So an old friend of mine recently discussed the fate of the tank on his podcast, and it inspired me to get back behind the keyboard and maybe finish off something I’ve had in the drafts folder for… well for longer than I’ve had this blog to be honest. This piece has been knocking around inside my head since 1991, and I figure I might as well ride the momentum here and maybe actually produce something despite the internal voices screaming at me that I don’t have the requisite experience to speak on the topic. But then I remind myself that a great many of the people making decisions on the fate of the tank are probably even less credentialed than I am, so screw it.
Do they have a place in modern warfare?
In the 21st century, we have some pretty significant conflicting examples; places where tanks, in open terrain and with good mobility, have proven absolutely dominant, and other where the same vehicles, hemmed in and inadequately supported, have been rolling deathtraps. Often times in the same overarching conflict.
There’s a great deal of noise being made right now about how modern anti-tank weapons, particularly the US’s Javelin missile, have rendered the tank obsolete and we should divest ourselves of these expensive machines as quickly as humanly possible so that the money can be better spent elsewhere.
I take exception to this argument.
Mostly because what is being attacked is one aspect of tank design, and it just so happens to be the aspect most heavily in flux at the moment.
To elaborate: There are a wide variety of factors you can judge tanks on (and I should probably accompany this piece with the one where your favorite WWII tank is probably bad), but mobility, firepower, and protection and the three most obvious and easily judged ones. A tank that can’t move is a glorified bunker, a tank that can’t shoot is little more than a very inefficient troop transport, and a tank that can’t survive is probably designed by Russians.
I kid. But not really. We’ll get to that.
Mobility and firepower are pretty well-established tenets of tank design, and there’s not a lot of change going on in those departments. Better engines for higher speeds, yes, bigger guns for greater impacts, yes, but these are all extremely incremental improvements, with nothing revolutionary going on no matter how many damned times someone asks how long it is until we put railguns in tanks.
Protection, on the other than, is very much in a state of flux, largely because of the capabilities of modern anti-tank missiles. A missile capable of consistent top-down attacks on modern armored vehicles is absolutely a game changer in a purely temporary sense. Because armoring the roof of a tank to a degree necessary to defeat the sort of tandem charge warheads being fielded by front line militaries is borderline impossible; it’s a huge area and vehicle weights are already high enough as it is.
That having been said, protecting those areas is by no means impossible, because while armor is an absolutely necessary passive defense, tank designers simply need to embrace the reality that active defenses are now equally essential. Which is part of the problem with using Ukraine as your yardstick for judging whether the tank is dead; the Russians aren’t exactly on the cutting edge here. The bulk of Russian tank forces committed to Ukraine don’t greatly differ from the same tanks they’ve been fielding for the last 50 years, once you get past the hull paint. Incremental improvements, yes, but the Russians never put in the same sort of effort towards armor design that NATO did, relying instead of heavy use of explosive reactive armor, oddly enough the exact sort of protection the Javelin is designed to defeat.
Russians certainly have active defenses on their tanks, but it’s also an undeniable truth that the Russians are years to decades behind the US, technologically speaking, and have always relied more on numbers than force multipliers. There are active protection systems in development now that are certainly capable of defeating large numbers of incoming anti-tank missiles, or at least large numbers of man-portable anti-tank missiles, and that last part is the key.
Because the replacement for the tank, in the eyes of those calling for its retirement, are more missiles, more drones, more infantry, and all too often they seem to be forgetting that humans can only carry so much. Sure, you can tote around a few anti-tank missiles with your infantry squad, though modern weapons are a lot bigger and bulkier than many realize, but the capability of those missiles is greatly hampered by the necessity of making them as small and light as possible. “Small” and “light” being relative terms here; the Javelin missile launcher system in total is close to 50 lb and four feet long. Each individual missile weighs in at 35 lb, which is not something you’re going to be carrying a great many of unless you’re planning to forgo other things like… food and water.
I do expect tank designs to change; the Russian T-14 Armata embraces some of those ideas already. Moving the crew out of the turret entirely, integrating active defenses directly rather than as an add-on system later, and similar design features. NATO militaries should be looking at the same sorts of designs for any new armor systems, and certainly be looking at analyses to determine how much money can be poured into legacy systems before it becomes a case of throwing good money after bad.
“Well why not just make something with a ton of active defenses, a big gun, and then mobility practically takes care of itself without all the armor weighing you down?”
Well, mostly because I’m not an idiot and I realize that the super tech tank with no armor could be pot-shotted by a freakin’ Sherman under the right circumstances. There’s a minimal level of armor acceptable for any vehicle trying to fill the role of the main battle tank, and that minimum is pretty much what is in use today. You can make the attempt at your super whiz-bang technological marvel, but I wager it will prove inadequate against the world’s largest lawn dart traveling at Mach 3. It is, to put it mildly, significantly harder to hit a non-emitting target that’s as big around as a broomstick than it is a four foot long missile with an active rocket engine attached, particularly when the broomstick is traveling twice as fast.
The death knell of the tank has been sounded at least once a decade for as long as I can remember, and yet the venerable war machines grind on. Even the Russian ones, when conditions are right.