Armoured warfare

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This article is about the military doctrine. For the video game, see Armored Warfare (video game).
"Heavy Armor" redirects here. For the video game, see Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.
Modern American and French armoured vehicles during an exercise

Armoured warfare or tank warfare is the use of armoured fighting vehicles in modern warfare. It is a major component of modern methods of war. The premise of armoured warfare rests on the ability of troops to penetrate conventional defensive lines through use of manoeuvre by armoured units.

Much of the application of armoured warfare depends on the use of tanks and related vehicles used by other supporting arms such as infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery, as well as mounted combat engineers and other support units. The doctrine of armoured warfare was developed to break the static nature of World War I trench warfare on the Western Front, and return to the 19th century school of thought that advocated manoeuvre and "decisive battle" outcomes in military strategy.

World War I[edit]

Prior to World War I, horse-mounted cavalry performed what is now the role of tanks; manoeuvring and breaking through enemy infantry to attack army lines of communication in the rear. The entry of machine guns on the battlefield, and the increased occupation of the flanks of armies, leading to closed fronts, made cavalry too vulnerable for this task.

A Renault FT tank with 37mm cannon

Modern armoured warfare began with the need to break the tactical, operational and strategic stalemates forced on commanders on the Western Front by the effectiveness of entrenched defensive infantry armed with machine guns—known as trench warfare. Under these conditions, any sort of advance was impossibly slow and occasioned massive casualties. The development of the tank was motivated by the need to return manoeuvre to warfare, and the only way to do so was to protect soldiers from small arms (rifle, machine gun) fire as they were moving.

Strategic use of tanks was slow to develop during and immediately after World War I, partly due to technical limitations but also due to the prestige role traditionally accorded to horse-mounted cavalry.

Tanks were first developed in Britain and France, as a way of navigating the barbed wire and other obstacles of no-man's land while remaining protected from machine-gun fire. The manoeuvrability of the tank would at least in theory regain armies the ability to flank enemy lines. In practice, tank warfare during most of World War I was hampered by mechanical failure, limited numbers, and general underutilisation.

British Mark I tanks first went to action at the Somme, on September 15, 1916,[1] but did not manage to break the deadlock of trench warfare. In the Battle of Cambrai (1917) British tanks were more successful, and broke a German trenchline system, the Hindenburg Line.

The German Empire produced only a few tanks, late in the war. Twenty German A7V tanks were produced during the war, compared to almost 4,000 French and over 2,500 British tanks of various kinds. Nonetheless, World War I saw the first tank-versus-tank battle in military history, in April 1918 during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, when a group of three German A7V tanks engaged a group of three British Mark IV tanks.

After the disastrous final German offensive; in the summer of 1918 the lack of tanks on the German side, coupled with the Allied tactics that involved a combination of hundreds of their own tanks, cannon equipped (aka "males"), as also machine guns equipped ("females"), with rotating turrets (like the French Renault FT) or not (like the British tanks), greatly contributed to the success of 1918 Allied counter-offensives (as e.g. the Battles of Soissons and Amiens), which ended the stalemate imposed by trench warfare on the Western Front, and thus effectively ending the war. Following the First World War, the technical and doctrinal aspects of armoured warfare became more sophisticated and diverged into multiple schools of doctrinal thought.

Interwar period[edit]

During the 1920s, various British and French commanders who had been associated with the development of the tank were involved in developing the new ideas. The significant split in philosophy can be said to be French and British in schools of thought.

The French school proposed the armoured forces to be largely an infantry-supporting arm, demanding heavily armoured tanks armed with infantry support guns, as well as 'cavalry' tanks operating en masse to break through the enemy defensive lines. Although seen as retrograding and reminiscent of WW1 tank use, it advocated a doctrine that included a desire to introduce an element of manoeuvre without expecting collapse of the enemy infantry's defence.

The British school leaned more towards more mobile and lighter designs supported by equally-mobile units of infantry, artillery and sappers to replace horse-mounted cavalry. These self-contained motorised detachments would depend on the tank only to provide a way to penetrate the main enemy defensive lines, and would seek to bring about defeat of the enemy by severing the lines of communication and supply as had been done during the previous century.

Both doctrines were faced with the reality during the 1920s that the armoured vehicles (as early road transport in general) were extremely unreliable, and could not be used in sustained operations.

In Britain Liddell Hart wrote extensively on tank warfare and the theories of Colonel Fuller. The British War Office sanctioned the creation of the Experimental Mechanised Force[2] which was formed on May 1, 1927, under Colonel R. J. Collins. The units were entirely mobile and consisted of reconnaissance tankettes and armoured cars, a battalion of 48 Vickers medium tanks, a motorised machine gun battalion, a mechanised artillery regiment, which had one battery of fully tracked self-propelled guns capable of acting as conventional or anti-aircraft artillery (Birch guns), and a motorised company of field engineers. The unit carried out operations on Salisbury Plain and was observed by the other major nations, the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Although its performance was recognised, it was disbanded in 1928.

All European states (with the exception of Germany), the USA, and Japan, would create their own experimental mechanised forces during the late 1920s, many using either French or British vehicle designs or even directly purchased vehicles, but largely borrowing from both to develop their own doctrines. Early in the 1930s after the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany, German officers were sent to observe and participate in development of armoured doctrine in the USSR.

In the 1930s the British Army began the conversion of its cavalry from horse to tanks. Although there were differences on where British military strength should be developed, with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy being favoured by some in power, all but a few regiments were fully converted by 1939.

