Italy, Modern Day

The Italian C1 Ariete – Is it NATO’s Worst Tank?

The C1 Ariete is Italy’s domestically designed and built main battle tank that has been in service with the Italian Army since the mid 1990s.

It is a third generation main battle tank (MBT) that was tailor made to the needs of the Italian Army. Armed with a 120 mm gun and a cutting edge fire control system, the Ariete was one of the best tanks in the world at the time of its introduction.

However today its reputation has slipped significantly.

C1 in motion.
The Ariete is expected to remain in service with Italy until the mid 2030s. Image by Italian Army CC BY 2.5.

As the main battle tank (MBT) of one of NATO’s primary members, the Ariete is rated against the Challenger 2, Abrams, Leopard 2 and Leclerc. Compared to these tanks Italy’s MBT has not seen the same level of attention and upgrades, leading many to regard it as a tank not fit for combat of today.

But is this reputation justified?


In Need of a New Tank

In the 1980s Italy’s MBT fleet consisted mostly of American M60A1s and German Leopard 1s. By this point tanks like the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 were in active service, making tanks like the Leopard and M60 obsolete.

Naturally, Italy wanted to upgrade.

Iveco Fiat and Oto Melara worked together as a consortium, with the latter developing the turret and weapons system and the former focusing on the hull.

Leopard 1.
By the mid to late 1980s Italy’s Leopard 1s and M60s were simply out of date compared to the latest MBTs

The tank would be named the Ariete, meaning Ram, after the famous Italian armored division that fought in Africa alongside the Germans during WWII.

A prototype for this new vehicle was completed in 1986 and a further six pre-production models were built in 1989.

These examples were thoroughly tested, driving a combined distance of 10,000 miles (16,000 km) during trials.

The Ariete was meant to enter service in 1993, but delays pushed this to 1995. Production continued until 2002, with 200 being built in total.

A pair of Arietes.
More Arietes were planned, but just 200 were built. Image by 7th Army Training Command CC BY 2.0

The Ariete

The Ariete brought many of the typical features seen on third generation MBTs, such as a fully stabilised gun, NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection and composite armor.

Externally, it resembles a combination of the Leopard 2 and Challenger 2. Like those vehicles it has a single driver in the front, a centrally mounted turret with three crew and its powerpack at the rear driving rear sprockets.

It is protected by classified composite armor, which is reportedly similar to that used on the Challenger 2 and Abrams. However the Ariete’s armor was thinner than desired to save weight.

Ariete MBT.
Today the Ariete’s armor is most likely lacking compared to its contemporaries. Image by Italian Army CC BY 2.5.

The Ariete’s suspension is of the torsion bar type, but it borrows many features from the German Leopard 2 which had entered service a decade earlier.

In the rear of the tank is an IVECO MTCA 25.8 litre V12 turbocharged multifuel engine that has an output of 1,270 hp and 4,615 nm of torque. Power is sent through a German ZF four speed automatic transmission.

Inside the turret is a 120 mm L/44 smoothbore gun developed by OTO Breda. This gun is similar to the Rh-120 L/44 gun used on early Leopard 2s and M1A1 Abrams.

Ariete firing.
When it was introduced the Ariete was armed with one of the most potent tank guns available. Image by 7th Army Training Command CC BY 2.0

Because of its similarities it is able to fire most standard 120 mm NATO rounds. The barrel is complete with a thermal sleeve, a fume extractor and a muzzle reference sensor. For anti-personal work the Ariete has a 7.62 mm MG42/59 machine gun mounted coaxially next to the main gun.

Turret and gun movements are controlled by an electro-hydraulic system.

The fire control system is a digital type made by Galileo Avionica. It takes atmospheric data and the tank’s physical situation into account to increase the gun’s accuracy.

The gunner has a thermal sight which can also be used by the commander, but the commander lacks his own dedicated thermal sight.

Ariete during exercises.
The Ariete’s commander lacks his own thermal sight. This makes it difficult to see at night and through battlefield conditions such as dust and smoke.

All in the Ariete is a rather light MBT at just 60 tons. This is significantly less than the Leopard 2, Challenger 2 and Abrams, all of which surpass 70 tons depending on the variant and add ons fitted.

Its engine is able to power it up to a speed of over 40 mph (65 km/h).

How Bad is it?

As with coming to a conclusion on the performance of any tank, its difficult to make an assessment without direct comparisons in equal battle conditions. Without this its hard to know whether a vehicle is poorly designed, being operated by a badly trained crew or used in ways it was never designed.

Still, the Ariete has some weaknesses that could certainly become an issue in the field.

Most of these are related to its survivability and limited fire control systems. The exact armor specifications are unknown, but considering the Ariete weighs almost 20 tons less than an M1A2 Abrams yet is of a similar size, it is clear to see that it cannot have the same levels of protection as a vehicle like the Abrams.

An Abrams speeding along.
The M1A2 Abrams weighs around 20 tons more than the Ariete, despite being virtually the same size. Most of this extra weight is armor. Image by 7th Army Training Command CC BY 2.0

Furthermore, the Ariete’s ammunition is stored throughout the tank, posing a serious risk of detonation if the tank is penetrated by an incoming round. While the Ariete is not the only tank to lack separate ammunition compartments and blow off panels, its light hull armor makes this a bigger concern compared to other MBTs.

Another lacklustre feature of the Ariete is its optics and fire control systems. Its fire control systems were excellent for the day, but it is not up to standard with the latest systems.

The commander lacks a dedicated thermal sight which can severely hamper the crew’s situational awareness.

Ariete MBT.
On the modern battlefield thermal sights are critical to see your enemy. Image by Kaminski CC BY-SA 3.0.

Even the gunners thermal sight is only effective out to about 1,500 m, significantly less than the Abrams thermal imaging target resolution of 4,000 m

Its electro-hydraulic turret control is outdated too.

Most of the Ariete’s issues are not inherent issues with tank itself, but are caused by a lack of upgrades.

With modern MBTs serving for decades, upgrades are critical for them to remain competitive. This is arguably the Ariete’s greatest failing, and it isn’t even the fault of the tank.

C2 Ariete

Italy actually made an attempt to upgrade the Ariete all the way back in the early 2000s.

This vehicle would have increased armor, fully electric turret drive, improved fire control systems, 3rd generation thermal optics for the commander and gunner and potentially even an autoloader.

The Ariete’s MTCA V12 engine would have been increased in displacement to 30 litres, fitted with direct fuel injection and received an extra turbocharger. These modifications would have bumped the power to 1,600 hp and 5,500 nm of torque, making it one of the most powerful MBT engines in use.

This version would have been called the C2 Ariete or Ariete Mk. 2.

Ariete forest.
The proposed upgrades to the Ariete would have transformed it into a true force to be reckoned with. Image by Italian Army CC BY 2.5

Unfortunately these upgrades never occurred, resulting in the tank being technologically left behind by its peers.

Despite the first talks of upgrades happening two decades ago, Italy is currently planning on implementing them to extend the service life of their current Arietes.

It must be remembered that a tank’s statistics on paper are not an accurate indicator of performance, as seen many times throughout the 20th century. Training, doctrine, tactics and logistics are often far more influential on a tank’s success.

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If used properly, the Ariete and its 120 mm main gun is more than capable of taking on other MBTs.