Collections: When is a ‘Tank’ Not a Tank?

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This week we’re going to look at everyone’s favorite kind of armored fighting vehicle, the tank. In part this is a response to my frustration – one shared by, it seems, quite a few people – at the continued inability for journalists in particular to correctly identify what is and is not a tank. But more importantly it provides an opportunity to discuss what tanks are and what they are for.

This isn’t going to be a real ‘deep dive’ into the development and design of armored fighting vehicles as that is a huge topic. Rather this is going to be a brief overview of how we got both tanks but also other tank-like objects which often get mistaken for tanks with some particular attention to what these various vehicles are for: what their role is and how that dictates elements of their design.

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Defining a Tank

Whenever this topic comes up, someone swiftly produces some version of this chart:

Or this somewhat more fanciful version:

So what defines a tank? If I was pressed for a hard definition, I’d say that a tank is a heavily armored and tracked combat vehicle whose purpose is to offer powerful direct fire capabilities against a range of enemy targets. This isn’t quite a doctrine-only definition, but it is certainly a doctrine-first definition; the technical details (heavy armor, tracks) actually both relate to the specific capabilities they provide (which we’ll get to in a moment).

But in practice, like many weapons and weapon-systems, the tank and its definition is rooted in its developmental history and the problems that tanks were created to solve. So…

Where Did the Tank Come From and Why?

We’ve actually already discussed this to a degree: the tank was a direct response to the battlefield conditions of WWI, in particular the trench stalemate on the Western front. The idea of some kind of armored ‘land cruiser’ (potentially armed with machine guns) had been floated before WWI but never seriously considered and developed on, but serious development only began in 1915 with the formation of the Landship Committee early that year. Famously, they needed a code-name for their planned vehicle and opted first for ‘water carrier’ and then for ‘tank,’ thus giving the tank its peculiar English name.

And we should stop to note that as with any question of definition, this one too is language-sensitive. The exact confines of a term vary from one language to another; kampfpanzer, for instance is not necessarily an exact synonym for ‘tank.’

In any event, the basic demands of early tanks were dictated by the realities of the Western Front: a tank needed to be able to resist small arms fire (particularly machine guns), deliver direct supporting fire itself, it needed to be able to move on the muddy, artillery-flattened ground and it needed to be able to cross a trench. This last requirement – the need to be able to both climb a parapet (usually c. 4ft) and then cross over an 8ft wide trench – was significant in the design of early tanks.

Via Wikipedia, a British Mark I tank (‘male’ meaning it has two quick-firing 6-pounder in the sponsons; you can see just one of them here, angled up).
There is one tank in this picture.

Those factors in turn dictated a lot of the design of early tanks. The armor demands of resisting small armies fire meant that the vehicle would be heavy (and indeed, as soon as tanks appeared amongst Allied troops, their German opponents began introducing more powerful bullets, like the K bullet and later the 13.2mm anti-tank round fired from the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr). And here is the first advantage of tracks. The weight of a vehicle is distributed along all of the area of contact it has with the ground; with tires that area is limited to the bottom of the tire so the total area of ground contact is fairly low, which is fine for most vehicles.

Via Wikipedia, the French Renault FT-17, in this case in use by the United States Army. Smaller, lighter and relatively more reliable, the Renault FT was one of the more successful tanks of WWI, but the move towards larger and heavier tanks in the interwar period rapidly left it obsolete.
These are tanks.

But tanks are heavy. Really heavy. Even something like the Renault FT could mass around 7 tons and by later standards that would be classified as a tankette (a ‘mini-tank’ as it were); by WWII, medium tanks often clocked in around 30 tons. If you put a vehicle like that on tires, you are going to create a LOT of pressure on those small points of contact. That might still be OK if you are just going to drive on roads and other firm surfaces which can take the pressure. But remember: tanks were designed for the Western Front, which looks like this:

Via Wikipedia, no man’s land in Belgium, 1919.
This is not a tank.

Fortunately for the landship committee, this wasn’t a new problem: farming tractors were also heavy and also had to operate in churned up (in this case, plowed) soft soil; the heaviest of these vehicles had much the same problem and the solution was continuous tracks or ‘treads.‘ When kept properly tensioned – tune in, by the by, to Nicholas ‘The Chieftain’ Moran’s YouTube for more than you ever want to know about track tension – the track distributes the weight of the tank across the entire section of the track touching the ground, which reduces the ground pressure at any given point, allowing a big heavy tank to roll over terrain where even a much lighter wheeled vehicle would get stuck.

This is one of those points where the functionality of a tank (what a tank does) has such a strong influence on design that the design implications of the functionality become part of the definition: a tank has to be heavily armored and has to be able to move off road and as a result has to be tracked, not wheeled. One might be able to imagine some sort of exotic technology that might make it possible to do all of the things a tank does without tracks, but we don’t have that yet.

The other factor was fire. I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the significant background factors of WWI is that a lot of the belligerents misjudged the kind of artillery they’d need for a general European war. Not to get too deep into the weeds here, but most of the belligerents expected a relatively rapid war of maneuver and so thought that light, direct-fire1 artillery like the famed French ’75 (the Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897) would be the most useful. Those guns could be moved quickly and could deliver a lot of quick firepower on static or moving formations of enemy infantry in support of friendly infantry.

The problem is that in the conditions of trench warfare, those guns – as they were configured, at least – were far less useful. They were, first off, much shorter in range which meant they had to be brought dangerously far forward to do their direct fire role – often so far forward they could be engaged by enemy rifles and machine guns. This was compounded by the fact that direct fire at range was ineffective against trench works (which are dug down into the earth). But at the same time, the value of rapid firing (because these lighter guns could fire a lot faster than the heavy, indirect fire artillery) direct fire artillery remained high, if only you could get it to the fight.

Via Wikimedia, a ‘French 75’ light field gun; the formal name for this fast-firing and deadly light artillery piece was the Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897. Brutally effective in its role, the gun suffered from the fact that trench warfare increasingly prioritized heavy artillery over light, fast moving field guns like this one.
This is not a tank.

This was also a problem a tank could solve: as a mobile, armored platform it could move a rapid-firing direct fire gun forward without immediately being knocked out by enemy small arms to support the infantry. There is, I should note, early complexity on this point, with both ‘male’ (heavy direct fire cannon focused) and ‘female’ (machine gun focused) tanks in WWI though in the end ‘hermaphrodite’ designs with both capabilities (but much more focus on the main cannon) triumph, so that’s what we’ll focus on.

And that gets us the fundamental role structure for tanks: enough armor to resist enemy small arms (but with the understanding that some weapons will always be effective against the tank), enough mobility to cross the churned up battlefield and some direct fire capability to support the infantry crossing it at the same time.

Comes the Halftrack

The period between WWI and WWII – the ‘interwar’ period – was a period of broad experimentation with tank design and so by the time we get to WWII there are a number of sub-groupings of tanks. Tanks could be defined by weight or by function. The main issue in both cases was the essential tradeoff between speed, firepower and armor: the heavier you made the armor and the gun2 the heavier and thus slower the tank was. The British thus divided their tank designs between ‘cruiser tanks’ which were faster but lighter and intended to replace cavalry while the ‘infantry tanks’ were intended to do the role that WWI tanks largely had in supporting infantry advances. Other armies divided their tanks between ‘light,’ ‘medium,’ and ‘heavy’ tanks (along with the often designed but rarely deployed ‘super heavy’ tanks).

What drove the differences in tank development between countries were differences between how each of those countries imagined using their tanks, that is differences in tank doctrine. Now we should be clear here that there were some fundamental commonalities between the major schools of tank thinking: in just about all cases tanks were supposed to support infantry in the offensive by providing armor and direct fire support, including knocking out enemy tanks. Where doctrine differed is exactly how that would be accomplished: France’s doctrine of ‘Methodical Battle’ generally envisaged tanks moving at the speed of mostly foot infantry and being distributed fairly evenly throughout primarily infantry formations. That led to tanks that were fairly slow with limited range but heavily armored, often with just a one-man turret (which was a terrible idea, but the doctrine reasoned you wouldn’t need more in a slow-moving combat environment). Of course this worked poorly in the event.

