The Boy Who Cried Wolf - The Death Of the Tank
AUTHOR Major Ralph L. Schutte, PPCLI, Canadian Army
SUBJECT AREA Intelligence
TITLE: THE BOY WHO CRIED WOLF - THE DEATH OF THE TANK
THESIS: Weapons developments could make armoured formations
as they are currently structured obsolete. While the
obsolescence of armour is by no means certain, it could
provide some distinct advantages for technologically
BACKGROUND: Weapon systems do become obsolete, often the
fact is not accepted early enough and inappropriate weapons
are taken to war. Cavalry in the Second World War is a
recent example. Weapon systems become obsolete primarily
because they are no longer effective or because they cost
more than can be afforded. The Yom Kippur indicate that
tank attrition could be higher than can be sustained in a
modern war even when combined arms are employed well.
THREATS: Tanks face a variety of very sophisticated threats
which will require some reconsideration of designs.
Missiles, mines, homing indirect projectiles, and, in the
future robotics and directed energy weapons could make the
battlefield too lethal for tank heavy forces. If sufficient
armour is added, the tank loses its essential mobility.
PROBLEMS: Tanks are increasingly expensive for marginal
gaims in protection, mobility, and firepower. Limits on
strategic mobility mean limited areas where tanks can be
employed throughout the world. Logistic and production rate
problems make tanks unattractive if anything else can
perform their functions.
PROPOSED SOLUTION: While tanks are designed to fight other
tanks head-on, a combination of complementary missile
systems could be designed to perform all the functions.
These sysetms would be cheaper, lighter, easier to produce,
and more versatile.
CONCLUSION: While tanks can perform in Europe, losses will
be so high they can not be replaced at the same rate.
Missile systems in combined arms groupings could be a better
more versatile solution.
THE BOY WHO CRIED WOLF - THE DEATH OF THE TANK
THESIS STATEMENT. Weapons developments could make armoured
formations as they are currently structured obsolete. While
the obsolescence of armour is by no means certain, it could
provide some distinct advantages for technologically
I. INTRODUCTORY REMARKS
A. TANKS COULD BECOME OBSOLETE LIKE ARMORED KNIGHTS
B. ARMOR - ANTI-ARMOUR DISCUSSION REDUCED
C. NO ARTICLES EXAMINE A FORCE WITHOUT TANKS
D. CURRENT DOCTRINE EMPHASIZES COMBINED ARMS
II. HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
A. CAVALRY UNITS MAINTAINED PAST THEIR EFFECTIVENESS
B. HISTORICAL EXAPLES GIVE CAUSES FOR OBSOLESCENCE
C. SOME REASONS FOR OBSOLESCENCE
D. EXAMPLE OF ARMORED HORSEMAN
III. THREATS TO ARMOR
A. HIGH ATTRITION
B. EARLY MISSILE LIMITATIONS
C. SOME CURRENT AND FUTURE SYSTEMS
D. INDIRECT FIRE HOMING MISSILES
E. MINE THREATS IN FUTURE
G. ENERGY WEAPONS
H. RESULTS OF THREATS
IV. THE PROBLEM WITH TANKS
A. MARGINAL GAINS IN PERFORMANCE RELATIVE TO EFFORT
B. MOBILITY LIMITS
C. STRATEGIC MOBILITY PROBLEMS
E. PRODUCTION PROBLEMS
F. INCREASED REQUIREMENT FOR STRATEGIC MOBILITY
G. REDUCTIONS IN FORCES MEANS MULTI-PURPOSE FORCES
H. TANKS INAPPROPRIATE FOR SOME MISSIONS
A. FUNCTIONS OF TANKS
B. AIM IS TO HIT ENEMY VULNERABILITY
C. CURRENT TANKS DESIGNED TO FIGHT OTHER TANKS
D. AN NLOS COMBINED ARMS SOLUTION
THE BOY WHO CRIED WOLF - THE DEATH OF THE TANK
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS - WHY ANOTHER DISCUSSION
Armoured knights were eventually rendered obsolete by a
combination of technological, financial, political, and
societal changes in Europe. Yet this change was resisted
until the last by those whose preeminence depended upon the
supremacy of heavily armoured men on the battlefield. This
understandable reluctance to part with a system that worked
resulted in what may have been holding on to a good thing
too long. A similar thing could happen to modern armies.
