If the tank doesn’t interest you, skip this post.
After the dreadnought and the strategic bomber, the tank is probably the most overrated weapon of the 20th century. However, while enthusiasm for the first proved to be folly, and for the second extremely destructive folly, the tank played a meaningful military role in World War II and later conflicts. Rather, it’s more appropriate to say that the tank is a lot like Derek Jeter; it’s an important contributor, but undeserving of the hype. Virtually given up for dead a decade ago, however, the tank appears to be making a comeback.
To give a very brief history, the tank was developed by the British Army in World War I, but eventually used by all combatants. The hope was that an armored vehicle with tracks could cross broken territory against artillery and small arms fire. Early tanks suffered breakdowns and sometimes sank into the mud, but workable models became available by the end of the war. The tank didn’t, however, break the stalemate on the Western Front. In 1918, the Reichswehr deployed new tactics involving cooperation between infantry and artillery that allowed it to blow large holes in the Allied lines, but exhausted itself before these holes could be fully exploited. The Allied counter-offensive employed large numbers of tanks, but succeeded mostly because of German exhaustion. During the inter-war period, Germany and the Soviet Union worked out the theoretical problems associated with armored warfare at a school at Kazan. Most of the important generals of the Wehrmacht attended this school, while most of the Soviet students were later shot by Stalin. In any case, proper armored warfare involved close cooperation between tanks, dismounted infantry, artillery, and close air support. Infantry and artillery created breakthroughs in prepared enemy defensive positions, while armor exploited those breakthroughs, and aircraft complicated enemy reinforcement and logistical efforts. When war came, the Germans used the Polish campaign to work out the practical problems, then proceeded to conquer France with fewer (and poorer) tanks than the Allies possessed.
Allied tank doctrine was less advanced. JFC Fuller and BH Liddell Hart had pushed the tank in the interwar period, but fundamentally failed to understand that its success depended on cooperation with other arms, rather than in replacement of them. In the Western Desert and during Operation Goodwood, British tanks operating without the support of dismounted infantry were simply massacred by German anti-tank weapons. The Americans did better, in spite of the uneven performance of US infantry, and the Soviets eventually developed extremely capable armored/deep battle operations. However, it’s important to note that in relatively few cases did tanks actually fight each other. For the most part, the role of the tank was to exploit breakthroughs, either surrounding enemy armies or busting apart their command and logistical networks. Tanks are large, loud, and warm, and tend to do poorly against the prepared defenses of a competent enemy. At Kursk tanks fought one another, but this was the exception and not the rule.
The tank remained a important part of armies in the Cold War period, although again there were very few tank-on-tank confrontations. The IDF employed the tank to very good effect in 1967, depending on superior gunnery to destroy formations of Syrian and Egyptian tanks almost without loss. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, however, the story was different. The Egyptian Army employed personal anti-tank missiles that blunted and threatened to destroy the armored offensives of the IDF. On the Golan Heights, the Syrians threw hundreds of tanks against Israeli defenders, largely without dismounted infantry support, only to see them destroyed in mass by Israeli gunnery. The effect of anti-tank missiles was to expand the ability to kill tanks from competent to even semi-competent armies. The Yom Kippur War led to a doctrinal crisis in US Army, which briefly adopted a defensive doctrine based on the destruction of Soviet tanks with precision weapons. AirLand Battle, adopted in 1982, would return the tank to its offensive role. Tanks played an important role in the Gulf War, but became increasingly vulnerable to tactical air attack, especially while moving. US tanks were extremely effective against Iraqi T-72s, in large part because the Iraqis employed their vehicles poorly, but also because the T-72s had trouble penetrating the armor of US M1A1s.
After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, there was a feeling in major Western armies that the era of the tank had passed. Tanks played almost no role in that conflict. Compared to other vehicles, tanks are heavy, expensive, and hard to transport. Against even a semi-competent opponent with the right equipment, they’re quite vulnerable. Western armies could destroy the tanks of their enemies without tanks of their own, and extended high-intensity conflicts between technologically advanced foes seemed unlikely. The US Army put plans in place to retire the M1A2 Abrams and replace it with lighter vehicles. Even the Israelis gave strong consideration to shutting down the Merkava line.
Over the past couple of years, however, the tank has rebounded. While it has almost always been conceived of as a high-intensity warfare platform, the tank has performed relatively well in low and medium intensity combat in the past few years. Tanks are difficult to kill with IEDs, or with other weapons that insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq normally have access to. Even in Lebanon, against a sophisticated and capable opponent, Israeli Merkava tanks performed well, often serving as evacuation ambulances for wounded Israeli soldiers. Accordingly, several states have revised plans to retire their tank fleets. The US Army now envisions operating the M1A2 into the foreseeable future, and the Merkava line in Israel continues production. Canada, deeply involved in Afghanistan, is purchasing a large number of German Leopard 2 tanks from the Netherlands.
The tank isn’t perfectly suited for this kind of warfare, but the context of casualty-phobic democracies it has provided it with a new role, and it has performed well enough. The Israelis remain out in front on this, as new Merkavas have been developed for urban combat (more machine guns and more protection from small fire and explosives), for ambulance duty, and for service as armored personnel carriers (main gun replaced by other weapons). This last is probably the most interesting, because it suggests the most likely path for future tank development. While the main gun of the tank has become increasingly less useful, its heavy armor helps protect soldiers from the most likely forms of asymmetric attack. 120mm direct fire guns aren’t all that useful against insurgents now, and probably won’t be all that useful in the future, but hulls capable of resisting power IEDs and RPGs will be in demand for the foreseeable future. Then again, the continued (and even expanded) use of tanks and tank-like vehicles may drive insurgents to acquire and develop ever more lethal weapons.