This article was requested by Richard Reynolds of 20thCenturyBattles.com
Is the Main Battle Tank obsolete?
Few weapons can claim to have so dramatically changed the very nature of land warfare as the tank. Born out of the need to break the brutal stalemate of the western front in World War I, the tank went on to become an integral part of military planning in the inter-war years. When war with Germany looked set to erupt once more in the 1930s the French constructed the Maginot Line along its borders expecting another static war like twenty years earlier but the brilliant use of the tank by the German Wehrmacht (Army) rendered it totally ineffective and nothing more than a waste of precious resources. The tank was born in World War I but it was World War II where it truly came of age and some of the best tanks and tank commanders were forged.
The Second World War dramatically increased the pace of research in to tank design and in the span of just five years a wholly new generation of tanks emerged with thicker sloped armour, more powerful engines giving greater performance and dramatically more powerful weapons. These new tanks were put on the frontline of the Cold War as the victorious allies who defeated Nazi Germany now stared suspiciously at one another across the Iron Curtain. The Cold War would see even greater development of the tank with improvements in weapons (including guided missiles) and more advanced sensors and increased protection.
The new technologies emerging during the Cold War also highlighted how the tank was becoming increasingly vulnerable and not just from other tanks. Hand-held anti-tank weapons were growing in sophistication at an alarming rate. Guided weapons such as the Soviet Army’s AT-3 “Sagger” Anti-Tank Guided Munition (ATGM) could be carried in a briefcase and was incredibly powerful for its time proving able to knock out nearly all types of Israeli tank in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Within NATO’s own armies, including the British Army, the concept of using small teams equipped with MILAN man-portable missiles performing hit-and-run attacks on Soviet tank columns gained favour as a way of weakening the numerically superior Soviets before the main British tank assault.
Even more concerning for tank crews was the maturing of the helicopter as a tool for war. Initially seen as a logistical asset the helicopter quickly acquitted itself in an attack role and when combined with anti-tank weapons such as the aforementioned AT-3 it promised to nullify the tank as a weapon. Nowhere was this more dramatically proven than over the desert of the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War. The AH-64 Apache armed with the Hellfire missile proved that just a single helicopter could devastate a column of tanks quickly and efficiently. Not to be outdone by their American allies, on February 26th 1991, a single Westland Lynx AH.1 from the British Army Air Corps’ No.654 Squadron destroyed two MTLB armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and four T-55 tanks using TOW missiles in what was the first recorded use of the missile in combat by British forces. It is important to note that the Lynx was not designed as a gunship like the Apache but rather was adapted for the anti-tank role which makes the engagement all the more spectacular.
While the Gulf War was seen as a triumph for American, British, French and other coalition tanks that devastated the Iraqi Army’s own vehicles when the ground war began it also seemed to highlight that the tank was no longer such a major influence on the battlefield since there was so many options with which it’s effect could be negated. Alternatively, the supporters of the tank argued that the Iraqi Army was technologically inferior to the coalition forces and that in a war against an enemy with technological parity then the tank would still be effective since the helicopter would be extremely vulnerable to enemy air attack and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
This argument raged among analysts and military planners throughout the 1990s. The fact that NATO became bogged down in peacekeeping operations in the Former Yugoslav Republic where the tank had little value did not help its case for survival and the breakneck speeds at which it was developed just ten years previously seemed to slow to a crawl. The tanks of the American and British armies saw a brief return to form when in 2003 they participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom; the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein and his government. Already outclassed in 1991, the Iraqi Army’s tanks stood no chance against the modernised American and British forces who enjoyed almost every conceivable advantage on the battlefield. Following the end of the invasion, questions were raised about just how much of an impact the tank had in the victory since air power was the most deciding factor. The tanks provided fire support for ground troops against entrenched Iraqi positions but nothing more than what a number of other armed vehicles could do. Also, the tank proved to be of lessor value than Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) such as the American M2 Bradley and British Warrior when the fighting became an anti-insurgency affair.
So, is the Main Battle Tank truly relevant in 21st century warfare?
In order to address this question we must first identify just what an MBT is. From the very genesis of the tank, engineers have had to cope with the limitations of the technology available to them. This meant that of the three main factors for a tank’s performance – agility, armour and armament – there was always some kind of compromise. A tank with heavy armament and armour would lack agility because the engines available at the time weren’t powerful to move them along at relatively high speeds. Similarly, fast tanks generally had a good gun but very light armour relying on their agility to make them difficult targets to hit.