Weapons developments could make armoured formations as they
are currently structured obsolete. While the obsolescence
of armour is by no means certain, it could provide some
distinct advantages for technologically advanced nations.
As a direct result of the extremely high attrition to
early infantry anti-tank missiles in the Arab - Israeli
conflicts1, some doubt was cast on the viability of armour
formations, tanks in particular. After a flurry of
1 Arnold Sherman, When God Judged and Men Died (New
York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1973), p. 98.
speculation and thought expressed world wide in magazines
and periodicals2 the discussion seems to have almost died.
Literature since the Yom Kippur war centred upon
lessons to be drawn from that war. Themes varied from
stating that infantry anti- tank missiles spelled the
immediate demise of the tank to business as usual. The
general consensus, reflected in later design of tanks and
armour formations was that combined arms - an age old
concept - was the answer and we really had known it all
along. After all, tanks were used as part of combined arms
teams from their inception. Only the attempt to use pure
armour resulted in the phenomenal losses experienced during
the Yom Kippur war. None of the articles examined the
appropriateness of tanks in a general purpose force, one
which could function in at any level of conflict. None
rigorously addressed the conditions under which a weapon
system would become obsolete. None addressed the impact of
further developments in anti-tank missiles and other anti-
Current doctrine is that combined arms with heavily
armoured tanks as the backbone is the only answer to the
2 No specific references are quoted. Twenty-five
articles dating from 1973 to 1988 in a variety of
professional magazines including Armor, Infantry, National
Defence, International Defence Review, Asian Defence
Journal, and NATO's Sixteen Nations,
problem of tank vulnerability to anti-tank missiles and
other threats. While tanks alone can not survive on a
modern battlefield, tanks in the right mix and supported at
the right times can function. There is little doubt that
this is true. The real question, however, is whether
combined arms with tanks the is best or most effective way
of accomplishing the mission. This is particularly true
considering that the mission is more complex than fighting
other similarly armoured forces. Budgetary constraints will
force the development of all purpose forces which could be
used at any level of conflict. A solution must be found and
technology appears to offer solutions.
Eventually weapon systems can become obsolete. The
most recent example is cavalry. Although cavalry formations
existed throughout the Second World War, their uselessness
in general war was generally conceded during the First World
War. Even then, the British Army did have cavalry following
the Great War and even General Montgomery who supported
tanks listed cavalry before tanks in his resume of army
combat units3. In one instance, a cavalry regiment that was
motorized for a trial in 1935 was given an apologetic
3 Nigel Hamilton, Monty: The Making of a General (New
York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981), p. 178.
explanation that this would not affect its chances of
remaining a horse mounted regiment4. All this was in spite
of the fact that it is likely that had World War I
continued, the British Tank Corps would have been the most
heavily armoured and tracked force in the world until 1943
at least5. Although no amount of combined arms action could
compensate for the vulnerability of cavalry to machine gun
fire and rapid fire rifles, the tradition of cavalry was
hard to overcome.
Other examples abound. Bows were replaced by firearms
although initially firearms were less effective in a number
of respects. Chariots were a short-lived innovation soon
replace by cavalry. Pikes gave way to muskets in stages.
Heavily armoured knights disappeared from the battlefield.
In all of these examples, there are some common causes which
can be deduced. Further, the causes of obsolescence can be
projected for any weapon system.
In each of these cases, the weapon system disappeared
for a variety of reasons. Often a better weapon system to
4 B. H. Liddell Hart, The Liddell Hart Memoirs Volume I
(New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1965) pp. 261-262.