More successful maneuver warfare doctrines recognized that the tank needed infantry to perform its intended function (it has to have infantry to support) but that tanks could now move fast enough and coordinate well enough (with radios) that any supporting arms like infantry or artillery needed to move a lot faster than walking speed to keep up. Both German ‘maneuver warfare’ (Bewegungskrieg) and Soviet ‘Deep Operations’ (or ‘Deep Battle’) doctrine saw the value in concentrating their tanks into powerful striking formations that could punch hard and move fast. But tanks alone are very vulnerable and in any event to attack effectively they need things like artillery support or anti-air protection. So it was necessary to find ways to allow those arms to keep up with the tanks (and indeed, a ‘Panzer divsion’ is not only or even mostly made up of tanks!).

At the most basic level, one could simply put the infantry on trucks or other converted unarmored civilian vehicles, making ‘motorized’ infantry, but as discussed a whole part of the design of tanks is to allow them to go places that conventional civilian vehicles designed for roads cannot and in any event an unarmored truck is a large, vulnerable tempting target on the battlefield.

The result is the steady emergence of what are sometimes jokingly called ‘battle taxis’ – specialized armored vehicles designed to allow the infantry to keep up with the tanks so that they can continue to be mutually supporting, while being more off-road capable and less vulnerable than a truck. In WWII, these sorts of vehicles were often ‘half-tracks’ – semi-armored, open-topped vehicles with tires on the front wheels and tracks for the back wheels, though the British ‘Universal Carrier’ was fully tracked. Crucially, while these half-tracks might mount a heavy machine gun for defense, providing fire support was not their job; being open-topped made them particularly vulnerable to air-bursting shells and while they were less vulnerable to fire than a truck, they weren’t invulnerable by any means. The intended use was to deposit infantry at the edge of the combat area, which they’d then move through on foot, not to drive straight through the fight.

Via Wikipedia, the US Army’s M3 Half-track (deployed in 1940). You can see how the protection it offers the crew and the passengers is not zero but still relatively minimal: you want to get out of these and move on foot once you are at the fight, since infantry can at least take cover as they move whereas a halftrack is a tempting target for enemy fire.
These aren’t tanks.

The particular vulnerability of the open-top design led to the emergence of fully-enclosed armored personnel carriers almost immediately after WWII in the form of vehicles like the M75 Armored Infantry Vehicle (though the later M113 APC was eventually to be far more common) and the Soviet BTRs (“Bronetransporter” or “armored transport”), beginning with the BTR-40; Soviet BTRs tended to be wheeled whereas American APCs tend to be tracked, something that also goes for their IFVs (discussed below). These vehicles often look to a journalist or the lay observer like a tank, but they do not function like tanks.3 The M113 APC, for instance, has just about 1.7 inches of aluminum-alloy armor, compared to the almost four inches of much heavier steel armor on the contemporary M60 ‘Patton’ Tank. So while these vehicles are armored, they are not intended to stick in the fight and are vulnerable to much lighter munitions than contemporary tank would be.

Via Wikipedia, a Soviet BTR-152, developed in 1949 and deployed in 1950. Note while fully enclosed, the purpose of this vehicle is transport, not fighting.
This is not a tank.

At the same time, it wasn’t just the infantry that needed to be able to keep up: these powerful striking units (German Panzer divisions, Soviet mechanized corps or US armored divisions, etc.) needed to be able to also bring their heavy weaponry with them. At the start of WWII, artillery, anti-tank guns and anti-air artillery remained almost entirely ‘towed’ artillery – that is, it was pulled into position by a truck (or frequently in this period still by horses) and emplaced (‘unlimbered’) to be fired. Such systems couldn’t really keep up with the tanks they needed to support and so we see those weapons also get mechanized into self-propelled artillery and anti-air (and for some armies, tank destroyers, although the tank eventually usurps this role entirely).

Self-propelled platforms proved to have another advantage that became a lot more important over time: they could fire and then immediately reposition. Whereas a conventional howitzer has to be towed into position, unlimbered, set up, loaded, fired, then limbered again before it can move, something like the M7 Priest can drive itself into position, fire almost immediately and then immediately move. This maneuver, called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ (or, more boringly, ‘fire-and-displace’) enables artillery to avoid counter-battery fire (when an army tries to shut down enemy artillery by returning fire with its own artillery). As artillery got more accurate and especially with the advent of anti-artillery radars, being able to shoot-and-scoot became essential.

Via Wikipedia, an M7-Priest self-propelled gun. Note that whereas a tank essentially took up much of the role of direct fire artillery, self-propelled artillery generally takes up the role of indirect fire artillery.
This is not a tank.

Now while self-propelled platforms were tracked (indeed, often using the same chassis as the tanks they supported), they’re not tanks. They’re designed primarily for indirect fire (there is, of course, a sidebar to be written here on German ‘assault guns’ – Sturmgeschütz – and their awkward place in this typology, but let’s keep it simple), that is firing at a high arc from long range where the shell practically falls on the target and thus are expected to be operating well behind the lines. Consequently, their armor is generally much thinner because they’re not designed to be tanks, but to play the same role that towed artillery (or anti-air, or rocket artillery, etc.) would have, only with more mobility.

So by the end of WWII, we have both tanks of various weight-classes, along with a number of tank-like objects (APCs, self-propelled artillery and anti-air) which are not tanks but are instead meant to allow their various arms to keep up with the tanks as part of a combined arms package.

MBTs and IFVs

As we get into the Cold War era, one thing becomes simpler: the distinction between different kinds of tanks (heavy, medium, light, cruiser, infantry, etc) largely4 drops away. Improved engines, suspension and lighter but more effective composite armor meant that the slightly different roles of the different weights of tank could increasingly be accomplished by a single platform evolving out of late-war medium tanks. You could now fit a heavy tank’s gun and armor on a chassis with a medium tank’s speed and maneuverability. The first of these ‘universal’ tanks was the British Centurion (first deployed in 1946)5 and other countries followed suit.

Via Wikipedia, Centurion, the world’s first main battle tank, having a favorable mix of armor, speed and firepower in a single platform.
This is a tank.

The result is the modern ‘main battle tank’ (MBT), typically between 45 and 75 tons, with a single powerful direct-fire cannon as its primary armament. That’s not to say design differences between militaries drop away; there are still decisions to be made: the level of emphasis between speed, armor and firepower for instance. Another major decision is whether a tank is designed with a three-person turret (one of whom is a dedicated loader) or a two-person turret with an autoloader (that is, a machine that does the loading for you). It used to be that now I’d have to go on about why going autoloaders aren’t simply obviously the best but given the live demonstrations of some of the drawbacks of Soviet/Russian carousel autoloaders going on right now I’ll just say that both options have advantages and drawbacks and move on. So there is variety within the idea of an MBT, but by and large most countries field just one type of MBT (or one family of MBTs for countries which can’t afford to retire older systems) and that covers their tank needs.

From Rob Lee’s twitter feed, a destroyed Russian T-72B3 with the turret having been blown off. This happens because the ammunition in the carousel autoloader ‘cooks off’ when the body of the tank is struck and penetrated by enemy fire. The structure of an autoloader makes keeping ammunition secure and channeling any ammunition explosion to the outside of the tank more difficult, but the carousel autoloader design of the T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks is particularly poor at this. Crew survivability in these cases is extremely low.
This was a tank.

But of course nothing could easy so just as tanks were getting easier to keep track of, APCs get much more complicated. Even before they were fully enclosed, APCs had generally carried some kind of defensive weapon (usually a heavy machine gun), but you weren’t supposed to fight with it if you could avoid it. Beginning in the 1950s, designers – first in West Germany – began experimenting with the idea that an APC could be armed to not merely deliver the infantry (‘dismounts’) but to actually fight when they got there. The thing is, there are a lot of situations where an infantry formation might want more firepower but where a tank would be overkill: armored vehicles lighter than tanks, or enemies with lighter fortifications, for instance. West Germany pioneered the idea by putting a 20mm autocannon on their APC, the Schützenpanzer Lang HS.30, enabling it to put out some meaningful firepower, albeit much less than a tank.

Via Wikipedia, a Schützenpanzer Lang HS.30 currently in the German Tank Museum. As you can see, it is still mostly an APC, with the turret not being the main focus of the design, but nevertheless offering substantial firepower.
Despite its location, this is not a tank.