In the Soviet Union during the early 1930s Red Army and German officers collaborated in developing use of tanks based on second generation vehicles using turreted main weapons, and experimenting with different chassis configurations and drive trains. One important acquisition for the Red Army turned out to be the purchase of a T3 chassis from an inspired US designer J.W. Christie which served as the basis of the Soviet BT series of fast tanks.[3] The Red Army in particular was much influenced by the theoretical works of Marshal Tukhachevsky who advocated "large scale tank warfare" in the early 1930s[4] His theories died with him with his execution in 1937, but were revived with General Georgy Zhukov's mass tank, artillery, and air attacks at the battles of Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan) in 1939, during the Soviet's undeclared war with Japan.[5] These tactics would be repeated on a larger scale a week later by the German army during their invasion of Poland in September 1939. This development led to the intent by the Red Army to form a massive tank force of thousands of vehicles.

As Europe neared another conflict, doctrinal development of armoured warfare was still in development, opinion split between proponents of infantry as the primary combat arm, and those arguing that infantry was to become the supporting arm of the more mobile armoured forces. Use of armoured warfare was most prominently tested during the Soviet-Japanese Border Wars conflict in 1938.

Second World War[edit]

A German Tiger I tank in combat during the Battle of Kursk in 1943

Modern armour warfare doctrine developed during the years immediately preceding World War II, in most cases with the tank seen as an infantry support weapon in the breakthrough of defence lines role. A fundamental key to conventional warfare is the concentration of force at a particular point on the enemy's defence line seen as either weak or offering other tactical, operational or strategic advantages.

Concentration of force increases the chance of victory in a particular engagement through application of one of the Principles of War—mass. This point, if correctly chosen and exploited, assures a greater chance of success in a given tactical engagement or a small number of operational engagements which are often sufficient to win a strategically decisive battle. The German term that later came to define the building of such a concentration at a given point is Schwerpunktbildung, which translates as center of gravity-creation, meaning a "development of a centre of effort".[6]

This can be visualized when looking at two opposing defensive lines, each composed of two infantry and two armoured divisions, distributed consistently along the length of a line. A numerically equivalent attacker can win by concentrating his two armoured divisions at one point of the line with his two infantry divisions holding the rest of the line, thus increasing the chance of breaching the enemy defences, then passing through, turning the flank of the severed two halves of the defensive line, and further exploiting the numerical superiority against the smaller number of defenders on the flank to force them to retreat onto the intact part of the line, therefore widening the breach.

The defensive line could attempt to counterattack, but it is not strong at any point and although the combined infantry and armour attack of the defenders is stronger than an infantry only attack, it is not very much stronger (since the divisions are spread out along the entire line) and it is in general much easier to defend than attack due to the factor of field entrenchment and field engineering in preparation for such counterattacks.

A major aspect of all warfare is the simple formula, known as the Lanchester's Square Law, that the relative combat power of a combat unit in contact with each other to the relative combat power of an enemy of a given size, all other factors being equal, is the square of the number of members of that unit:

  • One tank obviously has the combat power of one tank. (1² = 1)
  • Two tanks have four times the relative combat power of a single tank. (2² = 4)

From this it is derived that twice as many tanks will quadruple the relative firepower — relative that is, to the amount of firepower the enemy has per member of the friendly unit; one could also express this by saying that their relative punishment from enemy action is reduced four times, which is the same thing — as not only their own absolute number is doubled, but the number of enemy tanks relative to each of their own, is thereby halved also.

Thus, concentrating two divisions into one point and attacking generates a far greater force than is achieved by spreading two divisions into a line and pushing forward on a broad front.

Concentration of force requires mobility to prevent the enemy detecting the point of attack in time to reinforce the section of the defence, and concentration of firepower to be effective in combat once concentrated. The tank embodies these two properties, and so constitutes the primary weapon in armoured warfare.

Forces of all participating powers during WW2 were composed predominantly of the Infantry and other combat supporting Arms (artillery, reconnaissance troops, engineers and logistics and service troops). With the possible exceptions of the United Kingdom and the United States ( which both had fully mechanized by the war's end), the infantry units were still highly dependent on horse-drawn vehicles, as was the artillery on horse-towed guns when operating in the field. Strategic movement was provided by the rail transport networks.

British and French[edit]

Pre-war[edit]

In the UK and in France, armour was accepted into the Army, but using a division of labour: some as infantry support weapons, others as cavalry replacements. As such, the UK and French infantry tanks were heavily armoured, and as a consequence slow, whereas British cavalry ("cruiser") tanks were swift, and as a result poorly armoured. Only some of the German tanks were designed for independent mobile operations and as all-around tanks: lighter, considerably more mobile, but more weakly armed and armoured than the infantry tanks. Tanks were not yet seen to be a primary anti-tank weapon.

When the German tanks actually had to fight the UK infantry tanks in 1940, they were severely discomfited, but recovered to drive the British army out of continental Europe. At the start of the German invasion, France possessed more tanks and, in one-to-one terms, better tanks, than the Germans. However, what mattered was how the tanks were used, and French command distributed half of its tanks among independent Bataillons de Chars de Combat (battle tank battalions) for infantry support, rendering them tied to decision-making of the local army commanders. In 1940 the German command concentrated its tanks into Panzer divisions and used them for strategic envelopment, smashing their way through the French defensive line, and driving towards The Channel, threatening to sever communications and supply lines with the national centres of logistic support.