5 J.F.C. Fuller C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., Armored Warfare
(Harrisburg: Military Service Publishing Company, 1943,
Reprinted by Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1983)
do a particular job is introduced. This is particularly
evident in the case of rifled weapons replacing smooth bore
firearms and repeating firearms replacing those and in
return being replaced by automatic small arms. It is worthy
of note that most often the increased cost of the weapon was
offset by its increased effectiveness. The opposite is true
for the musket replacing the bow. The musket was generally
less effective in terms of range, accuracy, and rate of
fire. Its initial disadvantages were balanced by reduced
overall cost when the much reduced requirement for training
musketeers over bowmen, particularly longbowmen, was
calculated. An additional factor, possibly not considered
at the time was the greater potential of the firearm.
Of more immediate application to tanks today was the
demise of the armoured horseman. "In the end, armour lost
the competition to firearms which had attained such force
and rate of fire as to impose on armour the contradictory
requirements of ensuring greater resistance by the use of
heavier plates while preserving the wearer's mobility in
combat6." Part of the cause was that armoured knights
preferred to charge other armies head on. The only worthy
opponent was perceived as another knight. Of course cost
and the change to the society also played a part.
6 Leonid Tarassuk and Claude Blair, ed., The Complete
Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1979, translated 1982), p. 29
THE THREATS TO ARMOUR
Tanks on a battlefield tomorrow face a wide range of
threats equivalent to those faced by cavalry before it
disappeared. The machine gun, obstacles, and entrenchments
of World War I have equivalents in modern technology
although some of them are only just now nascent. A
combination of missiles, smart artillery munitions, and
mines could impose the same level of casualties on a massed
armour assault that machine guns, artillery, and wire
imposed on cavalry and infantry. The impasse could occur
sooner as modern armour formations can not be replaced as
easily as the infantry and cavalry of World War I. Tanks
are not used in civil endeavors as horses were and the
training for an armour soldier is much greater than that
required for the simpler World War I battlefield.
After the Yom Kippur War, missiles were identified as a
serious threat to tanks. At that time and still to some
extent today those missiles had critical shortcomings which
allowed combined arms action to reduce the threat to
manageable levels. Their limited numbers in relation to the
area they covered7, slow rate of fire, and vulnerability of
7 Since armour concentrates at critical points, a
number of missiles able to attrite the concentrated
the operator made it impossible for them to reach their
potential. Now, the additional factor of limited effect
against improved frontal armour must be included. New
missiles eliminate most of the limitations and make the
obsolescence of the tank possible.
I will examine some current systems and possible
developments which can redress the limitations of missiles.
First, tandem warheads and fly over top attack missiles8 can
make missiles effective against reactive armour and thick
armour. Future possibilities include ballistic caps to
penetrate reactive armour before the shaped charge
functions9 and improvements in initiation and shape of
shaped charges to dramatically improve penetration. Second,
fire and forget missiles are being developed to increase
rate of fire and reduce the vulnerability of the operator.
Missile systems under armour also aid in accomplishing the
same end. Hyper velocity missiles add the additional
possibility of another method for missiles to defeat
armour10. Third, the non-line-of-sight (NLOS) missile
formation must be established at every probable
8 Bofors Bill and TOW 2A are examples.
9 Warheads for the 84 millimeter Carl Gustav and 106
millimeter recoil less rifle are being developed.
10 Until this development is in service, only guns,
primarily tank guns penetrate by kinetic energy.
allows engagements from behind cover at extended ranges11
with missiles launched at 20 second intervals to attack the
vulnerable tops of tanks. The operator can see the target
in the missile field of view on a video display before
impact and avoid fratricide or select a more preferable
target. Future possibilities include simultaneous launches
with targets being designated for each missile on the image
produced by a "lead" missile12. Simultaneous engagements of
over 20 vehicles from a large launch system could be
possible. A further advantage of modern missiles is
training. Modern missiles such as the NLOS is reduced and
simplified training time. An soldier can learn to operate
the system in under 45 minutes13 and training can be
conducted using the system without missiles because the
operator never sees more than the image on a screen.
Along with missiles, developments are being made to
improve the number of self homing projectiles. The follow-
on development to the cannon launched guided projectile
(CLGP) or Copperhead is planned to be autonomously homing.