As a result of this, during the inter-war years’ tanks fell in to two distinct categories. The first category covered fast, light tanks that would break through holes in the enemy’s lines using their speed to attack supply lines and cut off an enemy from reinforcements. The role was essentially a modern, mechanised version of the cavalry raids of old where riders on horseback would carry out a similar function. The second type of tank was on the heavier end of the scale and was designed to support a direct assault on enemy positions where often there would be enemy tanks to support their own troops. Known as infantry tanks, they had the heaviest armour and weaponry but lacked any real agility but since they were travelling at the speeds of the troops themselves this didn’t matter much.
World War II would dramatically highlight the limitations of this mixed concept. In the open plains of North Africa, the light tanks such as the American-built M3 Stuart performed quite well often having the speed to escape an unfavourable encounter with an enemy tank. However, in the narrow confines of the European battlefield that advantage was seriously negated and these light tanks suffered accordingly; their light armour also made them vulnerable to infantry weapons such as the dreaded Panzerfaust. Similarly, the heavier infantry tanks such as the British Churchill were harder to destroy and gave a far more credible performance against enemy tanks but ultimately even these behemoths would succumb to sustained enemy fire that they could not survive. This was true even of the famed German Tiger and King Tiger tanks which had a reputation of being unstoppable which only shielded a number of their weaknesses which experienced allied tank crews manning newer tanks took full advantage of in the last year of the war.
As the war progressed and the pre-war theories dissolved a new concept took form making use of the new technologies and engines that were becoming available and a number of tanks that appeared, most notably the Soviet T-34, managed to achieve an excellent balance of agility, firepower and armour in to one vehicle. In the UK, similar vehicles were on the drawing board by 1944 in what was termed as the “Universal Tank Concept” whereby the resulting vehicle would have the speed to carry out raids and escape from unfavourable actions yet still retain the firepower and armoured protection sufficient to support a full assault. The result was one of the best British tanks ever made – the superlative Centurion series which benefited from the full wealth of wartime experience and technological advancement. Other countries built their own universal tanks and by the dawn of the 1950s the term Main Battle Tank or MBT came in to use to describe them. Some MBTs continued to make some compromises in the post-war years such as the British Chieftain which emphasized firepower and armour over agility but even this had cross-country performance the previous generation could only dream of.
The Cold War years envisioned a nightmare scenario of vast numbers of Soviet tanks charging across western Europe which drove western countries to develop better and better tanks in order to maintain that qualitive edge. With this mind-set, the end of the Cold War left military planners wondering what role the MBT had anymore with no threat from the east and a bewildering array of weapons to destroy tanks. Western militaries re-evaluated their operating doctrines in the 90s with emphasis on rapid-deployment to crisis zones around the world. With a handful of exceptions these were often low technology affairs or civil wars such as Somalia and Bosnia where political sensitivities limited the use of armoured vehicles to Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs).
So just what role does the tank fulfil for modern armies in the second decade of the 21st century?
First and foremost, it remains a weapon with which to combat an enemy with their own MBTs. At any given time, most sources agree that there are around half a million MBTs across the world ranging from antiquated Soviet-made T-55s and their numerous Chinese variants up to the incredibly sophisticated tanks of the US, western Europe and Russia. The emphasis most armed forces places on air power to defeat an enemy’s tank force is dependent on attaining air superiority. Against a technologically equal or numerically superior enemy that may take several days to achieve limiting air power’s ability to make an impact on the battlefield. If ground forces are forced in to action before then, MBTs will have to engage one another.
Much has been said about how a number of IFVs and APCs have been given a hefty punch with the fitting of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) and large calibre guns but they still lack the protection of the heavily armoured MBT. The British Army’s Warrior IFV for example has armour that is only a fraction of the thickness of the 1950s-era T-55. This armour can of course be reinforced with Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) panels; brick-like devices mounted on the hull of the vehicle that explode when hit by a missile or shell to deflect its energy away. ERA has its own drawbacks however. Firstly, it can only be used once and afterwards leaves an area of the vehicle exposed to further, more fatal hits. ERA is also a danger to unprotected troops in the nearby vicinity since it sends shrapnel in many directions. This excludes the risk from the exploding shell or missile itself. An IFV taking on an MBT, even an old one, is therefore primarily a last resort if a formation of IFVs is attacked.
So, is the tank a weapon system limited to just one role?
The possession of a large or sophisticated tank force also contributes to the perception of national military strength and therefore forms a part of that country’s deterrence. To be perceived as being able to put up a credible or even superior performance in combat to one’s enemies goes a long way to actually stopping war from breaking out. This perception can also achieve political aims with a potential opposing nation fearing the consequences of trying to combat superior tank forces. In the last 10 years we have seen Russia exercising this type of foreign policy with growing frequency particularly regarding Georgia and the Ukraine although in Syria it was Russian air power that came to the fore.