The USSR cottoned on to the idea and liked it, resulting in the Soviet BMP-1 and the subsequent BMP family of what we call ‘infantry fighting vehicles’ (IFV). Initially resistant to the idea (American doctrine was that APCs move troops and should not fight if they could help it), the United States, noticing the effectiveness of these sorts of platforms, got into the act with the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (these days the M2 Bradley). And IFVs, especially the Bradley, look like tanks. And indeed, they are sometimes called on to do the kind of armored reconnaissance and infantry support jobs that in a previous era would have gone to a light tank.

Via Wikipedia, a BMP-3, prominently displaying both its main armament and the All-Purpose Soviet Log attachment (The USSR may be gone, but the All-Purpose Soviet Log survives!). You can see the evolution in design: greater emphasis on the weapon, but this is still primarily a troop transporter with a lot of internal space for the purpose.
This is not a tank.

But they are also notably not tanks in several key ways. The primary job of an IFV is to move infantry and support them against lighter targets; some IFVs do maintain some kind of anti-tank capability, but it tends to be more limited (e.g. the Bradley’s pair of TOW AT missiles). The requirement that an IFV needs to be fairly fast but also needs to fit a bunch of dismounts means they can’t carry the firepower or the armor of a tank, often using lighter aluminum armor rather than steel or heavy composites. Finally, the tendency is for IFVs to mount lighter primarily armaments – again, space and weight concerns – like the Bradley’s 25mm M242 Bushmaster chain gun. The BMP-3 is probably the most heavily armed IFV out there with a low-velocity 100mm rifled gun and a 30mm autocannon, which is still a far cry from the firepower of the high-velocity 125mm main gun of a contemporary T-80 or the 120mm high velocity gun of a M1A1 Abrams. Instead, most IFVs would rely on anti-tank missile systems to engage tanks (although IFV autocannons can cause a tank serious problems if they can engage the rear or side armor, which is thinner).

Via Wikipedia, the Bradley (in this case, M3), probably the single worst not-a-tank offender for its appearance. One thing that confuses people in this is scale: the Bradley is taller than the Abrams (just about 10ft to 8ft), so it is easy to mistake the proportions. Moreover that height also goes towards the design consideration: tanks, because of their offensive role, need to have lower profiles so they can fire and then hide behind things (‘turret down’ or ‘hull down’ position); the Bradley’s role is different – it has to fit a bunch of dismounts and/or scouting gear – and so it ended up a lot taller.
This is not a tank.

Note that the IFV did not mean the end of the APC just as the APC didn’t bring the end of soft-skinned troop transports. In the US military, the Bradley serves alongside lighter-but-still-IFV Strykers, the venerable M113 APC along with soft-skinned HMMWV (Humvees; to be in theory replaced with the Oshkosh6 L-ATV) and trucks of various kinds and uses. Likewise, the Russian army has its BMPs (which are IFVs), and BTRs (which are APCs) as well as soft-skinned vehicles – or at least it did until, I am now being told, they were all towed away by Ukrainian farmers. The real Iron Harvest.

The final category worth noting here are variations on the concept of the MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected): infantry transport vehicles designed to resist the sort of dangers one encounters in counter-insurgency operations, mostly mines, IEDs and small-arms ambushes. In essence, these vehicles are a purpose-built version of the up-armored Humvees designed to operate in a very particular combat environment (insurgencies and particularly urban insurgencies). These sort of vehicles have gotten more visibility in the United States because many of them have been shifted into the hands of law enforcement, where their utility is questionable, to say the least.

Via Wikipedia, a set of Caiman MRAPs deployed in Iraq. I actually use this vehicle when talking to my students to talk about trade-offs in the kind of conflicts a force prepares to fight, because the improvements that make an MRAP safer in an urban insurgency would render it much less viable in a large-scale conventional conflict than thinner-skinned, less well armored (but lower profile and faster) vehicles.
These are not tanks.

So What is a Tank?

In many ways, the role a tank fills hasn’t changed much since WWII when ‘engage other tanks’ was added to its list of jobs: tanks provide offensive ‘punch’ and firepower to allow infantry to advance, seize ground and maneuver in an environment where, thanks to machine guns, even small enemy forces can put out a lot of bullets to otherwise prevent infantry from doing those things. Tanks also need to engage other armored vehicles and potentially fortified positions. Doing those two jobs require that tanks heave the heaviest armor and the heaviest main gun possible, which both precludes them doing other things (like moving infantry) while at the same time demanding that they be tracked in order to manage the weight of that stuff.

I don’t think a tank needs to have a turret, by this definition, to be a tank, but most tanks have turrets. But many non-tanks also have turrets. The key here is role and function, not any particular design element.

Via Wikipedia, the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 or ‘S-tank’ (in service from 1967 to 1997) is a rare example of a turretless tank, though it is worth noting that Sweden’s later tanks are turreted.
This is a tank.

What has changed is that tanks have gone from being effectively the only armored vehicle on the battlefield to working in concert with many other armored fighting vehicles, which have different roles. IFVs, in particular, can blur the line a bit between a tank and an APC, but in most cases the differences in design, firepower and thus capabilities between a tank and an IFV is massive; attempting to use IFVs like tanks is a good way to lose a lot of IFVs.

Is the tank on the way out? I don’t think so. Nicholas ‘The Chieftain’ Moran did a fairly good overview of the question, but the key point here is that the design of the tank is dictated by its battlefield function and there still isn’t anything out there that does a tank’s job better than a tank does; IFVs and other AFVs have to make pretty clear compromises in armor protection and firepower to accomplish their main roles. And while the public may be discovering the vulnerability of the tank for the first time, tanks have always been vulnerable to a wide variety of threats and have always required supporting arms to mitigate (but not remove) that vulnerability.

Now does it matter that the general public cannot tell the difference between a tank and an IFV? No, it probably doesn’t, to be honest. But it does matter that journalists covering wars and politicians making decisions about them also don’t seem to be able to, because it hints at a broader gap in the base of knowledge they are working with. “Bradley/BMP-3 isn’t a tank, but something else (an IFV) with a different function and purpose” is a fairly entry-level piece of information about modern warfare. And at some points that information gap can be abused, as when the German ambassador to the United States described Germany sending ‘Gepard Tanks’ to Ukraine:

Presumably Emily Haber was attempting to avoid a truer description of the event which would have been, “Germany is sending largely obsolete self-propelled anti-air platforms, the Flakpanzer Gepard, to Ukraine.” A journalist who is actually qualified to be covering a modern conflict ought to immediately be able to call this out as, at best, an unfortunate mistake (if not an intentional error). But journalists often sadly lack that kind of domain-specific knowledge, which really hurts their ability to inform the public.

(Edit: It seems worth clearing up confusion here about the German word panzer. While it is often translated as ‘tank’ (and so Flakpanzer gets translated as ‘Flak-tank’ or ‘AA-tank’) that’s not really right. Panzer means ‘armor,’ thus kettenpanzer is the German word for mail armor (one of them, anyway), “chain armor” literally. The direct German equivalents for ‘tank’ are the older panzerkampfwagen (‘armored fighting vehicle’ but in use clearly means ‘tank’) or the more modern Kampfpanzer. Of course you can just use panzer in German to mean ‘tank’ just as in some cases you can use ‘armor’ in English to mean tank (“enemy armor, coming down the road!” means tanks, not a procession of breastplates). That said, this article was fundamentally about the usage in English where ‘tank’ is more narrowly defined than panzer is in German. Equipment terminology actually tends to be very language-specific in terms of what it includes and excludes.)

In any case, here is the terminology shorthand: any armored fighting vehicle is an ‘armored fighting vehicle’ (AFV – convenient, huh?); that includes tanks, but also self-propelled artillery and self-propelled anti-air, IFVs, MRAPs and APCs. A tank is an AFV whose purpose is to offer powerful direct fire capabilities against a range of enemy targets (infantry, buildings, other tanks and other AFVs); tracks, while not a dead giveaway are good to look for. Not all tracked AFVs are tanks, but all tanks are tracked AFVs because of the demands that the weight armor and firepower place on them. If you take an APC and put big gun on it, it becomes an IFV, not a tank. If you take a truck and put a big gun on it, it becomes a technical, not a tank (but that’s a story for another post).

This post is not a tank.

This, however, is a tank.

Edit: Turning the Post off and on again.

Edit2: For some further viewing if you want to know more about the development of armored fighting vehicles of all kinds, may I suggest the videos of Nicholas ‘The Chieftain’ Moran and Bernard Kast, the latter of whom has a channel, Military History Visualized. Both are great channels that I particularly like because they foreground their sources, be that surviving examples of equipment, academic literature or doctrine publications.