11 Ranges of 10 kilometer have been achieved and
missiles have been controlled over 60 kilometer from the
12 The author does not know if this possibility is
being pursued but similar programs do exist for other
13 Reported verbally by an observer of early trials.
A round (Merlin) has been developed14 for the 81 millimeter
mortar which will home on tanks. Finally, a round is under
development for the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS)
which will carry at least three terminally guided
projectiles. Any armour formation which is detected will
face a variety of indirect fire homing missiles beginning at
up to 40 kilometer distance.
In addition to direct fire missiles and indirect fire
homing rounds all either designed to overmatch frontal
armour or strike vulnerable areas, mines are developing
equally well. Off-route mines which sense a tank and fire a
shaped charge into its vulnerable side have been developed.
Most have ranges of up to 300 metres and many have multiple
shot capability. Future developments include more
discrimination either by including a computer in the mine
launch platform or by connecting the sensor system to a
display terminal by fibreoptic cable. Of course
conventional mines remain with an increasing ability on the
part of engineers to lay large number in a short time.
Mines emplaced by indirect fire are fully developed now.
The technology exists now to develop a deeply buried mine
immune to ploughing and blast overpressure countermeasures
such as line charges or fuel air explosives. Its sensor
system could be developed so that it discriminated among
14 In the United Kingdom.
several types of tanks. Mines will become an increasingly
deadly threat to armour.
To all of the above mentioned systems, robotics can be
added, giving the potential of small, relatively inexpensive
(mostly because the operator needs no training), autonomous
New attack mechanisms have not yet been mentioned.
Such weapons as lasers which can destroy all external
electro-optical sensors are feasible now. Weapons such as
the Stingray laser15 designed to blind operators could be
fielded now. Such weapons could literally blind every tank
in a formation in seconds. Future directed energy weapons
will give an additional attack mechanism or mechanisms which
will drive additional armour requirements for tanks.
The end result of the threats to tanks is that the
battlefield is so lethal that movement can become
impossible. It may be so already. Aircraft will add to the
lethality and they are much more effective against
concentrated attacking formations than the relatively more
dispersed defenders. Traditional methods of dealing with
the problem, increasing armour and emphasizing combined arms
15 "U.S. Army to Seek 48 Stingray Lasers to Help Blind
Enemy Vehicles", Defense News, March 26 1990, p.33.
may not be sufficient to restore the tank's viability. It
should be noted with encouragement, however, that the
threats to armour utilize high technology which most
adversaries can not duplicate. The armed force that makes
best use of this technology has the potential to win at
relatively low cost.
THE PROBLEM WITH TANKS
Tanks have been developed extensively over the past 45
years since the Second World War. As a general rule, any
such development eventually reaches a point of diminishing
returns. The gains in performance are at the expense of
inordinate costs in effort, material, and time. Tanks are
rapidly meeting limits imposed on them by the role in which
they are cast. There are definite size and weight limits,
limits to the unit cost in relation to numbers required,
logistic difficulties, and pressures for change due to
changing threats and roles for armies, the American Army in
With the increasing threat from missiles and more
powerful kinetic energy weapons, more armour is required for
tanks to maintain their relative invulnerability.
Ironically, another argument for heavier armour and
increased protection is the high unit cost arising in part
from the high cost of the armour. There are limits imposed
by strategic and tactical mobility. The current weight of
the M1 Abrams tank is near the limit for modern main battle
tanks. Few bridges in the world exceed Class 60. Any
vehicle which exceeds this limit will require special
assistance to cross each river or overpass. As an
illustration of the difficulty, bridges exist on average
every 20 miles on routes in Germany. Heavy tanks also face
problems in mobility due to high ground pressure. With each
increase in weight, less terrain becomes passable to
armoured formations. Weight also limits the carriage of
tanks by aircraft and shipping due to overall weight and
point stress on the cargo deck or floor. Intra theater
transportation by wheeled tank transporter is even more
severely constrained by weight as the transporter vehicle
weight is added. To illustrate the problem, adding one inch
in thickness to the bottom of a tank will impose a weight
penalty of about 1.5 tonnes weight but is not sufficient to
defeat belly attack mines.