The deterrence factor is both hard to judge and hard to quantify in to real world political, strategic and economic gains since there are so many other factors to consider as well. The threat of combat with the Russian Army’s tanks for example failed to achieve Russia’s aims regarding Georgia in 2008 forcing the Kremlin to commit troops in to combat. The deterrence factor also has an unfortunate side-effect in that if two ideologically opposite nations fear war with one another and one has superior tank forces then the weaker nation will strive to redress the balance. This produces an expensive arms race where one side will try and achieve superiority over the other even if that superiority exists on paper and is never put to the test as was the case with NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.
So aside from being a counter to an enemy’s tanks are there any other missions the tank can carry out?
The modern tank, despite the public perception, is not the blunt instrument it once was. Modern tank guns can fire an array of different weapons for dealing with enemy forces ranging from the traditional High-Explosive (HE) rounds to shrapnel-based shells for use against infantry and unarmoured vehicles. Soviet tanks (and by association, Russian and eastern European) have utilised the main gun to launch ATGMs such as the 9K112 Kobra (AT-8 Songster) to out-range western tank guns for some time and some of the newer types have a limited anti-helicopter capability.
All these weapons can be used for their intended purpose and for clearing away fortified positions and countering obstacles to an army’s advance which was the very mission the tank was originally conceived for in World War I. This traditional infantry support role has in recent years taken on new importance in the world of so-called asymmetric warfare against terrorist or insurgent groups. During operations in Iraq following the 2003 invasion the US Army and Marine Corps utilised the M1A2 Abrams in just that kind of role as well as using its protection coupled with intricate sensors to carry out reconnaissance.
So is the Main Battle Tank the ideal weapon platform that can carry out these missions?
Certainly not. In the asymmetric warfare scenario, the tank actually has certain disadvantages over IFVs and APCs such as the Warrior and M2 Bradley. Firstly, it is an extremely large vehicle which limits its ability to move through urban areas where much of the asymmetric combat takes place and where hostile forces have plenty of opportunities to find cover or approach unnoticed by a tank crew whose vision is quite limited. This leaves the tank vulnerable to attack using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and indeed a number of M1 Abrams were damaged or destroyed in this manner in Iraq. A potent reminder of the ingenuity of insurgent groups occurred on November 27th 2004 when an Abrams tank was significantly damaged from the detonation of a three 155 mm artillery shells buried in the road ahead of the MBT killing the driver located in the hull.
In urban combat the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) and Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) have significant advantages over the MBT. Modern vehicles are armoured sufficiently enough to survive hits by weapons ranging from small arms fire up to light anti-armour weapons such as the Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) launcher all of which are common tools of insurgent groups. They also tend to be smaller and therefore more agile and perhaps more importantly have space for carrying troops, supplies and evacuating wounded civilians. In terms of protecting the infantry in urban combat then air power in the form of helicopters is more potent than the MBT since the MBT is limited to line-of-sight engagement from the position of the troops whereas the helicopter can more easily relocate itself to get in to a better position for an attack and suppress long range hostile fire such as that from a mortar position.
The tank therefore remains first and foremost a weapon for battling an enemy equipped with tanks themselves but even when faced with enemy tanks there are questions over whether it is the best weapon system to deal with them. The nightmare scenario mentioned earlier where air power on both sides would cancel themselves out leaving tanks to battle it out is very unlikely and when exposed to air power the tank is very vulnerable despite advances in defensive technology such as ERA and IR suppression technology to blind the seekers of IR-guided missiles.
It is still a big gun on the more conventional battlefield however that has its uses outside of engaging other tanks and so maybe the question is not so much if the MBT is obsolete but rather is it as prevalent a weapon in military planning as it once was? Given that the western military is geared up towards fighting the threat from ISIL the answer has to be no but if a more conventional conflict breaks out such as what could be expected on the Korean peninsula then used in conjunction with other air and land based assets it still has its place.
Excluding the tactical advantages and limitations of the MBT, in a world of drones and smart munitions the tank reminds us and by association our politicians of a time where war on the evening news didn’t resemble a sterilised video game. It trundles along in the mud in close quartered combat where casualties are almost unavoidable; something that is quite distasteful to politicians hoping to keep their jobs. Western politicians have in recent years done all they could to avoid putting troops on the ground, arguably to the detriment of the military goal, preferring to put drones and fast-jets in to the air to bomb an enemy force in to submission.
Against such a backdrop the MBT may never take prominence to such an extent as it once did but for the foreseeable future no modern army can risk not having it in its arsenal.