by J.R. Dunn
Tanks are dinosaurs. This is an argument we’ve heard repeatedly in recent decades. The claim, put formally, that breakthroughs in anti-armor weapons development, particularly as regards infotech-related advances in target acquisition and guidance, have made the modern battlefield far too unhealthy for armor. Weapons do become obsolete. We have in recent decades seen one classic means of projecting naval power, the battleship, which played a role in many ways equivalent to the tank in the maritime environment, set aside with scarcely a look back. Every weapon has its day, after which it is retired to the museums or takes a place subordinate to newer and more effective systems. The tank’s day, we’re assured, is coming to a close.
Antitank missiles have achieved a level of sophistication where even the most compact infantry squad can be equipped with effective and deadly anti-armor weapons. Beyond that exist the dedicated anti-tank weapons systems developed during the final years of the Cold War and including the A-10 “Wart Hog” ground-attack aircraft, the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship, the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and an entire arsenal of laser-guided bombs and missiles.
The Gulf wars were something along the lines of an illustrated and dramatized version of the “death of the tank” thesis. The JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System), an E-8C surveillance aircraft fitted with synthetic aperture radar capable of detecting vehicles at ranges of over a hundred miles, easily tracked approaching Iraqi armor and vectored A-10, AH-64, and laser-guided bomb equipped F-16s against them1. Iraqi armored forces were helpless against this onslaught. “Tank plinking” became something of a pastime. An aircraft nearly beyond visual range, never even seen by the tank crew, would unleash a Precision-Guided Munition (PGM) of one type or another and watch as, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the weapon glided into the tank as if sliding down a string, leaving yet another mass of blazing wreckage on the bleak and empty sands.
While it’s true that U.S. M-1 Abrams main battle tanks rampaged across the Mideast deserts with near impunity, this was solely due to circumstance. Thanks to the collapse of their major weapons supplier, the USSR, the Iraqi army remained several decades behind the times as far as weaponry was concerned. They missed out on the final rounds of late-Cold War weapons development, including almost the complete run of IT-inspired precision-guided weaponry. But if the U.S. was ever to come up against a truly contemporary armed force, one equipped with the latest in weaponry, it might well find its own tanks nearly as vulnerable as those of the hapless Iraqis. The Gulf conflicts may well have marked the last hurrah of classic armored conflict.
So what future could tanks possibly have? If not even the United States, operating on the very straightedge of weapons evolution, can guarantee their survival in the millennial battlespace, what chance have they got? And beyond simple questions of survival, what contribution remains for armor to make in an era where war is ever more dominated by networked technologies? Are tanks at long last as useless as the chariot, good only for impressive parades and overawing primitive opponents? Will something else come along and replace them, in the same way that they replaced the cavalry?
To answer these questions, we need to define what tanks are for, what role they play, and what benefits they provide. For the answers to those questions, we must turn to history.
THE BIRTH OF THE TANK
The appearance of the tank was a lesson in overlooking the obvious. Armored cars were widely manufactured and deployed in the decade previous to WW I. The first operational armored vehicle was an armored car used by the Imperial Russian government to break up riots in St. Petersburg during the revolution of 1905, nearly a full decade before war broke out.
Speculation on the role of armored vehicles was widespread in the first decade of the 20th century, typified by H.G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads,” a short story based on the thesis that technology would always defeat primitivism. (Interestingly, Wells foresaw at least some aspects of Nazi master-race theory in this story. What he missed was the fact that master races might develop quite a thing for armor.) The most incisive analysis was made by Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles, the man who defeated Sitting Bull2. In a series of articles published in mid-decade, Miles clearly saw armored cars as a replacement for cavalry, acting as long-range reconnaissance and fast strike forces.
But at the same time, little notice was paid to another vehicle making its debut at the same time: the tracked caterpillar in the form of earthmoving machinery such as the bulldozer. Steam-powered tractors had first appeared in the 1850s, and with the introduction of the internal-combustion engine, such machines were becoming commonplace in the first years of the 20th century. While combining the tracked vehicle with armor plate appears obvious from our viewpoint, it took quite awhile for bulb to go off.
Armored cars saw action from the first weeks of WWI. One of the earliest British units to fight in Belgium in 1914 was a Royal Navy armored car unit operating large touring cars of the Rolls Royce class fitted with heavy machine guns. These units carried out useful work until overwhelmed by the muck of no man’s land.