Size limits affect strategic mobility by aircraft,
ship, and more importantly by rail and road. Heavy tanks
are not designed to move long distances under their own
power because the wear and maintenance problems are so
great. Normal long distance movement is either by road or
rail. Maximum height and width is dictated by heights of
underpasses and distance between parallel railroad tracks
and between tracks in a rail yard. The most commonly used
size envelope is the continental "TZ" gauge which limits
width to 3.54 metres. The M1 is 3.655 metres wide.
Tanks have logistic problems aside from those involved
in staging into a theater. First, fuel usage increases
dramatically with weight. Second, very heavy tanks require
heavy wreckers which do not exist or are available in small
numbers. Replacements will likely be more difficult to
produce than tanks due to the limited production. Finally,
as weight increases, so does the maintenance requirement.
Any country producing tanks has a difficult problem in
determining the rate of production. If sufficient are
produced quickly to meet the meed, factories will close
before the next tank can be produced but the production rate
will be high enough to replace battle losses. If production
is spread over time, factories will remain open until a new
tank is in production but the capacity will not be high
enough to replace battle losses. Manufacturers
understandably have to recoup their costs in setting up
factories by increasing the cost of the product. The
absolute cost of tanks has risen steadily over time
reflecting the high cost of improvements in design near the
upper limits of performance and the cost of heavy
manufacturing facilities. The export price of an M1 could
reach five million dollars and the newest European tank, the
LeClerc could cost ten million.
Recent changes in Europe have begun to cause reductions
in the level of American force permanently stationed in
Germany. At the same time while the intentions of the
Soviets has almost certainly changed, their ability to move
tank heavy forces to the German border faster than NATO has
not changed. The requirement to reinforce rapidly with
forces capable of defeating armour formations remains. At
the same time, strategic lift capability will be eroded by
the same budgetary pressures resulting from the perceived
reduction in threat. The problem then is to move more
forces with fewer assets in the same time. Increasing the
size and weight of the principal tank defeating weapon is
not the answer.
A further problem is that actual forces in being will
likely be reduced. In addition to the lift problem, there
is the even more difficult problem of increasing production
of tanks and their associated maintenance equipment and
training their crews in time to be moved. A heavy, complex
main battle tank is probably the most difficult system to
put into service quickly.
The establishment of increased requirements for rapid
armed forces intervention along the line of the Panama
invasion compounds the problem. Light forces are required
to enable rapid deployment yet studies indicate that many
potential enemies possess potent relatively modern armoured
forces. At the same time, tanks are inappropriate for use
in many potential situations. They can give the wrong
signals leading to unwarranted escalation and unfavorable
world opinion. The threat must still be met but at lower
cost and by systems with a lower profile than tanks.
It should by now be clear that tanks, even in a
combined arms team are expensive, difficult to move
strategically and tactically, and will be subjected to
attrition at a rate much higher than can be supported by
industrial production. There must be a better solution.
In order to identify possible alternatives to tanks it
is first necessary to identify what function they perform on
the battlefield. In their early history, tanks were
intended to break the impasse of defence on the Western
Front. Tanks were designed to withstand machine gun fire
and indirect fire while having the mobility to move over
wire, ground churned by artillery, and trenches. Once the
defence belts were penetrated, the aim was to disrupt the
opposing army's lines of communication so quickly and
thoroughly that it would be unable to hold its positions and
would lose cohesiveness in the attempt to reform in a new
area. Initially, cavalry was to be used for the latter
function but eventually light (cruiser) tanks were used
primarily. It is important to note that tanks were never
intended to be invulnerable nor were they intended to fight
strong points any longer than necessary to get into the
rear. They had to be sufficiently strong to break through
defences in sufficient numbers to allow penetration.
