Tanks - thoughts on a blank sheet of paper

The widespread understanding of tanks is likely outdated because there has been only a rather limited set of experiences post-'45. Lean back and enjoy some thoughts of mine; I attempt to substitute for our lacking military history experience with my brain power and knowledge about military equipment.

I am of course in a hopeless situation as an under-resourced individual here, but the stuff might still be relevant to your interests.

The established idea is that tanks are no good in terrain with short lines of sight.

The tank crews' weapons out-range infantry weapons (a) and thus they're better off in open terrain. Even man-portable infantry weapons have been a deadly threat to tank crews since 1943 (b).

Tanks need to have some spacing in order to mitigate indirect fire effect with dispersion (c) and in order to insure themselves a bit against surprise contacts. The spacing is more practical on open ground where platoon and company leaders can still see their tanks (d).
A buttoned up (hatches closed) tank crew has typically a poor all-round vision (e). Infantry can sneak up and employ even Molotov cocktails and improvised explosives against such a partially blinded and deaf tank crew.

Open ground is also typically less riddled with obstacles that are relevant to a tanks' mobility. A tank can drive through a tree or a house, but it's not recommended standard practice.

Thus, tank crews learned to avoid areas with short lines of sight unless they really need to enter them.

It was nevertheless understood since the 70's that tanks are also terribly exposed to hostile long-range weapons on open ground. The open ground became the favourable terrain for attack movements when the opposition was blinded or suppressed, but cluttered ground was understood to be favourable for hiding and ambushing.

Let's look at some changes in military technology next:

(a) Infantry became equipped with sophisticated guided anti-tank missiles of 2,000 m range. This enables them to shoot at tanks at practically every relevant distance whenever there's even a choice between close and open terrain.

(b) Man-portable anti-tank weapons are based on the shaped charge principle - the armour penetration principle that can be defeated more easily than all others. Tanks have been optimized for tank vs. tank fighting for decades, as tanks were the greatest tank killers in WW2 and in the Arab-Israeli Wars of '67 and '73. This narrow optimization lead to an extremely strong frontal armour (glacis, turret front) and as a compromise poorly protected sides and rear.

The lack of serious opposing force tanks after the Cold War has led to a different compromise, though: Upgraded and new tank designs are now meant to resist man-portable anti-tank weapons all-around.

These very same man-portable AT weapons have also increased in range. A Panzerfaust 60 of 1944 had 60 m effective range, a Panzerfaust 3-T600 has 600 m effective range. The increased range makes it ever more difficult to avoid their firing envelope. Much of this increase (about the jump from 300 m to 600 m) happened in the 90's when computerized sights with laser range finders gave the infantry high-quality fire control aids for their heavier man-portable anti-tank weapons.

(c) The indirect fire attack of choice against tanks isn't any more a concentration of hundreds of bomblet shells and rockets. Modern artillery turned towards precision munitions and seeks direct hits. Dispersion doesn't mitigate such a threat any more.
In fact, dispersion might add to the tank's vulnerability because it's more difficult to maintain a large multi-spectral smoke wall than a small one. Dispersion might at times force tanks into poorly concealed positions, while at other times concentration might do the same. Overall, recent developments have added a question mark to the value of dispersion.It became a more situation-dependent method than ever before.

(d) Many modern tanks have a Blue Force Tracker or similar system. Such a system can show the location of every unit, small unit or team on a screen and can be updated in short intervals. A well-designed system of this kind can offer a unit leader an accurate and up-to-date overview about the positioning of his teams as long as radio traffic is permitted and possible. A tank company leader doesn't need to maintain a line-of-sight to all his platoons and tanks to know where they are - not any more.

(e) They have been possible for decades and are slowly being added to modern tanks: All-round camera systems for tanks. The Merkava 4 tank has such a system; the commander knows about the surroundings of his tank and eventually he would also know about nearby hostile infantry. This awareness is now independent of whether he's buttoned up or not (as long as the system works).