The Royal Navy units had been sent into action by Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. So it’s no surprise that he became closely involved with the development of the tank. (Churchill made a number of substantial contributions as a technological midwife – he also played a crucial role in the development of the seaplane.) The tank as we know it was first suggested by Colonel Ernest Swinton3, working with Secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence Maurice Hankey4. In June 1915, the two arranged for a demonstration of an armored tractor. Churchill was present, and immediately saw the potential of the new machine. With his encouragement, the Landship Committee was established, one of those committees which exist to rubberstamp an already agreed-upon conclusion, in this case the fact that an armored tractor was an urgent necessity. Swinton oversaw development of the first tank (the term was a code-word to disguise what the program actually involved), “Little Willie,” followed naturally enough, by “Big Willie.” Development went quickly, with the first combat model appearing in January 1916.
Early operational tanks were primitive oddities to our eyes, with their treads circumscribing the entire hull, their small-caliber cannon (or machine guns) fitted in side sponsons, their enormous engines sharing the same internal chamber as the crew, heating the interior to a hellish degree and requiring a system of signals, since nobody could be heard over the engine noise. (The unhealthy environment of the early tanks cut short one particular combat innovation. In 1918, an attempt was made to utilize tanks as armored personnel carriers, with infantry squads stuffed inside with the crews. After a little more than an hour, the troops staggered out so overheated and enervated as to be useless for further attacks.)
Other countries soon followed the British example. The French Schneider tank was to set the standard for future tanks, with its sensibly placed treads and, in later models, guns fitted in an upper turret. The Germans were – at this time, anyway -- less than impressed with the concept, but did produce a small number of tanks designated the A7V (that last figure is not a letter but a Roman numeral, oddly enough)5. The A7V was a monster machine, fully matching the Wellsian conception of the land ironclad: 24 ft. long, with a crew of 18, and armed with one 57 mm cannon and no less than six machine guns. In April 1918 thirteen A7Vs – nearly the entire German operational contingent at the time – mixed it up with British Mk. IVs at Villers Bretonneux. The British tanks pretty much rolled over the ironclads.
Tanks were introduced at the front in 1916. The first engagements were unimpressive, distinguished as much by breakdowns as anything else. Churchill, already thinking in strategic terms, advised the Army staff to wait until a thousand or more were available. Instead they were thrown in haphazardly. Their first real success occurred at Cambrai on November 20, 1917, where tanks helped tear a twelve-mile breach in the German lines. Denied adequate support, British troops were unable to hold off a German counterattack and most of the captured ground was lost.
The high point for the tank in WW I came with the Battle of Amiens (AKA the Third Battle of Picardy) on August 8, 1918, when 600 tanks led a twenty-mile advance through German trenches6. This time the troops held, forcing the entire German line to pull back. This “black day of the German Army” marked the turning point of the war, leading directly the armistice three months later.
THE INTERWAR PERIOD
The interwar years represented a transformative era for the tank. Among the Allies, figures such as Charles de Gaulle in France, the eccentric J.F.C. Fuller7 (he was a follower of the self-styled antichrist Aleister Crowley8, AKA the “Beast 666”) in Britain, and George Patton in the U.S., promoted armored warfare with varying degrees of success.
But the major figure in the development of armored tactics was Soviet marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a former Tsarist officer who went over to the Reds during the revolution and compiled a record made up of equal parts tactical genius, operational skill, and sheer brutality9. (He had a habit of ordering rebellious villages to be wiped out with poison gas). During the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) Tukhachevsky played a crucial role in the Red Army’s victories over the White forces of Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak10 in Siberia and General Anton Denikin11 in the Crimea.
Following the Civil War, Tukachevsky applied himself to the reform of the Red Army. The marshal had a vision of combined arms warfare -- mutually supporting infantry, armor, and aerial forces –that was far ahead of its time. Tukhachevsky’s concept of “deep battle” utilized the tank as the major element of a strategy of maneuver in which armored and mechanized infantry units would break through the front to create havoc behind enemy lines. Carefully worked out and tested in numerous army maneuvers, deep battle became standard Red Army doctrine.
