Future light anti-tank defences - Historical background

(I should have written this before the piece on threat hardware, but I didn't realize soon enough how big the topic really is.)

During 15 to 17 May 1940, shortly after the decisive river crossing across the Meuse at Sedan, German and French troops fought at a tiny village called "Stonne". It was of great importance for the exploitation of the breakthrough. During these three days the village was captured and re-captured no less than 17 times.
It changed control so often in part because the German troops  had almost no means to defeat the Char B-1bis (one of the very first tanks that were shell-proof instead of merely bullet-proof) which had almost no vulnerability to the German 37 mm anti-tank guns. Meanwhile, the French proved unable to resist German infantry attacks once the tanks eventually were disabled.

The infantry, feeling defenceless against the heavy tanks, did what infantry in such cases does; they hid, using concealment. They hid in the stone houses, for example. It was no satisfying solution, but it's an important and quite universal answer to be used when threat tanks cannot be destroyed at the time. It often works much better than running away, for sure.

Most man-portable anti-tank weapons/munitions have a very short range. The famous Panzerfaust of the Second World War had only 30 to 60 m range, for example - this was the improvement over carrying a mine to the tank to attach on its armour plates!

Many tanks were destroyed with Panzerfaust munitions in urban fighting, but the greater usefulness of the munition laid elsewhere: It bolstered the morale of the otherwise quite defenceless infantry and it provided a repulsion effect. Opposing forces' tankers didn't dare to overrun infantry positions and kill the infantry in its foxholes with tracks any more. Instead, infantry attacked ahead of the tanks - and the attack would likely fail if this infantry was defeated. Attacks were slower and more vulnerable to indirect fires and infantry arms this way.

The idea that certain terrains are no good for tanks because infantry would easily get very close to them was born at that time. Previously tankers had little reason to fear closing with hostile infantry. This had actually been the job of the very first tanks; they were sent forward to the occupied enemy trenches because tankers could do so at much less risk than infantry alone.
In fact, this notion could be turned upside down - with tanks seeking areas with short lines of sight and avoiding open plains - if the more effective anti-tank defences are the long-ranged ones.

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We Westerners have a fairly good confidence in the ability of portable weapons and munitions to stop any tank. RPG users around the world who faced high end tanks and survived do not share this perception. One Challenger 2 tank was rumoured to have survived 70 RPG hits in 2003.

Western anti-tank munitions weren't universally convincing either; Germany used the weak Panzerfaust 44 Lanze, which was very similar to the RPG-7. There was no better man-portable anti-tank weapon in use with the FRG's military until 1992 (the schwere Panzerfaust a.k.a. Carl Gustaf was merely crew-portable, had no substantially better penetration and was for much of its service time rather used for illumination than as AT weapon). The Lanze's about 375 mm RHA penetration was fine against T-54s, but largely insufficient since the 1970's at the latest.
The successor, Panzerfaust 3, arrived after a ridiculously long development time only in 1992, and was at that time already obsolete against Russian tanks with ERA add-on armour. Germany introduced the better Panzerfaust 3-IT munition years later, which is still considered worthwhile. Yet even this munition cannot really be considered as reliably effective against a modern tank in its frontal 60°. You better score multiple flanking hits on the hull even with such a heavy munition.
The crew-portable West German anti-tank guided missiles were unsatisfying as well. The Cobra and Mamba missiles were difficult to control, scored few hits on exercises and would likely have scored very few hits in wartime due to the influences of surprise, fear, smoke, distraction and stress. Their penetration wasn't really promising against the frontal armour of a T-64 or T-72 either. The successor Milan was much easier to control and its launcher was (and is) equipped with a night sight. It arrived in 1977 in German service - with many years of lag behind the T-64's introduction into the Soviet forces in Eastern Germany. The Soviets began to equip their tanks with reactive armour in the early 1980's, which despite an improved Milan version in the mid-80's kept German portable ATGM firepower unsatisfactory.* Only the tandem HEAT warhead of the early 1990's made Milan's penetration satisfactory.

Other nations had similarly poor stories of portable AT defences, including the U.S. Army with its disappointment with the near-useless M47 Dragon missile and the failure to procure a successor to the small calibre M72 LAW during the Cold War.

I personally don't trust the infrared seeker missiles like Javelin and Spike much against high end main battle tanks. I expect their guidance to fail too often due to countermeasures (such as quickly deployed infrared-obscuring smoke walls). They are fine against lesser armoured vehicles, of course.
Overflight top attack munitions such as NLAW and Bill are highly specialised and good for little but tank busting, still vulnerable to hard kill countermeasures and somewhat unreliable in their effect (best effect only with hits on a small portion of the turret roof area).

Summing it up, one could say that portable AT defences haven't really been satisfactory throughout much of the Cold War, and are probably not satisfactory even as of today. Dismounted forces with no heavy, vehicle-mounted AT weapons and munitions on hand, need to cope with tanks nevertheless. They need to adapt their tactics. HQs and doctrine need to be aware that (maybe) the infantry is very limited in its lethality against high end main battle tanks.
Much confidence in one's arsenal cold be obliterated by a few days of actual warfare against a high quality force.

Infantry and more generally portable anti-tank defences in history is a huge topic. This selection here was meant to provide the background to the other "Future light anti-tank defences" posts rather than to be exhaustive in its own right.


*: TOW wasn't all that great either, having had a much lower penetration in its base model than published. Both TOW and HOT missiles were used on vehicles only by the German forces.


  1. Hi Sven! It's been a while since I commented.
    Regarding the posibility of failure you mentioned, I just found this video. It shows French soldiers stopping a Daesh suicide truck. They apparently shot Javelins at it, and it took two missiles to hit a score! Against a non armored, not concealed, no jamming-proofed, cheap, expendable vehicle. It can even be seen how the first Javelin just passes by, and then the second one impacting. Many just cheer at the actual score, but if it was a tank or an armored vehicle employing even just some of the counter-measures you mentioned, all those soldiers would be in big trouble, maybe even death or wounded. I'll leave the link below. Thanks, Sven!


    1. That's a statistically insignificant anecdote. Every missile type has a certain (usually low) percentage of technical failures. That's why often times two missiles are fired at one air target because there would be no time for a second shot if the first fails.

      The slow missile speed indicates that it may rather be a Milan or Eryx missile than a Javelin.

  2. Only the second missile was a Javelin, the first one was your averige ATGM. They probably didn't want to waste a Javelin on a VBIED, and then paniced as they missed and fired the ATGM.