Armour has provided battle winning shock action and firepower sine the
earliest tanks helped to break the stalemate of the Western Front during the
First World War. In the same way, armoured reconnaissance, with the ability
to penetrate the enemy's forward defences and gain information by using
stealth and firepower, has shaped the way in which armour has been used to
its best advantage.
Defence represents the best
use of ground features in conjunction with engineering and concealed
firepower. The ability of armour to overwhelm all butt he heaviest defences
and deliver a group of highly capable armoured fighting platforms into the
combat area remains a battle winning capability embraced by all major
The modern main battle tank weighs between 50 and 70 tonnes, can move at up
to 60 kph and can virtually guarantee a first round hit with its main
armament out to 2000 m. Last tested in combat in the Gulf War of 2003, UK
armoured forces demonstrated the advantages of armour in a desert landscape.
Amongst these was the ability to cover rough terrain quickly and by the use
of superior concentrated firepower, create operational level, rather than
simple local tactical advantage. These tanks used the most up to date
information systems and state of art imaging and sighting systems to locate,
close and destroy the enemy. The 2003 Gulf War experience underlined the
need for all elements of manoeuvre forces to be able to move swiftly and
securely with protection and firepower to maintain a high 'operational
tempo'. This includes infantry, artillery and of course the massive logistic
The argument that 'the days
of the tank are over' has been around for many years and certainly since the
appearance of the man-portable guided missile in large numbers such as the
Yom Kippur war almost 30 years ago. The advent of the highly capable Attack
Helicopter and long-range, smart top-attack precision munitions has only
added to this debate. However, tanks remain in the world in large numbers -
at least 50,000 by current estimates - and in a surprisingly large numbers
Whilst the supremacy of armour on the modern battlefield will
continue to be challenged by ever more sophisticated anti-armoured systems,
the requirement for highly mobile, protected direct firepower that can
operate in all conditions and climates will remain an enduring requirement
to support the infantry. It is this 'endurance' characteristic and the
ability to operate in all circumstances which is unique and is not shared by
helicopters and aircraft. Every military man will agree that the firepower
and the flexibility of the main battle tank provides a capability on the
battlefield that no other system can match.
It would appear that the UK
has decided to retain between 240-250 MBTs in service, as can be seen by the
next table. However, other countries appear to have placed a very high
priority on the numbers to be retained in their MBT fleets:
Comparison - Major Army Formations and Equipment Available (Estimate)
Numbers in this table are our estimates of the numbers of modern main battle
tanks available after analysis of a number of sources such as HIS/Jane's,
the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Stockholm
Institute for Peace Research (SIPRI).
What is certain to change in the future is the shape and size of future
tanks. The key is that new technology will allow protection to be delivered
in quite different ways. Traditionally, protection has been provided through
ballistic armour which, because of its weight, has to be optimised over a
relatively narrow frontal arc, with reduced protection on the sides, top
rear and belly. Thus full protection is only possible on a small proportion
of the total surface area. In the future a more holistic approach is likely
to incorporate a wide range of 'survivability' characteristics in view of
the three-dimensional and all round threat.
These measures include: signature reduction in all aspects – acoustic,
visual, thermal, radar cross-section etc; suites of active and passive
defensive aids and electro-optic countermeasures; and inherent redundancy in
vehicle design and crew i.e. the ability to sustain considerable damage yet
be able to continue fighting. The concept is based on a theory of 'don’t be
detected – if detected, don’t be acquired – if acquired, don’t be hit – if
hit, don’t be penetrated – if penetrated, don’t be killed'.
Such an approach is likely to see future tanks of much smaller design and of
significantly lesser weight. In turn, reduced weight and size will improve
mobility and enable armour to be deployed more rapidly, strategically if
necessary, whilst also reducing the very considerable mobility and logistic
support that the heavy 60-70 tonne MBTs of today require.
In terms of firepower, smart, extended range munitions such as fire and
forget Gun Launched Anti-tank Guided Missiles, pre-programmable ammunition
and other novel natures are all likely to increase the potency of armour. In
coming to a balanced view on the future of the tank, the heavy modern tank
of today has as much in common with the Mark V tank of 1916 as it will have
with its successor in 2030.
Digitisation of the future battlefield has been identified as essential, but
Programmes, essential for the target data transmission through battlefield
management systems is currently running some ten to fifteen years behind
schedule. This time lag may enable the tank in its present form to survive
for much longer than many analysts had previously predicted.
In the second decade the 21st Century, we see the major defence orientated
countries of the world undergoing a major doctrinal and conceptual rethink
based on the information age, embracing new IT and digital technology
capabilities. The future, however, always has its roots in the present and
while the large fleets of tanks we now have may be more visible from space,
and more difficult to protect from remotely fired missiles and guns, the
armies who have them will continue to explore and exploit armoured 'stretch'
technologies to ensure their armoured capability is credible.
We have no doubt that in both limited and general war the main battle tank
is one of the essential systems that will determine the outcome of any
battle, and there is also a sound argument to be mad regarding the utility
of the main battle tank in some counter insurgency operations. Of special
interest is the successful use of Leopard MBT in Afghanistan by Canadian,
Danish and German forces.
It is impossible to know where the British Army will be and what it will be
doing 10 years from now. Experience has taught us that the only thing that
we can be sure of is that the current operational requirement, which
generally calls for lighter armour will almost certainly be totally
different from what it is today. We firmly believe that the main battle tank
will continue to have a major effect on military operations in this
difficult and dangerous world for many years to come.
“The man who looks 10 years out and says he knows what the strategic
situation will look like, is quite frankly the Court Jester”
Gen Sir Richard Dannet KCB, CBE, MC, ADC Gen