Tanks are awesome. AFV (Armored Fighting Vehicles) are big monsters that dominate the battlefield. Thier main gun can usually destroy the toughest targets, their machine guns can decimate enemy infantry formations. They can grind a target to dust. They even sound big mean and vicious. They are the King of the battlefield and Infantry are their Queen.
When tanks attack they are truelly fear inspiring. Even veteran troops don’t like tanks unless they are friendly tanks.
The first tank was ‘born’ in World War One. Initially they were designed as mobile pillboxes, armored machine gun carriers. They have evolved a great deal since.
Originally they were desinged to assist infantry. They still do, and quite well I might add. There are several problems with this however. Unlike infantry they cannot sneak up on you. They are often restricted to what terrain they can travel through.
The movies portray tanks as unstoppable monsters that drive through houses and trees like they weren’t even there. That is not true. While a tank may win a pushing contest against a house if the house were to collaps it would fall on the tank, maybe trapping the tank. Furthermore all that rubble might cause the tank to slip a track and then the tank is not going anywhere. If the building does fall on the tank and pin it in place you can bet the crew is going to have a hell of a time getting out without help.
Like I said tanks are noisy as hell. First there is the overpowered engine that has to move tons of metal around the battle field. Then there is the sqeal of the metal track. Newer tanks (like the US M1) have engines that make a lot less noise.
What this amounts to is that tanks cannot sneak up on people. Even an artillery barrage cannot always conceal the appearance of tanks. A tank might, if he is approaching from downwind, has some other masking noise (like artillery), approach to within a few hundred meters of the enemy without being detected.
Tanks are not invulnerable, they are just very difficult to kill. Because they are big and noisy they tend to attract a lot of enemy fire. For this reason tank crews prefer to remain inside their tanks where they are safer but when they do this they can’t see their surroundings very well. What you can’t see is usually what kills you.
Tanks usually operate in pairs, like fighter craft. One tank moves while the other tank watches and covers. This is a lot safer, especially for tanks that must work alone. Infantry running at the moving tank can get machine gunned by the covering tank. When there are three tanks in a platoon, one may move while the other two cover.
Of course during an assault they may all move together.
Tanks can move faster than an infantryman, about five hundred meters a minute. This is nice if speed is essential. In most cases it is deadly because all an enemy infantryman has to do is hide. Tanks can’t see that well to begin with.
Now the best way to kill a tank is to use another tank. Failing that aircraft or infantry are your second and third options. Because tanks are expensive they are usually well protected from aircraft by anti-aircraft guns and missiles mounted on special vehicles. Infantry are another story entirely. Infantry are tne nemisis of tanks and there is a love/hate relationship. Tanks hate infantry and infantry hate tanks, yet when the two are on the same side they love each other.
Tanks destroy targets that are too tough for most infantry and infantry keep the tanks safe from other infantry. Most Israeli tank casualties were inflicted by infantry during the Yom Kippur war.
Attacking is what tanks are primarily designed for. Thier frontal armor is thickest and their weapons point forward of their main gun. Anything in front of a tank is going to get hurt and is unlikely to hurt the tank in return.
The sides, rear, top and bottom of a tank are another story completely. Although they are usually well armored the armor is not nearly as thick as the front. That is why infantry like to attack tanks from nearly any direction but the front (plus tanks have no qualms about running over infantry if they can’t shoot them up infantry know this).
Because large viewports would make the tank vulnerable to rockets and enemy cannon, the viewports have to be small. This means that when the crew is hiding behind the armor they can’t see very well. In fact if an infantryman can get within ten meters of a Soviet built tank then the tanker cannot see him unless he sticks his head out. Also to minimize the weakpoints in the armor the main guns are limited in how high and low they can elevate. This means that if an infantryman can get within twenty feet of the tank the tanker can’t shoot him with any of the tank weapons. The tanker can still try to run over the poor guy though and tanks can move fast.
This is why tanks need infantry. Enemy infantrymen to the rear or flanks of a tank can be a major threat. If the tank has infantry to keep off pesky enemy infantry the tank becomes a true terror. Infantry can shoot at enemy infantry on or near friendly tanks without fear because tanks are bullet proof in the truest sense of the word. Enemy infantry are not.
The problem with having infantry protect tanks is that tanks can drive a lot faster and further than an infantryman can run. If tanks are to be able to exploit an advantage or pursue the enemy infantry must be able to keep u.
This is where Armored Personel Carriers (APC’s) or Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV’s) come into play. Armored personel carriers are primarily designed to keep up with tanks and carry infantry safely until they are needed. The infantry inside an APC are protected from all sort of battlefield nasty, like mortars and small arms. APC’s may mount some weapons but these are usually limited. APC’s may also be amphibious.