- - - - -

This begs a central question: Is close terrain really still a tank-unfriendly type of terrain? Is cover and concealment for infantry within infantry arms range really a problem any more?

Maybe it's not. Close terrain offers many advantages to a tank as well. These advantages have merely been overshadowed by the perceived disadvantages during the last decades.
The short lines of sight offer the element of surprise to a tank and they allow for a quick withdrawal. The enemy in LOS is isolated from most of his comrades because of the short lines of sight. An attacking tank company that bunches up and fights its way through a short line of sight terrain could dominate the local fight with its superior concentration of fighting power and its superior protection. It could also exploit the short lines of sight in order to mitigate hostile support fires simply by keeping its exposure to any one hostile position too short for a proper indirect fires mission.

Maybe we should think less in terms of line of sight than in terms of  density of obstacles to movement. A terrain with long lines of sight yet very little terrain that tanks can negotiate (such as in the high Alps or in the Pripyet Swamps) is no tank-friendly terrain. The LOS is irrelevant here.
Likewise, a quite obstacle-free terrain with much concealment (such as a wood with many young trees and bushes) for a LOS of only a few hundred metres at most might actually be excellent terrain for tank crews if these tanks are properly equipped.

Is this correct? I don't know. I have no idea. I have no idea because there was no real test for it.

This is -again- a topic where it becomes ever more obvious that we don't know how to fight under modern battlefield conditions against a first rate opponent. Exercises on training grounds don't provide a satisfactory answer. Neither do the rather anecdotal combat experiences in the wars after 1945.

We might be up for some really, really terrible surprises in the next major war.


P.S.: You might be irritated by the possible conclusion that long LOS battlefield terrains  are probably poor for everyone - infantry and armour alike. This should be a non-surprise given that I have long advocated that exposing yourself is getting you killed on a modern battlefield. I just applied this more to infantry than to armour so far.

I forgot to mention: The ability to negotiate obstacles gains importance once obstacles become the decisive tactical restraint. This means that fully tracked vehicles with good trench crossing ability, good power/weight ratio, low mean maximum ground pressure and possibly a dozer blade would completely outperform any of those fashionable 8x8 vehicles and probably also 55+ metric ton tanks.


  1. I think that with 50% of the world's population already living in urbanized areas, tank development is again coming back to the 1930's with their infantry tanks and their cruiser tanks. This time as heavy "urban assault tank" for urban areas (Israel is already going that way!) and a light missile shooting "tank destroyer" for open fields.

    One of the biggest mistake is the continued use of the smoothbore gun (only the Brits get it right). Tank-vs-tank combat is EXTREMELY unlikely. If it happens, something got seriously wrong. If you look at a modern battlefield, the one thing that is really do-able with relative easy is stand-off kills against high-signature mechs and technicals. Before an enemy tank works its way through all the smart ammo launching platforms it will long be killed before reaching my own tanks. A tank is 99% more likely to go up against enemy infantry or bunkers or stuff than enemy tanks. Thus it needs a gun capable of shooting HE. (And don't start talking about tricked out HE ammo for smoothbores - that's just BS)

    On the other side, the combined arms spectrum necessary for succesful tank use has grown so huge that it has de facto reached the point of non-deployability. A Leopard 2A7 with 70 metric tonnes is just a bad joke. If you add PzH2000, Puma, CAS/battle helicopter or aircraft, ISR assets, EW assets, and all other CS/CSS assets you end up with the division as the minimum force size for successful deployment of armored formations against any bust the most basically armed enemy. And one division is nothing, you need 3 or 4. And there is NO WAY anybody can deploy such a million-tonnes force in expeditionary ops.

  2. Sven, do you think there are lessons to be learned from 2006 Lebanon war?

  3. There were many lessons for the Israelis who weren't nearly as good as they assumed they were.

    Neither side was fully exploiting its material's capabilities and the limited, local and short nature of the conflict offers yet again only a tiny partial view on the modern state of affairs in ground combat.