At the same time German army officers under General Hans von Seeckt were working with the Soviet armed forces in a successful effort to circumvent the provisions of the Versailles treaty that ended WW I (the treaty banned German possession of several classes of weapons, including tanks)12. While the Germans aided the Soviets in training, doctrine, and weapons development, they were at the same time able to train in large numbers with weapons forbidden in Germany.
By this means, a number of German officers were exposed to Tukachevsky’s ideas. The most influential among them was Heinz Guderian, who wrote a series of essays dealing with combined arms strategy later collected in the book Achtung—Panzer! (1937), which was to serve as the basis for the German Blitzkrieg13.
Tukachevsky was so feared by the Germans that they carried out a successful scheme to get him executed by the ultraparanoid Josef Stalin. The Abwehr (German military intelligence), forged a number of documents making it appear that Tukachevsky was scheming with the German army to overthrow Stalin by means of a military coup14. Stalin ordered him arrested and shot, along with his entire staff. (It was later revealed that the information the forgeries were based on had been provided by Stalin himself, for reasons impossible to grasp at this distance in time. Life under the Soviet regime could get very complicated.) This was followed by a massive purge of the Red Army, in which a substantial portion of the officer corps was wiped out. In addition, Tukachevsky’s groundbreaking tactical concepts were dropped as “counter-revolutionary” and replaced with a poorly thought-out and useless defensive strategy. When war came, the German Wehrmacht, utilizing the Blitzkrieg strategy derived from Tukachevsky’s pioneering work, swept aside the marshal’s own army, which had abandoned his doctrine. Historical ironies do not come thicker than this.
THE TANK UNBOUND
WW II was the quintessential armored war, the war in which the tank came into its own. This began with the Wehrmacht’s first armored thrust across the borders of Poland in 1939 and ended only with Russian T-34s prowling the ruins of Berlin six years later. During WW II the tank dominated combat in Europe (in the Pacific islands and jungles, not quite so much) more than any other weapon since the heyday of the armored knight.
This fact escaped the attention of the Western powers in the early days of the war. Germany’s four-week conquest of Poland was explained as the collapse of a pre-modern state fighting an advanced industrialized power. (German propaganda, with its claims of “Polish lancers” charging German tanks, helped give form to this impression. In fact, the “lancers” were Polish dragoons, mounted infantrymen who had worked out a quite effective tactic for use against German armored cars: attacking them on horseback from all directions and destroying them with grenades. Deprived of their “eyes,” German columns slowed to a near-halt. After learning how the dragoons did it, German tank crews moved up to within machine-gun range, wiping out the next dragoon attacks. Nazi propaganda master Josef Goebbels saw combat newsreel footage of the ambush and came up with the “lancer” myth.) The Allies woke up far too late, when German Panzers supported by Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers burst through the “impassable” Ardennes forest into northern France in May 1940. Following Guderian’s blueprint, the Wehrmacht rolled up the French army, isolated the British at Dunkirk, and defeated France nearly as quickly as it had “primitive” Poland.
The Desert War in North Africa was almost purely an armored conflict. For nearly three years (1940-1943) armored and mechanized columns chased each other across Libya and Egypt, often retreating or advancing hundreds of miles between battles. The desert produced the first “pure” armored commander in General Erwin Rommel15. Although he led only a single corps as the spearhead of a mixed German-Italian army, Rommel nearly threw the British out of North Africa, with consequences that would have been incalculable. (Consider only the fate of Israel had the Nazi war machine gotten as far as Palestine.) The British commanders opposing Rommel learned much about the use of armor that they were later to apply in Europe.
But the central stage for armored warfare was Russia, where the steppes served in much the same role as the western desert. Across their endless expanse moved hundreds and at times thousands of tanks, fighting what amounted to a war of extermination between the two monster tyrannies of the age. After the catastrophes of 1941, when millions of troops were killed or captured, the Soviets quickly revived the abandoned doctrines of Tukachevsky and turned them on the Germans with a vengeance. Equipped with the superb T-34, generally considered to be the finest all-around tank of the war, they soon turned the tide against Germany and its Axis allies. The largest tank battle of all time was fought at Kursk in July and August 1943, where Hitler, in a desperate gamble, concentrated his forces in an attempt to pinch off a massive Russian salient extending into German lines. Unusually unsure of himself, he dawdled for several months, enabling the Soviets to divine his intentions and to build up their forces in the area. When the German attack came, over 8,000 tanks and 2.5 million men fought it out for the better part of a week before the Germans broke off the operation. The ensuing Russian counterattack drove them back over sixty miles. It was the last German offensive on the Eastern front.
