Ever since the introduction of the tank into modern ground combat, it has been a bold symbol of armies of all countries. Its beginnings based on that of a farm tractor, the tank now looms large over battlefields as a worthy foe, and is in many cases the backbone of most modern day ground maneuvers. The tank was first developed by the British and the French during World War I. These tanks were very slow (road speed was about 5 mph) and were used only for infantry protection. Although they had some success in the battlefield, they failed to penetrate German lines. After World War I the Germans used the inter-war period to develop tank technology and tactics. The results of their efforts showed in the Blitzkriegs of 1939 in Poland and of 1940 in France. The tactics involved using newer, faster models of tanks that operated as a single unit, instead of just as a shield for infantry. In 1943 the Russians turned the tables at the Battle of Kursk, at the time the largest tank battle in history where almost 4,000 Russian tanks stopped a German offensive of more than 2,000 tanks. This battle was a turning point in the war as it ended the German offensive capability in the East. Its status as the largest tank battle in history lasted until 1973, when the Israeli army counterattacked against the Egyptian offensive in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. Interesting about this battle was the fact that the Egyptians used Russian tank tactics involving massed maneuver, while the Israelis used essentially the German blitzkrieg technique, which emphasized single-unit maneuver. The Israelis won this battle. Most recently the tank dominated in Desert Storm where United States tanks once again proved that maneuverability is more useful than massing, and the Western tanks proved dominate over the Russian.
The tank has developed in many different areas since its introduction during World War I. The speed, range, lethality, survivability, and the ability to communicate with or control a tank on the battlefield have all improved greatly, but there haven?t only been advancements in actual tanks when it comes to this kind of warfare. Anti-tank warfare has also seen great improvements in many of the same areas like weapon range and lethality.
One of the most remarkable areas of improvements has been that of speed. During World War I where tanks first saw battle, the maximum speed of a tank was around 5 kph, and that is strictly road speed. In the country, the top speed it could hope to attain would be roughly half of that. Nowadays the German tank known as the Leopard 2 which is in service with many armies, can attain a maximum road speed of around 72 kph, and a cross-country speed of 35 kph. This is similar to the speed of the French Leclerc except in the maximum cross-country speed it can achieve. Like the Leopard, the Leclerc can attain a maximum road speed of 72 miles per hour, but because the Leclerc weighs 3200 Kg less than the Leopard, it can attain a maximum cross- country speed of only 55 kph. The main difference between the two lies in the fact that the Leclerc houses a crew of three soldiers, while the Leopard can transport and hold up to fourteen. A third tank, the Israeli Merkava has a road and cross-country speed which is roughly the same, with a maximum of 65 kph on the road, and 60 kph in the country. Another factor that determines the speed of a tank is what and where it is to be used. The Merkava is an Israeli tank so most of the combat to be had is in the desert, so it isn?t specifically tailored to the road. These speeds are a vast increase over the earlier models of tanks; they not only go up to about 20 times faster than the first tank, but they can also cover a wider area as a result.
The operating range of tanks has also increased markedly. World War I tanks had a range of perhaps 50 miles. The German Wehrmacht?s premier tank at the outset of World War II, the Panzer IV, had a cross-country range of 80 miles. The tank of today?s German Army, the Leopard II, one of the best tanks in the world, has a range of 310 miles. Such range means that tank units are less restricted in their operating radius and less tied down to fixed fueling bases. Advances in communication have also allowed for a much larger range.
Lethality, the ability to ?kill? or disable other tanks, has also improved by orders of magnitude. Tank cannon have increased in caliber and throw weight from 75mm cannon in the Panzer IV of WWII to 120MM in the Leopard II, U.S. M1A2, and other front line tanks of today. Effective range is further increased with the advent of new optical systems. They can detect enemies as well as allies at greater range, enabling better targeting. Infrared systems enable the detection of heat signatures, and laser targeting gives soldiers the ability to self-aim and release laser-guided explosives and munitions. The laser is aligned with the fire-control computer, so the soldier uses his internal targeting system to aim at targets. After the target is illuminated with the laser, its guided munitions are released and follow the laser beam right to the target. This technology allows for extremely accurate targeting at longer ranges.
Survivability is another area in which huge leaps have been made. Armor became progressively heavier and more sophisticated over the years. Today, most modern tanks use depleted uranium, an extremely dense metal, as primary armor. It is almost impervious to all but the heaviest standard shells. Additionally, Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) is used as an add-on to the primary armor. The tank?s primary armor is covered with an additional layer of tiles of ERA, which is an explosive sandwiched between steel plates. The explosive in the armor is initiated due to the impact of a warhead upon it, causing it to explode outward, opposing the warhead that has just hit it; the result is minimal damage to the tank. ERA is a very recent development that saw its first significant use during Operation Desert Storm. ERA is being used on an ever-increasing scale since then to provide protection against both kinetic and chemical warheads.. Since ERA is tiled on to the (generally) flat surfaces of a tank it does not provide optimal protection. There are areas of the tank the ERA does not cover; many times these areas include the hull sides and rear, as well as the rear of the turret. These spaces are now the tank?s Achilles Heel; the enemy can disable a tank with a hit in these areas. ?During the first month of the Chechnya fight in December 1994, 62 Russian tanks were destroyed, all but one of them by hits in areas not protected by reactive armor.? (Biass, 56) As proved in that instance, it is hard, but not impossible to get around ERA. Another invention that deploys aspects of the ERA technology is that of the Russian radar systems ?Drozd? and ?Arena? which use radar sensors to detect incoming missiles, and send out grenades to engage such threats. Such devices are very expensive and not easy to come by, but soon these devices will become the norm, and defense technology will develop even more. Currently, the US is researching the development of ?fusing sensors? which will be able to provide a stand-off capability for projectiles and missiles allowing these to attack targets protected by ERA or other protection systems.
All modern day tanks are also equipped with laser-warning receivers (LWR), providing an additional degree of survivability. These give visual or acoustic warnings that incoming laser energy has been detected, basically telling the tank that they have been targeted. More sophisticated LWRs can give an indication of the nature of the threat, and can also initiate smoke grenades.
Operating range is also affected by the ability to communicate. Communication with air support and other tanks through the use of satellites and other new communications devices, is now much more reliable than it was even a decade ago. This enhanced communication allows for single tanks to find out where they are, where the other tanks in their unit are, and where the enemy is, as well as the structure of the land. This, in turn, enables them to maneuver with confidence over a greater range. At the same time, brigade, group and corps commanders can use enhanced communications technology, including both cellular and satellite technology, to have a better picture of the battlefield and thereby be better positioned for tactical and strategic decision-making involving tank companies and battalions.
Tanks have evolved in numerous ways since their introduction during World War I, and will continue to evolve until they are no longer needed for ground warfare, as long as the technology involved continues to evolve. The blitzkriegs of World War II and the Yom Kippur war both demonstrated that tank maneuverability was the key to ground warfare success, so many technologies have developed to increase the maneuverability of the tank. The speed of a modern tank as compared to the earliest models has increased 15 fold on both road and cross-country surfaces. The range of tanks has also increased over the past century. Tanks can now go up to around five times farther than they could on the same tank of gas, which has allowed for an increased operation radius, which is widened even more by the implementation of new communications systems. The lethality coupled with the survivability of tanks has allowed for a better battlefield record and the ability to easily upgrade most tanks (e.g. the panels of ERA that can be placed on different sections of a tank) has allowed for a longer life. Tanks are on the leading edge of technology and are an essential part of today?s armies.