  4. I would like to add some further information on the “tanks-are-obsolete” debate:

    Canada decided to abolish tanks in 2003. Then they deployed soldiers to Afghanistan and suffered heavy casualties and suddenly had to recreate their tank force with old Leopard 1 – some of them had to be pulled out of military museums. Leopard 1 aren’t exactly perfect for Afghanistan (climate too hot), but the answer was to limit their operations during the night. Since then Canada has replaced the Leopard 1 with the newer Leopard 2.

    Denmark also had a considerable debate in 2007 regarding whether or not to deploy tanks to Helmand in Afghanistan. The Danish Defence Command said no in the beginning, but was forced to change its mind and in October 2007 four Danish Leopard 2 tanks were deployed. To the best of my knowledge they have done an outstanding job.

    It is not to say that Afghanistan is perfect for tanks, but it also depends how you use them. Back in 2007 the Danish forces in Afghanistan were lighter and either had to get very close to the Taleban to fight them or instead keep their distance and use air power. None of the options were very good. On several occasions Taleban also felt free to fight from trenches and other fixed positions. Danish officers have told me that it was more or less like fighting the Russians (sorry 4GW-people), although on a much smaller geographic scale than would have been the case if the enemy was the Soviet army. The answer was to use the Danish tanks as assault guns (based on the German experiences from the last stages of the war) and from hills and high ground support infantry when they attacked.

    The Taleban has – to the best of my knowledge – never developed an effective answer to the use of tanks and tanks are superb to deliver precise fire power from a long distance without the use of air power. The Taleban has – however – managed to restrict the movement of tanks with their use of IED’s and the numbers of IED’s keep going up. Like I said: Tanks are not perfect, but it is still the best we got.

  5. I think the most important thing about Tanks we need to know for the future is that never again will we mass 400 of them and drive them straight at 400 enemy tanks.

    Air power has rendered the tank on tank war a thing of the past, We'd detect a tank army 400 miles away and devestate it 200 miles away.
    If it didnt turn back the few stragglers that reach our position would be irrelevent.

    I think Distiller is right with his concept of a field tank, designed to engage at long range, and a super heavy urban tank, designed to support infantry.

    I disagree with the idea that you need four divisions to accomplish anything.
    The SAS accomplish quite a lot with quite a lot less...

    I've long suggested, and am not alone in this, that a combined arms (Tank, IFV, Infantry) force with say 40 tanks, 80 IFVs and 3000 infantry, landed on a cove and supported by a carrier would be an absolute bugger.
    Cut the main highways, issue reasonable terms, blow up a few bridges/power lines ect until they are accepted, go home.
    If you do plan a "proper" war, where you plan on executing enemy generals after it, well that size is enough to seize a port and landing a few million tons is nothing to a few container ships.

  6. I meet people who belirve in this 'air power will destroy enemy heavy formations' promise of AirLand Battle from time to time and I don't get how anyone could believe this.

    We do simply lack the air power to fulfill this expectation. Even ill-protected (air defence, camouflage, concealment, deception) forces would need to be in desert terrain to allow for such an air power performance.

    Even the Israeli air force with its CAS didn't even come close to such effectiveness in '67 and '73.

  7. Are we (NAT0) even able - in your opinion - to fight a conventional war anymore? One thing is that nobody apparently takes that possibility serious anymore. Another thing is if we even could fight in a conventional style should somebody attack us with tanks, artillery and infantry like Russia did in Georgia in 2008.

    I consider the prospect of a conventional war remote, but hardly impossible. What worries me is that nobody takes the possibility serious anymore. I understand NATO intends to defend the Baltic states with nine divisions should Russia attack. Nine divisions – from where? I think this is simply a paper plan without any substance, because even if you could somehow find the soldiers they would lack the necessary training and equipment to fight anything stronger than a Taleban-like insurgency.

  8. Anon
    The UK has tanks but has failed to use them in Afghanistan.
    We have however used IFV's, which have done much the same job, very well if reports are believed.