The highest expression of armored warfare in Europe was achieved in the West by General George Patton. No other commander ever succeeded in executing combined arms operations so seamlessly or effectively. Under Patton, the aviation component acted as an integral part of the column, serving to protect the flanks and freeing the armored units to drive relentlessly forward. Although loathed and feared by many of his colleagues, who missed no opportunity to interfere with his operations, Patton’s 3rd Army outdistanced every other Allied force, even when deliberately placed on the far outskirts of action. (In Sicily in 1943, after being shunted off to take Palermo at the western tip of the island, Patton first captured the city then swung east and drove down the northern coast to take Messina at the far end, beating both Montgomery and Bradley, who had less than a quarter of the distance to cover.) Only once did German forces slow him down – when SHAEF commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered him to take the fortress city of Metz in September 1944 (his own instinct was to flank the city and force the Germans to run). He wasted several weeks investing the city, weeks that could have been spent driving into Germany. When he resumed his advance across the Rhine in 1945 he cut through the German Palatinate in less a week. Consider the chain of events if that had happened in 1944 -- the lives saved, the destruction prevented, the history changed for the better. (An excellent analysis of Patton’s command travails can be found in Victor Davis Hanson’s The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny)16.
The tank emerged from WW II as the dominant weapon of ground warfare. Most of the major conflicts of the postwar period, including Korea (1950-53), the Suez War (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the First Gulf War (1990-91), and the Second Gulf War (2003), were decided by armor. The exceptions, the first (1946-54) and second (1964-75) Vietnamese wars and the Soviet-Afghan War (1978-1991) were largely guerilla conflicts fought in inhospitable and roadless country. (Though we should not forget that the Second Vietnamese War was brought to an end in the spring of 1975 by means of a massive Communist tank assault very much based on the standard Warsaw Pact model.) Such wars tended to drag on endlessly, as was also the case with conflicts in which the tank was either misused or neglected (the Iran-Iraq War [1980-1988] being one example). Armored conflicts by contrast were wrapped up quickly, occasionally, as in the Sinai in 1967 and 1973 and Iraq in 2003, within a matter of days.
The tank also achieved the status of an icon during the same period. Thanks to unsavory episodes such as the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), the tank gained a reputation in direct contradiction to its major historical role as a liberator of nations such as France, Korea, and Kuwait. Warsaw Pact use of tanks against helpless civilians in Budapest, Warsaw, Novosibirsk, and Beijing transformed it into a symbol of pure brutality and unchained state power. The gallant and hopeless resistance of rebels armed with bricks and Molotov cocktails against armored columns became one of the basic motifs of the Cold War period. (There exists a strange but compelling book examining the image of the tank from an art critic’s perspective, Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine by Patrick Wright)17.
Postwar armored tactics retained the pattern set during WW II. Ironically, it was the Israelis who adapted and perfected the Blitzkrieg strategy. A major requirement of Israeli operations was that of acting with such swiftness and decisiveness that enemy forces could never penetrate into Eretz Israel (“the land Israel”) itself. This was achieved largely through integrating jet-propelled fighter-bombers into the combined-arms equation (something that the U.S., for one, failed to do until a much later date). Beginning with the 1956 Suez War, Israeli fighter-bombers in close cooperation with armored columns regularly defeated much larger enemy forces. The Six-Day War of June 1967, planned around this capability, was one of the most successful combined-arms campaigns ever carried out, with Israel, acting alone, defeating Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt in less than a week. During October 1973’s Yom Kippur War Israeli combined-arms prowess proved even more critical, overcoming a successful Egyptian surprise attack and restoring the prewar status quo within a matter of days. (It was the 1973 war that first chilled the blood of armored commanders when a number of Israeli tanks in the Sinai were knocked out by Egyptian troops armed with Soviet-supplied AT-3 “Sagger” antitank missiles18. In short order, the first suggestions that sunset had arrived for the tank were heard. These were answered by changes in tactics, which negated the missile threat for the time being.)