  1. That is, guns that fire in low arcs towards their targets. The opposite is indirect fire, where the projectile is shot mostly up to fall on the target.
  2. Technically here a major issue is also the size of the gun, since a larger gun means a bigger turret, which means a much heavier tank
  3. At least not against well-armed enemies. It is worth noting that, when fighting against enemies who lack access to effective heavy weapons and also don’t have any armored platforms of their own that would require something more powerful than a heavy machinegun, APCs could be used as a sort of ‘poor man’s tank.’
  4. With some exceptions
  5. You really feel for the British, whose tank designs during WWII often left a lot to be desired and it is only as the war is basically over that they stumble on one of the best tank designs ever in Centurion.
  6. B’gosh

363 thoughts on “Collections: When is a ‘Tank’ Not a Tank?

  1. A very nice exploration of most of the tanks, not-tanks and hmm-are-these-tanks but with the exception of the boundary case of vehicles like the Sturmgeschütz III, which were used in large quantities – would your criteria consider them as tanks or not? The mention of Stridsvagn 103 seems relevant but perhaps not really the same.

    1. Well a assault gun, is an armored (check), tracked (check) vehicle armed with a heavy direct fire artillery gun (check), expected to fight a range of enemies (it was desined for use against light fortifications, but also was used against tanks etc) (check). I think StuGs and other assault guns are obiviously tanks by the definition given.
      The only reason to treat them as different things, is because of the different role they had in the German doctrine.

      1. I’d class StuGs as tanks. One of the reasons the Wehrmach did not was organisational. Panzerkampfwagen went to Panzer units. StuGs, being classed as mechanised artillery, were intended to replace field guns, including AT guns, in the TOE of artillery elements attached to infantry divisions. Early StuGs were crewed by artillerists, not Panzertruppe soldiers. This is also why early StuGs were based on tanks that were no .longer competitive, such as the PzKw 38(t).
        Note also StuG IV originally carrying the short 7,5cm KwK, useful for direct fire support, but not so much against enemy armour.

        Realities of production and a desperate need for any armoured vehicles to replace losses on the Eastern front led to the Panzertruppe acquiring StuGs as well, but this was always seen as an emergency expedient.

        Jagdpanzer are a different animal. The effectiveness of StuGs in defensive engagements, combined with their lower cost, led to the development of turretless casemate versions of Tiger and Panther.

      2. I agree that StuGs and Hetzers are tanks under this definition, but I don’t think that’s right. This is where the doctrinal aspect comes in.

    2. The StuG III and IV were assault guns which later found use as tank destroyers. They were eventually even pressed into service as tanks due to being cheaper than turreted tanks (specifically the Panzer IV) to produce, but they suffered for it.

  2. I heard a good argument that drones may actually lead to a *tank golden era*.

    The main weakness of a tank is not that “it deals less damage to infantry” or some other videogame bullshit. It’s the awareness. You’re locked in a thick metal box. Everyone can hear you coming. You don’t hear anything, there are no windows to look through and even optical devices like external cameras are limited and vulnerable to small arms fire. A tank is like a full helmet, but even more radical.

    A drone greatly mitigates the awareness issue. It can fly above, away from flying bullets and give a bird’s view of the situation. Furthermore, there’s enough room in a tank that it can store its own drone. Tanks may actually become less reliant on combined arms now.

    1. I recall seeing some proposals (in USA?) for tethered drones for armored vehicles (not only tanks) – in essence, you store a small drone in a armored box where it won’t get damaged by small arms or fragmentation; and when you want more awareness then you launch it above you tied to a tether that provides unjammable communication and solves the battery loiter time issue.

    2. Another solution is cameras plus VR – the camera synthesis isn’t quite there yet, but a VR display that reproduces the views from cameras all over the tank’s surface can greatly increase practical visibility.

      1. Camera synthesis, at least on the 6+ year old midrange car I have, is Not Bad. Using 4 cameras (one under each wing mirror, one in the nose emblem, and one in the read liftgate handle) the center display shows a pretty good synthesis of an “overhead” view. It gets a little funky when next to a wall, but that’s as expected. It’s extremely useful in parking in tight spots.
        The problem isn’t the synthesis, it’s keeping the cameras functional in combat without creating shot traps or compromising the armor.

        1. I suspect that problem would be easier to solve than with the viewports and periscopes currently used. Made of glass they can be easily damaged and since they need to be swappable from inside the tank they require sizeable holes in the armor. Cameras may only need tiny holes for the cables, you can have more of them and their installation spots are more flexible.

          1. Oh, it’s absolutely a solvable problem with current tech. It’s just that nobody with current tech has designed a 21st century tech tank.

          2. They’re definitely not. The Abrams is supposed to be around for another decade or two.

            Under the CFT’s the desire is for 3-5 yr development cycles so there isn’t time for much new tech.

          3. I feel like this is maybe a significant issue with our procurement system and it would be good to have made a 21st century tank last decade, or a very big Abrams update.

            Though the thing I am most amaturishly concerned with about our procurement system is the bit where we spent tens of billions of dollars on new ground vehicle designs and then did not get new ground vehicle designs.

          4. I have worked in large caliber for DoD for almost 22 years now. We (the Army) have fielded one new artillery piece (M777) and an inconel 60mm mortar in that time. We fielded an inconel 81mm mortar to the Marines but it was pulled as the barrel was too easily dented. The 105mm gun on the Stryker was actually a late 1990’s design that was dusted off and put on the vehicle. We also did new 60 and 81mm baseplates and a composite bore evacuator on the Paladin. Not exactly a great track record for a ~200 person lab…..

            There are several issues. First is the gun used to be GFE (government furnished equipment) that was handed to the system integrator. Around the time I started this swapped and the Government decided that there would be a prime for each system and they would procure everything. The problem is none of them have gun designers on staff so they all came back to the Government for the design. Under the M777 effort all three competitors (BAE, UDLP, GD) hired us to design the gun. Under the current MPF effort both vendors have teams at work plus we have a third one overseeing it all. This alone is a major waste of money but let’s more congressional districts to be involved.

            The second big problem is time lines. The CFT’s, PEO’s, PM’s, and PdM’s want stuff to the field fast. 3-5 yrs is the usual goal. That doesn’t allow for research but only incremental development. Additionally when you do get research money is the first thing to get cut to pay for getting developmental programs to the field. I have an applied research effort under Long Range Precision Fires. The Deputy CG of DEVCOM called it transformational but it is getting cut because it ranked 32 out of 35 of LRPF programs as it is not immediately needed to field ERCA (next Gen artillery).

            Green suiters run the various program offices with civilian deputies. They rotate through every 3-5 years. This means that priorities shift just as often. This goes for the higher ranks and appointed positions as well. What was the top priority for the Chief of Staff changes when that office changes. LRC was the number on priority for Milley but it isn’t for McConville. So it was defunded in favor of Prism. However Congress then got involved and ordered the Army to fund LRC. To do this the Army had to cut other programs and research efforts like mine are at the top of the list.

            On top of all of this you have the schoolhouses and various turf battles. In 2007 we developed a new 120mm tank cannon under FCS that weighs a ton less than the current M256 and has better performance. It was a big enough breakthrough to win the 2008 Army Research and Development Achievement (RDA) Award. However we can’t put it in the Abrams as it requires the trunnions to be moved and GVSC won’t go for that. Before that we did a lightweight 105mm gun with a swing chamber and carousel autoloader. It won the 2004 RDA award. However it required a new ammo suite so it was killed. The 105 shows up on NGCV’s midterm roadmaps and the 120 on its far term ones.

            The reason it takes 20 years for culture change is that it takes that long for the old guys to retire. I have an effort for a lightweight long range howitzer. For long range you use guided ammo and the first thing you do is de-spin the round so that you can control it. I argued for a smooth bore cannon since there is no point in spinning up a round just to de-spin it. I got traction with researchers and younger staff but not with the schoolhouses / old timers. Artillery is rifled and that is the way it has always been.

            The scariest part of all of this, is that I was told the other day that we do R&D better than the Russians or the Chinese.

          5. I suppose priorities shifting with the political winds is the curse of democracies, though the Air Force and Navy seem to have a better track record of getting projects delivered… eventually… for finite amounts of money…

            Authoritarian regimes have their own curses, like maybe the idea they’ve adopted and held to is just a bad idea.