To counter such attacks, a mobile anti-tank force must be held in reserve and moved to meet the attack. The French had no strategic reserve at all, let alone a highly mobile reserve; their three Cavalry armoured divisions (Divisions Légères Mécaniques or Mechanised Light Divisions) — the only armoured units organised on the lines of the German armoured divisions — had already been committed in the Low Countries. This factor was crucial in the French failure to counteract the German penetration, as the four French Infantry armoured divisions, the Divisions cuirassées, lacked sufficient strategic mobility and squandered their power in actions of limited scope such as the Battle of Montcornet and the Battle of Abbeville (in which the 4th DCr, under Colonel De Gaulle, obtained some success against the German 57th Infantry Division). Later in the campaign, the French applied a new defensive tactic called the hedgehog, which proved highly resistant against tank attacks. However, due to the losses already sustained, the French could never counterattack on a large scale, and the hedgehogs were eventually by-passed by the German troops.

North African theatre[edit]

In the deserts of North Africa, the British developed the alternative approach of combining the armoured, infantry and artillery together to form a 'balanced, combined arms team'. The 10th Italian Army of Maresciallo (Marshal) Rodolfo Graziani, being ill-armed and inadequately led, soon gave way to this approach by the Commonwealth troops of the 8th Army.

The arrival of the German Afrika Korps under command of General der Infanterie Erwin Rommel highlighted the weaknesses of the British approach: the small number of infantry and artillery in each armoured division was sufficient when attacking the immobile and uncoordinated Italian troops, but against the highly mobile, well-coordinated German units, the undermanned Commonwealth formations were proving inadequate.

Between 1941-42, the Allies struggled in armoured battles in the North African desert due to improper tactics; in particular, running armoured formations into opposing anti-tank positions; however, they achieved some notable successes at Crusader, 1st Alamein and under Montgomery finally achieved decisive victories, in particular at the Second Battle of El Alamein against even the mighty 8.8 cm flak guns. In the later years of the war, with the invasion of the European mainland, Allied Armies become effective armoured forces, but increasingly larger and more powerful German tanks, such as the Panther, Tiger and King Tiger easily outclassed most Allied tanks on a tactical level, with the Churchill & Cavalier/Cromwell being the closest match the British could offer. Nonetheless, the overwhelming numbers of Shermans combined with their average capabilities ensured Allied Victory.

Red Army[edit]

Pre-war[edit]

Much of the Red Army development in tank use was based on the theoretical work carried out by such officers as Tukhachevsky and Triandafillov in the mid to late 1930s. This was as part of the two-directioned concepts, one being infantry-centred "broad front" and the other being a "shock army".[7]
While the infantry based part of the doctrine demanded "powerful tanks" (heavy tanks armed with infantry guns and machineguns) and "tankettes" (light, often amphibious tanks with machineguns), the shock Army demanded "manoeuvre tanks" (fast tanks with medium guns) used in conjunction with motorized forces and "mechanized cavalry" that would operate in depth as "strategic cavalry" combined with nascent airborne troops. These ideas culminated in the "PU-36" or the 1936 Field Service Regulations.

Red Army wartime[edit]

A T-34-85 tank on display at Musée des Blindés in April 2007.

At the start of the Second World War much of the Red Army, including its armoured forces, was in transition and recovering from the 1937 repression of the officer corps. The Red Army ignored the lessons from Nomonhan, which had been successfully conducted by General Zhukov, and relied instead on lessons from politically selected officers who were veterans of the Spanish Civil War. The result was a poor showing during the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939.[8] The Red Army tank fleet was extremely large, consisting of some 24,000 vehicles, but many were obsolete or unfit for service due to difficulties with supplying spare parts and lack of qualified support staff. Almost half of the tank fleet was lost in the first month of the war.

The Red Army's initial strategic withdrawal relegated the armoured forces to a secondary role. However, one important development took place shortly before the war, which influenced Soviet armoured doctrine and tank design for a decade: the creation of the T-34. Developed on the Christie suspension chassis and using sloped armour for the first time, the T-34 proved a shock to the German forces with its excellent combination of mobility, protection and firepower. Using wide tracks, the T-34 was also able to negotiate terrain in difficult weather conditions, something that persistently dogged the German designs.

Assessing the success of the German Blitzkrieg strategy, operational methods and tactics, the Red Army concluded that it should return to the use of operational methods developed before the war, so the Tank Armies were eventually created. To complement the T-34, heavy tanks, self-propelled artillery, and tank destroyers were also designed. Much of the use of Red Army's armoured forces were used in concentrations during all strategic operations of the Red Army in World War II, initiated under strict secrecy and using the Principle of Surprise.[9]

Germany[edit]

Pre and early war[edit]

Guderian (right edge) guides armoured force in Poland

By the time of World War II, the German armoured forces had developed a much more profound and more flexible doctrine than that of the Allies on the tactical and operational level. No such doctrine existed on the strategic level but their concentrated Panzer divisions in 1940 in the Battle of France nevertheless strategically exploited breaches in the allied defensive lines to great effect.

This development, largely under the influence of Heinz Guderian's Achtung–Panzer!, was facilitated by the fact that for political reasons a Tank Arm had been formed, the Panzertruppe or Panzerwaffe, distinct from the Infantry and Cavalry. The Panzertruppe however was until 1940 overshadowed by the much more influential Infantry, as exemplified by the low priority given to tank production and the fact tanks were between 1936 and 1939 also divided among the Infantry and Cavalry.

