Ratel IFV

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Up until the late 1960s the South African Army had used the British Alvis Saracen Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC). There were, however, a few problems with this.

First of all the Saracen was becoming very dated. Secondly, and more importantly, South Africa were beginning to feel the squeeze of the international arms embargo. It was becoming more and more difficult to get hold of spare parts for the Saracens. It became clear that South Africa would need to find an alternative.

The decision was made that South Africa would have to both design and manufacture their own vehicles. The Ratel was the end result.

It was named after the Ratel (Afrikaans word for honey badger), a small carnivore that has few natural predators due to its thick skin and ferocious defensive abilities.

Unlike the Saracen, the Ratel was not an APC but rather an IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle). It was intended to provide infantry battalions with mechanised capabilities.

Contrary to some views the Ratel was a totally new requirement and not a replacement for the Saracen. In fact, the Saracens were retained in their original roles for some years after the Ratel entered service and even underwent an upgrade (Project Fellies) before they were eventually retired.

FULL SPEED: A Ratel-20 on an exercise at De Brug training area near Bloemfontein.

Ratel-20


Weight: 18,500  kg

Length: 7.212 metres

Width: 2.516 metres

Height: 2.915 metres

Crew: 3 crew + 7 infantry

Armour: 20 mm

Main Armament: 20 mm auto-cannon

Secondary Armament: 1 x 7.62 mm coaxial MG

1 x 7.62 Anti-aircraft MG

2 x 2 smoke grenade dischargers

Engine: D 3256 BTXF 6-cylinder in-line turbo charged diesel 282 hp (210 kW)

Power/weight: 15.24 hp/tonne

Suspension: Wheeled 6 x 6, 350 mm clearance

Operational Range: 1,000 kilometres

Speed: 115 km/h (road)

65 km/h (off road)

Enter the Ratel

The Ratel was engineered largely from a prototype from a local subsidiary of Büssing and it was built on a modified 6x6 MAN military truck chassis.

Three more prototypes were developed and tested by the SADF (South African Defence Force) between 1971 and 1975. A production contract for the vehicle was then awarded to Sandock-Austral.

Mass production of a base Ratel-20 chassis peaked in 1976, and the vehicle entered combat deployment in 1977.

Other variants, including the improved Mark II and Mark III versions of the basic Ratel were phased in throughout the 1980s. Mark I vehicles were upgraded to Mark II and III during refits. Over a thousand Ratels were eventually manufactured.


Characteristics

From the outset it was important that the Ratel be designed with the Southern African environment in mind. It also had to make use of the combat experience of the SADF. The main requirements were that the vehicle had to be well armoured, well armed, and offer mobility.

The Ratel made history by being the first wheeled IFV. Prior to that IFVs were tracked vehicles.

The six run-flat tires gave the Ratel long-distance speed, mobility, and ease of maintenance that tracked vehicles lack. The fact that it was wheeled gave it another major advantage. Unlike the United States Army’s M2/M3 Bradley or Warsaw Pact’s BMP designs, the Ratel did not need to be transported long distances on trains or trailer trucks. It can simply be driven to the destination.

Another plus factor was that the Ratel had an operational radius of 1,000 kilometres, far superior to other IFVs. The M2/M3 Bradley, for example, has an operational radius of 450 kilometres.

While the vehicle’s high profile makes it a bigger target it enables the crews to see the surrounding area more easily when maneuvering in tall bush, something common to the terrain in Southern Africa.


The Ratel offered good ground clearance and cross country performance. When it came to mobility the Ratel ticked all the right boxes.

The Ratel was relatively lightly armoured when compared to some other IFVs. This was in order to preserve mobility, weapon space, and range.

The vehicle was well protected against bullets and artillery shell splinters, but vulnerable to anti-tank guns, automatic cannon, rocket-propelled grenades and guided missiles. Yet the SADF’s experiences in Angola showed that the Ratel was far more likely to be faced with small-arms fire than to run into main battle tanks.

Something else of paramount importance was protection against land mines. The bottom of the hull was angled and reinforced so as to deflect mine blasts out to the sides. The wheels, if damaged, were also far easier to repair or replace than tracks.

The Ratel-20’s primary armament consisted of a locally produced Denel Land Systems GI-2 20 millimetre auto-cannon mounted in a non-powered turret at the front of the vehicle.

This was supplemented by a coaxial 7.32 x 51 mm machine gun and another 7.32 x 51 mm pintle-mounted machine gun situated by the commander’s roof hatch. There was an additional pintle-mounted dual machine gun at the rear of the Ratel’s upper deck. This was accessed from a roof hatch and provided cover for the Ratel’s rear quarter. It was removed on later models.

The 20 mm cannon was belt fed and had a high rate of fire. Ammunition was selected for specific engagements and would typically consist of a combination of HE (high explosive) and APTC (armour piercing tungsten carbide) rounds. The APTC was capable of destroying a T-34 tanks as evidenced during Operation Protea.

