Thanks to Czech brand Tatra, Czechia is an exclusive club member

 21. 10. 2019      category: Events

In connection with the selection procedure for new infantry combat vehicles for the Czech army, service vehicles have also been mentioned. It is a matter of fact that 29 cars on eight-wheel chassis should be supplied to the military as well. Strategic documents approved by the government explicitly refer to the Tatra chassis, but this specification has been missed out in the document version submitted to the tenderers. However, this omission may suggest the army might eventually be offered cars of another manufacturer. Given the vast majority of the army´s logistic park consists of Tatra vehicles, this has been a very surprising move. Moreover, legendary Tatra vehicles are sort of an “icon” in the Czech army. 

The following text summarizes some of the more or less known facts about the Kopřivnice vehicles with regard to the importance of the heavy trucks category and Tatra's great success on the global market.

Picture: TATRA chassis are recognized worldwide for their unique design

Specifics of Tatra brand vehicles

This year, Tatra brand celebrates 100 years since the first use of its name: NW or Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriks-Gesselschaft brand was used earlier. However, Tatra became successful especially thanks to its unique chassis design. It was created in the 1920s, later patented, and it has been used without significant changes until today. The main principle is the use of a central load-carrying tube and axles with independently suspended swinging half-axles bolted together into a single unit – this system is often described shortly as a "backbone tube or body-on-frame chassis". In any case, the drivetrain shafts are situated in the central tube, and they are thus protected against external damaging effects.

Tatra T 25 (20. léta)
Picture: TATRA T 25 was produced in the 1920s

In addition to the drive shaft protection, this concept also offers other pros. Most importantly, the overall principle is inherently modular, and hence it can be used for relatively easy chassis construction with different number of axles. Naturally, cars with four, six or eight wheels are most common, but Tatra also supplies its customers with the cars equipped with ten or twelve wheels. However, vehicles with sixteen wheels have also been produced. As a rule, such special vehicles are designed with all axles driven with several of them also steerable. These long Tatra cars are nicknamed "dachshunds" or "centipedes", and they are generally used as bogies for special applications in military and civilian sectors. Naturally, the system with central backbone tube and swinging half-axles offers high throughput in difficult terrain, which ranks Tatra vehicles to the absolute top in global comparison. The advantages also include high stability when driving fast, even on corners, on slopes and with heavy loads. The chassis are designed with great resistance to extreme terrain and climatic conditions, which will be appreciated again by military and civilian customers who demand the full functionality of vehicles in all environments.

Tatra T 111R (40-60. léta)
Picture: The legendary TATRA T 111R (40-60s)

In addition to the chassis concept itself, Tatra also stands out by being eventually the only company in the world today to produce and install air-cooled truck diesel engines in series. This solution is also one of the typical features of Tatra vehicles, although since long ago, Tatra Trucks company has offered its customers the option to use liquid-cooled units. Therefore many exported vehicles have Deutz, Cummins or PACCAR engines. However, some users still prefer air cooled units, such as customers from the Russian federation. In general, air-cooled engines are capable of working well over a wider temperature range, making them more suitable for extreme temperature conditions. As a concrete example, we can mention excellent experiences with Tatra engines in racing trucks, traditionally participating in Dakar Rally (formerly Paris-Dakar Rally) or Czech and Slovak soldiers´ experiences from the Operation Desert Storm.

Picture: Of course, the system with central pipe and swinging half-axles offers high throughput in difficult terrain

The Czech army´s Tatra trucks performed great because their engines maintained perfect functionality even in the desert. High temperatures simply didn´t affect the vehicles and the problem with dust and sand was solved by replacing the suction filters. The US Army was impressed and later it bought a number of Tatra T 813 and T 815 trucks (especially in tractor and fuel tanker versions) from the defunct East German army and it operated them on its Middle East army bases.

TATRA T 815 Armax 6x6
Picture: TATRA T 815 Armax 6x6

Main competitive brands

Although throughout the existence of the Czechoslovakia Tatra trucks were exported mainly to the countries of the Eastern Bloc and to the “friendly” states of the Third World, they also managed to attract customers in the West. The promotion of the Kopřivnice trucks was also greatly helped by the aforementioned participation in the Paris-Dakar rally and their deployment in Desert Storm operations. Thanks to these, the Western armies’ representatives could also get acquainted with Tatra military vehicles. It is known that these vehicles left a great impression on them, as they proved to be fully comparable with everything produced by even the most advanced Western automakers. Heavy trucks and chassis for special applications manufacturing is really a demanding and specific job, as evidenced by the fact that only a small number of states and companies have been capable of producing and supplying them. Few people realize that Czech Tatra Trucks company (and naturally the Czech Republic) belongs to a very small group of manufacturers who can produce heavy multi-axle bogies designed to fulfil special tasks and fit for use in very difficult external conditions. There are probably only ten such companies in the world today.

Picture: American Oshkosh has been almost a monopoly supplier of this category of vehicles for the US Army for a long time.

