Tanks: A Brief History and Hunting Guide (idea)
|A Brief History and Examination of the modern Tank
One of [Jane's Fighting Nodes].
[Tanks] are an essential part of [twentieth century] [military history]. Few major ground conflicts have occurred in which they were not a factor, even if only in their potential [deployment]. This node aims to answer a few common questions about tanks, vis: What are they? Where did they come from? How do they work? What are they used for? How does one kill them?
What are they?
Tanks are [armored] ground vehicles that travel on a [tracklaying chassis] (also known by its most visible characteristic, [treads]), and mount [weapons] designed to [engage] other vehicles of their own class (at a minimum) as well as be as [lethal as all hell] to anything on the battlefield smaller or less protected than themselves. Tanks do come in various sizes, from [light tank] all the way up to the behemoths known as [Main Battle Tanks].
Although [fearsome] in capability, tanks are not without several glaring and well-known [vulnerabilities]. First of all, they are extremely large, heavy and in most cases relatively slow-moving. This means that, [barring other factors], hitting a tank with an [aimed weapon] once you've gotten a good look at it isn't a large problem. Therefore, [designers] and[ operators] of the things have had to come up with various means to ensure that you don't get that good look, or that even if you do hit it, it doesn't care.
Second of all, because they're large and heavy, tanks are limited in where they can travel. A [modern] [Main Battle Tank|MBT] can weigh as much as 75 tons and measure in at 8 [meters] by 5 meters! Running one of these through a [cramped cityscape] isn't possible unless you're trying to [knock the city down] as you go. This sometimes is the case. See [Grozny] for a recent example. However, in a more frequent problem area, tanks are limited to strong [bridges] and [large transport vehicles], meaning [bodies of water] such as large rivers or lakes can cause real trouble for them. They are extremely difficult (although [C-5A Galaxy|not impossible]) to move by air.
Third, modern tanks are extremely [complex machines], are require an enormous amount of routine (and, unfortunately, sometimes [damage control|not-so-routine]) [maintenance] in order to remain operational. They cannot typically be used to travel long distances; in between actual [engagements] (and sometimes during [Pursuit of Rommel|protracted ones]) tanks must be [carted about] on large trucks or [railway cars]. At any given moment, a significant number of these large expensive and crucial assets may be out of service. They also, therefore, require a huge [logistical tail] to keep running, with a steady flow of [fuel]s, [lubricant]s, [ammunition], [spare parts], etc.
Fourth, tanks suffer from their very success. By their nature and due to their deadly capabilities, tanks are regarded as [primary targets] on any [battlefield] on which they appear. This results in an amusing [dichotomy] between [tank crew] and [infantry] - [tankers] profess to not understand why you'd want to be on a battlefield without several inches of [Chobham|high-grade armor] around you, and infantry profess to not understand [why on earth] you'd want to spend all your time inside a high-visibility target, methods of whose [destruction] have [spawned] entire industries and [Anti-Tank Missile|technologies].
Where Do They Come From?
Tanks are the illegitimate children of the First World War (or [World War I], if you prefer). During that conflict, for reasons [which are legion], the [combatants] (essentially all of [Europe] save the [Swiss] plus other victims) had managed to work themselves into a complete battlefield [stalemate], and had been reduced to staring at each other across several hundred yards of [charnel house] [no man's land], engaging in frequent [artillery duel]s, [harrassing attack]s, and in several particularly tragic cases, massive [infantry assault]s against prepared positions and [automatic weapons]. For more information, see [The Somme], [Passchendaele], and any history of [The Great War|that war].
In any case, the root cause of the problem (as far as [The Custodian|I] can tell) was that [doctrine] had not caught up with available [technology], in this case, the [automatic weapon]. Why this was so has occupied many scholars for many years. Rather than adjust doctrine, which the [British Expeditionary Force|BEF] Command had proved most reluctant to do no matter what the cost (see the above battles), the British military decided to apply technology to the problem in turn. Drawing on the newly-available technology of the [internal combustion engine], as well as those same automatic weapons that were making life so difficult (and death so easy), they set out to create what they envisioned as a 'land [dreadnaught]' - a [concept] quite natural in a nation so historically linked with [ocean-going] [armored] [Battleship|deathdealers].