The Ratel also had four rifle ports on each side of the vehicle, allowing the infantrymen to fire from within the vehicle.

The Ratel had multiple doors and hatches. The two main doors were located on the side of the vehicle, but a small rear door and roof hatches allowed the crew to exit the vehicle from many directions at once, or to dismount under cover during an ambush.

Due to its large operational range the Ratel was ideal for long missions over rugged terrain with little logistical support.

They were loaded with all sorts of equipment and supplies. Spare wheels were lashed on the roof of the hull, while food was stored in every available space. The average number of 7.62 mm machine gun rounds carried was at least 6,000. All Ratels featured tactical radio communication which enabled reliable command and control. Spare whip aerials for the radio were carried somewhere on the hull as they had a tendency to break when driving through the bush.

The Ratel was equipped with two drinking water tanks and each vehicle carried a cooking stove, tool kit, tow bar, cable and spare parts. One in every four vehicles carried a field shower kit.

In May 1978 the Ratel-20s, operating as part of Combat Group Juliet, played a major role in the assault on Chetequera during Operation Reindeer.


Ratel variants

As the South African Border War escalated cross-border operations became more frequent, and more complex.

An alliance had developed between the South Africans and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), who were engaged in a more conventional war against the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA).

FAPLA was aided by the Cubans and the Soviets. This meant that during cross-border operations the SADF was frequently coming up against conventional Soviet armour.

Ratel-60

The Ratel-60 was fitted with a turret that carried a short
60 mm M2 breech loading mortar. Its purpose was reconnaissance, fire support and anti-ambushing. In the direct role the 60 mm mortar was effective up to 300 metres, or 1,700 metres in the indirect role. It could fire HE (high explosive), canister, smoke and illuminating rounds. It would usually operate from the rear to supply indirect fire.

Ratel-90

The Ratel-90 was based on the Ratel-20 but mounted low-velocity 90 mm gun, a license-made copy of the 1950s-vintage French GIAT F1, is very accurate out to 2 km range. It is generally considered to be inadequate for facing modern main battle tanks, but it is quite capable against armoured personnel carriers or other lighter AFVs, unarmoured vehicles, exposed infantry, and buildings or entrenchments. The 90 mm gun cannot be fired from a moving Ratel because the fire-control system is decidedly primitive and not stabilised; the turret and gun are manually traversed.

On the rare occasions when SADF Ratels encountered enemy armour, such as the Soviet-made tanks encountered in Operations Modular, Hooper, and Packer in 1988, they achieved successes through manoeuvrability and only at very short ranges. 61 Mechanised Infantry Battalion Group found that each enemy T-55 and T-62 required multiple shots from the 90 mm guns to disable it, and that the SADF vehicles had to attack in groups, fire from point-blank range, and hit the tanks in the engine vents, turret rim, or similar weak points in order to have an effect, the 90 mm shells being otherwise ineffective against the Soviet tanks’ armour.


End of an era

A number of other countries have since produced vehicles similar to the Ratel, including the Chinese WZ-523. The Belgian Simba, for example, is all but a direct copy of the Ratel. A number of South American countries have produced vehicles very similar in looks and design.

Besides South Africa, a number of other African countries use the Ratel. They include Cameroon, Djibouti, Ghana, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Yemen and Zambia.

When the Ratel is finally retired from service South Africa will be saying goodbye to a vehicle that served them well for 40 years.

Ratel-20

The original Ratel. It was armed with a Denel Land Systems GI-2 20 millimetre auto-cannon, two 7.32 x 51 mm machine guns, and four smoke dischargers.

It carried a crew of three and a squad of seven infantry troops.

Ratel-60

Armed with a short 60 mm M2 mortar the Ratel-60 was used to provide indirect fire support. It carried a crew of three and a squad of seven infantry troops.


Ratel-81

An 81 mm mortar was installed in the crew compartment for use as a fire support platform.


Ratel-90

Armed with a 90 mm gun was used to engaged targets such as APCs, light IFVs, unarmoured vehicles, buildings and entrenchments. It carried a crew of three and six infantry troops.


Ratel Command

Armed a 12,7 mm machine gun, the Ratel Command operated as a mobile command post. It had a two-seater turret and carried nine personnel.


Ratel ZT3

Armed with a launcher containing three ZT3 Ingwe (leopard) laser-guided missiles, the Ratel ZT3 was used to engage enemy armour and main battle tanks. Additional missiles were stored within the hull.


The Ratel Family

Other variants

Ratel-120: 120 mm mortar platform. Prototype only.

Ratel EAOS: Enhanced Artillery Observation System. Used for artillery support.

Ratel Maintenance: Setup as a mobile workshop.

Ratel Logistic: Eight wheeled logistic vehicle. Only two prototypes were built.

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