The U.S., facing off against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in Central Europe, chose to rely on the implicit threat of nuclear counterstrikes for much of the Cold War period. (As a well-known saying of the time put it, “A tactical nuclear weapon is one that goes off in Germany.”) A serious attempt to come to grips with the challenge of Soviet armor was delayed until the 1970s, and was largely the work of Air Force colonel John Boyd, who had embarked on a lifelong quest to create a unified field theory of warfare. Years of study resulted in a thesis based on maneuver, speed, deception, and surprise that would have met with the approval of both Tukachevsky and Guderian (not to mention Sun Tzu and Alexander). After initial resistance, Boyd’s theories became the basis of the U.S. Army’s AirLand Battle strategy, involving deep penetration and maneuver as its chief operational elements.
AirLand Battle, intended to turn back a Soviet attack on Western Europe, underwent its debut against Saddam Hussein, utterly defeating his enormous armored forces twice in few days time on each occasion and with little in the way of casualties on either side. M-1 Abrams main battle tanks comprised the Coalition spearhead, acting in concert with A-10s and AH-64 Apaches. (The A-10 project had been personally overseen by Colonel Boyd). The Abrams was effectively unstoppable – only a handful were disabled and none was destroyed by enemy fire, as opposed to the Iraqi desert landscape marked with blown-up T-62 and T-72 tanks. So lopsided were the victories in Iraq that by themselves they flipped universal conflict into a new mode, that of asymmetric warfare, in which enemies of the West strove to strike only weak points without exposing themselves to any form of counterstrike. The effectiveness of this style of warfare was fully revealed in the lengthy insurrection that followed the overthrow of Saddam.
Since then the tank has played a subordinate role to special forces and airborne drones. The Future Combat System, the U.S. Army’s planned 21st-century combat vehicle program and the first attempt to create a fully-integrated armored weapons system, has been canceled. It is likely that the U.S. Army’s armored divisions, the most expensive units in the force structure, will bear the brunt of the 2011 budget deal mandating deep funding cuts. Has the time come at last for these dinosaurs to go roaring off into the twilight?
What military benefit do tanks provide? Simply put, armor represents mass coupled with speed and maneuverability. Mass in the military sense means much the same as it does in physics. Mass possesses the inertial potential to break through an enemy line completely and permanently. No other military element has this capability. Infantry attacks can be halted or scattered by a number of countermeasures ranging from artillery to airstrikes to minefields. Well dug-in defending forces can endure kinetic strikes by artillery or aircraft and recover well enough to repel ground attacks shortly afterward. But armor, acting in concert with other forces, opens a gap in the enemy line, fills that gap, expands it, and allows it be occupied by infantry. If you throw a tank at a brick wall, that wall comes down. If you throw a large number of tanks against an enemy force, that force will behave much the same as the wall did, always supposing a lack of defending armor. Add the speed at which tanks can advance and their ability to maneuver throughout the battlespace, and the irreplaceable advantage provided by armor becomes clear.
In the heyday of the Greeks, mass was embodied by the Hoplite infantry, heavily armored troops that could literally push their way through an opposing force. Beginning in the Byzantine period, heavy infantry was superseded by the armored knight. The knight’s accouterments evolved from mail on through to full plate armor, at which point no infantry force could stand against a charge by armored knights. (Though archers could break up such a charge before it began, as was demonstrated by the English as Crecy (August 24, 1346) and Agincourt (October 25, 1415).
Cheap firearms ended the effectiveness of the knight. The heavy cavalry – hussars and, yes, lancers – came to embody mass on the battlefield. After artillery and infantry had sufficiently weakened an enemy line, the cavalry would charge and rend the enemy force in twain, creating an opening for the infantry to exploit. Since this tactic involved horses, with minds of their own, cavalrymen often too spirited for their own good, and enemy troops kitted out with firearms, the procedure was generally not as successful as might have been hoped. (The British, in fact, developed a formation, the infantry square, that was effectively invulnerable to cavalry charges.)
This undependable method of projecting mass led to an era of bloody near-stalemates, in which both victor and vanquished emerged from battle in a state of decimation. Commanders such as Marlborough, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon became used to running up enormous casualty lists in the process of achieving victory – though often enough such “victories” were of a level of ambiguity as to lead only to another round of fighting. (Shiloh [April 6-7, 1862] and Antietam [September 17, 1862] are perfect examples of this style of battle occurring in our own Civil War, which was at last won by an ugly strategy of attrition that left the South gutted for nearly a century.)
