Eurosatory 2024 – Opening the path for combat units: Rheinmetall unveils its Keiler Next Generation

Paolo Valpolini

With the western world back to conventional military confrontation, systems that seemed of lesser importance during the peace support operations era have surfaced again. The need to open breaches into enemy layered defences is back, and to do so Rheinmetall designed the next generation of its armoured breaching vehicle, the Keiler NG

Initially a dynamic war, the one between Russia and Ukraine has become much more static since the aggressors had time to “dig in” to face the Ukrainian counteroffensive. To slow down the enemy layered defence have been created, usually with a first layer represented by minefields, where thousands of TM mines with different types of fuses represent a major threat for advancing armoured vehicles. Second and third layers employ nonexplosive obstacles, such as metallic hedgehogs, concrete dragon teeth and buoys, concrete Jersey barriers and concertina wire, the defensive system overall depth reaching several kilometres.

click on image to enlarge

To breach such defences, time is a key factor, to avoid the enemy call-in reserves where the attack takes place. Moreover, the assets used to open the breach will definitely become high value targets, hence the need to operate at speed, under the cover of a smoke screen, courtesy of friendly artillery, a screen that can last only a few minutes.

The Rheinmetall answer to this operational need is the Keiler NG, wild boar in English. The new Armoured Breaching Vehicle (ABV) is based on the Leopard 2 chassis, which allows reducing the logistic footprint for the many armies that field the MBT of German origin, Rheinmetall also noting that its Panther KF51 is also Leo-2 based thus commonality will still be there even with those nations that will shift to this new MBT, and that the still long operational life of the latest Leopard 2 tanks ensures that logistic support will last some decades. Moreover, the ABV Keiler NG strongly utilizes qualified components of the Armoured Engineering Vehicle (AEV) Kodiak, thus shortening qualification efforts for the Keiler NG and consequently reducing costs.

The Keiler NG has a maximum mass of 63 tonnes, which allows it to cross MLC80 tracked class military bridges. Including the mine plough it is 13.5 metres long and with the plough unfolded it is 5.63 metres wide, the Natter remotely controlled weapon stations bringing height to 3.5 metres.

Its MTU MT 873 1,100 kw (1,500 hp) ensures a 23.8 hp/t power-to-mass ratio. The Keiler NG has a maximum road speed of 65 km/h, can climb a 60 % ramp and move on a 30 % side slope, cross a trench of over 2.5 metres and climb a 0.9 metres vertical obstacle. The Keiler NG has a crew of two, both being located on the left side of the vehicle.

click on image to enlarge

The first mean to open a minefield when the ground is soft is the Route Opening Mine Plough, commonly known as Full Width Mine Plough, provided by Pearson Engineering of the UK. According to Rheinmetall, the Keiler NG can open a 4.2 metres wide breach, sufficient to allow the advance of MBTs and IFVs, at a speed of up to 250 metres per minute. Should the terrain be harder, contain a lot of stones, or being clay, a different system would be used to open the path to the attacking force. At the rear of the Keiler NG we find two boxes, right and left; these are fitted to the vehicle using a quick release system and contain the Plofadder 160AT MkII mine clearing line charge, MICLIC in short. This consists of an insensitive line charge which is deployed over a minefield by a rocket and is detonated automatically 20 seconds after it is laid on the ground. It is set up in only one minute and its explosive mass of 560 kg generates a breach with a minimum length of 160 metres and a minimum width of 9 metres. According to Rheinmetall, the Plofadder ensures the destruction of 90-95% of the mines along the path, while remaining ones will be degraded. Following the launch, the Keiler NG will advance through the path, ploughing the terrain made softer by the explosion. Breaches opened with both systems will be marked using the Pearson Obstacle Marking System which pneumatically fires marker poles into the soil at pre-programmed distance. The ABV is fitted with a magnetic signature duplicator that ensures any field-sensitive mine left in or next to the breach would detonate ahead of the vehicle without causing any damage to the vehicle. Considering a 250 meters deep minefield, the whole process would take around 6 minutes, the operation needing two Plofadder being launched in sequence considering the minefield depth.

Once the breach in the minefield is opened, the Keiler NG will face nonexplosive obstacles. To do so the Route Opening Mine Plough is attached to the vehicle through a quick-exchange front-end interface that allows it to be replaced by a general-purpose blade in a matter of minutes. It is to note that the MICLIC can be effective also to destroy or damage non-explosive anti-tank obstacles in order to ease the dozing operation.

click on image to enlarge

The on-board crane, located in the centre of the vehicle, is used to replace the front tool as well as to lift the expended Plofadder containers, each with a mass of around 1,400 kg, and replace them with new MICLICs. Furthermore, the crane enables self-reliant equipping after strategic transport as well as supporting of other tactical elements in this context.

The Armoured Breaching Vehicle is equipped with a Rheinmetall Natter remotely controlled weapon station, armed with a 7.62 mm machine gun, providing self-protection, a series of Rheinmetall ROSY launchers ensuring an autonomous rapid smoke screening capacity.

The Keiler NG, visible at Eurosatory 2024, is the prototype vehicle, and was fully developed on company funds, the first potential customer being the German Army, which needs replacing its ageing first generation Keilers, based on old M48 Patton chassis, the Bundeswehr planning to retire all heavy armoured vehicles non-Leopard 2 based by 2030. Rheinmetall considers that several other armies have a gap in the minefield breaching sector, therefore it looks with interest at the export market, the company being confident to bag one or two contracts for its new ABV by 2024-25. It is to note that the system is also available as a retrofit kit, should a customer decide to modify its Leopard 2-based support vehicles to the mine clearing role, e.g. existing Kodiak AEV.

The prototype exhibited in Paris is definitely not the final configuration, the Keiler NG having mass and power margins that give it considerable growth potential. Reducing the vehicle vulnerability and moving the crew away from danger will be the two main driving factors.

To increase survivability, the adoption of an Active Protection System is being considered; as said, an ABV in operation becomes a bullet magnet as it is the one element that will allow the attack force to overcome the defensive layers. Therefor it does make sense providing it with a protection level at least equal to that of an MBT. Rheinmetall has in-house solutions but might well look at other systems, currently being adopted by numerous nations, even on Leopard 2 chassis.

Removing the crew from the vehicle is the other step that might be adopted, making the Keiler NG an optionally piloted vehicle. When the ABV operates in the dangerous area, the crew will dismount, commanding it via wire- or radio-control from a covered position. A degree of autonomy might be added to carry out fully automated mine clearing and self-recovery through the opened lane, at his point the soldier being “on-the-loop” and not anymore “in-the-loop”.

When talking autonomous vehicles, a data link must however be maintained, which might prove difficult if the enemy electronic warfare manages to jam communications, something that Russia proved to be capable to do in Ukraine. Adopting a mesh communication system would allow to maintain the link re-routing the signal according to the electromagnetic spectrum situation. Wired control would deny jamming in general.

Photos courtesy Rheinmetall and P. Valpolini