Guderian, with the help of others, established the armoured combined arms team, distinct from a purely infantry or cavalry formation. The panzer divisions were not solely composed of tanks, but integrated the other arms in it as well — most notably, mechanized infantry (riding in halftracks to be protected from small-arms fire while being transported) and self-propelled artillery (howitzers fitted on a tank chassis). This allowed the panzer division to become a complete and independent combat force, and overcome the problems that tanks had in attaining a breakthrough against strong opposition by entrenched enemy infantry equipped with large numbers of antitank-guns, which would be very costly without direct infantry support. Infantry had always had problems keeping up with the speedy tanks; now they could simply drive along with them. However, this development was hampered until 1941 by the lack of half-tracks vehicles to equip the mechanized infantry.

The in-depth research through theoretical approaches, wargaming and exercises developed a confidence within the Panzertruppe itself (and political support by Hitler) in the armoured formation as the key battlefield formation — although this view was before 1940 not shared by the other Arms of Service. A key part of this doctrine was improved communications by having radios in all tanks — and again this ideal suffered from technical limitations as most tanks had receiver sets only. The superior tactical and operational doctrine combined with an appropriate strategic implementation enabled the Germans in 1940 to defeat forces quantitatively superior in armour, infantry and artillery during their campaign in France; but just when Blitzkrieg was made a deliberate doctrine, in 1941, it ultimately failed on the eastern front, though attaining at first spectacular successes.

Late war[edit]

Panzerfaust armed Finnish soldiers passing the wreckage of a Soviet T-34 tank in the Battle of Tali-Ihantala.

Later in World War II, the Germans were on the defensive. The Panther and heavy Tiger tanks had impressive firepower and armour in tank to tank battles. But the onslaught of Allied armour was much superior in numbers. Besides using tanks in dug-in positions, the Germans made use of older types by turning them into tank destroyers, basically turretless tanks with heavier guns and sometimes heavy armour plating.

These vehicles, like the Sturmgeschütz III, outnumbered the German tanks and destroyed numerous Allied tanks on the battlefields of Europe. They were part of very effective general anti-tank tactics that included the use of anti-tank teams armed with Panzerfäuste (small recoilless rifles), anti-tank guns and extensive anti-tank minefields. However, they made a successful use of Blitzkrieg tactics very difficult.

United States[edit]

Though the U.S. had established the Tank Corps in WWI using French Renault FT (and Six Ton Model 1917 tanks, copies of Renault FTs) and British MK tanks,[10] and some officers like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, Jr. emerged from that war initially as avid proponents of continuing and developing an American armored force, the rapid reduction of the forces and apathy and even antipathy towards funding and maintaining armed forces in the inter-war years led to relative stagnation of armored doctrine in the United States. Adna R. Chaffee, Jr., virtually alone, advocated for the future of armored warfare and the development of appropriate training, equipment and doctrine during the late 1920s through the 1930s.

The United States Army had always regarded the French Army as the best army in Europe,[11] and consequently the US Army frequently copied French uniforms (the US Civil War), airplanes, and armour (Renault FT tank). Only when France was rapidly overrun in 1940 did the US Army become "shocked"[11] into re-thinking the influences by the perceived actions of German tanks in the 1939 Polish Campaign. Its Armored Combat Arm was not created until 1940 when The Armored Force was born on July 10, 1940, with the Headquarters, Armor Force and the Headquarters, I Armored Corps established at Fort Knox. On July 15, 1940, the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mechanised) became the 1st Armored Division; the 7th Provisional Tank Brigade, an infantry tank unit at Fort Benning, became the 2nd Armored Division"[1]. The Tank Battalion was established at Fort Meade, Md., and a small Armored Force School was also established.

The popular conception in the US was that tanks had been used boldly as part of a new system of war called Blitzkrieg. Under General Jacob L. Devers, Chief of the Armored Force, doctrine evolved into a combined arms operational force consisting of primarily infantry, artillery, and tanks with tanks being the major maneuver component. Under this doctrine, US tank crews of both armored divisions and GHQ tank battalions were taught to fight tanks in tank on tank engagements. Armored Force personnel during and after the war criticized the infantry for using the GHQ tank battalions assigned to infantry divisions strictly as infantry support.

M10 tank destroyer in action near Saint-Lô, June 1944.

The US Combined Arms team included air support, artillery, engineers, and a tank component supplemented by the Tank Destroyer concept. The latter is most closely identified with the Chief of Army Ground Forces, General Leslie McNair. Having studied the early German successes McNair came under the belief that US forces would be faced with fast moving enemy forces who would seek to bypass, isolate and reduce US forces in a replay of the Fall of France. To counter the enemy blitzkrieg McNair sought to improve the organic anti-tank strength of the US infantry divisions by attaching towed AT guns and equipping the infantry with hand-held Bazookas. To stem the flood of marauding panzers, fast moving powerfully armed Tank destroyer battalions were created to be held back and used in the counterattack.

It was believed that conventional tanks that could take on the enemy Panthers and Tigers toe to toe would not have the speed and mobility to avoid being flanked and bypassed and therefore would not have the chance to fight. It was also calculated that US interests would be better served by large numbers of reliable (battleworthiness) medium tanks rather than a smaller number of un-reliable[12] heavy tanks. It was decided therefore to slow the production of the US heavy tank designs such as the M26 Pershing and concentrate resources on mass-producing the M4 Sherman and tank destroyers such as the M18 Hellcat. Since the Sherman medium tank would be inferior to the enemy heavy tanks they would have to avoid tank-vs-tank combat as much as possible, leaving enemy tanks to the tank destroyers.

To be able get into position to counterattack, the tank destroyers had to be fast. To achieve the desired mobility and agility from the engines available the armor protection was sacrificed, a measure of protection coming from being nimble and hopefully from being able to knock out the enemy before they could get a shot in. Although they had guns of around about 76 mm, the tank destroyer units were issued with the ancestor of the modern Armour-piercing discarding sabot, rounds which made their guns much more powerful than a simple comparison of calibres would suggest.