          6. That is funny. Look at DDG-1000 or the railgun for the Navy. The AF spends a lot more money than the Army. The Army is the largest service but it has a smaller R&D budget then the AF or Navy

    3. On the flip side, low awareness makes tanks vulnerable to drones as well. I know a couple tankers and they talk about e.g. drones coming up and landing on tanks with the crew completely unawares. That said the drones-as-sensors idea is interesting.

      I’d like to see (intellectually, in practical terms absolutely not!) NATO tanks in a drone heavy environment, increasingly I think that a modernized Abrams is just in a world of its own.

      1. I think it is hard to argue, that tanks are vunerable to drones, in times where there are daily new videos of tanks beeing damaged, by off the shelve civilian drones, armed with senventy year old granates, and mortar shells.

        1. A lot of that comes to,tactics. The Russians have been deploying tanks on their own in the open. They need screening / support troops. Crossing open terrain in long lines is just begging to be destroyed

          If.a tank is hull down / under cover they are pretty safe from current technology. Most current current technology takes several seconds to acquire a target. So long as the tank doesn’t break position for longer than that they tend to be safe.

          1. All true, but all of that, does not help against a drone 300 meters up in the air, droping AT-Granades at you, while it’s operators are 3 kilometers away. I’m not one of those people argueing the time of the tank is over. But drones are a new quality of threat, and not just to soft targets, like they were when ISIS was using them in Iraq.

          2. There is a lot of work going into anti-drone defenses. The ones big enough to carry serious payloads are fairly easy to spot. If you tank is under cover it is isn’t . Again most of this comes down to proper tactics. I can guarantee you our guys are paying a lot of attention to Ukraine and are adjusting our playbooks

  3. Very enjoyable read, but I think I take the side of the reporters on this on the definitional issue.

    Lots of words have two definitions, a narrow expert definition and a broad colloquial definition. “Dinosaur” would be a classic example. The public’s use is something like:

    “A dinosaur (s.l.) is a large, probably reptilian, horror of the ancient world.”

    The expert’s use is:

    “A dinosaur (s.s.) is a descendent of a particular Triassic common ancestor.”

    Under the public’s definition, pterodactyls are dinosaurs and chickens are not. Under the expert’s definition, chickens are dinosaurs and pterodactyls are not. This sounds like it might be confusing, but in practice is literally never is; it is always clear from context which one you are using, and no one is ever deceived about this because by the time you know about about extinct animals to know what a mosasaur is, you know about the expert’s definition.

    I think “tank” pretty clearly falls into this category. There is the public’s definition (a tank (s.l.) is an armored fighting vehicle) and the expert’s definition (the OP), and no one ever gets the two mixed up because anybody who knows what a “Gepard” is already knows the expert’s definition. And anybody who knows the expert’s definition of a tank will not be fooled either–you can take one look at the accompanying photograph and immediately know it is just a tank (s.l.) and not a tank (s.s.).

    I think we can see this pretty clearly by looking at the (not actually a problem) tweet that Bret mentions.

    Germany says “we have sent Ukraine some Gepard tanks.” Bret worries that journalists may interpret this as “we have sent Ukraine some sweet military equipment”, because in the public’s mind “tank” is synonymous with “sweet military equipment.” But the which definition of “tank” is being used irrelevant to Bret’s concern, as we can see from a couple of thought experiments:

    Hypothetical #1: Germany sends Ukraine some state-of-the-art, highly-needed, ultra-effective mobile AA platforms. They announce “we have sent Ukraine some tanks”. Journalists interpret this as “we have sent Ukraine some sweet military equipment.” Bret is unhappy because someone is using a different definition of “tank” than the one he prefers, but the journalists have interpreted the situation correctly.

    Hypothetical #2: Germany finds some old PzKfw IVs in a warehouse somewhere and sends them to Ukraine, announcing “we have sent Ukraine some tanks”. Journalists interpret this as “we have sent Ukraine some sweet military equipment.” Now the Germans are using Bret’s preferred definition, but the journalists are still interpreting the situation correctly, because they didn’t ask the question of “is a PzKfw IV useful in 2022?”.

    So the problem, it seems, doesn’t have anything to do with which definition of “tank” you prefer.

    1. The problem is that misidentifying doesn’t just annoy Bret. It annoys several million (in the USA only) military veterans and serving military, plus a large number of interested laymen. And it is in fact less informative, I had no idea what a Gepard is, but I know that an APC, self-propelled gun, mobile flak, and IFV are all not tanks, and calling them tanks will misinform me unless you include a picture (and scale for some of the vehicles, an APC or self-propelled gun can look a lot like a tank).

      The press’s nominal job is to inform, presenting bad information because 80% of your audience won’t know or care and you don’t know or care enough to get it right is bad.

      1. Well…”reporting on X annoys people who actually know something about X” is a pretty universal issue, and goes way beyond the tank-not-a-tank question. I work in the environmental field, and every straight news report about environmental rules drives me up a tree – even if it’s not “wrong” exactly, it always manages to just miss the point.

        And from friends who have deep knowledge about other, totally unrelated areas of expertise, I know that it is pretty common across fields. So while it’s perfectly understandable to be annoyed when the media gets something wrong, it’s not like it’s some unique problem to tanks…

        1. As a consumer of news, the correct use of vocabulary signals to me that the journalist has done their homework and merits my attention. I first noticed journalists calling random vehicles “tanks” back during Desert Shield. What I took away from it was that I was unlikely to learn from them anything useful, interesting, and true.

          We today have the democratization of media. This means any idiot can have a platform, but it also means that so can people with domain-specific knowledge. The really good news is that it isn’t even all that hard to tell the difference. Idiots cannot maintain any prolonged pretense of non-idiocy.

          1. Possibly we agree? My point is that the reporter is not incorrect. They are just using a different definition of “tank”. Your point is that a reporter who is using the colloquial definition of tank is probably not sufficiently expert to teach you anything.

            That seems true! But it is also not an argument that all (or event “most” or “many”) reporters should use the narrow definition of “tank”).

    2. Even in layman’s terms, calling a light AAA vehicle a tank is wrong, inasmuch as it isn’t for use on ground targets, and won’t be in the front lines of an assault. I’m not (necessarily) a structure purist or a doctrinal purist; while I’d wince if an M901 ITV ( was called a tank, I wouldn’t get upset at a journalist describing it as such in a general-audience publication. It’s a tracked AFV with a primary anti-armor weapon. I’d call them out for describing a Jeep-mounted (or HMMWV-mounted) TOW team a Tank, because it’s unarmored and on wheels
      I do get upset if a journalist calls an SP Gun a Tank, for much the same reason as the light AAA vehicle.

      And the recent habit of using the generic term “howitzer” as a Designation for a Weapons System. The error seems to have started with someone using M777 Howitzer cannon in a like manner to M1 Abrams tank, and has now migrated to not only towed artillery but also some varieties of SP Guns, as can be seen in the tweet at the top of the article

      1. Nope, I disagree. In “layman’s terms” a “tank” is ~=~ an armored fighting vehicle. You can look it up in various online dictionaries if you think I am wrong about this: they tend to add “tracked” to the definition as well, so I guess I should have included that in my original broad definition.

        I appreciate that you and Bret don’t think that laymen *should* use this definition, and that you want everyone to use the narrow definition, but sorry! The world is unpleasant in a great many ways, and this is one of them.

        1. That’s like calling a Geo Metro a sportscar, though, because it has 4 wheels, an engine, and two doors, and so does a Lambo Sesto. (And, at that, the Sesto is closer to a Metro than a self-propelled artillery piece is to a Main Battle Tank)

          1. Well, if pretty much every dictionary defined “sportscar” in a way that included the Geo Metro, and the large majority of English speakers called a Geo Metro a “sportscar” in their everyday language, then yes, it would be exactly like that.

          2. This is more like calling a GeoMetro a car along with a Ford F-150 and a Toyota Sienna. Everyone who cares knows that the F-150 and Siena are not cars, but depending on the audience and the discussion it may not make enough of a difference to matter.

            Throughout this discussion my mind keeps going back to the idea that all models are wrong, but some are useful in certain situations. I think the context in a lot of this is important, and as a result whether “tank” is correctly defined in any given situation may be a bit elastic.