    Sorry, I rewrote that a few times and its still not clear.
    You can hide a tank.
    You can convince enemy air that the tank is somwhere else, and has been destroyed.
    You cant do either of those with a tank army.

    Individual tanks, or isolated pockets, will still be a problem, but you cant conceal 50 Tanks on the offensive, even if you, maybe, can on the defensive.

    67 and 73, although instructional, are not definative.
    The IAF lacked airborne C4ISTAR and airborne anti tank missiles.
    A 70's jet might carry 5 1000lb dumb bombs as a tank hunter, perhaps some rockets, along with its cannon.

    A Typhoon has 13 hardpoints, each can carry 3 Brimstones. Thats 39 anti tank missiles.
    Assuming all the hardpoints cant take Brimstone, will half of them?
    Thats still 20 missiles.
    Even if we take an unrealistic failure rate of 50%, 4 Typhoons jumping a tank Regiment on the march will wipe it out.

    That doesnt of course mean all tanks will be destroyed, but it does mean tanks cant be relied on to move long distances or mass together.

    Not that 400 concealed tanks isnt a strategic nightmare, but its a different nightmare than current thinking is set up to deal with.

    Western Military spending for almost a generation was set up to destroy large groups on tanks on the move, we got good at it.

  9. According to Wiki, a Typhoon can carry 8 launchers, so 24 missiles.

  10. @Anonymous:

    Few if anybody are more capable in conventional warfare. We aren't even close to the potential (even within the constriants of our budgets), though.
    I think we're in a "1911" situation. Many new technologies, almost no comprehensive experiences with them - and way too mcuh attention on small wars against ill-equipped forces.

    Tanks on the battlefield itself will be very difficult to spot unless they're firing or moving or on very featureless terrain. Tanks only spend a tiny fraction of their wartime in action, though. Air forces cannot change loadouts and missions on the fly and react timely to a sudden spike in tank small unit battles that often last less than an hour.
    Besides; all the survivability-enhancing support for tank forces (EW, ShorAD) can concentrate its activity on the time of greatest exposure of the armoured force.

    A Typhoon won't go into battle with many Brimstones (and only one air force uses them at all iirc) unless it faces no air defences and no air force.
    The seeker of Brimstone is redundant, but it can still be deceived and as simple countermeasures as a tank staying close to a house (ready to disappear behind it) can neutralize it.

    Tanks beyond the battlefield are even more problematic. Higher HQs sometimes don't know where their spearhead is - the enemy surely doesn't either. Armoured forces would mix with hostiles after breakthrough, the fratricide problem would likely limit the air threat to helicopters whose crews are better prepared (than a single seat fighter-bomber) to ID a moving and fully camouflaged tank.

    Much of what we have against tanks is really great in cases like Desert Storm, but both the Kosovo Air War post-war BDA and the failures in OIF (such as the defensive battle of 3-69) warn us not to trust the optimistic folks on air power.

    Besides; Brimstone can be defeated easily with APS.

  11. Again, a single hidden tank is not my point.
    You can camouflage a tank, you cant camouflage 50 moving as an armoured fist.
    In a large scale war, a full squadron of 16 Typhoons on snap anti tank duties could have 4 aircraft on a snap alert.
    50 Tanks, moving from prepared position to another prepared position would be spotted by ISTAR almost as soon as it set off, the tank hunters can launch, and unless the tanks are only going a few miles, catch and destroy them. If the prepared position is identified, another aircraft can follow on, armed with 2000lb bombs.

    Its less about support to troops in contact, more about independant tank hunting.
    A reasonable facimilie of the tactical airforces of 44.

    Yes, its avoidable, but only by paralysing your armoured fists, or breaking them into armoured fingers.

  12. Your image of an attacking armour battalion seems to be about open plains and you ignore entirely the existence of countermeasures to ISTAR.

    Furthermore, you seem to believe that an air force would indeed keep fighters on a kind or QRA for tank hunting. This is extremely unlikely and did afaik not happen in any modern war. Air forces have their own agenda.

