Ripsaw Mini Tank Emerges In New Air Defense Configuration

The air defense Ripsaw uncrewed mini-tank could offer highly-mobile protection against drones, cruise missiles, aircraft, and more.

byJoseph Trevithick|
American Rheinmetall is showing off a version of the Ripsaw mini-tank with its Skyranger 30 air defense turret.
Jamie Hunter
Share

There is a new version of the uncrewed Ripsaw mini-tank with a huge air defense turret armed with a 30mm automatic cannon and short-range surface-to-air missiles. The combination is being pitched primarily as a counter-drone system, but could be used against a variety of other aerial threats, including cruise missiles and low-flying aircraft.

American Rheinmetall, the U.S.-based subsidiary of German defense contractor Rheinmetall, is highlighting the air defense-focused version of Ripsaw at this year's Association of the U.S. Army's (AUSA) main conference and exhibition in Washington, D.C., which opened yesterday. Rheinmetall, which is the supplier of the vehicle's Skyranger 30 turret, first made an announcement about this system last week. Howe and Howe Technologies, now a division of American defense contractor Textron, is the company behind the Ripsaw line, which includes crewed and uncrewed versions.

Jamie Hunter

The Skyranger 30, which made its public debut in 2021, is a fully traversable turret with a primary armament consisting of a 30mm Oerlikon KCE automatic cannon with a 250-round magazine. The KCE is designed to fire specialized Advanced Hit Efficiency And Destruction (AHEAD) programmable airburst ammunition. AHEAD rounds receive data on the optimal timing for the airburst as they leave the gun's barrel. When they detonate, they produce a cone-shaped cloud of tungsten sub-projectiles that increases the probability of scoring a hit, especially on smaller targets like drones and cruise missiles.

A version of the Skyranger with a larger 35mm cannon (Skyranger 35) also exists.

The turret can also fire short-range surface-to-air missiles from a pop-up launcher at the left upper-rear section of its turret. The launch system can be loaded with at least two missiles of various types at a time. The U.S.-made Stinger, European conglomerate MBDA's Mistral, and the SkyKnight from Halcon in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are among the options for use with the Skyranger 30.

A look at the Ripsaw M5 with the Skyranger 30 at the 2023 AUSA show from the rear, which offers a good look at the turret's pop-up missile launcher. Jamie Hunter

The turret can also be fitted with a co-axial light machine gun, primarily for localized self-defense. That machine gun, along with the 30mm main gun, could be used more generally to engage ground targets.

Skyranger 30 also has two built-in nine-round smoke grenade launchers at the front to help conceal the entire system, if necessary.

Skyranger 30 has an array of built-in sensors. This includes an S-band radar array with five separate flat-faced active electronically scanned array antennas positioned around the turret for full 360-degree coverage.

There is also a passive Fast Infrared Search and Track (FIRST) targeting system. This is a valuable alternative to the system's radar, especially when it comes to detecting and tracking stealthier threats, ones with significant electronic warfare capabilities, or both. FIRST can also simply help with quickly spotting and identifying threats, including ones that might suddenly emerge, especially smaller ones like drones.

A rendering of the FIRST system. Rheinmetall

FIRST and the S-band radar array could be slaved together, as well. In this way, either sensor could be used to quickly cue the other, as well as the Skyranger 30's gun, to potential objects of interest. Linked together, they would provide a powerful combination of targeting data.

The onboard sensors allow for any platform, crewed or uncrewed, equipped with Skyranger 30 to operate independently. It has an integrated command and control system with automated targeting functionality that is also designed to be easily linked together with offboard sensors and other air defense nodes. In this uncrewed form mounted on the Ripsaw, this capability is key for remotely linking the system to its human operators.

The Ripsaw M5 chassis onto which the Skyranger 30 turret has been installed, is the latest evolution of the Ripsaw family of vehicles. The M5 has previously been seen with a smaller 30mm cannon-armed turret, and the U.S. Army has been evaluating this configuration. There are a number of other variants of the Ripsaw, including crewed versions, one of which was featured in two Hollywood blockbusters: 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation and 2017's Fast & Furious 8: The Fate of the Furious.

The M5 drone version has a base weight of 10 and a half tons, according to Howe and Howe. It has a payload capacity of four tons, more than enough to accommodate the two-and-a-half-ton Skyranger 30.