In point of fact, the concept of the tank had been around in (ta daa!) [science fiction] for some time (yes, there was [sci-fi] then!). [H.G. Wells], of [War of the Worlds] fame, [had envisioned] [land dreadnaughts] and fighting [aeroplanes] and aeropiles in his most excellent book [When the Sleeper Wakes]. [Jules Verne], that [master] of technological [prognostication], had predicted land ships with cannon. Reality was about to catch up.
The name 'tank', as [RyanP] has [tank|noted], came from a British Army security [deception]. During the development of the tank, they were naturally most anxious to prevent word of these new weapons from leaking out. Unable to completely hide the enormous metal shapes that were now lurking around the [periphery] of their research establishments and military bases, they took to officially referring to them as 'water tanks' - a metal object of plausibly similar size - in order to deflect curiosity. The name stuck.
In any case, they managed to develop and deploy their new creations in relative secrecy, and the tanks proved immensely capable at their primary purpose, which was to be moving [pillbox]es. Essentially, the tank was designed to permit the movement of machine guns from place to place without making them vulnerable to other machine guns, so that you might drive across that aforementioned [killing ground] between [the trenches] and pour machine-gun fire into the other sides' machine guns from above them (avoiding their trench and [sandbag] defenses) without, yourself, getting [riddled with bullets].
The problem was that the British hadn't really thought much past the stage of 'okay, so we get through their trenches...' and the tank was too slow and [unreliable] to progress much past the front lines without significant [infantry] support, which *was* vulnerable to defending fire. Also, they ran up against what many have claimed was the primary cause of the trench-fighting of the War - [logistics] simply hadn't caught up with the increasing demands of a machine-age [military]. [Armies] now needed (in addition to food, water, and hay) [bullets], [parts], [artillery shells], [flares], [stacheldracht|barbed wire], [entrenching tool]s, [construction supplies] for said trenches and [bunkers], fuel for cooking as well as vehicles, [medicine], etc. etc. However, the motorized transport of the day was not plentiful nor reliable enough to even begin to be able to provide transportation of these needs; as a result, [army supply] and [troop transport] still relied on [railroads]. The real question, then, became how far one could operate from the [railhead]; at that point, armies were still limited by the range of [draft transport] ([horse]s, [mule]s, etc). This range is limited by the fact that the animals must carry food for their own consumption as well as their intended load; above a certain distance (forty miles, perhaps) the demands of the animal's hunger overmatch its total carrying capacity - and the conflict had assured that there was very quickly no native grass or other feed left for the beasts even before the poison gas attacks began.
As a result, although the tanks breached enemy [trench fortifications] fairly easily, the Allies were unable to develop their [breakthrough], and other than shifting the trenches by a few miles, not much came of it operationally. However, the fire had been lit, and those who had seen them and rode in them carried with them, out of the conflict, the seeds of what would become probably the fiercest tank war of all, the [Second World War].
How do they Work?
Early tanks were fairly simple, containing large [internal combustion engines] and armor plate hung on an oversized [chassis]. The primary innovation on the early tank was the tracklaying system, or treads. This solved the problem of getting across soft, broken or outright [barricade]d ground. The tracks themselves mean that the average tank's [ground pressure] is much lower than a car, despite their much higher total weight. Therefore, they won't sink into soft ground nearly as easily; and even if they do, the huge amount of [traction] that comes from a grip surface the whole length of your vehicle means they can pull free fairly easily. Essentially, the only thing that will stop a tank other than a wall it can't either go over or punch through is [deep water]...and some tanks can either [ford] such obstacles or float across them.