In the West, there is the American brand Oshkosh, which has long been an almost monopoly supplier of this category of vehicles to the US armed forces. It is also the German company MAN, which supplies military vehicles in cooperation with the Rheinmetall arms factory. In Europe, we can count probably the Swedish vehicle manufacturer Volvo and the Italian Iveco brand, which ends the list of suppliers from the NATO and EU countries. However, three other countries in the East produce special heavy vehicles. In Russia, these are the KAMAZ, BAZ and Ural automakers, while in Belarus the traditional MAZ brand and its former MZKT division have been operating (with MZKT specializing mainly in military vehicles manufacturing). In China there are two brands - Taian and Wanshan. There might be some other countries where companies are more or less able to meet the requirements (such as Sisu in Finland or KIA in South Korea), but their activities in this field are really limited. To add, the Indian company Tata has also been trying to produce its own heavy trucks, but the Indians themselves admit that their products are not as technically sophisticated as those from Tatra Trucks (whose products are used and widely appreciated in the Indian army).

Picture: MAN vehicles in the service of the British Army | Wikimedia Commons

Heavy trucks and their importance

Although it may not seem so, heavy trucks are of particular importance in both the armed forces and the civilian sector. For soldiers, these vehicles are one of the main elements of logistics, as they can transport loads of up to tens of tons on or off the road. The lay public most often envisions classic tarpaulins, but the fact is that since the 1980s, two different concepts have spread widely in the armies of developed nations. The first is the ISO standard container transporter and the second is the load handling system, which connects the hook loader and the platform, which can serve to clamp various loads. Tatra vehicles have been naturally also produced with these devices; in the Czech army, the second concept is represented by the Multilift system. In addition, large tankers are normally mounted on heavy trucks, so Tatra's eight-wheel vehicles can handle more than 12,000 litres of water or fuel. Another important sub-field is the trailer and semi-trailer tractors, among them the so-called tank transporters, which pull low-loaders for tanks and other heavy vehicles with a total weight of over 100 tons.

Tatra force 8x8
Picture: TATRA FORCE 8x8

Of course, various specialized bodies are also applied on heavy trucks chassis. The Tatra vehicles are used for example as recovery vehicles and mobile cranes, carriers of mobile folding and pontoon bridges, as well as weapon and sensor systems. It is worth mentioning again the case of India, which installed its Prithvi ballistic missiles, BrahMos antiaircraft missiles, Akash anti-aircraft missile system, Pinaka artillery rocket launcher or several types of radars on licensed Tatra vehicles. We should not leave out that several arms manufacturers chose Tatra chassis as a platform for self-propelled howitzers construction. Currently, there are at least five types of 155 mm calibre self-propelled howitzers constructed on the Tatra chassis: namely the Slovak EVA system, the Israeli ATMOS type, the French CAESAR system, the South African T5 Condor and finally the Indian MGS howitzer. In the distant past a famous self-propelled vz. 77 DANA howitzer was placed on the armoured Tatra chassis. However, its upgraded versions (such as Zuzana 2) are now offered by Slovakia. Tatra chassis also used with artillery rocket launchers (especially the RM-70 and its improved version of the RM-70 Vampire) and with a wide range of other specialized means.

CAESAR houfnice
Picture: Self-propelled howitzer Caesar 8x8 on the TATRA chassis

The importance of heavy trucks can sometimes reach literally strategic levels, the fact of which can be illustrated by two cases from the recent years. The first illustration concerns relations between Russia and Belarus: Russia is still de facto dependent on the Belarusian company MZKT as a special chassis supplier. These special chassis are used in important Russian weapon systems, such as Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, Topol, Topol-M and Jars strategic missiles, Bal and Bastion coastal defence systems or S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft defence systems. Russia has therefore intensively been trying to replace them with domestic products and has already invested heavily in the new KAMAZ Platform-O chassis series (which should primarily serve as carriers of artillery and strategic missiles) and in the production of BAZ vehicles (which are to take on MZKT chassis roles in air defense). The second example concerns North Korea and China because Wanshan WS51200 chassis were sold to North Korea. Officially they were sold as platforms to transport tree trunks, but the North Koreans used them for their intercontinental ballistic missiles. The relatively small number of these chassis delivered is a limiting factor in how many of these missiles they can have ready to deploy.

Export success of Tatra Trucks company

Mentioning tree trunks transport reminds us that heavy trucks are also important in its use outside the military sphere, which also applies to Tatra trucks. It is the ability of the Kopřivnice truck manufacturer to produce very long chassis responding to customers' requirements that has helped to build its strong position in certain specific fields requiring frequent movements of extremely large (usually long) types of cargo. In addition to the above-mentioned logging and wood processing, it is mainly mining and mineral resources (especially oil and natural gas) processing, as the special long bogies help to transport parts of logging kits and oil and gas pipelines. Tatra trucks are also widely used and successful in construction industry, municipal services and, last but not least, firefighting. Tatra Trucks is one of the highly successful producers of chassis for fire bodies, and although it is not well known to the wider public, even fire brigades in western states rely on vehicles from Kopřivnice. Tatra fire trucks were delivered also to the U.S. (e.g. National Parks Administration) and Australia, and recently to Israel. In general, these are countries that frequently fight forest fires, a situation in which Tatra off-road chassis can do its best.