          3. In a more recent comment I drew a similar analogy to the cars one.

            I argue the point because the sloppy language causes sloppy thinking and conclusions.

  4. This in-depth overview of the Tank’s origins and evolving purpose reminds me of the debates I’ve read about “Mechs/Mecha,” and whether giant walking robots would ever useful in a modern military; the consensus seems to be that anything high-performance mechs could do, tanks and helicopters could do better.

    Pacific Rim-sized Mechs are right out due to the Square-Cube law, but would smaller machines like the Titans from Titanfall, the AMPs from Avatar, or the real-life Method-2 ever have use in maneuver-hindering battlefields like cities or jungles?

    1. The “giant” aspect is likely to be the biggest problem now and going forward. You do not want to be the tallest target on a battlefield with chunks of metal flying at supersonic speeds. And see the older comments by John Schilling about the need for being human sized in most places worth fighting over.

      “Walking” is currently harder (any or all of more expensive, more likely to break down, more energy intensive) for machines than wheels, tracks, or rotors. But look up the Boston Robotics “Big Dog” which is primarily intended to be a mechanical pack mule, capable of carrying a load anywhere human infantry can go.

      Ultimate development of the mech/mecha would be Heinlein style powered armour, most of the advantages of a giant mech other than the fear factor, without the disadvantages.

    2. A few things still bite you even in smaller mechs. Mechs will always have less armor at any scale, because they have more surface area to cover than a tank of the same size. They’re going to be harder to maintain since they have more moving parts, and easier to mission-kill. And it also doesn’t make sense for them to be carrying mech-sized rifles in their giant metal hands (like Titans and AMPs do), rather than having the guns bolted on in turrets (like the Catapult in Battletech, or like the Gekkos in Metal Gear).

      And also, it’s just a really specific benefit – it’s able to cross certain types of obstacles better. That’s pretty much it. Even those tiny mechs are about the size of a tank, so they won’t be chasing people through alleyways or leaping across rooftops. They won’t be any safer when it comes to ATGM ambushes (the main thing that makes cities a nightmare to fight in). They just climb over tank traps better than tanks do. Is that really worth the trouble of adding another (very new and complicated) vehicle to your lineup?

    3. My take is that powered armour and perhaps very small mechs (a few tonnes maximum) may have useful roles, but anything bigger probably doesn’t. A bigger game changer would be something like a hover-tank – heavily armoured/survivable, fast-moving and immune to terrain.

      Sidetrack: one of the disadvantages that I don’t see people talking about too much is simply what happens if your mech falls over with you still in the cockpit. Hitting the ground from a height is no fun.

      1. There are practical mobility problems with hover vehicles: while they can move over any flattish surface, they ground on surfaces with depressions deeper than their hover height. They don’t cope well with slopes and their low traction means they can’t bull their way through obstacles. It would be less of a challenge to figure out how to have support tracks across most of the vehicle’s bottom; the Soviet Obiekt 279 was an experiment in this direction.

    4. I could buy mechs (in a multi-legged configuration) as an armored car/APC replacement for urban engagements but I think they necessarily suffer from reliability and mobility issues, and they can never mount the armor and armament of a tech equivalent tank.

    5. So I’m gonna reply with a bit of not-quite-pedantry: “mecha” comes directly from Japanese genre divisions and particularly the arrival of Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross (through Robotech) in English-speaking countries, and that’s where Battletech takes it from, and from Battletech it becomes a term used for originally English media objects. But “mecha” is originally just a contraction of “mechanical” or “mechanism”. Any show or comic that focuses on heavy machinery is a mecha show. Girls und Panzer, a show where the premise is “what if simulated tank combat had become a team sport after WW2?” is a mecha show. Area 88, a comic which used entirely contemporary aircraft in its story of a Japanese airline pilot trying to survive as a conscripted mercenary in a proxy war, is a mecha comic.

      The specific term for what we’re talking about here is “robot”, as a genre, with an overhyped subdivision into “super robot” and “real robot” that’s not quite relevant here. But “robot” is specifically used because these are media about humanoid machines. The functionality that they’re being deployed for is to play with the division between human and mechanism, and often to restore the individual human to a position of prominence on the imagined battlefield, directly against the increasing mechanization of war. (Or to invoke the divine in the mechanized modern world, in some cases!)

      So to answer your question, these machines are in their initial origin intended to be deliberately implausible. They’re engaging with the ideas that AFVs represent to run directly counter to how contemporary systems of warfare operate.

      1. All the discourse above does seem to track with the “mechs would be impractical in war” conclusions I’ve read before…

        …and that’s probably a good thing! Mechs are, by their very nature, supposed to be “cool,” awe-inspiring machines of spectacle and dynamic action (while also symbolizing the humanization of technology like Greta mentioned above).

        Far better for any real-life Mechs in the future to be used in sports, construction, cargo-loading, or other peaceful activities rather than being used to destroy.

        1. Or see the movie “Robot Jox” for sport/gladiatorial mechas in arena combat.

    6. All those arguments apply to imperial walkers as well. Extremely cool and possibly intimidating but all you have to do is trip them with rope around their legs or hit them with two big logs. Obviously no armor worth speaking of. Which makes sense considering their balanced on those long legs.

      1. No, the ATATs were so well shielded against blaster fire that the speeders and even the rebel base’s defensive emplacement guns were impotent against them (except by a well-placed/lucky shot against an immobilized walker). The cable-tripping thing was a desperate improvisation.

        1. Also, the cable-tie-up trick used against the big AT-AT walkers at the Battle of Hoth has an obvious countertarget:

          If you see an enemy aircraft flying in circles around the legs of your big stompy AT-AT, you radio a warning to the AT-AT crew, who simply stop moving. The AT-AT will of course draw a lot of fire while immobilized, but then, it draws a lot of fire anyway, and it’s not what you’d call swift even when mobile.

          The trick is to then cut the cables as soon as possible; options range from dedicated hovering little drone/droids with buzzsaw attachments (well within Imperial capabilities) to simple gambits like “hose down the legs with ordinary blaster fire; it can’t hurt the AT-AT’s armor but will probably cut the cable.”

          I suspect that in the post-battle analysis, the Imperials figured this out, and subsequent attempts by the Rebellion to duplicate the trick probably didn’t turn out so well.

          1. In Tales From The Mos Eisley Cantina, one of the stories is of an early tester who intuited speeders under legs = bad and had the AT-AT crouch. Rather than do a redesign, Tarkin had the report buried and the guy reassigned to infantry.

            It’s a running theme, particularly in the EU, that the Empire is overly obsessed with large things and underrate the importance of fighters and the like, which in turn manifests itself in having largely bad fighters that they view as expendable. I’m guessing Yavin changed some minds and gave the TIE/in program a serious boost. And the new continuity has Thrawn personally overseeing the TIE Defender; probably it got mothballed after his disappearance left it without a high-ranking advocate.

            There’s also a bit of a funny New Republic procurement thing in the old EU, probably just a result of too many authors to all read each other’s thing, where they keep designing and deploying new types of fighters and bombers but they don’t end up using them much and stick with the old reliables. Though the X-wing in particular gets a lot of technical updates and even a special Jedi varient with “shadow bombs” that have no propulsion and are moved via the Force; the extragalactic invaders use actively repositioned microsingularities rather than shields and the New Republic devises a number of ways to fool their sensors.

          2. Since we know that the Death Star design was sabotaged, I have been wondering if the “Storm Troopers can’t hit anything” is another case. Like the designer of the standard ST blaster made it so the sights are constantly getting misaligned, or the blaster link to the HUD in the helmet is buggy.

          3. Well, it’s mostly a character shields thing; they hit redshirts fine.

            But also, the Empire is apparently a criticism of the US military in Vietnam, which includes the infamous M16 issues (which got fixed but the reputation lingered) so it’s got lots of flashy stuff but its quality is questionable and it’s vulnerable to primitive improvised weaponry like the cable tie.

          4. Regarding stormtrooper aim, I watched the original trilogy looking for this specific thing, and they only really have bad aim in one scene.

            In A New Hope, they shoot straight when they seize Leia’s ship, and a little later Obi-Wan describes their marksmanship as “precise”. On the Death Star, they keep missing, but afterward Leia explains why: they let the heroes escape in order to track them to the Rebel base.