In actual combat however the Germans were unable and unwilling to fight in the fast, free flowing manner to which the US forces had been tuned to counter. Against the defensive and ambush tactics that the Germans actually used, McNair's doctrine led to US tanks having weaker guns and less armour protection than their German counterparts, and in the narrow confines of much of the terrain in Normandy, they could not avoid one-on-one encounters with German tanks.

Japanese[edit]

The Japanese doctrine was mainly French in concept but with some purely Japanese elements. Due to Japan's naval priorities in warship construction[13] and inter-service feuds (the marine branch of the IJN favoured all-around protective armour) IJA tanks were lightly armoured. As with most armour during the 1930s, the main guns were small in caliber: 37 mm[14] for their Type 95 light tanks and 47 mm for the Type 97 medium tank, but this was sometimes compensated by a high muzzle velocity. The IJA's use of tanks in China exemplifies its doctrine: light tanks were used for scouting or acted as mobile infantry support, while medium tanks supported the infantry and assaulted deeper objectives, but did not fight en masse.

In 1939, the Japanese Army engaged Soviet armour at Nomonhan. During the three month long war, Japanese armour had shown their weakness against Soviet tanks; and the resulting Japanese defeat prompted a series of complaints by the Imperial Army to incorporate improvements in future Japanese armour. This is the primary reason IJA tanks were not as successful while being used with IJA tactics. The tank forces of the US Army consisted of the M2A4 and M3 Stuart light tanks up until 1941,[15] although these vehicles were five years newer than the 1935 built Type 95's, the IJA and US light tanks were comparable to each other, and seemingly performed well for their respective forces during jungle combat operations; during their phase of WWII.[16]

As with all armour, maintenance was a continuous challenge; especially in tropical environments. When IJA and SNLF (Imperial marines) tanks did clash with the enemy they were quickly destroyed by concealed anti-tank guns or overwhelming numbers of hostile tanks. Japan was a naval power, and concentrated its production on warships, thus placing a low priority on armoured vehicle development,[13] its tanks becoming quickly obsolete during the later years of the war. A number of designs that were equal to heavier foreign types were on the drawing board at the beginning of the war, but would only be built in small numbers towards the end, being placed in reserve, to be deployed for the defence of Japan itself.

Chinese[edit]

The Republic of China's National Revolutionary Army's 200th Division was the country's only mechanized division during the war. The 200th used pre-war tanks acquired from Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union.[citation needed]

Cold War[edit]

Arab-Israeli wars[edit]

The conflict between Islamic nations in the East Mediterranean region and Israel in particular would serve to become a testing ground for development in armoured warfare during the decades of the Cold War. Both sides in the Arab-Israeli series of conflicts made heavy use of tanks and other armoured vehicles. Up until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli armoured units typically had the advantage, mainly due to good tactics and unit cohesion.

However without tanks and infantry working together, problems can arise.

During the Yom Kippur War, Israeli tanks operating alone in large numbers were decimated by Egyptian infantry with anti-tank guided missiles. This is an extreme example but exemplifies what has been fairly thoroughly documented since the Second World War: tanks and infantry work best by taking advantage of each other's strengths and combining to minimize the weaknesses.

In many conflicts, it was usual to see infantry riding on the back of tanks, ready to jump off and provide support when necessary. Unfortunately, the design of many modern tanks makes this a dangerous practice. The M1 Abrams, for example, has such hot exhaust gas that nearby infantry have to be careful where they stand. Tanks can also be very vulnerable to well aimed artillery; well-coordinated air support and counter-battery artillery units can help overcome this.

The guided missile[edit]

While attempts to defeat the tank were made before and during the Second World War, through the use of conventional high velocity anti-tank artillery, this proved increasingly difficult in the post-war period due to increased armour protection and mobility of tanks. The Soviet Union, the country with the largest armoured fleet in the world, strove to incorporate some anti-tank capability into almost every infantry weapon, and in the 1960s designed and deployed portable anti-tank guided missiles. These new weapons could be either carried by infantry, or fired from the newly developed BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle.

In 1973, the Israel Army failed to anticipate the importance of these new weapon systems. Hundreds of AT-3 Sagger man-portable anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), supplied to Egypt by the Soviet Union and could be operated by infantry without having extensive training, inflicted heavy losses on the Israeli armoured formations. Since then, ATGMs have played an important role within the Israeli Army, having developed advanced domestic-made versions (see Spike/Gil missile), which have been widely-exported throughout the world.

In the recent 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, while Israeli infantry were able to easily defeat opposing ATGM teams, tanks operating on their own suffered several hits from the latest advanced Russian tandem-warhead types (such as the Kornet). This highlighted that tanks operating solely, in the era of ATGMs, are extremely vulnerable.

Responding to the serious tank losses suffered against Hezbollah, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in cooperation with Israel Aircraft Industries developed a missile defence system for tanks, called Trophy, to intercept and destroy anti tank missiles.[17][18] The system was successfully deployed in combat on March 1, 2011, when it intercepted an anti tank missile during an engagement on the Gaza border.[19]

NATO[edit]

During the Cold War, NATO assumed armoured warfare to be a dominant aspect of conventional ground warfare in Europe. Although the use of light tanks was largely discontinued, and heavy tanks were also mostly abandoned, the medium tank design evolved into heavier models due to increase in armour and larger sized main weapon resulting in the main battle tank (MBT) which came into existence, combining most of the different types of tanks during World War II.