Following that, the natural targets for tanks were those
facilities that allowed resupply and reinforcement. In
Liddel-Hart's expanding torrent ideas and Fuller's comments
implemented with modifications in the Panzer armies of
Germany the natural target for tanks was the enemy rear,
communications, supplies and reserves. German tanks were
relatively more lightly armoured and armed16 than their
adversaries Yet they prevailed because they overpowered
local tank and anti-tank defences and fought primarily in
the rear areas. Tanks were not designed primarily to fight
other tanks but to gain and exploit success achieved by
local overwhelming superiority in numbers.
16 They had a more powerful gun but still lacked
penetration power against the more heavily armoured French
tanks. Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 511-512.
In modern armies, all operations are ideally aimed at
enemy vulnerabilities, and centers of gravity, not at the
armoured forces which are his strength. Fighting enemy
armour formations is often a necessary prelude but it is not
the desired result. The idea is expressed in FMFM-1 by the
idea of surfaces and gaps17.
Although armoured forces should be aimed at rear areas,
current development of tanks seems to aim them squarely at
enemy tanks. They carry increasingly heavy armour which
reduces overall mobility (although impressive gains have
been made in local tactical mobility) and their armament is
designed to defeat the strongest enemy armour at the expense
of being able to move farther and destroy the much more
numerous soft targets in rear areas.
In order to win, then, an army must destroy defending
forces in a local areas only to the extent required to
enable an attack on enemy weaker and more critical rear
areas, communications, logistic support, and headquarters.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully develop a
force to do the job but some ideas can be presented. One
weapon system which can reduce local enemy defences with
17 Headquarters, USMC, Warfighting, FMFM 1 (Washington,
1989) pp. 74-75.
concentrated fire while not concentrating physically itself
is the NLOS system. With a range of 10 kilometers,
potentially double or greater, and a rate of fire that
allows destruction of three targets a minute, systems can be
dispersed in width and depth while allowing concentrated
point destruction of opposing forces in the desired area.
The majority of opposing heavily armoured forces and static
positions can be destroyed allowing more lightly armoured
forces to move through and into the rear. Such vehicles
need only be protected from artillery shrapnel and light
direct fire weapons. By moving under an umbrella of NLOS
systems, a lightly armoured vehicle can concentrate on soft
targets while still being relatively immune to heavier
tanks. The same kind of umbrella protects current
formations from aircraft. The resulting lighter force would
be less dependant upon logistics because range for a given
fuel load can be higher, more ammunition can be carried, and
maintenance for lighter vehicles is less. Some of the
vehicles could be wheeled, similar to the LAV with perhaps a
more powerful gun. A range of complementary vehicles would
be required for air defence, counter obstacles, and
logistics to enable extended independent operations.
Further into the future, air cushion vehicles could become
feasible, further improving mobility while retaining
adequate firepower and protection.
The tank is certainly not dead yet and its functions
must continue to be done. However the tank as it is
currently designed has a number of weaknesses. It is
extremely expensive, slow to produce, and difficult to move.
It can not provide protection against numerous all round
threats without becoming unmanageably large and heavy.
Although theory gives its ideal role as exploitation, it is
designed to fight other tanks in a modern version of combat
by armoured knights. There is no doubt that armour
formations using combined arms concepts can succeed on a
modern battlefield. In an era of reduced budgets and
increased requirements for strategic mobility the real
question is whether the functions can not be done better by
a less expensive combination of systems. I believe it can.
1. Fuller, J.F.C., C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O.. Armored Warfare.
Harrisburg: Military Service Publishing Company, 1943,
Reprinted by Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1983.
2. Hamilton, Nigel. Monty: The Making of a General. New
York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981.
3. Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
4. Liddell Hart, B. H.. The Liddell Hart Memoirs Volume I.
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1965.
5. Sherman, Arnold. When God Judged and Men Died. New
York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1973.
6. Tarassuk, Leonid and Claude Blair, ed. The Complete
Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1979, translated 1982.
7. "U.S. Army to Seek 48 Stingray Lasers to Help Blind
Enemy Vehicles", Defense News, March 26 1990, p.33.
8. U.S. Marine Corps. Headquarters. Warfighting, FMFM 1.
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