            In Return of the Jedi, stormtroopers capture Rebel troops on Endor (offscreen, but presumable involving straight shooting). Then the Ewoks beat them in a surprise attack; this doesn’t speak well for the stormtroopers’ overall competence, but aim doesn’t seem to be the problem.

            In Empire Strikes Back, they have genuinely bad aim when they try to kill the heroes in Cloud City. Just the will of the Force that they miss, I guess.

          5. Canonically, the standard stormtrooper blaster rifle is incredibly inaccurate in single-shot/point target applications; it’s optimized as a buzzgun for mass targets (lethal riot suppression). Which is a viable option when you’ve got 50-100 shots in a magazine (or more, the capacity of a non-holdout personal weapon is only really covered in RPG supplements, even the Legend books rarely have anyone mention magazine-size concerns except in very special circumstances).

            In Cloud City, the imperials are (again) under orders to herd Our Heros according to an unstated plan (in this case, “Get A Scratch Monkey To The Carbonite Freezer” and then “Get Luke To The Carbonite Freezer”)

            A lot of the continuity issues with Star Wars are because George Lucas changed his mind for various things between Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. (Including the retcon to call STar Wars “A New Hope”). For example, you can see Alec Guinness visibly roll his eyes at Han Solo trying to bullshit a farmboy and an unwashed hermit with the “12 parsecs” line; and later on, the novelization makes a big deal of how Han was planning to shoot Greedo from the time Greedo walked through the door, and that everyone else knew Greedo was dead when Greedo sat down and Han’s hands stayed under the table.

          6. In the original Star Wars novelization, Ben literally thinks that he has to tell Luke the truth, he can not, like his uncle, take refuge in a comforting lie about his father.

    7. small mechs make sense in a sci-fi future in newly settled worlds, though that means they’re probably not being used for combat unless you’re specifically on pandora. The reason being is while the tank’s slight disadvantage in manouvreability probably doesn’t pan out in the mechs favour anywhere with developed agriculture, prior to such they’re essentially limited to only going where there are no trees. But if you don’t want terrain issues to essentially include ‘all of europe’ prior to us clear-cutting much of the native forest, exploratory/settlement expeditions may be better using small mechs to start with, or as scouting vehicles below tree cover.

  5. To add to the typology madness:

    There’s also the Eastern European and Israeli concept of the “heavy APC”, which is an APC with tank levels of protection (by dint of ripping the turret and ammunition storage off of a tank and using the volume and weight for passengers).

    These are mostly specialized, expensive, hard-to-transport pieces of equipment for cases where the APC can’t be kept out of reach of enemy heavy weapons. Combat engineers and urban warfare seem to be the main use cases – usually they’re developed after hard experience with close-range infantry anti-tank weapons.

    1. It would seem there is an upper limit for useful AFVs of 70 tons or so. Nothing bigger seems to have worked. So as AFVs have got heavier in successive generation, more and more of them have bumped into this limit. When the heavy tanks couldn’t get any bigger, the medium ones grew to merge with them to create the MBT. Now heavy APCs may be reaching the same limit.

      IT occurs to me that those heavy APCs are pretty much the same thing as late-WW2 kangaroos:

      1. Yup! The extremely detailed Israeli Wikipedia article on Heavy APCs (reflective of their importance in Israeli defence procurement of the last couple of decades) cites the Kangaroos as precedent.

        Regarding weight, that 70 tons is pretty situational; it has to do with what ground and infrastructure can support. Notably, Japanese AFVs are limited to 50t (if they’re okay with being stuck on Hokkaido) or 45t (all Home Islands) because of the sheer number of bridges and tunnels required to traverse Japan’s mountains.

      1. If it appeared in GnP and was driven by a girl, it’s a tank.

        Which means that one of the girls in the Ribbon Warrior manga was a tank, but never mind that now.

    1. To be fair, Girls und Panzer does actually point out when their vehices are not, in fact tanks (both the Stug, Hetzer and the Karl are pointed out as such)

  6. Huh. I was expecting some kind of “here’s how to tell whether a vehicle with tracks and a turret is a tank or not” conclusion.

    1. “How do you tell what’s a tank or not?”

      “It’s complicated.”

      Hence the argument about, EG, StuGs, Hetzers, and S-Tanks on one hand, and M2 and M3 Bradleys, and M901 ITVs on the other

    2. TBH, I found it pretty clear. The key question being: “does it have direct fire at ground targets as its primary purpose?”. If yes, then it’s a tank. If its primary purpose is anything else, like indirect fire, AA fire, infantry transport…then it is not a tank.

      The only ambiguity left for me is how to classify tank destroyers and assault guns, whose role technically falls under “direct fire at ground targets” but is actually much more specific. But if you take the purist technical approach – a tank has to have a turret – then the question doesn’t even present itself.

      1. The real differentiation is doctrine. The German WW2 assault guns were part of the artillery branch, at least to start with. The assault gun batteries (they were called batteries) had their own FO’s and could fire indirect.

        1. Well, quite a lot of the M4 Shermans during WW2 were also trained, and used, in the indirect fire role. Does that make them SPA’s? Granted, most of those Shermans were not in the Armored Divisions, but in the independent Tank battalions, assigned to Infantry, and other, divisions for support.

  7. So, I’m wondering whether there’s any argument to stop using APCs as light tanks, and go back to having a light tank and an APC.
    Is there a point to doing that? Or are armies doing the obviously right thing by not doing that?

    1. As I understand it, technological developments after WWII made the main battle tank obviously the best tank. A light tank would be cheaper but not by enough to justify making one instead of a main battle tank.

    2. Light tanks specifically were scout vehicles. (I believe the interwar Russia and French armies saw an infantry support roles for them. They were wrong.)

      But originally the point of APCs like the M113 was to keep the infantry close to the MBTs. So why do you need to take infantry from, and add guns to, the APC to create an IFV? I can only assume the APCs did, in practice, often have to act independently of the tanks. After all, a platoon of infantry acting independently can hardy expect to have a single tank attached as support. It’s a platoon of tanks at least, or none.

      1. I think the basic story is that it’s a lot easier to field one IFV than one APC and one tank. So you pay a marginal cost in transport capacity to get a vehicle that can blast light field fortifications and various light vehicles and generally do a lot of tank things that are not fighting tanks. And you maybe slap on a couple ATGMs for when you unexpectedly run into a tank or your tanks are outnumbered by enemy tanks.

        But putting on a high-velocity 120mm and the neccessary support structure cuts too far into your troop capacity, though I understand Israel has tanks with space for passengers

        1. Israel does indeed! Though the number of troops is quite small, and is just a handy side effect of other design decisions*: tellingly, that area is called the “rear corridor” in Hebrew. Its use to carry infantry is downplayed in Hebrew-language description; instead, about a decade after the tank’s introduction when the possibilities of the corridor space had sunk in, the focus was on using the space to integrate support functions (field medicine, command post, electronic warfare, &c) into tanks of the line rather than having separate thin-skinned vehicles for them.

          *Specifically, the Merkava is heavily optimized for crew survivability and fast rear-area repair in case of armor penetration. Internal machinery was shuffled around to a) create a clear path for the entire crew to evacuate out the rear, b) put a bunch of heavy metal like the engine in front to provide extra frontal armor for the crew, and c) make it fast and easy to pull off the armor and swap out destroyed bits.

      2. The situations in which a group equipped with nothing but APCs had to act independently of the tanks got ugly enough that people started developing IFVs specifically to avoid how ugly those situations could get.

        Because if you design an APC with the intent of making it reasonably effective on its own without tank support… Well, by the time you’re done, you have an IFV.

        1. See “Full Circle” upthread, the cartoon about mechanized infantry “mission creep”.

    3. Advances in tire technology (tougher, bigger tires with less ground pressure) and lightweight forms of armor plating have made it feasible to design armored cars that tend to outcompete traditional tracked “light tanks” in their own specializations.

      Since a wheeled vehicle is, as a rule, considerably simpler to maintain and operate than a tracklaying vehicle, all else being equal… If you want to see light tanks, look for big wheeled combat vehicles. As noted, the Stryker is a good example.

      However, APCs (and more specifically IFVs) are still often viable doing what light tanks would theoretically do.

      Another factor is that aerospace reconnaissance has gotten much, much better since 1945.