Tatra Force 6x6
Picture: TATRAs are known for their high terrain clearance. (TATRA FORCE 6x6 on the picture)

When mentioning again the armed forces and corps sector, it should be noted that Tatra has won contracts in a number of countries after 1990 and several of the armies count on the Kopřivnice products as primary logistics assets and platforms for special applications. Next to the case of India, it is mainly Israel that at the time of the cooperation of Tatra Trucks company with the American company Terrex bought hundreds of trucks under the ATC brand. Next to freight transport, it also serves as a body carrier, including Rafael SPYDER anti-aircraft missile systems. A thousand of Tatra T 816 vehicles were bought by the United Arab Emirates army, which operates flatbed trucks and tankers used for water and fuel. Another interesting case is Brazil, which used Tatra chassis for its upgraded ASTROS II artillery rocket launchers. Tatra´s other important customers comprise of the armies and police forces of Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Cyprus, Malaysia, Pakistan, Poland, Greece, Saudi Arabia (where Tatra trucks will also be assembled in future) and Turkmenistan. Finally, we can mention an interesting fact that Tatra (ATC brand) advanced to the final stage of the trucks supply tender procedure called LVSR (Logistic Vehicle System Replacement) for the US Marine Corps. The institution eventually chose the Oshkosh trucks, but it stated that Tatra products met all its requirements.

Picture: TATRA's customers include the army and police of Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Cyprus, Malaysia, Pakistan, Poland, Greece, Saudi Arabia, etc. (TATRA TACTIC 4x4 on the picture)

It is also worth noting that Tatra chassis are successfully used as a basis for various armoured vehicles. Already in the first half of the 1990s the Tatrapan vehicle (an armoured car on a six-wheel chassis) was developed in Slovakia. The vehicle has been constructed in several versions, e.g. as a commander´s or a medical one; later an eight-wheel model for transporting containers was designed and produced. Another armoured vehicle on Tatra chassis was named Wildcat: the four wheels vehicle was developed in Israel, where a six-wheeled armoured vehicle Karkadan also comes from. In Germany, the Drehtainer company offers armoured armour on Tatra chassis. Drehtainer has also produced a truly unusual application, the Mobile HEL Effector Container, which is equipped with a small laser that can be used for example to destroy drones. The Czech SVOS company used Tatra chassis for the four-wheel and six-wheel VEGA armoured vehicles. And later, Tatra itself established close cooperation with the French Nexter company to develop a six-wheel TITUS armoured carrier. This vehicle has already been contracted from the Czech army, and the version for police is likely to be introduced by France. TITUS was tested, among others, in Albania or at Ivory Coast. Another interesting model is the four-wheel Patriot (or improved variant Patriot II) by Czech company Excalibur Army, created especially for the V4 countries. This broad spectre of armoured vehicles also illustrates the great potential of Tatra chassis.

TITUS . (1)
Picture: Six-wheel TITUS armoured carrier on TATRA chassis

Exceptional army vehicles are built in only a few countries

Tatra is one of the most famous Czech industrial brands, which is evidenced not only by its impressive long and rich history and still unique technical solutions of chassis and engines, but also by many impressive commercial achievements in a very specific and demanding industry of heavy trucks for special applications and extreme conditions construction. Only about ten manufacturers in the world can now supply similar vehicles, mostly from developed countries such as the US, Germany, Russia and China. Using only a slight overstatement, this is a small and exclusive “club”, of which the Czech Republic is an undisputed and full member thanks to the Tatra Trucks company. The importance of these vehicles should definitely not be underestimated, since it is not only an extremely important element of the logistics of today's armies, but also platforms for the installation of various special-purpose superstructures, including weapon systems of strategic importance. For the general public, these trucks may not be as attractive as tanks or jets, but without the reliable support of a large fleet of heavy trucks, modern armed forces simply would not be able to function.

Tatra Force 8x8....
Picture: Without the reliable support of a large fleet of heavy trucks, modern armed forces simply would not be able to function

The quality of automobiles from Kopřivnice is also proven by an impressive range of military and civilian users, including a few very prestigious ones, such as the armies of Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates, fire brigades in the US and Australia, and top mining and construction companies. They are all clients who have to operate in demanding off-road and/or extreme climatic conditions and have specific requirements for the deployment of special superstructures or the transport of bulky loads – be it weapons systems, fire engines or industrial machines. Tatra can meet these requirements mainly thanks to the unique and inherently modular concept of its chassis, which allows to build vehicles with four to sixteen wheels and capable of driving even in the most difficult terrain. Finally, Tatra Trucks can be described as a company of strategic importance from the Czech point of view, as it provides to a large extent exceptional capabilities that are rare even on a global scale. The Czech Republic, as a small to medium-sized state, should deploy all available instruments on the international scene in order to be able to defend and assert its interests, which of course also include the supply of specific products, including military equipment. The extraordinary qualities of the traditional Tatra brand would therefore deserve strong political and economic support in the long term.

 Author: Petr Žák