    The air bases are furthermore often at a rather long distance from the battlefield (the Cold War situation in Germany was simple insanity). Those Typhoons on QRA would take off after 5 minutes, fly 20-30 minutes to a tanker, refuel for 5-10 minutes and proceed another 15-30 minutes towards the target area where they would take another 2-5 minutes till they established contact with a forward controller, verified him as legitimate and found their targets.
    An armoured battalion could in this time break through a brigade defence sector and leave all forward controllers behind.

    About your "44" example: Very, very few tanks were actually destroyed by air attack in WW2. That effect was more about damages and deterrence than about actual destruction.

    I'm sorry, but you sound like a late AirLandBattle acolyte who bought into RMA.

  13. You cant hide a tank army on the attack from ISTAR, in any terrain.
    You can hide a few tanks, moving slowly (average speed).
    What ISTAR countermeasures are there, that can hide 4000 Tanks moving 100 miles a day?

    Its not current airforce policy, but it can be. I cant imagine the airforce would mind taking on the strategic tank hunting role.

    A Typhoon can do just shy of 2500kmh at full whack. Including launch time, thats 15 minutes from detection to hitting targets 400kmh out.
    They dont need to contact FAC's, thats the whole point, the front lines are 400km away.

    "About your "44" example: Very, very few tanks were actually destroyed by air attack in WW2. That effect was more about damages and deterrence than about actual destruction."

    In effect, much the same would happen under my plan.
    The enemy cant mass without being detected and destroyed by the airforce. So the enemy doesnt mass, it scatters.
    The enemy cant move without being detected and destroyed by the airforce, so the enemy doesnt move, it holds.

    The enemies dispersed, strategicaly immobile independant companies are then engaged by our mobile mutualy supportive brigades, and either surrender or die, with little loss to our side.

    I'm not a believer in RMA, FRES is the stupidest concept I've heard of in a long while, but there has been an Evolution in military affairs.

  14. "You cant hide a tank army on the attack from ISTAR, in any terrain."

    You can hide multiple armour brigades, though. In fact, the Iraqis launched elements of several divisions against 3-69 and the Americans didn't warn 3-69 until line of sight combat began. Keep in mind that the Iraqi terrain wasn't even close to a different terrain for ISTAR. I already offered you the link.

    Methods for shielding a moving force against long-range sensors:

    a) signature management, especially in regard to infrared and visible spectrum (radar stealth has been pursued with experimental vehicles such as EGS as well)

    b) jamming, such as the multiple Russian J-STARS jammers

    c) moving with concealment, such as on forestry roads

    d) area air defence and CAP for denial of airspace to all enemies but combined arms strike packages

  15. "The enemy cant mass without being detected and destroyed by the airforce. So the enemy doesnt mass, it scatters.
    The enemy cant move without being detected and destroyed by the airforce, so the enemy doesnt move, it holds."

    Well, that didn't even work like that in Normandy '44, where thousands of TacAir slowed down, but did not fix the German forces.
    The key mechanism was to make daylight movements risky while night movements were only mildly harassed. We do neither have the quantity of aircraft nor the persistence (today's TacAir flies in strike packages if there's a AD threat) nor did we keep the night as a relatively safe period for marches.
    The effect of modern TacAir on OPFOR movement is therefore still to be observed.

  16. In principle, modern air force can affect a moving AFV force quite effectively. A stationary armored force is much more difficult to be harmed, though. Air force, under certain conditions - such as having the air superiority, the ability to suppres the air defence of the opponent and a certain number of ground attack capable aircraft available to perform CAS missions can deliver a substantial blow to a moving armored force, but it should be considered as a neccesary force multiplier to a moderate size defending land force rather than as a substitute for the land force itself. Air force, even in the favorable conditions, cannot simply destroy armored formations - what it is capable of is disrupting its movement and inflicting substantial losses - both of them are neccesary to achieve advantage by a numerically inferior force.

  17. Sven
    I've read the first bit of the pdf you provided, its simply not what I'm talking about.
    My thinking doesnt apply tacticaly, its not an excuse to rob the line of its combat scout forces.