      Pre-modern armies relied heavily on cavalry for reconnaissance, for obvious reasons; the light tank was always conceived as, essentially, replacing the cavalry as a reconnaissance vehicle. There is simply no other good reason to build a lightweight, lightly protected and lightly armed but very fast tank, aside from reconnaissance.

      But modern aircraft have drones, helicopters, all manner of large fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, and potentially satellites to help them scout out the battlefield. This means it’s less and less obvious what a light tank would do that couldn’t be done better by some other platform, which in turn makes the light tank’s vulnerabilities more and more significant as flaws in its design.

      1. The Stryker is NOT a good light tank. The 105mm gun can only be fired about 15 degrees off of center due to recoil. I have seen video of it firing broad side and the wheels almost come off the ground. Early on a pepperpot muzzle brake was integrated to the gun but the blast overpressure cleared everything off of the front glacius.

  8. «“enemy armor, coming down the road!” means tanks, not a procession of breastplates»

    sorry, but now I can’t stop thinking about the battle at the end of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and wonder whether a German landing in 1940 could have been realistically stopped by a museum-worth of animated armour (breastplates, not tanks)

    assuming that armour can be reanimated that way in reality, of course, and that Germany didn’t know about the ability, and couldn’t specifically plan for it 😀

    1. From my memory of the battle, the animated armor was impervious to both limited structural damage from bullets and to scattering effects caused by explosives. In fact I don’t believe we see a single animated armor defeated until the controlling witch herself is distracted.

      Therefore, no direct confrontation can result in a win for the Germans. However, given the limited mobility of the animated armor relative to a properly supported mechanized amphibious assault, and the limited stamina of the witch, they seem limited to use as an area control strategy that could be easily bypassed by a more thoroughly supported assault.

    2. I love the ending battle in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but that was quite a museum for a small country village! Their armor collection riveled the Mets!

      I don’t know if the Met still had that display of tournament armor on mounted mannequins but it was impressive as heck to walk into unexpectedly in the eighties!

      1. But what is its ratio of armored combat to discussions of the propane industry? (Oh, God, you crossed the streams!)

  9. To me anything with treads and a big freaking gun is a tank. I am not technically minded 😁

  10. How do wheeled AFVs like Centauro and Type 16 fit this classification? They look like they supposed to fill role of a tank, but they don’t have heavy armor and tracks so they don’t fit presented definition of a tank, so either they are not tanks or definition is wrong.

    1. How “pure” are you?
      I’ll allow for “tanks” that are wheeled and lightly armored if they carry antiarmor weapons as their “primary weapon” for their “primary role”

      So the Stryker MGS is a “tank” (105mm cannon), but the M2/M3 Bradleys are not, since the TOWs are secondary weapons and allegedly the “main battery” of an IFV is the attached infantry unit

    2. They can only get away with wheels by being extremely light by tank standards – compare the 24t Centauro to the 42t T-72 (and Russian MBTs are on the light end compared to Western ones).

      In the Centauro’s case, it was officially designed as a tank destroyer, aka a self-propelled anti-tank gun; it carries a gun about as powerful as a tank’s, but its armor is really only meant to protect against .50cal-ish threats.

  11. Seems quite plausible to me. I imagine a spotting drone will become standard equipment on armoured fighting vehicles of all types before too long.

  12. They could be tank destroyers, mobile gun systems, armored recon vehicles, or something else depending on their role and place within the particular doctrine of the fielding military.

    See also, the Rooikat.

    They aren’t tanks as such.

    1. Mobile gun system and armoured recon vehicle are pretty apt descriptions of a light tank’s capability and role. I’d scratch tank destroyer simply because few light AFVs are capable of carrying a main gun that can reliably hunt MBTs (the Sprut-SD being the exception).

      The real question is if the light tank* is still a valid category – if it is then all the various 105mm armed wheeled vehicles should by rights be considered wheeled light tanks by capability (and I don’t think doctrine factors in because no one’s had a real light tank doctrine in ages).

      The French AMX-10RC, Italian B1 Centauro, Chinese ZTL-11 (Type 11), and Japanese Type 16 are all wheeled, carry a 105mm rifled cannon, weigh about 20-25 tonnes, and are protected against autocannon fire from the front and heavy machine gun fire all around.

      That’s almost an exact match in firepower and protection to the Stingray and M8 AGS light tanks. Light tanks have always had a lot of trouble with the protection part of the firepower-protection-mobility combination.

      *I’m not sure what tanks like the TAM, CV90120 or Type 15 should even count as – they’re lighter than modern MBTs, for sure. But at 30-40 tonnes, they’re not actually light, clocking in pretty close to lighter MBTs like the T-54/55, Leopard 1, or AMX-30

  13. At the end I was expecting the caption under the Abrams to be something like ‘ceci n’est pas un tank’ because it is, in fact, an IMAGE of a tank.

  14. Military nerds don’t get to own basic English words like “tank”. The meaning of words is based on their usage. If a lay person calls something a tank, it’s a tank.

    1. The problem is that we (both nerds and laity) need to be able to distinguish between a tank and other AFVs (particularly armored artillery, both anti-air and anti-surface).
      It’s like saying “Car nerds don’t get to own basic english words like truck” – especially in the edge cases like “is an SUV a truck, a car, or both?”

      I could say a Main Battle Tank is analogous to, say, an 18-wheeler, while an SP artillery piece would be analogous to a dump truck and a tracked AAA piece would be analogous to a heavy pickup truck. We can extend to APCs in the same analogy by “putting seats instead of cargo” in the trucks.

      Are the all trucks? Yes, but…

      1. effectively the solution is ‘you need to use the specific terms when it’s important’, because trying to change the layman’s definition is like shouting at the incoming tide- no matter how important it is that you remain dry, you might simply be better defending a different position.

  15. One thing that I think is easily missed is that while battles and sieges where you had massive numbers on either side were decisive, they probably wouldn’t be the kind of fighting most soldiers would do most of the time. I’m more familiar with the 30-years war, but by that point armies would often send out smaller groups, scouts, foragers, parties sent out deliberately to burn and destroy, patrols to try to disrupt the enemy trying to do those things, etc. So a lot of fighting wouldn’t be the massive batltes but small patrols ambushing each other (or getting ambushed by angry peasants pissed about all these soldiers coming and trying to take their food)

    Someone (I believe it was Englund) described the army as often being a swarm of bees, there’s the core, but it’s surrounded by a constant buzzing of smaller groups that break off to do various things, and when thes two “clouds” intersect you get a lot of this smaller bits of skirmishing before they decide to actually have a battle between the major swarms.

    A couple of chariots might not be that frighening if you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with 5,000 men. But if it’s about 20 guys out looking for food they suddenly become a lot more threatening.

  16. What do you think about this definition?:

    “Overall, role of tanks has stayed mostly the same as it was in World War I:

    – provide firepower support to allow infantry to advance
    – seize ground and maneuver in environment hostile to infantry
    – utilize maneuver to create and exploit breakthrough opportunities
    – engage other vehicles and fortified positions
    – maintain ability to engage a wide range of ground targets

    All of this means that tanks have to have heaviest armor and the main gun possible (within other limitations), which precludes them from carrying out other duties such as infantry transport. This requirement for heavy firepower, armor and mobility likewise requires tanks to be tracked vehicles, otherwise tank would end up in a mobility suicide as wheels would sink into the ground.

    Thus, technological definition would be “an armored, tracked vehicle with heavy direct-fire artillery (a.k.a. large-calibre main gun), designed to engage a wide variety of ground targets while utilizing fire and maneuver to carry out combat tasks or to assist other units in carrying out their tasks”.”

  17. Good article. I’d suggest two related corrections.

    Direct fire – firing on a target visible to the firing gun.
    Indirect fire – firing on a target not visible to the firing gun.

    The arc of the shot is not what determines the kind of fire, it’s whether the firing gun has line of sight to the target.

    FYI: I’m a software engineer with 9 years work on the Abrams MBT, and 7 years work on various field artillery systems, including FSCATT, which was an M109A6 Paladin self propelled howitzer trainer, and Crusader, which was a self propelled howitzer intended to replace the Paladin but was cancelled.

    1. I agree. Arc of shot is what we usually used to differentiate between cannons (flat arc), artillery (medium arc) and mortars (high arc).

      Tanks are supposed to do direct fire but there is always a desire to add BLOS (beyond line of sight) capability to them. That was a big push under FCS-MCS.

      FYI: Mech Engr with 22 yrs at Armaments Center

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