Cold war tanks


From the sundry families of light, medium and heavy tanks, NATO and the Warsaw Pact revised tactics and technologies inherited from WW2 experience and developed new armoured vehicles including mainbattle tanks (MBTs), armoured transports and specialized vehicles. The two antagonists prepared for a large-scale conventional conflict until 1960, when the nuclear deterrent policy started to take the bulk of military spending and strategic thinking. However, armoured warfare did manage to keep pace with the development of new, smaller and more efficient AT missiles, ammunitions, and electronic targeting devices. These armaments served mainly in decolonisation wars, preventive conflicts and in the Middle-East. Some were what we now call “asymmetric wars”, like Vietnam or in Afghanistan. Others were more balanced types of conflicts like in Korea, the three Israeli wars (1956, 1967, 1973), or the Iran-Iraq war, where both sides fielded MBTs and armoured vehicles.

The MBTs became more and more costly with the development of new composite armours, new and more complex ammunitions, and new sets of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) equipment. Additionally, advancements in electronic warfare, fording equipment, flares, in-board infra-red vision andradar, flame-throwers, grenade launchers, remotely operated machine guns, etc. added to the cost as well as to the efficiency and destructive power of the MBT. MBTs were supposed to replace all types of tanks simultaneously but only a few countries had the technological, financial and political capabilities to build such machines (namely members of the United Nations Security Council- USA, USSR, United Kingdom, France and China). At the same time, many other nations of the world began to develop their own derivatives from these main models, tailored for their military needs and industrial capabilities. With the transfer, purchase, and expansion of technology, new industries capable of building such tanks have continued, and will continue, to design and refine the new generations of MBTs of the post-cold war era.

The rapidly increasing costs, as well as the need for better tactical flexibility demonstrated a market for cheaper, but still deadly-effective vehicles. Light tanks, or “low-tech MBTs” mainly for export, but also wheeled tanks (experimented with during WW II), found new markets in some third-world countries as well as in the arsenal of the world’s biggest armies. Armoured cars, preferably with true off-road capabilities were, and are still, part of the armies of many countries today and their builders are now flourishing.

In the 1980s many “third world” nations developed a home-grown industrial capability able, not to create a MBT from scratch, but to completely modernize an existing one to extend its service life for more decades. This had two advantages at the time. It was a cost-saving solution -on the development perspective alone- to build on something already in existence and very well known. Second, it also saved considerable money from a training and maintenance point of view. Since it was based on an already-existing model, it was easier to modify training procedures (due to new ergonomics), to train maintenance crews, or to change ordnance, transport, storage, and spare parts management than it was to create an entirely new model from scratch.

Upgrading was a natural process which triggered a wave of local versions depending on the needs of each user. A complete refurbishing upgrade is just a combination of changes that leads to, in effect, a brand new tank. Most of these 1980s-1990s changes were aimed at converting 1950-60s 1st generation vehicles to at least 2nd generation ones. These modifications ranged from engine improvements (often US or German engine and transmissions were preferred), gunnery improvements (adoption of the standard NATO L7 gun for example), with new Firing Control Systems, (gun stabilization, target management computer, laser range finder, new day-night all-weather IR sights…). Last but not least, protection improvements were developed to replace obsolete Rolled Homogenous Armour (RHA), including simple add-on appliqué plates, classified composite modular armour (ceramics-alloys-kevlar), or Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) bricks, and rubber side skirts or rigid panels to protect the drive train and tracks from Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and other hand-carried AT missiles and shaped-charge weaponry. The front arc protection often ranges to a 250 to 800 mm equivalent of RHA.