For the most part the NATO armoured doctrine remained defensive, and dominated by use of nuclear weapons as deterrence. Although most NATO nations began the Cold War period with a large number of US-designed tanks in their fleets, there was a considerable degree of disagreement on the design of future MBTs among the NATO major nations. Both the US and Germany experimented with, but abandoned the missile-armed MBT-70. The M26 Pershing basic design of the United States would evolve until the M60[20] main battle tank was replaced with the gas-turbine powered M1 Abrams in the 1980s. The British Army also retained a WWII tank design, the Centurion, which proved to be highly successful and was not fully replaced until the 1970s.

The West German Bundeswehr decided to develop their own tank in the 1960s, and in the 1970s produced the Leopard I, which was a somewhat lighter design, conforming to German doctrine that emphasized speed over protection. The French series of AMX tanks also emphasized manoeuvre over protection. By the 21st century, most advanced western main battle tanks were built around powerful engines, large 120 mm guns and composite armour.

Warsaw Pact[edit]

Warsaw Pact "Big Seven" threats
Czechoslovak armoured personnel carrier OT-62 TOPAS produced by Podpolianske strojárne Detva in Slovakia.

The Warsaw Pact armoured doctrine was substantially influenced by the developments in the Soviet Army which sought to adopt its existing doctrine evolved during WW2 to the nuclear battlefield. In the early 1960s this led to a number of important developments in the armoured forces and their supporting Arms. One important development was the transition of the Second World War use of Cavalry-Mechanized Group (CMG) into the Cold War Operational Manoeuvre Group (OMG) that was designed to exploit breakthroughs to penetrate NATO's defences in depth. This was a culmination of the Deep Battle theory dating to the 1930s.[21]

In 1964 a significant breakthrough in tank design was achieved in the Soviet Union when the T-64 was produced which for the first time used an automatic loader, reducing the crew of the tank to three crewmen. Subsequently this model, and the later T-72 and T-80 tanks introduced further innovations that influenced armoured warfare by introducing guided missiles into the tank ammunition mix, allowing ATGW fire from standard tank guns. The Soviet Union is also one of the countries that use two Main Battle Tanks: The high-quality T-80s and lower quality T-72s. Modern Soviet tanks, like the ones mentioned, are typically armed with 125mm smooth bore guns. Advancements in Soviet tanks include improved Fire Control Systems, strong armour protected by ERA, and defensive countermeasures (such as Shtora-1 and Arena). The most advanced Soviet tank, up until the end of the Cold War, was the T-80U, which shared similar characteristics with the M1A1(Turbine engine, advanced Fire Control Systems, strong armour, and firepower)

Infantry fighting vehicles were first developed in the 1960s with the Soviet Union's BMP-1, for the first time allowing supporting infantry to accompany tanks on a battlefield when nuclear weapon use was expected.

The T-64s and BMP-1s were also joined by the self-propelled guns and more importantly Mi-24 Rotary-wing aircraft capable of firing anti-tank missiles entering production in 1970 which were built and theorized as "flying tanks".

The Soviet tank troops, as they were known in the USSR, included armoured units, armoured training regiments and other formations and units.

Vietnam War[edit]

M113 armoured personnel carriers proved effective in the terrain of Vietnam against enemy forces which, until 1968, rarely deployed their armour.[22] Though they were soon countered with mines and RPGs, M-113's continued service during the war, primarily evolving into infantry fighting vehicles, known as the ACAV[23] (Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle); and functioning as a "light tank."[24]

More heavily armed infantry fighting vehicles such as the M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle would be based on experience with the M113. Gun trucks were also introduced as M35 trucks fitted with armour and guns to protect convoys. In 1968, Communist forces primarily deployed the Soviet built PT-76 light tank.

By 1971, the larger T-54 medium tanks were fielded, proving themselves susceptible to the M-72 LAW rocket, ARVN M41 Walker Bulldog light tanks, as well as the larger M48A3 Pattons. In January 1969, US Armored Cavalry units began exchanging their M48A3 Patton tanks for the M551 Sheridan Armored Airborne Reconnaissance Assault Vehicles; by 1970 over 200 Sheridan tanks were operating in Vietnam.[25]

Present[edit]

A combined force of M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley IFVs and a logistical convoy advancing during the Gulf War
A Leclerc tank in a hull-down position. Note the observation periscope which would allow the commander to observe in turret-down position.

Tanks rarely work alone; the usual minimum unit size is a platoon (platoon is the smallest US Army/Marine unit led by an officer, and a component of a company or troop) of three to five tanks. The tanks of the platoon work together providing mutual support: two might advance while covered by the others then stop and provide cover for the remainder to move ahead.

Normally, multiple platoons coordinate with mechanized infantry and utilize their mobility and firepower to penetrate weak points in enemy lines. This is where the powerful engines, tracks and turrets come into play. The ability to rotate the turret by a full 360° allows coordinated movement within and between platoons, while defending against attacks from multiple directions and engaging troops and vehicles without stopping or slowing down.

When on the defensive, they wait in prepared positions or use any natural terrain elements (such as small hills) for cover. A tank sitting just behind a hill crest ("hull-down") exposes only the top of its turret, with the gun and sensors, to the enemy, leaving the smallest possible target while allowing it to engage the enemy on the other side of the hill. Tanks are usually able to depress the main gun below the horizontal since modern kinetic energy (KE) rounds have nearly flat trajectories. Without this they would be unable to exploit such positions. However, upon cresting a hill, the tank may expose its thinly armoured underside to enemy weapons.

