to the above, I know SAGEM (France), Thomson-CSF (France), SABCA (Belgium), Delft (Belgium), Elbit/ELOP (Israel), Officine Galileo (Italy), Kentron/Denel (South Africa), and Marconi (UK) would all get into the thermal sights market by the 1990s, but were any of them in production AFVs or have serious offerings in the decade prior?
      I suspect at least some of them were.

    • Did the French have AFVs equipped with thermal sights prior to the Leclerc?
      So far, it looks like just prototypes. Nothing in service.

    Hopefully some of this information is helpful to others and some people around here that are smarter than me can help fill in some of the holes above.


    « Last Edit: March 17, 2020, 11:36:35 AM by Logan Hartke »