This strategy – if that’s the word for it -- reached its ultimate point on the Western Front in WW I, when the elimination of cavalry by machine guns and rapid-firing breech-loading artillery deprived commanders of any rational means of projecting mass. So an attempt was made to adapt infantry to the role, with complex offensives involving hundreds of thousands of troops racing from the trenches across no-man’s land in efforts to reach enemy trenches before the defenders could reach their guns. The sole tangible result was casualty levels of up to 20,000 dead in a single afternoon.
The slaughter continued for four years until the appearance of the tank in useful numbers (along with trained assault troops and air support from fighter-bombers) provided a way out. The arrival of the tank marked the triumph of mass. Armor ended the stalemate, the war of attrition that had marked WW I. As we have witnessed with the German conquest of France, Patton’s dash across Northwest Europe, the Six-Day War, and both Gulf campaigns, wars fought with armor have been swift, decisive, and marked by relatively few casualties.
The triumph of battlefield mass was a turning point in the nature of war. Martial skill once again became central. Outmaneuvering an enemy force rather than hitting it directly, in the manner of Guderian, Rommel, and Patton became the major element of victory. Armored tactics have destroyed more dictatorships than any other force in history and liberated more nations than any other weapon. They have provided a tool for the democracies, with their unmatchable manufacturing industries and mechanically sophisticated populations, to overcome the totalitarian upsurge of the 20th century. Armored warfare has forced the enemies of the West to resort to skulking terrorism rather than direct confrontation.
Giving up armor might well lead to a return to the endless bloodletting of late-modern war, the war of the trenches that annihilated an entire generation of European youth. The Iran-Iraq War, in which decisive use of armor was curtailed thanks to a combination of official incompetence and a front anchored on the marshy Tigris-Euphrates basin, can act as a warning. No other recent war more resembles WW I in its strategy (trench warfare almost unchanged from the Western Front), futility, and duration, and no other war has produced a similar level of casualties. (At least 300,000 Iranian deaths and 240,000 Iraqis. Total casualties on both sides may have exceeded one million.) At the same time, there is nothing on the horizon that can replace the tank as the embodiment of mass on the battlefield. Since it cannot be replaced, and it cannot be abandoned, then the tank will have to change.
THE TANK AS IT IS
During WW II the tank came in a number of varieties, based largely on size and intended for different missions: light tanks for reconnaissance and scouting, medium tanks as a kind of all-purpose infielder, and heavy tanks to engage other tanks and carry out breakthroughs of enemy lines. Although the terminology differed (the British termed their mediums “Infantry” tanks and their heavies “Cruisers,” much in keeping with British maritime character), the philosophy was much the same among all combatants.
By the end of the war, combatants had realized that the major burden was being borne by the medium tanks – American M-4 Shermans, British Churchills, German Panzers and Panthers, and Soviet T-34s. Light tanks were not survivable even against infantry units armed with primitive anti-armor weapons such as bazookas19 and Panzerfausts20. Heavy tanks were few and far between due to the lesser numbers produced, and often (as in the case of the German Tiger and King Tiger) subject to endless maintenance and supply headaches. It was the mediums that carried the day, acting in all roles and taking on all missions. (The M-4 Sherman was a primary example. The U.S. possessed few heavies and those very poor designs. So instead the Sherman, itself a far from outstanding machine, was produced in numbers so large as to simply drown German opposition in a green armored tide. The U.S. pioneered the universal role of the medium almost by default.)
Apart from the USSR, which being Russian, could not tear itself away from oversized gargantuan machinery of any sort (the Josef Stalin heavy tanks remained in production into the 1950s, even outlasting Josef Stalin), former WW II combatants abandoned the other types to concentrate on developing the medium as the Main Battle Tank (MBT), which remains the primary tank model to this day.
Contemporary MBTs (which, weighing in at 55 to 70 tons, can no longer rationally be referred to as medium anything) include the German Leopard 221, the British Challenger22, the Israeli Merkava23, and the Russian T-8024. The American M-1 Abrams widely regarded as the premier MBT of its era, can act as representative25.