The deposition of armour around a tank is not uniform; the front is typically better armoured than the sides or rear. Accordingly, normal practice is to keep the front towards the enemy at all times; the tank retreats by reversing instead of turning around. Driving backwards away from an enemy is even safer than driving forwards towards them since driving forwards over a bump can throw the front of the tank up in the air, exposing the thin armour of the underside and taking the gun off the target due to its limited angle of depression.

The tracks, wheels and suspension of a tank are outside the armoured hull and are some of the most vulnerable spots. The easiest way to disable a tank (other than a direct hit in a vulnerable area with a full-power anti-tank weapon) is to target the tracks for a "mobility kill" (m-kill), or target all external visual aids with rubbery cohesive substances such as melted rubber or blackened high viscosity epoxy resins. Once a tank is disabled it is easier to destroy. This is why side-skirts are an important feature; they can deflect heavy machine-gun bullets and trigger the detonation of HEAT rounds before they strike the running gear. Other vulnerable parts of a typical tank include the engine deck (with air intakes, radiators, etc.) and the turret ring, where the turret joins the hull.

When used defensively, tanks are often sunk into trenches or placed behind earth berms for increased protection. The tanks can fire off a few shots from their defensive position, then retreat (reversing) to another prepared position further back and drive behind the berms or into the trenches there. These positions can be constructed by the tank crews, but preparations are better and quicker if carried out by combat engineers with bulldozers. Overhead protection, even if it is fairly thin, can also be very useful since it can help pre-detonate artillery shells and avoid direct hits from above which can be deadly to tanks, by striking them at their thinnest armour. In short, tank crews find as many ways as possible to augment the armour on their vehicles.

Tanks usually go into battle with a round in the gun, ready to fire, to minimize reaction time when encountering an enemy. The US doctrine calls for this round to be a kinetic energy (KE) round, as the reaction time is most important when meeting enemy tanks, to get the first shot (and possibly the first kill). If troops or light vehicles are encountered, the usual response is to fire this round at them, despite it not being ideal—it is difficult and time-consuming to remove a round which is already in the breech. In this case, after the KE round is fired, a HEAT round would normally be loaded next to continue the engagement.

Tanks can be decisive in city fighting, with the ability to demolish walls and fire medium and heavy machine guns in several directions simultaneously. However, tanks are especially vulnerable in urban combat. It is much easier for enemy infantry to sneak up behind a tank or fire at its sides, where it is most vulnerable. In addition, firing down from multi-story buildings allows shots at the soft upper turret armour and even basic weapons like Molotov cocktails, if aimed at the engine air intakes, can disable a tank. Because of these limitations, tanks are difficult to use in city conflicts where civilians or friendly forces might be nearby, since their firepower can't be used effectively.

Airborne threats[edit]

The Tunguska gun-missile Anti-Aircraft system employs two 2A38M 30 mm autocannons and eight 9M311 SAMs for low altitude air defence.

Tanks and other armoured vehicles are vulnerable to attack from the air for several reasons. One is that they are easily detectable—the metal they are made of shows up well on radar, and is especially obvious if they are moving in formation. A moving tank also produces a lot of heat, noise and dust. The heat makes seeing them on a forward-looking infra-red system easy and the dust is a good visual clue during the day.

The other major reason is that most armoured vehicles have thinner armour on the roof of the turret and on the engine deck, so an anti-tank guided missile (from an attack helicopter or ground-attack jet) hitting them from the top can be deadly even if it has a small warhead. Even a small automatic cannon is powerful enough to penetrate the rear and top sections of the engine compartment of a tank.

Close-up of the A-10 GAU-8 Avenger gun.

Certain aircraft have been developed to attack armoured vehicles. Most notable is the purpose-built Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the "Warthog" because of its shape (in contrast to more aesthetically pleasing military aircraft). The 'Hog' may be blunt but is exceptionally effective in its purpose: hunt and kill enemy armour and vehicles and its reputation as an effective "Tankbuster" is not unfounded.

Although able to carry a number of different missiles and bombs (including anti-tank ordnance such as the AGM-65 Maverick), its main weapon is the 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling gun which is capable of firing 3,900 depleted uranium armour-piercing rounds per minute (a popular belief is that the plane was actually built around the gun and not vice-versa). Capable of low-speed, low-altitude flight, the A-10 is itself an airborne armoured vehicle with a titanium enclosure about the pilot, an airframe that can survive direct hits from armour-piercing and high-explosive projectiles up to 23 mm and triple redundancy in its flight systems, with mechanical systems to back up double-redundant hydraulics. The Soviet equivalent is the SU-25.

AH-64 Apache, an attack helicopter designed to destroy armoured vehicles.

Similarly, a number of helicopter gunships have been designed mainly to engage enemy armoured vehicles. The AH-1Z Viper, AH-64 Apache, Denel Rooivalk, Eurocopter Tiger, Ka-50 Black Shark, Mi-28 Havoc, A129 Mangusta and Westland Lynx are examples. Helicopters are very effective against armoured vehicles for many reasons. The AH-64D Longbow Apache, for example, is equipped with an improved sensor suite and weapon systems and the AN/APG-78 Longbow Fire Control Radar dome installed over the main rotor. Helicopters however have proved highly vulnerable to small arms ground fire, and so in American service, most missions that would have originally fallen under the domain of the attack helicopter are instead being executed by the much more heavily armoured A-10.

