A bit more about the evolution of the tank

I mentioned a bit of the tank evolution history recently, maybe a more comprehensive approach is worth a try as well.

First part; the important milestones in tank history:

Mark I
Leaving armoured cars and a few prototypes aside, the first real tank was the British Mk.I tank.
Two other notable WWI tanks were the French FT-17 (first light tank) and the British Medium Mark A "Whippet" (first tank with emphasis on speed).


Medium Mark A Whippet

The next milestone was the British A1E1 Independent of 1926, a prototype for the multi-turret heavy tank strain that was popular till it failed in 1939. The multi-turret approach was a dead-end, although it could be said that the BMP-T (see end of blog post) revived the basic idea.
This tank prototype also had the speed (30 km/h) which became typical till the early 30's.

Char B-1bis (photo Igor Kurtukov)
The Char B-1bis (1937), a late version of the Char B-1, was the first shell-proof tank. Tanks had previously only been protected against bullets, fragments, small explosions and small calibre cannons.
The Char B-1bis featured sloped armour and an armour thickness that protected it well against the anti-tank guns of its time and light field artillery.

Pzkw III
The next milestone would be the German Pzkw III (1937), in part as representative for the German tank development of the 1930's that placed a great emphasis on command & control (Führbarkeit). The combination of voice transmit/receive radio, three-man turret and commander's cupola proved to be a revolutionary 'hidden value'. It had a top speed of 40 km/h which was representative for its period and a torsion bar suspension (this became the dominant form of suspension post-WW2).
The Pzkw III-based StuG III defined the tank category of assault guns.

early T-34/76 model
The T-34/76 was a famous milestone in 1940 because it had a great balance of firepower, mobility and protection in 1940-1942.  It can be considered as the first real main battle tank.
Its sloped armour was no innovation, but became famous and established as design feature until the rise of composite armours (which are internally sloped).The T-34 was a low-quality design in its details despite the superficial genius of the design.
The T-34/76 spawned a long lineage of Soviet tanks (T-34/76, T-34/85, T-44, T-54, T-55,  T-62) with great longevity.

Pzkw VI "Tiger"
Next I'd like to mention the Pzkw VI "Tiger" (1943) as the prototype of the new breed of heavy tanks; with a focus on firepower and protection. The KV-1 tank of 1939 would take his place if it had been equipped with a more powerful gun. I think the Tiger is a better prototype for the new heavy tanks because the KV-1 pre-dated the T-34 (same firepower) by few months.
The Tiger's overlapping and interleaving road wheels were a milestone for other German WW2 tanks and reduced the MMP so much that ground pressure was no extraordinary problem despite the tank's heavy weight.

The next step was probably the Leopard 1 (1965). It was designed with highly mobile warfare and the lack of protection technology to meet the shaped charge threat in mind. The result was a good tank which did superficially excel only with its mobility. The 'hidden values' of very quick and easy maintenance and good durability are the reason for it being a milestone.

The Russians finally departed from their successful T-34 and KV-1/JS formulas with the T-64 tank at almost the same time (1966). It featured a revolutionary autoloader and a very large calibre (125 mm) gun combined with good protection (sandwich front armour) and mobility (comparable to Leopard  1). Its low silhouette and weight (38 tons) were achieved at the price of some 'hidden values' (such as good ergonomics). It was generally not easy to maintain or quickly repaired.
The T-64 became the defining design for the later Soviet/Russian tanks designs (T-72, T-80, T-95).

The 70's saw the development of so-called "Burlington armour" and later "Chobham armour", two  successive composite armour technologies from the UK which were good at defeating both shaped charge chemical energy penetration and subcalibre kinetic energy penetrators. The weight and bulk of such armour limited its application to the front, but it allowed nevertheless for the next milestone:

Leopard 2A4
The Leopard 2 (1979) tank found again a great balance of mobility, firepower and protection, albeit at the cost of having the weight of a heavy tank. It lead a wave of new Western (and far Eastern) MBTs, all of which slightly varied from the formula.

The British Vickers Mk.7/2 (1985) combined the Leopard 2's hull with the turret of the Vickers Valiant (1979, aluminium basic armour + Chobham). These two Vickers (proto)types of the 80's made use of modular armour (which became famous with the much later Merkava Mk IV) and the Mk. 7/2 also had some extras that led the way to the electronics-heavy tanks of the 90's.

The Soviet Union and Israel pioneered the use of  reactive armour in the earl 80's: ERA is made of plates with some explosive behind that interfere with long rod penetrators and shaped charge jets because of their secondary explosion outside of the main armour. This yielded no real new tank design, but many upgrades. ERA was entirely external and requires no wiring - perfect for upgrades. Germany, Britain, UK, France, Japan and South Korea have been reluctant to adopt this technology, supposedly because of the hazards.