    3-69 is a damned near perfect example of what I've been saying.
    The only time we will meet enemy armoured formations is when they are immobile and we blunder into them, on a strategic level. Tacticaly, they can and will be agressive, however, they cannot advance against us on a strategic level.

    Our Airpower should pin them in place along a line, which happened in Iraq, we should then attack that line, in a column (or columns) break through the line and begin rolling it up.

    Or, sticking with Iraq as an example, once we had control of the skies, ground forces should have been massed against Basra, and Basra should have been taken with minimal trouble, us outnumbering the Iraqi's substantialy, in the local area. That the Iraqi army outnumbered us overall was irrelevent, they couldnt mopve the strategic distance to reinforce the position we hit.

    Once Basra was taken, with Iraq forces still unable to redeploy, we pick a second target, Najaf for example.

    Again, we can take our time to mass our forces until we can easily overwhelm the position.

    Now, I accept its not quite as sexy as trying to take 6000 Primary, Secondary and Tertiary targets in a week, but its going to be far more effective in the long run.

    Airpower stops the enemy redeploying in numbers, allowing us to take the disposition of enemy forces and cut the isolated sections apart piece by piece.

    True, enemy forces wont be entirely immobilised even on the strategic level, however the ability of three divisions covering 300 or so miles of "front" on a north/south axis to support each other effectivly is badly hampered. Allowing our two divisions can deploy entirely against the Northern most, redeploy to the South after three days fighting. The enemy cant redeploy to counter in anything like the time it woyuld have to, and we take them apart piece by piece.

    We cant fix an individual tank, or prevent a few dozen tanks moving lovaly, maybe even a tank army moving 20 miles a day. But we can prevent it moving 300 miles a day, whilst preserving our ability to move at that speed.

    True, the enemy isnt "fixed", but near as damn it.

    Battle field scouting still needs battle field scouts, and for all I care, they can do so from Chally2s

  18. "True, the enemy isnt "fixed", but near as damn it."

    There were thousands of Allied planes over Northern France in June '44, but these thousands of pairs of eyes only sufficed to slow down the German reserves' advance to a third.

    Nowadays, with strike package tactics and few hundred aircraft, this success would be rather unlikely.

  19. I was developing this concept for the arsenal ship based on the project HARP, but it can be scaled down for tanks.
    What if you do away with turrets and their guns and have an arsenal tank with a vertical launch accelerator or mortar for missiles(with foldable wings for longer range gliding). These missiles can be of a variable caliber against surface threats, air threats and even busting heavy armour of bunkers with a much longer stand off range than current artillery, but also shortest ranges right next to the launching vehicle. The downside would be reduced numbers of warheads in case they're larger than current munitions.
    From this thought would derive two tank modifications, an infantry fighting vehicle, a commando tank, and an arsenal tank. Both would look rather similar because they are modifications of one prototype that can in turn be produced with economy of scale. Any approaching aircraft must take into account that this tank can be an anti-aircraft battery waiting for them. Specifically it would be possible to use tanks or tank imitations to lure aircrafts into missile traps by hidden arsenal tanks.
    This idea of missile traps can be employed today as part of combined arms forces, so I would be rather sceptic about aircrafts' value against armour and imitations backed up by a credible anti-air defense.
    My idea would be to scale this important part of a combined arms force down to few vehicles. So small forces of armour will be self-sufficient and remain highly mobile (as small numbers are easier to hide and more difficult to track). The weight of armour can likely be reduced to half of what a current MBT has while providing rather all-round protection.
    This means much more speed and endurance for the new tank concept.
    I would suggest to have them on large wheels with continuous tracks as optional assistant drive because the additional trucks to drive tanks to the front add another vulnerable footprint. As discussed in the post on elegance in warfare, eleminating the right components can disable an enemy and I would rather opt for trucks than tanks as objects of prey.

  20. I'm not so much a believer in technological gadgets.

    Some are key tools, many others are a superficial waste of effort.