The M-1 is the standard MBT of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. It is manufactured with General Dynamics as prime contractor and was introduced in 1978. It has gone through continual upgrades since that time. The M-1 served in both Gulf wars as well as in Europe. In Iraq and Kuwait, not a single M-1 was destroyed by enemy fire, although up to 18 were blown up by friendly fire after being damaged. The M-1 is considered to be the premier MBT of the millennial period.
The M-1 has a crew of four – commander, gunner, loader, and driver. It is armed with either a 105 mm rifled cannon (M1A1) or a 120 mm smoothbore cannon (M1A2). It carries forty rounds of ammunition. It is also fitted with three machine gun, an M-2 .50 caliber in the commanders cupola and two 7.62 guns, one firing coaxially with the main gun.
The M-1 features Chobham armor, a British-developed layered composite made up of steel, plastic, ceramics, and Kevlar netting. Hull armor on the M1A1 is 600 mm thick, turret armor is 700 mm thick. The upgraded M1A1HA (Heavy Armor) features hull armor of 600 mm and turret armor thickened to 800 mm. All M1AIs were upgraded with depleted uranium (DU) mesh fronting the turret and hull. (In replacing an M-1’s damaged armor, what amounts to a giant can opener cuts out the damaged section, after which a precisely fitting replacement section is then welded in.)
Armor that effective comes at a cost. The M1A1 weighs in at 67 tons, the M1A2 at 69 tons (extremely dense DU armor also adds a large but uncertain weight penalty). Weight is one of the major shortcomings of the M-1 and of MBTs in general. It was acknowledged when the M-1 entered the inventory in the 1980s that many European bridges could not support it. Transportation is also a problem. Only a single M-1 can be carried by a C-17 Globemaster transport, and two aboard a C-5 Galaxy (though in practice this is limited to one). Most of the M-1s deployed to the Gulf were transported by ship.
Examining this data, it becomes apparent that the M-1, and MBTs in general, represent mature technology. While improvements can be made on the margins, in much the same way that Kevlar and depleted uranium upgraded armor protection, no basic change in the design can be anticipated. A number of variations on the MBT formula have been made since WWII – air-droppable models, combination cannon and rocket launchers, and so forth. All have proven to be dead ends. The MBT’s cannon are about as powerful as can reasonably be fitted. The tradeoff between weight and armor protection has been established. If any change is to be made, it must be made with the basic concept.
THE FUTURE TANK
The application of advanced tech to the military (generally known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs”) has upgraded weaponry across the inventory. Scarcely a single class of weapon has remained unaffected. Perhaps the sole exception is the tank. But a number of technological breakthroughs have occurred in cybernetics, stealth technology, and drone operations that could work to the benefit of armor. Applied singly or in combination, these new technologies promise to lead to the rebirth of the tank.
Stealth – Stealth technology is today widely seen in aircraft design and even in the latest models of warships. But its application to ground-based assets remains to be seen. Tanks can be detected and targeted optically, thermally (the engines create an enormous heat signature), and, as in the case of JSTARS, by means of radar. All of these can be addressed through stealth of one type or another. Anti-radar materials and coatings, along with stealth-based design, could go a long way toward rendering the tank survivable in the IT-dominated battlespace. (The M-1 Abrams was, in one sense, a pioneer in armored stealth. Since early days, the approach of an armored column was heralded by vast plumes of thick black smoke sent up by massed diesel engines. The M-1 overcame this with its initially troublesome turbine engine, which created no smoke trail at all. On the other hand, its heat signature is unmistakable, although this can be overcome to some extent by adapting the type of masking systems already used in aircraft, such as mixing cold air with the exhaust.) Optical stealth is a more difficult challenge, though active camouflage systems for aircraft are in development involving tunable lighting systems and transformable “chameleon” coatings. Perhaps the “invisibility cloak” developed at the University of Tokyo, which projects an image of the surrounding environment to observers from any angle, might prove useful in the case of the tank.
Electronic countermeasures (ECM) have long been a necessity of aerial operations. No strike package is complete without a “Raven” ECM aircraft to confuse and disable hostile electronic systems. Such aircraft are even used in conjunction with stealth bombers. Similar systems could prove valuable in armored warfare, in detecting, counteracting, or destroying enemy sensors. JSTARS-class aircraft could be jammed using the same type of radar jammers as airborne ECM systems. Thermal or optical sensors could be disabled or knocked out with lasers. Perhaps one tank in each squadron might serve as an ECM platform, its crew detecting enemy systems and directing other tanks in the unit to avoid or destroy them. Small airborne drones in continual contact with the column and fitted with a full range of electronic sensors and countermeasures would also be useful in this role.