These radical reconstructions were especially popular, for example, around mass-produced Soviet models like the T-54/55 and T-62 families, early US tanks like the M47/M48 Patton, and British tanks like the Centurion. Israel was probably one of the most proficient countries in this discipline, literally morphing every single tank bought or captured into a new model. This began with old stock M4 Shermans refurbished into M50/51 and Super Shermans with modern FCS and a French 105mm cannon. The Centurion was developed as the Sho’t, captured Soviet tanks were given L7 105 mm guns, new FCS and other improvements as the Tiran family, whereas the M48 and M60 were radically upgraded as the Magach and the Sabra. This experience led to the creation the Merkava MBT and makes the Israeli defence industries one of the most influential players on the defence market worldwide. Its expertise was, for example, instrumental in the complete rebuilding of Centurions as Olifants in South Africa.

Upgrading national tanks for export was an especially popular “sport” for private venture, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s markets, mmost of these propositions failed despite their respectable qualities simply because of cost issues. Cheap, second-hand tanks were stockpiled with the détente in the late 1980s and were sold at scrap value or given away at shipment cost only. This doomed many reconversionor even new projects aimed at export like the Brazilian Osorio and Tamoyo (based respectively on the Leopard and M41 Walker Bulldog), the US-Chinese Jaguar, French AMX-32 and AMX-40, German super M48, Italian OF-40, Ukrainian T-84 Yatagan, British Mk.4 Valiant, Mk.7 & VFM-5, and the American Super M60 and Stingray (to some extent), among others…
(to be continued)

NEWS ON 01/10/2014: The British FV-4201 Chieftain

British engineers took a different path that the French and german teams working on the “Europanzer”, which ended a failed project.
Since United Kingdom had developed its own tanks lineage, independently from US supplies, the Army was keen to improve what was already a worldwide success, the Centurion, and the equally successful Royal Ordnance L7 gun, adopted throughout NATO. As a matter of fact, the new tank pushed the envelope both in terms of protection (it was the first to use a composite armour in the west) and armament, with a brand new L11, 120 mm rifled gun which imposed a new standard. The mobility however, which was to be better than of the Centurion, was clearly the loosing aspect of the enw design. The first engine was a sensitive multi-fuel design which was not powerful enough to cope with the additional weight of the Chieftain, and led to teething problems for years on end in the 1960s when it was first introduced into service. Engine upgrades later would later solve these issues, however, the Chieftain ended as slower than average and its tactical integration with the new Challenger imposed to bear its limitations in mind. But by the fall 1960s, it was however one of the very best tanks in the world.

NEWS ON 04/09/2014: The French AMX-30

Back in time with the French coldwar main battle tank
This 2nd generation MBT was at first built as an alternative to the German Leopard, competing for the future “Europanzer” project aimed at replacing the M47 Patton in the late 1950s. Early in the 1960s, six prototypes were tested (from each country), but the well-awaited official NATO tests made apparently the Leopard a winner. It is not surprising given the commercial success and influence this model enjoyed afterwards for three solid decades, shaping the backbone of European armoured forces. The AMX-30 was not a plainly failed tank, though, but had quite serious issues. And it was nevertheless mass-produced (more than 3500 delivered) to cover the needs of the French, Spanish, and Greek Armies and was exported to other countries in South America and in the Middle East. In the two European nation\’s case it seemed to have been a “second choice” after the delivery of Leopards was denied by the Bundestag to what were then anti-democratic nations.

The three main issues of this tank were the choice of armour, which was only good frontally and very weak elsewhere, as engineers had in mind that superior speeds will compensate for this major drawback. This was not seen either as an issue compared to the early Leopard, also weakly protected at the beginning for the same reasoning. It was asserted by experts that no passive RHA armour could withstand any modern ammunitions. But the latter was thoroughly up-armored contrary to the AMX-30. Its only concession was (for a handful of B2 tanks) to be equipped with a full ERA in the 1990s. On the mobility side there was also a problem. But most export tanks and those built in spain never really adressed this problem adequately.