Leclerc, photo by Daniel Steger
The French were late with their Chobham generation MBT by a decade and were therefore able to integrate many advanced electronics into their first Leclerc (1990) MBT models. I think it's notable not only for the great amount of electronics but also for its commander's independent thermal viewer which pre-dates the M1A2's CITV. Most Western (including South Korea, Japan) MBT types have seen upgrades with extensive electronics and sensor packages by now. The intentionally low-tech Ariete  MBT from Italy is an exception.

Future tank milestones?

The future path of tank design is unknown. We know that we've made substantial technology advances since the last milestone that should justify new designs if the Cold War hadn't ended long ago. Many of these have been incorporated into legacy tanks as upgrades, for many advances were 'hidden value' advances such as better electronics or more durable track links.

A new milestone for tank development could be found in a return to more moderate weights (such as the Japanese did with their Type-10 (2010, 44 tons) MBT or a drastic change in armament, probably towards a higher rate of fire with smaller shells as in the Russian BMP-T tank (2005) which was meant to supplement MBTs but still capable of doing essentially the same as a MBT only with different weapons.
Type 10

Externally mounted guns (as in many T-95 speculations and the modern Puma IFV) have been a supposed MBT development milestone in the waiting for decades. Their greatest theoretical advantage (small frontal turret silhouette)  doesn't seem to be a practical advantage because of all the sensors and other equipment that get attached to turrets.

The concept of an armoured 8x8 vehicle became very extremely fashionable in 1999 because of Gen. Shinseki and the Task Force Hawk debacle. The U.S. Army feared to be "irrelevant" in the age of cruise missile diplomacy and diagnosed its lack of quick deployability by air as the culprit. The "Stryker" and FCS programs were meant to provide the (interim and full) remedies. The easy shooting of poorly-employed Iraqi low-tech tanks in 1991 had convinced many people that even a 105mm gun on a truck would be able to do the same. This became the Stryker MGS.
8x8 vehicles were never capable of really replacing MBTs simply because their mobility became unacceptably poor at heavy weights, and high protection levels add much weight.
This 8x8 craze (many small countries followed this fashion) and the associated hype about electronics and information supposedly replacing armour were dead-ends.

The U.S. Army disintegrated/aborted its FCS program and has also re-started its newer GCV program. They have doctored on one new tank program after another since the early 90's, but all this activity with billions of dollars spent did not yield a single new operational MBT or IFV design.
The Russians doctored a lot on their T-95 MBT since the 90's. It seems to have been abandoned in favour of upgrades for proven types. There will apparently also be an altogether new MBT (or a heavy tank family?) design.

Most actually new MBT designs come from East Asia nowadays. There are also very large production runs and inventories. It's reasonable to expect the next milestone from the non-traditional tank producing countries of PR China, South Korea and Japan. Most of their new designs still seem to stick to the basic recipes of the T-64 and Leopard 2 milestones, though. The most notable exception is the aforementioned Type 10.
Maybe I missed some "hidden value" advances, though. It's not exactly easy to learn about details of their new tanks.

Sven Ortmann

Sum: 4 German, 3 UK and French, 2 Russian milestones.
I really tried hard to find a U.S. milestone, but there's none. The "Skeleton tank" came too late. The Christie suspension was inferior to torsion bar suspension (once metallurgy became good enough) and it was never employed in a really successful or good tank. Gun stabilisation (first seen in 1940') didn't turn the M3 Stuart into a milestone by itself. The Sheridan and M60A2 were dead-ends without followers. The M1A2 appeared after the Leclerc.
US. tanks were typically mediocre (even though some hyping began when Clancy wrote about the Abrams, a design that actually looked inferior in the trials and was ordered as a kind of subsidy to its struggling maker Chrysler). Germany cooperated once with the U.S. on a tank design (MBT 70); it turned into a combination of dead-ends and pioneered merely unacceptable per-unit prices.

The Merkava was excluded because it's an exotic design which found no copycats (save for a handful of post-Cold War Eastern European prototypes).

The late Centurion was a good design, but no milestone for anything but the 105mm L7 gun.

The Panther (medium/heavy WW2 tank with high speed) was no real milestone in tank design either.


  1. AFAIK the first production M1A2 was completed in late 1992. The United Arab Emirates recieved their first Leclerc Tropicalisé in late 1994, which were the first production Leclerc MBTs with a CITV (the French army had to wait until the Block II+ in late 2004).

