A new generation of hi-tech tanks is about to hit the battlefield – complete with energy rays and smart armour. Simon Usborne hitches a ride with the Army's top gunners

With the wind chill, I reckon it's minus-15. I don't know whether to hang on with both hands, as Rifleman Richard Crowther has instructed, or use one arm to shield my cheeks from the blizzard that's whipping across West Yorkshire. "In all my years here I've never known the weather to be so bad," the 6ft 6in head of paratrooper training tells me.

Tanks are anything but glamorous, least not in a blizzard at the British Army's infantry training centre at Catterick, near Darlington. I'm here to check the specs of the Warrior, the workhorse of the Army for more than 20 years, and experience first-hand life inside a thick-walled tin can. The 25-ton beast transported and defended troops in the Gulf War and is now in service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It might be a reliable and fearsome tank – sorry, tracked armoured vehicle (the name is reserved for battle tanks with much bigger guns, apparently) – but the Warrior is not hi-tech. "What new gadgets does it have?" I ask Crowther before he drives me, completely exposed in the tank's gun turret, about a mile across Catterick's off-road course. "Well, they put in new air conditioning recently," he replies.

Air-con will be no use to us today, as the Warrior's V8 Rolls-Royce engine, which churns out 550bhp, powers us through the storm. I'd rather be "downstairs", in the hull, but that is hardly homely, either. Designed to hold seven fully equipped soldiers on two benches, there's barely space to fit seven men; it's not much bigger than the back of a Land Rover.

"I've spent two days straight in here in Bosnia," Crowther tells me. Fairly soon, I have a more urgent enquiry – how does one use the loo? Crowther reaches across to the end of a bench, revealing an egg-shaped, upholstered lid set flush in the seat. "You all shuffle round and your man just sits on it. They say in the army you really get to know each other."

Next, I scan the hull for some sign of technology, expecting to find kit like that on a stealth ship or fighter jet. Behind a backrest I spot a unit about the size of a DVD player. "What's that then?" I ask. "I can't tell you – it's classified." Maybe it's the switch that makes us invisible to our enemies. Then again, it could just be a DVD player.

Simon Usborne's view from the Army Infantry tank

The Warrior is, a very strong lump of metal with a whacking great engine, a few seats, commode and a big gun. But a new breed of tank is being planned that will make the Warrior look like, as Crowther puts it, "an armoured minibus".

BAE Systems is building a new fleet of hi-tech tanks for the British Army, which go by the family name FRES (Future Rapid Effect System). They will roll out from 2012, and will replace the inches of heavy steel and stonking great cannons that limit the utility of the Warrior and the Army's battle tank, Challenger 2.

The problem with much of the current fleet, says BAE land systems spokesman Mike Sweeney, is that they were built for a different time. "Most armoured vehicles are well-protected in what's called the frontal arch, which is fine on a traditional battlefield where you know the enemy's location. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have the invisible threat of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], mines and guys popping up in urban environments and taking pot shots from all directions."

BAE has already shipped bolt-on armour kits for the existing tanks, but the new theatre of war calls for a nimbler, lighter vehicle with the strength of the 60-ton Challenger 2. "You're seeking to achieve three things – mobility, protection and firepower – but traditionally, they are mutually exclusive," Sweeney says. "It's a constant battle of wits between the techies and a very resourceful and innovative enemy."

A lot of the innovation in the FRES tanks is in the form of smarter protection. One system under trial on the Warrior is reactive armour, to defend against the terrifying force of a shape charge. Often loaded in the tips of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), when one strikes a tank, the detonator triggers the explosive, which in turn forces a metal cone to deform into a thin dart of metal. The dart pierces the tank's armour, and the explosion propels the dart at a speed of more than 15,000mph through whatever it hits. "It travels so quickly it behaves almost like water, washing away metal like a hose playing on sand," Sweeney says.

Reactive armour, which can be bolted on, is designed to interrupt the formation and passage of the deadly dart with a layer of explosive. In the split-second the RPG strikes, the explosive in the armour detonates, sending metal sheets into the path of the high-velocity dart. There's still an explosion, damage to the armour, and an almighty bang, but the tank remains largely intact.

But what if a tank were so smart it could destroy a missile before it even hit? That capability is not far off. In a recent demonstration by the US Defence Department, a Stryker vehicle (similar to the Warrior) identified an incoming missile with an automatic radar tracking system. A "kinetic energy" system fired a beam of energy at the missile, destroying it in mid-air. In the meantime, the radar had worked out where the missile had come from, allowing the Stryker to fire back, seconds later. Sweeney says it will take years for similar "death beam" systems to be in place on British vehicles.

However clever the armour, there will always be holes. So if the safety of tank crews can't be guaranteed, why not take them out of the loop altogether? Soon the battlefield could hum with the sound of remote-controlled, or even autonomous, artificially intelligent tanks.

BAE has already developed a remote-controlled digger called the Terrier, which soldiers can use in dangerous tasks such as minesweeping, from a distance of more than 2km. The Terrier looks like no more sophisticated than a "ruggedised" JCB, but its driverless heart – a computer – relies on some 500,000 lines of software code, twice as many as there are in the Tornado fighter jet.

Remote-control tanks, on a smaller scale, are already being used. In Iraq, American and British troops use metre-long, remote-control robots to inspect suspected roadside bombs. The defence contractor Foster-Miller has developed a robot, called Talon, that wields machine guns. For now, it relies on soldiers to control it and, more importantly, fire the guns, but many in the industry say autonomous tanks that move and even fire without anyone pressing a red button are not far off.

In fact, the technology has already been tested. Last year, videos of a prototype robotic border sentry, developed by Samsung, circulated on the internet. The footage showed the fixed position unit apparently using a laser-tracking system to locate and follow a dummy human, and then a machine gun to destroy it. At no stage did a human make the decision to fire.

Mike Sweeney says that the delay in employing similar technologies on the battlefield is more down to the politicians than the engineers and inventors. "There's a clear political decision not to fire things without humans in the loop," he says.

Developments like directed energy defence systems, reactive armour, remote operation or elements of autonomy will make the tanks of the future infinitely stronger and smarter. But as long as tanks take humans, there is one piece of kit that will always be vital. "The most important thing on a British armoured vehicle is the BV," Sweeney says, as we trundle back to the Army base. The BV? "The boiling vessel – the kettle."


Fast track: tomorrow's fighting machines

This mini robo-tank has become a soldier's best friend in Iraq, where troops use thousands of these units to clear mines.

This British design has "directed energy" armour. Green blocks on top detect missiles and destroy them.

The invisible tank
The MoD is reportedly testing a system whereby cameras record images of the terrain, which are projected on to the tank's surface.

This digger tank can be controlled from up to 2km away using a PlayStation controller.