Active countermeasures – in recent years, it has become feasible to detect snipers, mortar rounds, and rocket-propelled grenades as they’re fired by means of radar and acoustic signatures, enabling troops to respond with a high chance of destroying the attacker. Such systems will be adapted for use with armor, perhaps as part of an automatic defensive system that would intercept and destroy hostile shells and warheads -- what would amount to a mobile version of the Israeli Iron Dome missile-defense system, which detects small-scale missile launches and attacks only those that represent a direct threat26. Once again a single tank in each column could be devoted to this role, fitted with detection equipment and capable of either destroying threats on its own or utilizing data-sharing to direct other tanks in counterstrikes.
Drone tanks – Drone technology has not yet been applied in any dramatic sense to ground combat. Armored warfare provides an obvious opportunity. A detachment of small, fast drone tanks could move ahead of the main body acting as a masking force for the column, detecting and destroying antitank weapons and sensors in particular, and alerting the main force to major enemy concentrations or ambushes. Such drones would be semiautonomous and capable of operating on their own for limited periods, or returning to the column if contact is lost. (Unlike certain unmanned aerial drones today27.) The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has done considerable work on automated vehicles in recent years, to the extent of sponsoring a semi-annual race, the DARPA Grand Challenge, for automated vehicles28. Some progress has been made, though it is far more difficult to construct and program a ground-based drone system as opposed to the aerial equivalent.
An alternative might utilize the Cheetah, another DARPA program carrying out the development of an articulated, four-legged robotic animal capable of easy traversing of broken ground and of outrunning human soldiers under any circumstances29. Imagine an armored column accompanied by a posse of those things. That would be a sight worth seeing.
Finally, there exists the possibility of a magnetic “shield” that might replace or augment traditional forms of solid armor. Rounds striking armor plate do not penetrate by cracking or drilling through the steel directly, but by generating a plasma at the very point of impact that vaporizes the metal, burning an opening that enables the round to penetrate. If a magnetic field were to dissipate the plasma before it could get to work on the armor plate, this could provide a very high level of protection. Anti-armor rounds would simply bounce off, even after striking relatively thin plate armor. This would represent an effective method of beating the weight challenge. Some work has been done on this system, though of course it is highly classified. We may yet see tanks equipped with force fields.
What we will not see is the extinction of armor. While the main battle tank may have reached the end of its road, its descendants, armed with new classes of weapons and protected with new types of technology, will continue acting as a martial spearhead as far into the future as can be foreseen. The tank itself is at the verge of a new phase in its evolution that will transform it into a weapon as far advanced over the MBT as the M-1 Abrams is over Little Willie.
This is no bad thing. Although pioneered by some of the most brutal regimes in history, the tank, with its requirement for limitless factory production and need for mechanically inclined personnel, was far more suited as a weapon for the democracies. As an instrument of liberation, it is without peer in the historical record, having overcome the fascists, contained the communists, and scattered the bandit regimes of the Saddam Hussein type. Armored warfare and the undeniable benefits it has given the democracies and their efforts to wage just and legitimate war, has been one of the more beneficial developments of modern warfare. In a real sense, the tank has been a blessing in disguise.
Someday, perhaps not at all distant, some would-be world conqueror will send out his columns of carefully hoarded MBTs only to have them met by swarms of small, fast drone tanks, difficult to spot and impossible to track, backed up by more conventional-appearing armored monsters that can scarcely be targeted and simply shrug off the rounds when they‘re hit. Once again, the armored weapon will have proven its value. And once again we will no doubt hear voices insisting that its day is through.
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Copyright © 2012 by J.R. Dunn
J.R. Dunn is a novelist, editor, and political commentator active both in print and online. His SF novels include This Side of Judgment, Days of Cain, a powerful time travel novel dealing with the Holocaust, and Full Tide of Night. He is the associate editor of The International Military Encyclopedia and is a contributing editor on military affairs to the American Thinker. His latest nonfiction book is Death by Liberalism, from Broadside.