    Prototypes might be a different matter altogether, but the M1A2 was almost certainly the first MBT in service with a CITV. That should warrant a U.S. milestone. :-)

  2. "The commander has eight periscopes and an HL-70 stabilised panoramic sight from SFIM Industries, now part of SAGEM. HL-70 includes laser rangefinder, day channel, and second generation image intensifier. Recognition range is 4 km and identification range is 2.5 km. The commander has a display showing the gunner's thermal sight."

    Now this begs the question whether the "T" in "CITV" was the key advance or was it the "CIV"?

    The very first CITV was probably the one on the Vickers Mk. 7/2 prototype (Philips UA 9090) anyway.

  3. I disagree that the T-34 was a low quality design in its details. Look at its diesel engine and wide treads.

    Also, the Tiger VI doesn't really rate. It wasn't used enough to make its own mark and all of its features (80mm gun, heavy armor, wide treads) The KV/IS lineage is a far better representative of the heavy tank genre.

  4. The Phillips UA 9090 on the British Vickers Mk7/2 or the Brazilian EE-T2 Osorio was "just" a non-traversable gyro-stabilized thermal imaging sight, not a 360° panoramic viewer. It served a similar purpose like TOGS mounted in the barbette of a Challenger 1 or above the gun of a Challenger 2.

    I would think that the installation of a commander's own panoramic sight was the key advance, as this arrangement gave the tank a hunter-killer capability. But this feature was already present on Cold War tanks like the Leopard 1 or the Conqueror. IMHO a laser rangefinder or a thermal camera in the commander's sight is just a further refinement of the concept.

  5. About T-34: http://tinyurl.com/35oej7m
    (And that report still exaggerated the T-34's qualities in regard to the optics).

    I already explained why I chose the Tiger over the KV-1. The Tiger was superior in protection and firepower over all light & medium turret tanks in 1943, setting the example for later heavy tanks including the JS-1 to T-10 series.

    The KV-1 was merely equal to the T-34/76 on both accounts. The KV was a brute force approach that yielded about the same firepower and protection as the T-34 did - but at greater cost and lower mobility.
    The JS followed the Tiger's example with its superiority over medium tanks in regard to firepower and protection.

  6. I believe that the JS tanks were contemporary to the Tiger (being designed at essentially the same time)

  7. The command and control capability of German tank units exemplified by the transmit/receive radio in the Pz-III was certainly a major milestone in tank development. Guderian fought tooth and nail to implement that. I assume that his (Guderian's) service in WW-1 as a Signal Officer attached to a horse cavalry division was a major factor.

    During Pz-III development in the 30s, Guderian also got a lot of support from Colonel Fellgiebel who at the time was Inspector of the Signal Corps (and who later was executed for his part in the 44/07/20 attempt to kill Hitler). Both Guderian and Fellgiebel made sure that the radios installed were reliable and simple to operate, and they were easily installed or replaced. Their performance was exceptional especially since they were being used in an environment like a tank with horrendous vibrations. Those radios also had a telegraphy keying capability which allowed comms at much longer range than voice. Panzer units ended up with better comms than any other units in the Wehrmacht.

    But . . . I thought that this comms capability was also in the Pz-II light recon tank and the Pz-IV and not just in the Pz-III?

    Not sure why you knock the Christie suspension. You are right that it could not match other suspensions in performance. But it was cheap to produce. It gave the T-34 its low silhouette. And the Brits used it on their Crusader in the North African campaign and on many of their other tanks of the time.

  8. Interesting post at DefenseTech

    Not sure I agree with some of the conclusions.

  9. @Ael:

    I selected the Pzkw III as representative of that development (which went beyond mere radios). It did indeed encompass all German tanks of '39 (including the Czech ones). I selected Pzkw III because it had the additional advantage of the trendsetting torsion bar suspension over Pzkw IV.

  10. I think that Bruce Gudmundsson's book "On Armor" is on track in noting that the development of armored capability started with many specialized vehicles. The progression went to fewer and fewer "multi-mission" types. Now we are seeing the resurgence of specialized vehicles.
    Phil Ridderhof

  11. Interesting article. Please note that the Tiger I was first built in August 1942 and saw service as early as 23 September 1942 (not 1943).

  12. "The Christie suspension was inferior to torsion bar suspension (once metallurgy became good enough) and it was never employed in a really successful or good tank"...just what suspension do you think the T-34 used? On the M-1 Abrams, the choice of engine and the advantages it provides might have warranted looking into. This had the makings of a good article, too bad not enough research was put into it.

  13. I admit that's a poor choice of words.
    The T-34 was mentioned separately, and didn't employ the full Christie suspension (the trick with the driving on wheels without tracks was omitted), therefore I simply ignored it in the Christie case.


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