Howe and Howe says the M5's hybrid electric propulsion system can get this version of the Ripsaw to speeds over 25 miles per hour, but its top speed would be dependent on what it is carrying. The stripped-down crewed version that Hollywood used in the past could get up to around 65 miles per hour.

Typically, hybrid-electric propulsion systems also allow for a 'silent' operations mode, at least when the vehicle is not moving or doing so at very slow speeds for short periods. This can help reduce its infrared and acoustic signatures, making it hard for enemy forces to spot.

This combination could be very valuable for providing on-the-move air defense for ground forces, as well as mobile point defense against various aerial threats in rear areas.

Groups of Ripsaws with Skyranger 30 turrets could provide short-range air defense against a range of aerial threats, including drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, and low-flying fixed-wing aircraft, across a broader area. They could be made even more effective by networking them together and linking them to data from offboard sensors.

American Rheinmetall indicates that the entirely uncrewed system has some degree of autonomy, which could allow it to operate forward of its operators. This could help extend air defense coverage without increasing risk to actual human personnel. This also means that a relatively small group of individuals could potentially provide significant added air defense capacity.

Cannon-based air-defense systems have certain advantages over missile-based ones when it comes to dealing with high-volume attacks given that the former can continuously engage multiple incoming targets as long it has available ammunition. "Skyranger can stand its ground against swarming attacks," American Rheinmetall's press release asserts.

All of this reflects growing interest in short-range air defense (SHORAD) capabilities with a focus on defeating multiple tiers of drones, including lower-end weaponized commercial types. Many Western militaries, and the U.S. military in particular, had left SHORAD capabilities to atrophy for years after the end of the Cold War, as The War Zone has explored in depth in the past.

Threats posed by drones, even commercially available quad and hexacopter types with improvised munitions, have been very real threats to U.S. and other nation-state military forces for years now already. The barrier to entry when it comes to these systems is low and even terrorist groups and organized criminal entities routinely employ them. The conflict in Ukraine has only underscored this threat, with both sides making heavy use of a wide array of different drones, including improvised and factory-made kamikaze types.

Land attack cruise missiles have also become a major factor in that conflict, which highlights long-standing concerns the U.S. military and other armed forces have about the threat those weapons pose.

The conflict in Ukraine has also seen both sides employ armed helicopters and fixed-wing combat jets in traditional close air support roles, as well as highlighted their vulnerabilities to ground-based air defenses.

At the same time, cannon-based air defense systems, which had largely fallen out of vogue in the West, have emerged as an especially important tool for Ukrainian forces for defeating both drones and cruise missiles. German-made Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, which are armed with a pair of 30mm cannons, have proven particularly valuable in this role.

Last year, authorities in Germany announced plans to acquire Rheinmetall Skynex air defense systems, which include networked turrets armed with 35mm guns that are broadly similar in form and function to the Skyranger, and send them to Ukraine.

Altogether, the conflict in Ukraine has hammered home the point that modern SHORAD systems face a very diverse threat environment. This also means that in the context of future conflicts, especially high-end ones, SHORAD capabilities will be needed in significant numbers to provide adequate coverage, especially to defend friendly forces on the move across broad fronts. Systems like the Skyranger 30-equipped Ripsaw M5 provide a valuable all-in-one package of weapons and sensors that is also highly mobile.

So, it is not surprising that short-range air defense, and drone defense within that broader category, is a major theme at this year's AUSA show in Washington. Another important part of this trend is the increasing sensor capability of SHORAD systems, particularly the growing integration of small, but still very capable radars.

A number of the other SHORAD systems on display at AUSA are also based on uncrewed ground vehicles. This includes a version of General Dynamics Land Systems' TRX tracked drone vehicle with a turret armed with a 30mm cannon and Stinger missiles.

Another smaller design that combines an infantry rifle with a computerized "smart sight" on a remotely-operated turret, a small radar array, and a six-wheeled uncrewed vehicle has made its public debut at the show this year, as well, which can read more about here.

So, whether or not there is ultimately interest in an air defense-focused version of the Ripsaw mini-tank, there is clear and still growing demand for SHORAD systems in the U.S. military and around the world.

Special thanks to The War Zone contributor Jamie Hunter for providing pictures of the Ripsaw/Skyranger 30 combination from the AUSA show floor.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

stripe