In Defence of the Tank #1: Introduction

The tank is here to stay. Find out why.

A dream or a nightmare, dependent on which side you are on...

Some people have claimed that the tank has had its day, and that tanks are no longer needed on the modern battlefield, when all we are fighting these days are insurgents. Some of these people have also claimed that tanks are too vulnerable to anti-tank weapons, and will quickly proclaim "the tank is dead" whenever a new anti-tank weapon is introduced.

People have been making such statements for a while now, and yet the tank is still with us, crossing the battlefield and scattering its enemies before it.

Why? Because these people are wrong. The tank has been an essential component of warfare since its inception, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

One accusation laid at a tank’s caterpillar tracks is that they are too vulnerable on the modern battlefield. This is due to the variety of dedicated anti-tank — or more properly anti-armour — weapons arrayed against them. 

This accusation appears to be wedded to the notion that tanks are — or at least should be — invulnerable war machines. It appears some people believe tanks should be immune to everything, and should be able to win wars all by themselves, 'with nary a scratch'. These people appear to believe that if a tank is vulnerable to anti-tank weapons, then it is useless.

To these people, I would ask this question: “Do you know which other military assets are vulnerable to weapons designed specifically to destroy them?”

The answer is simple: All-of-them!

Aircraft Carriers are vulnerable to torpedoes, sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, and now Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs.)

Jet fighters are vulnerable to Anti-Aircraft Guns, Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), and other jet fighters.

PBIs — the "Poor Bloody Infantry" are vulnerable to everything, including the chemical and biological weapons that inanimate hardware is immune to.

And yet I have not heard of anyone suggesting we should phase out jet fighters, aircraft carriers, or the infantry. Quite the opposite in fact. The upcoming F-35 Lightning IIs will be one of the most expensive and numerous assets in both US and UK air forces. The new Gerald R. Ford and Queen Elizabeth class carriers are some of the most expensive ships ever put to sea by either navy. Programs such as Future Force Warrior intend to enhance both the survivability and lethality of the infantry.

However, none of these projects will make these assets invulnerable. In warfare nothing ever is. There will always be casualties, on both sides. At its core, war is about trying to kill the enemy, while trying not to get killed in return. The best that any side can hope for is for the war to be over quickly, with the number of friendly casualties kept to a minimum.

What keeps casualties down is not just the quality and quantity of troops and equipment you have, but how you use them together in Combined Arms Operations. People who claim that the tank is too vulnerable appear to overlook this. I can only assume they were not paying attention in history class, as the doctrine of Combined Arms has been around since at least WW2. If you count knights on horseback as "armour," archers as "riflemen," and catapults and trebuchets as "artillery," then this doctrine has been around for a very long time.

It was worrying that some members of the American political and military establishment were ready to give up on the tank completely, and move towards an all wheeled, light armour force structure. 

It is worth noting that the Russians clearly do not agree with these naysayers, as they have recently unveiled the brand new T-14 Armata MBT. This tank is probably just as good as, and possibly slightly superior to, the best tanks of the west. They are also building new model  T-90Ms and upgrading their fleet of T-72s.

Would you want to face these in something no more formidable than a Stryker MGS, a vehicle not designed to engage heavy armour in the first place?

No, neither would I.

Thankfully I’m British, and us Brits have always valued heavy armour and large calibre guns. Our last three tanks, the Chieftain, Challenger 1and Challenger 2 were some of the heaviest, most heavily armed and heavily armoured tanks around when they were introduced. Granted, their speed and mobility compared to lighter tanks left something to be desired, but what’s the use of getting to a fight quickly if you get killed the moment you arrive?

The growing threat "from the east" has prompted many western nations to re-embrace the tank. Nations such as the UK, America, and Germany are busy upgrading their tank fleets. For example, the latest iteration of the Abrams, the M1A2 SEP V3, has recently been revealed, as has the potential of further upgrading the Abrams with the Israeli 'Trophy' Hard-Kill Active Protection System. 

Hopefully, none of these nations will need them, but if they do, I for one will be very glad they have them.

In the rest of this series of articles, we will cover the rise of the tank, going all the way back to WW1. We will identify the threats tanks have faced throughout the years and the measures that were taken to mitigate these threats. At the end of the series, we will attempt to predict the future of tanks, the emergent and future threats they may face, and the possible counters we could develop to counter these threats.

See you next time...

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