Airborne threats can be countered in several ways. One is air supremacy. This is what the United States relies on most, which is demonstrated by their distinct lack of effective short-range, mobile air defence vehicles to accompany armoured units. Most other countries accompany their armoured forces with highly mobile self-propelled anti-aircraft guns such as the German Gepard or the Soviet 9K22 Tunguska, short and medium-range surface-to-air missile systems such as the SA-6, SA-8 and SA-11, or combine both on the same vehicle (the Tunguska for example can also host SA-19 SAM missiles). The usage of anti-aircraft rounds fired from the main gun of a tank has been increasing over the years. An example is the HE-FRAG round from the T-90 which can be detonated at a set distance as determined by its laser range finder.[26]

Support[edit]

Armoured warfare is mechanically and logistically intensive and requires extensive support mechanisms. Armoured Fighting Vehicles require armoured vehicles capable of working in the same terrain to support them. These are operated by the appropriate branches of the army, e.g. recovery and maintenance vehicles by the REME and combat engineering vehicles by the RE in the British Army. These include:

  • Armoured recovery vehicles (ARV)—many of these are based on the chassis for the vehicle they support. E.g. the ARV for the UK Challenger tank is a Challenger hull onto which a winch is added.
  • Armoured supply vehicles
  • (armoured) Combat Engineering Vehicles (CEV), e.g. bulldozers

For transporting tracked AFVs over highways, heavy transporters are used, since AFVs are prone to malfunction and their tracks also ruin the highways.

Light tanks and tank destroyers[edit]

Main articles: Light tank and Tank destroyer
French AMX-10RC during the Operation Desert Shield phase of the Gulf War


While tanks are integral to armoured warfare, when power projection is required, the inability to perform rapid deployment has always been a limitation of heavy main battle tanks.

It takes a few weeks to transfer tanks and their supporting equipment by air or sea.[citation needed] Some tanks and armoured vehicles can be dropped by parachute, or carried by cargo airplanes or helicopters. The largest transports can only carry one or two main battle tanks. Smaller transports can only carry or air drop light tanks and APCs such as the M113.

The desire to create air-portable armoured vehicles that can still take on conventional MBTs has usually resulted in ATGM-armed light vehicles or in self-propelled gun style vehicles. The lack of armour protection is offset by the provision of a first-look/first-hit/first-kill capability through the mating of a powerful gun to superior targeting electronics, a concept similar to that of the US tank destroyers of WWII.

Graphic representation of the U.S. Army's cancelled XM1202 Mounted Combat System

Vehicles which have put such considerations into practice include the Stingray light tank, AMX 10 RC and B1 Centauro. Most such US projects to create such vehicles have been abortive, e.g. the M8 Armored Gun System. The most common was the flawed M551 Sheridan light tank. This was an air-portable tank capable of destroying heavier tanks using the revolutionary (for the time) 152 mm CLGP launcher. The combat effectiveness of this tank was limited by the unreliable MGM-51 missile. The latest iteration of the mobile anti-tank gun platform in American service is the M1134 Anti-Tank Guided Missile Vehicle, a Stryker variant equipped with TOW Missiles; most modern militaries operate comparable vehicles.

Though limited conflicts (such as the insurgency in Iraq) rarely involve direct combat between armoured vehicles, the need to defend against insurgent attacks and IEDs has resulted in the application of armour to light vehicles and the continued use of armoured transports, fighting vehicles and tanks.

See also[edit]

Armoured warfare theorists and practitioners[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ p.27, Design and development of fighting vehicles, R.M. Ogorkiewicz, Macdonald, London, 1968
  2. ^ An Experimental Mechanised Force For the 21st Century? Boyd, S.F. 1999 British Army Review, 121. 1999(Apr), pp17-22
  3. ^ p.32, Design and development of fighting vehicles, R.M. Ogorkiewicz, Macdonald, London, 1968
  4. ^ Goldman p. 123
  5. ^ Goldman p. 123, 124
  6. ^ Race to the swift, Richard Simpkin, Brassey's, London 1985, p.37
  7. ^ p.38, Race to the swift: Thoughts on the Twenty-first century warfare, Brig. Richard E. Simpkin, Brassey's, London, 1985
  8. ^ Goldman p. 123, 167
  9. ^ From the Don to the Dnepr: Soviet Offensive Operations - December 1942–August 1943, 1984 Art of War symposium, a transcript of proceedings, Col. David Glantz ed., Centre for land warfare, US Army war college, March 1984
  10. ^ Zaloga (Armored Thunderbolt) p. 1-4
  11. ^ a b Zaloga (Armored Thunderbolt) p. 13
  12. ^ Zaloga (Armored Thunderbolt) p. 46
  13. ^ a b Zaloga
  14. ^ Zaloga (Armored Thunderbolt) p. 45
  15. ^ Zaloga (Armored Thunderbolt) p. 15
  16. ^ Zaloga (M3/M5 Stuart) p. 13, 14, 33
  17. ^ "Israel unveils defense shield for Merkavas". UPI.com. 2010-04-06. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  18. ^ "Trophy Active Protection System". Defense-update.com. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  19. ^ Maital, Shlomo. "Anti-tank missile defense system stops attack ... JPost - Defense". Jpost.com. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  20. ^ Hunnicutt/1984/p. 6, 149, 408
  21. ^ p.37 Race to the swift, Thoughts on Twenty-first century warfare, Brig. Richard E. Simpkin
  22. ^ Stockwell, p. 10
  23. ^ Starry, p. 73
  24. ^ Starry, p. 24/Zumbro, p. 470
  25. ^ Starry
  26. ^ "125mm APERS And Special Rounds". Fofanov.armor.kiev.ua. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 

References[edit]

External links[edit]