An IFV is designed to transport infantry and fight alongside them. IFV’s are not tanks, they are basically more heavily armed APC’s designed to fight alonside infantry. Units composed of IFV’s and infantry are classified as Mechanized Infantry.
The APC was ‘born’ in World War Two in the form a a ‘half-track’. The problem with half tracks was they didn’t have any overhead protection.
The Soviets were the first to deploy IFV’s after World War Two.
Tanks and IFV’s are designed to work together. The infantry, supported by the IFV’s keep enemy infantry off the tanks while the tanks destroy the enemy. Infantry also provide many benifits to the tankers. Because tanks are maintenance intensive and tank crews are small, infantrymen can provide security to tank crews while they repair or maintain their vehicles. If no infantry are available then one or more of the crew has to stand guard while the others work. It also means the crew gets less sleep because they must have security. Exhausted tank crews have many opportunities in the battle field to make a fatal mistake.
Tanks have the armor to protect them against a frontal assault but not an attack from the sides, rear, top or bottom. If they did then they probably wouldn’t need infantry but design specifications are against having too much armor. Besides, you can’t put armor on the treads and a tank without treads can’t move. A stationary tanks is a big target.
In World War Two there were some special anti-tank grenades designed to be thrown on top of tanks. The grenade would land on top of the tank and explode on the weaker top armor. Since then the armor has become too thick for grenades. Bigger grenades could be built but they would be too heavy to throw effectively.
Artillery, despite a tanks armor is effective against tanks. Artillery and mortars may not destroy the tank but it may cause the tank to lose a track or destroy valuable optics and equipment outside the tank. The Soviets have a habit of using external fuel drums. These fuel drums contain flamable liquid and are not armored.
Tanks are usually supposed to maintain one hundred meters between tanks. This doesn’t happen in most terrains other than the desert. Usually natural terrain will force tanks to move in a prescribed manner and that is what infantry like to make tanks do. A city for example forces tanks to use the streets. Enemy infantry in side buildings hide and let the tanks pass by. Then, whenever they want to, the enemy infantry open fire on the weak sides and rear of the tanks, or they can throw molotav cocktails down on the tanks where the burning liquid can seep down into the engine through the vents.
A debate has raged for years about which should go first, tanks or infantry. That debate is still going on. If tanks lead the way there will be fewer casualties among the infantry but more chance of losing a tank to enemy mines, anti-tank rounds or traps. If infantry lead the way the tanks may be safer but there will be higher casualties among the infantry.
When tanks do work with infantry the tanks will usually move at about twenty to thirty meters a minute rather than the five hundred they are usually capable of.
In wooded or some other restrictive terrain, tanks and IFV’s will usually travel in single file. This reduces the chance of running into mine fields. As the columns get closer to the enemy they will break up into smaller columns to avoid ambushes and the like.
Before the columns reach the enemy they will break apart and form lines with armored personel carriers about a hundred meters behind the tank line. The infantry will dismount and move forward on foot.
If the infantry are not needed to tangle with enemy infantry they will usually remain in the safety of their APC’s. During all this artillery will usually be pounding the enemy positions in an attempt to kill them, demoralize them and conceal the approach of the tanks.
The enemy may, if they are smart, be returning the favor against the attacking tanks and infantry. It is the attacker’s goal to attack a weakened section of the enemy, flanks are nice but not always practical. The mobility of tanks and IFV’s give them the ability to move rapidly around the battlefield in an attempt to catch the enemy by surprise.
The longer an assault takes the more chance there is the enemy may recieve reinforcements, call in artillery, or any number of nasty things. (Artillery delivered trackbusting mines is a possibility).
The enemy usually has mechanized forces of their own that can flit around the battle field so a rapid assault is critical.
Retreating from a battle may mean abandoning the infantry and that is usually a bad idea because the grunts will take very heavy casualties.
When defending tanks are great. USually the best method is for the tank to wait just behind the crest of a hill. When the enemy comes within range the tank will roll up to the hill so only the turret is exposed, take a shot and then roll back out of sight. This makes it hard to hit the defender because of the small, briefly seen target.
After firing from one position the tank will likely move to another position and repeat the process. The Egyptians lost a large number of tanks to the Israelis in this manner because the Israelis kept pulling back bleeding the Egyptians dry.
This doesn’t work so well against infantry. Infantry can be sneaky and the main gun of a tank does not work well against infantry. Most of the rounds carried are anti-tank, with very few, if any, anti-personel.
When tanks are positioned in the defense with infantry they are usually placed behind the infantry and primarily target enemy tanks. Since the defenders are likely to be bombed by artillery the tanks are more likely to control fire support assets (like artillery and aircraft) because the tanks are more immune to artillery than infantry.
Tanks don’t do a whole lot when it comes to defending against enemy infantry but they work very well against enemy tanks. A tank defending alone against enemy infantry, without the protection of friendly infantry is probably going to be in big trouble.
Some tanks with special weapons (like flame throwers) can be especially useful to infantry units. Other tank weapons may include grenade launchers (mostly for smoke) and laser range finders (which can blind enemy soldiers if the tanker gets lucky). A type of claymore mine on the outside of a tank can be used to discourage enemy infantry from getting too close.
To defend themselves tanks often have smoke generators and a mechanism that can spray diesel oil over a hot engine part to create smoke quickly. The advantage of smoke to a tank can be critical. Some missiles require the gunner to maintain eye contact with the tank until the missile hits. Most infantry carried missiles are wire guided and if the shooter loses sight of the target the missile will lose sight of the target.
When a tanker comes under fire by an anti-tank missile he fires off as much smoke as he can and rapidly changes course in an attempt to evade the missile. If he survives he can take a shot at the missile launcher, if he doesn’t the point is moot.
Rockets are another story. Once a rocket is launched it is gone. Smoke won’t help but dodging will if the tanker has the time (not always). Smoke does not work very well if the missile launcher is equiped and using a thermal sight to track the target. Thermal imagers see right through smoke.
Because tanks are so fearsome there are a great many ways to kill them. Tanks are tough however and in some cases it may take more than one shot to get through the armor. Jet fighters, helicopters, tanks, infantry, artillery, and rocket batteries like to attack tanks. The size and noise kind of gives them away and if you ask me, I would rather not be in one when the shooting starts.
There is another type of vehicle that some might classify as a tank, called a Self Propelled gun (SP). These are nothing more than artillery cannons mounted on treads and having a light armor shell to protect them.
Unlike regular artillery cannon which are towed, these are much faster to deploy and fire. The inside is frequently roomier to allow the crew to move around. The SP gun are superior to regular artillery because in order to fire all they have to do is stop and figure out where they are. In addition the crew has some protection against small arms and mortars. The guns are usually a much higher caliber than tank guns and the turrets cannot rotate from side to side, being fixed forward.
SP guns are NOT tanks, they are self propelled artillery cannons with light armor.
Another aspect of tank tactics is mines. Tanks hate mines. In some cases all an enemy has to do is lay a bunch of mines on the road. Place a sniper in the area to keep the tankers from getting out and you have effectively stopped a rapid advance. Mines do not have to be massive explosives either. A mine designed to blow a track off can cause serious harm. Mix the trackbusters with anti-personel mines and any tanker would look for a different route.
This can have a powerful effect during a battle. Consider an infantry advance supported by tanks and IFV’s. If an artillery unit were to fire volleys of trackbusters and anti-personel mines the attack could quickly falter and grind to a halt.
Tanks can if they have the time shoot at the mines with small arms. However, this is a slow time consuming maneuver and an enemy sniper might take exception to this.
One of the biggest problems with tanks is maintenance. Tanks require constant maintenance from thier crew and it usually doesn’t take much for a tank to break down. This means tanks need plenty of spare parts, recovery vehicles and time to conduct repairs and maintenance. In order to keep a tank in peak condition about eight hours a day must be spent on maintenance when the tank is very active. That is a lot of hours and it can increase according to climate and geography.
Consider the many aspects of maintenance. The tracks usually wear out after one thousand kilometers. Then you have to worry about the wheels and rollers. Replacing a track is a tough demanding job because they are made of metal and very heavy.
The engine is another pain in the neck. Moving around all that metal puts a lot of stress on the engine. The last thing a tanker wants is for his engine to break down in the middle of a battle.
The weapons also need attention. If they aren’t cleaned they can jam when they are desperately needed. A tank that has its main gun become inoperable for some reason is nothing more than a heavily armored machine gun on treads with a big set of cross hairs painted on its side.
The electronics are a nightmare of their own. The more advanced a tank is the more electronics it has. Targeting and range computers, night vision optics, communication gear, laser range finders, ect. All that slamming around the countryside is pretty hard on the electronics which can be somewhat fragile. Military electronics are built tough but still they take a lot of abuse. Losing a radio antenna could mean losing communications and that is bad.
One vicious trick if you can manage is to have a high voltage wire suspended above a tank where the antenna will hit it, but I digress.
Maintenance cannot be neglected. Third rate militaries often have a problem with unmotivated crews that are unwilling to do maintenance, some crews may not know how, or a combination of the two.
When all is said and done tank crews only spend about ten percent of their time actually inside their vehicles. That is not a lot of time when you think about it.
Tanks are very logistics intensive. They need fuel, the crews need food and water, they need heavy ammo and they need spare parts and replacement parts. Some tanks don’t carry more than fifty rounds. With each round weighing over fifty pounds, getting enough ammo for a platoon can be a daunting task.
SP guns are another story. They can fire a large volume of rounds quickly and keeping them ‘fed’ is no easy chore if they have to fire a lot.
Tanks, IFV’s, and SP guns are all vulnerable when refeuling and rearming. It can take up to an hour in some cases and fuel trucks are not heavily armored. To rearm panels must be opened in the tank to place the rounds. A tank can run 400-600 kilometers without needing to refeul but if fighting has been pretty intense it may need to rearm.
Tank and unit organization
In most militaries a tank platoon will have three to five tanks or IFV’s. In the US it is four, in the former Soviet Union it was three. In some militaries a platoon is called a Troop. There are usually two to four platoons in a company, called a Squadron in some militaries. Two to four companies in a Regiment and a Brigade will have two to five regiments. A division can have two or more Brigades.
Soviet tactics are usually based on three. US tactics frequently have four, sometimes three.
In older tanks there are usually four crewmen. On commander, one gunner, one loader and one driver. In newer tanks the position of loader has been removed.
The tank commander is the senior member and directs the movement and firing of the tank. The gunner is the one who aims and fires the gun. The driver, of course, drives. Because the commander has the best view of everthing he may tell the driver which way to turn how far to go ect. Think of a partially blind man telling a blind man how to drive and you get a picture of how tanks operate.
The commander may stick his upper body out of his hatch to see what is going on. This gives him an excellent view because he is eight to ten feet up looking down where he can see all around the tank. It also makes him an excellent target.
All other crewmen, in most cases, can only stick thier heads out of their hatch for a limited look around.
The tank commander is frequently an NCO. If he is the unit commander then he is probably an officer, otherwise he is likely to be a senior NCO.
The future looks grim for the tankers. Armor has almost reached the most that can be mounted. If the tank gets too heavy it will be severely limited to what kind of bridges it can use, what kind of terrain it can traverse, ect.
Anti-tank weapons are becoming more and more effective and more widely available. An unsophisticated molotav cocktail can destroy a tank if it gets into the engine (not hard). More and more battles are likely to be fought in cities where the infantry reign supreme.
There are different kinds of armor and they are being built in layers. Although it is anybody’s guess how many hits it will take to penetrate armor and kill the crew the end is not in much doubt.
All manner of tank killing units are organized, from attack jets, helicopters, jeeps, infantry and artillery. Every kind of unit can field an anti-tank element and that element can be very effective.
Tanks are unlikely to become extinct however. They will remain heavily armed and armored, mobile weapon platforms that support infantry action and until the individual infantryman carries a weapon that can easily defeat a tank, then there will still be a place for tanks on the battlefield.
One series I liked was the Bolo series about frequently sentient battle craft. The Bolos fought all manner of foe from humans to aliens. Although the series was superb I seriously doubt Bolo’s will become standard. A Bolo can destroy quite well, but it cannot occupy buildings, caves or space ships. In order to kill a lone enemy soldier inside a building full of innocent civilians the Bolo would have to destroy the building.
Humans are very intelligent and when we fight we fight to win. We will use whatever means are available to gain an advantage or nullify an enemy’s advantage. Movies frequently show infantry being crushed and killed as tanks roll across the battle field virtually invulnerable. The face of war is changing. Why would infantry want to stand up and fight against tanks when they could avoid the battle to begin with?
Tanks can vary a great deal. Something like a shotgun could be used to shoot down incoming missiles. Maybe lasers or some other energy weapon could be used.
On the drawing boards are tanks with smaller (faster) turrets and smaller crews. This will decrease the size of the tank. Furthermore, the armor may be heavily sloped so that there is virtually no top armor and the engine would vent out the back. This would make it harder to pierce the frontal armor because of the steep angle (the round might bounce off) and would reduce the tanks infrared signature from above (the engine vent). Current technology allows us to build robotic mines that can detect a nearby tank at which time it shoots up an explosive round. The round then locates the tank (infrared) and plunges down on the weaker, top armor.
Future tanks will likely have a crew of one or two, video cameras that will help the crew see more clearly, targeting computers and various anti-missile and anti-personel defenses.
With all the new systems and the smaller crew, tanks are more likley to become like aircraft. A small crew to operate the vehicle in combat and a support crew to help maintain and repair it. Since the support crew will likely consist of specialists it is unlikely to follow the tank into battle.
Tanks are big and mean but they are far from invulnerable if the defender knows what he is doing. That is unlikely to change.