Also, neither the Hispano-Suiza nor the transmission proved up to the task. The first was relatively fragile and proved unreliable in rough conditions, whereas the transmission was derived from an old -but audacious design- derived from the panther, relatively awkward to use and complicated to maintain. It was never really easy to use on the move, a problem where the AMX-30 had to rely heavily on its capabilities off-roads to surpass soviet tanks in this area. The 105 mm (NATO\’s standard) was not derived from the British L7 but well complemented by the French-built “Obus G”. Range and accuracy were superior to the soviet 1st generation T-54/55 and T-62, but barely sufficient against the T-72. The AMX-30 was nevertheless proven in battle, with good results against Iraki armor, during operation Desert Storm in 1991, both used by Saudi Forces (Battle of Khafji) and the French light division “Daguet”. Eventually, the AMX-30 could not be underestimated as it gave French engineers significant experience to devise more advanced postwar generation MBTs, ultimately leading to the Leclerc, one of the top 3rd generation MBTs in the world, which, this time, combined at best the three triangle tips without any sacrifice.

NEWS ON 01/08/2014: The T-72

USSR’s second generation Main Battle Tank (1972-…).
There was nothing fancy about this tank. Although it was largely more advanced than the T-54/55 family, the T-72 took bits of the T-62 (it was based on a prototype rearmed with a bigger smoothbore gun), and an innovative turret, which design was more advanced than the usual “hemi” cupola design, as well as a lower hull with a more compact engine compartment and engine design. Later known as the “Dolly Parton” turret armour, it made the T-72 one of the better protected of any soviet tank, while keeping the usual characteristics of a low profile, speed and agility. It was an improvement deeply embedded in the tactical and doctrinal one defined after the experience in the steppe during the “great patriotic war”.

Astonishingly, these principles are still in use today : The T-90 is the direct derivative of this model, based on the latest T-72 version, and is today the Russian Federation 3rd generation main battle tank. The T-72 was more successful than the T-62 or the very confidential T-64 and sold well despite being far costier than the old T-54/55. Indeed it was adopted by nearly 60 countries, including those of the Warsaw pact which rejected the T-62, heavily built under licence and for export, and is still now frontline in many (if not most) of these, because of the price tag of the new T-90 among other things.

The modernized T-72 is a kind of “cheaper version” of the latter, but some were so thoroughly modified that they are considered today “national tanks”. The T-72 have also an impressive battle record, although spanning less decades than the more prolific T-54/55. Nevertheless, after a somewhat disappointing T-62 and a too complex T-64, the T-72 renewed with success and forces NATO experts to revise their theoretical responses in case of a large soviet conventional assault on Western Europe.

NEWS ON 08/07/2014:
The Soviet T-62 & M48 Patton

Two cold war tanks, at the peak of the East-West rivalry and the highest hot point of this undeclared war, the Cuba missiles crisis.

The T-62

The T-62 was the successor of the T-54/55 family, upgraded with a brand new main gun, for the first time, smoothbore. It had both very high velocity and very long range. It costs twice as much as the T-54/55 and had other innovative features like an automatic cartridge ejector. But the smoothbore was a tradeoff for accuracy due to the poor quality of Soviet targeting and sighting devices. None was adopted by the Warsaw pact (but Albania) but if found several customers and is still in service today in modernized versions. The T-62 was chiefly in action in Afghanistan where it was found more “expendable”, and Chechnya.

The T-62 would have barely deserved a “tank of the month”, just like the T-64. Both were innovative, but decidedly flawed, as we know today. The fact the Warsaw pact allies never bought or built them is a clue. Their cost was also an issue on the export market and their issues were an embarrasment for the Politburo. Eventually, the T-72 was the real successor of the T-54/55 (which would be the next tank of the month) although far more costier, they were really the next MBT generation USSR and the Warsaw pact countries waited for. Reliable, dependable and without issues (only their cramped interior and lack of comfort to western eyes were), they were very low, light and fast, but pack the deadly punch of a mature 122 mm smoothbore capable of firing every kind of modern ammunitions, ATGMs and introduced a new turret design with an excellent composite protection known in the west as “Dolly parton”. Last but not least, its price was lower than the T-64 and its vision and targeting equipments were of far better quality and accuracy. There is no guess why it was the MBT of choice for the communist sphere of influence.