The problems came once opponents got over their shock and started pointing larger [caliber] weapons at the tanks. Machine guns were never really a problem for [Main Battle Tank|main battle tanks]; however, [medium-weight] guns that weren't much use in distance duels suddenly became popular for [tankbusting]. Probably the most famous of these is the [German 88]-millimeter [antiaircraft gun] that the [Wehrmacht] possessed going in to the Second World War. It was light and portable (for a cannon), it [traversed] and [pitch]ed easily, having been designed to track and follow aircraft, and it fired a fairly solid [shell] at great speeds, having been designed to throw those same shells long distances almost straight up into the air. These made short work of early tanks; the shells they threw would go through [armor plate] that would stop [machine-gun] fire or even small cannon shells cold. The Allied forces found this out the hard way; they also found that this gun was marvelously multipurpose, serving the Germans for fortification breaking as well as [tankbusting].
The Germans, meanwhile, weren't resting. Although the British developed the tank initially, they came to see it as a [cavalry] weapon, which was probably unsurprising given the number of cavalry officers worried about losing their jobs over it. They pressed for speedy tanks, able to sweep in and suddenly 'shock' the battlefield, mindful of the history of the [cavalry charge]. The Germans, however, decided that if their guns could smack around a tank, they damn sure didn't want their own tanks to be vulnerable to such treatment, and went for a range of solutions. At the top of the line came the [Tiger tank] - a [behemoth], with armor that Allied tank guns couldn't penetrate from the front even at [point-blank] range.
The Allies found themselves [in a quandary]. The [Sherman tank], which wasn't very good, really, was nevertheless the model that the U.S. war-footing economy was tooled up to produce. Retooling would have interrupted the incredible buildup that the U.S. was undergoing, so the design was left essentially the same. Shermans performed fairly badly (even to the point that the Germans called them [tommy-cookers] since the folks they first saw using them were British, and when hit they brewed right up into a nice bonfire).
For reasons we won't go into here, the Allies won the war, despite having [inferior weaponry]. Then the fun begins. The Russians had [tooled up] to produce tanks as well during the war (the [T-34] was the mainstay model during this time period) and had managed to turn out an amazing quantity of the things. This, coupled with [Stalin]'s increasing hostility towards the west, ensured that the tank's future looked bright.
Nearly immediately, the [Korean Peninsula] erupted in conflict. Although Korea's [terrain] (particularly in the middle and north) is not friendly to tanks, they were rushed into battle. Most of the equipment used in Korea was [World War II vintage]; not much new stuff trickled in until the end. Afterwards, however, with NATO and the [Warsaw Pact] staring at each other over [Central Europe] and the [Israelis] and [Arabic states] deciding to get rowdy frequently, the stage was set for constant advances in tank and [anti-tank] technology. More on this later.
In any case, the tank grew a thicker and thicker skin. So, tanks today are [massively armored]; in the 1950's, plain steel plate (also known in the biz as [RHA], for [Rolled-steel] [Homogenous] Armor) became inefficient as it reached thicknesses which made it difficult to [machine] and of limited utility. Advanced armor began to appear, consisting not only of exotic materials such as [ceramic] but of complex design, such as [spaced armor] or even [reactive armor]. Some type became nearly universal standards, such as [Chobham]; others were brought into being to defeat a particular weapon system, and didn't outlast the threat they were designed for.
Armor types have cycled as the 'most lethal' antitank weapon type has shifted, from [kinetic weapon]s to [shaped charges] ([HEAT]) to [spalling] attacks ([HESH]) and back to kinetic and on to [self-forging warheads]. At the moment, most of the more powerful MBTs (the American[ M1 Abrams] series, the Russian [T-84] or [T-72], the German [Leopard 2], the British [Challenger 2], the Japanese [Type-90], the Israeli [Merkava], etc.) use [composite armor], in some cases with reactive armor available as [applique] kits.
Composite armor is a multimaterial [laminate] such as [Chobham] (so named for the UK town where it was first manufactured in deadly secret). Although Chobham is not as effective inch for inch as plain RHA against kinetic weapons, it does much better against the range of potential weapons through its use of different substances such as ceramic layers, spaced layers, and the like (this is supposition; I've never actually seen Chobham in cross-section and if I had [classified|probably couldn't talk about it]). The ceramic protects against [plasma jets] from shaped charges; the spaced layers protect against [HESH|spalling weapons], and the metal layers along with the ceramic against kinetic weapons (the ceramic is [dense] and the steel dense and hard; it's a mass vs. mass question when a tank is hit by a kinetic [penetrator], and at the energies this typically happens the substances involved can act like [fluid]s in terms of their 'hardness').
[Active defenses] abound as well. Tanks mount [smoke dispenser]s, [antiaircraft] weapons from [light machine guns] up to containerized [MANPADS] missile units ([hell on wheels] vs. [helicopters]), [ATGM]s, [reactive armor] as mentioned, and of course massive firepower to try to deny any nearby enemies an undisturbed shot. Does it all work? At times, yes, very well. However, tanks are tricky to properly utilize. Most armies tend to discover this fact [the hard way], by losing a bunch of them after deploying them improperly.
What's properly? That's a good question that is still being debated on the [open plains], [steppes] and deserts of the world, in arguments punctuated by the loud barks of [ultima ratio regum] and occasional plumes of fire. Some basics seem to apply, however.
Tanks cannot survive without [infantry support] if there is even the possibility of enemy infantry nearby. This is because infantry can now carry weapons which, when properly used and with a bit of luck, can destroy tanks. Usually, it's not all that easy to aim ([big and heavy] for a man) or uses [sensors] the tank can detect (millimeter wave, [laser rangefinder], etc.). As a result, although tanks have fearful [firepower], they generally can't use it in all directions at once, and in addition the crew of a tank has notorious limitations on what they can see outside. Therefore, infantry are typically deployed to protect the tank from enemy infantry, and the tank, in reciprocation, protects the retreating or advancing infantry from other tanks and [armored vehicle]s, as well as being handily available to reduce [pillbox]es and other [fortifications].
What are they used for?
Tanks are used for [infantry support], for [killing] other tanks, as a [portable] [artillery] [reserve] in emergencies, for [knocking down] stuff, and for [fortifications], among other tasks. Sometimes they are even used as [scouts] for their ability to survive [contact] with the enemy. In infantry support, a tank's job is to provide [suppressive fire], to reduce enemy [strongpoints], and provide a [honking great big piece] of armor to hide behind when necessary.
As a portable artillery reserve, they're not too useful, but sometimes you have no choice. The problem is that tank guns are [direct fire] as opposed to [ballistic], so you need to get the tanks in close enough to see what they're shooting at. Given that [modern tank guns] are [lethal] out to perhaps 3 or 4 kilometers, though, that may not be a problem.
For knocking down stuff and especially [making hash out of] enemy fortifications, they're great. Using main gun rounds with [HEAT] [warhead]s, a tank can knock over pretty much anything that can be constructed by infantry on foot with light [tools]. If the target is really serious (say, [stone]) then a [kinetic penetrator] will [shatter] it, and a HEAT round will spread the [debris]. The problem with using tanks in this fashion is that you aren't always sure what's in those fortifications - there might be [ATGM]s or even [large guns] that can [whack] the tank. Commit with care.
The tank [excels], though, at killing other tanks, even though it's not always the [preferred means] of doing so. The [U.S. Army] would prefer to [kill] as many opposing tanks as possible with [air power], be it [fast-mover] [air support] or [attack helicopter]s, and with artillery, before [engaging] with their own tanks. This makes sense, of course; any edge you have, use!
How do you kill them?
Aha. This is [the good part]. There's a [long history] here of [defense industry|smart people on both sides] - one set trying to kill the tank, the other trying to [keep it alive]. There are naturally whole areas of [tactics] and [doctrine] that deal with this question, for the best armor is [the primary shield] - not being in front of the [incoming fire]. Ideally, you don't ever want to give the opponent a shot at your tank; you'd like to appear behind him when he isn't looking and engage in some [exultant] [up-the-kilt shot]s.
The methodology for killing tanks differs quite drastically depending on your approach. Approaches are defined as means employed by a particular type of unit, to wit: