The entire purpose of the tank is to carry the main gun into battle. The armor is provided to ensure that the crew is protected from shrapnel (the main cause of battlefield casualties) and small arms fire. The crew exists solely to serve the main gun. The driver gets the vehicle to firing position, the tank commander selects targets, the loader ensures the weapon is loaded with the correct ammunition for the target selected, and the gunner makes sure the round strikes the target in the area of maximum vulnerability.
Since its inception during the First World War, the tank has been the preeminent system used in maneuver forces. They embody the mobile protected firepower needed to fight the close combat maneuver battle. In the attack, tanks functioning as a part of a combined arms mounted force must enter the close combat battlespace in order to win; driving the enemy from an objective or destroying him. In the defense, mounted units must also fight and destroy enemy forces moving into this battlespace. The operational capabilities of survivability, lethality, and mobility are defined by the need to fight and win against any system entering or engaging tanks in the battlespace.
Survivability must be maximized against any weapon system capable of engaging in the close combat battlespace. This includes threat tanks firing KE projectiles, guided and unguided (infantry fired) anti-tank weapons and high precision and conventional artillery delivered munitions. Most threat weapons can be defeated with base armor, but improved ATGMs and new top-attack weapons require armor solutions that would exceed weight limitations. New technologies such as sensors and countermeasure suites and signature management have been shown to greatly enhance survivability against the vast majority of these systems. Lethality requirements are driven by the need for the tank to engage and destroy any vehicle entering the close combat battlespace. Enemy tanks with heavy base armors and sophisticated appliques present the greatest challenge to our tanks. Finally, tanks must be able to maneuver quickly over the battlefield in order to bring our lethality and survivability assets to bear. So far, only fully tracked vehicles can provide load carrying capacity and cross-country mobility needed to effectively fight the maneuver battle.
Tanks offer an impressive array of capabilities on the modern battlefield: excellent cross-country mobility, sophisticated communications, enhanced target acquisition, lethal firepower, and effective armor protection. In combination, these factors produce the shock effect that allows armor units to close with and destroy the enemy in most weather and light conditions. Tanks can move rapidly under a variety of terrain conditions, negotiating soft ground, trenches, small trees, and limited obstacles. In addition, global positioning systems (GPS) and inertial position navigation (POSNAV) systems allow today's tanks to move to virtually any designated location with greater speed and accuracy than ever before. Use of visual signals and the single channel ground/airborne radio system (SIN CGARS) facilitates rapid and secure com munication of orders and instructions. This capability allows tank crews to quickly mass the effects of their weapon systems while remaining dispersed to limit the effects of the enemy's weapons. On-board optics and sighting systems enable the crews to acquire and destroy enemy tanks, armored vehicles, and fortifications using the main gun or to use machine guns to suppress enemy positions, personnel, and lightly armored targets. The tank's armor protects crew members from small arms fire, most artillery, and some antiarmor systems.
The armor branch soldier fights inside a tank — a heavily-armored, tracked vehicle capable of rapid cross-country movement on suitable terrain. The tank has a heavy gun for destroying other tanks and hard targets by direct (line-of-sight) fire, and machine guns for destroying exposed infantry and other “soft” targets. Tanks are most effective in the offensive in open country where, in combination with mechanized infantry and supporting artillery and air attacks, they can break through enemy defenses and spread havoc in the rear.
Much of the time, however, armor works in the offense or defense on more restrictive terrain, moving from position to position in coordinated movements with each tank much like an individual infantryman. Unlike the infantryman, however, the tank protects against bullets and artillery fragments, giving a relative sense of invulnerability. Modern tanks also have collective protection against chemical agents. Tanks are disabled (and less often destroyed) by other tank’s guns, by direct artillery hits, by mines, and by a variety of infantry- or vehicle-carried antitank rockets, many of them now precision-guided.
Speed in firing first or in taking protective countermeasures (measured in seconds, if not split-seconds) can be crucial to survival. When the crew compartment of a tank is breached or the tank burns or explodes, escape may also be a matter of seconds, and death can be especially gruesome. Battle fatigue rates are therefore high among the survivors or witnesses of the deaths of fellow crew, relative to the number of wounded who get out alive. Battle fatigue to wounded ratios of 1:2 and 1:1 have been reported when armored units were caught at a disadvantage or unexpectedly found themselves outclassed by superior tanks or infantry antitank weapons.
Tanks, while giving the soldier a sense of confidence, can be sources of problems. Highly technical in today’s US Army, these weapons are at best finicky, subject to heavy vibration and jolting in operation, require continuous maintenance, and demand specialized skills to operate. Armor crews tend to be closely knit units, where deviance, defiance, and “specialness” are not readily tolerated. Individuals working in tank crews have to rely on the skills of their comrades, live for weeks to months together in very close proximity, and often get to know each other on an intensely personal level. The operation of the tank is dependent on each person’s doing his job; the tank does not operate fully if one member of the crew is incapacitated. Maintenance units that take care of the machinery have to be reliable and known by the operators; “slacking off” is not tolerated.
Tankers rarely see their human victims close up. The mission of armor units is to neutralize other similar or smaller-sized enemy weapons. Because of this, tankers are prone to periods of heightened enthusiasm and letdowns after the mission is accomplished. Debriefing is especially important and the tendency to focus on the mechanical details of the mission, create distance from the destruction, or overpersonalize the killing, may be compelling dynamics with these crews that must be dealt with constructively.
Modern tanks have night vision and infrared sights and laser rangefinders that can make true combat sensorially much like a complex team computersimulation task or arcade game. Individual crews now train at their tasks in “high-tech” simulators, “moving” over virtual-reality terrain and engaging virtual-reality targets that, although still substantially abstracted, are not that different from what would actually be seen. Multiple simulators can be linked together so that three to five tanks in a platoon can be maneuvering together on each other’s scopes.
The combined arms team can even train together in virtual reality, with attack helicopter crews and mounted mechanized infantry all in their own simulators (perhaps even located on distant posts) working in concert on the same computer-generated terrain, supported by field artillery fire direction centers who respond to calls for artillery fire that the computer faithfully represents in real time. Research and development for the “digital battlefield” is equipping each tank with global positioning devices linked by computers and computergenerated displays in each tank and at its higher headquarters.
The successful integration of information technology into armored formations may be technically easier than with dismounted infantry, but it will still require extensive human factors evaluation and training. It must be remembered that ground war, more than air, sea, or space war, is fought under very “dirty” physical and emotional conditions. Continuous and even sustained operations are often required. Strict limits on the size and weight of equipment demand compromises: air conditioning may be necessary for the computers, but little has traditionally been invested to provide comfort for the crew members. If the “high-tech” systems break down under the strain of field operations, the crew must be capable of fixing them or carrying on without them. Fear, grief, rage, guilt, or simple sleep loss must not be allowed to impair the crucial human components of the system.
Although the infantry assumes the lead role during combat in urban areas, tanks and infantry work as a close team. Tanks move down streets, after the infantry has cleared them of any suspected ATGM positions, and, in turn, support the infantry with fire. The tank is one of the most effective weapons for heavy fire against structures. The primary role of the tank cannon during urban combat is to provide heavy direct-fire against buildings and strongpoints that are identified as targets by the infantry.
Tank-heavy forces could be at a severe disadvantage during urban combat, but a few tanks working with the infantry can be very effective, especially if they work well together at the small-unit level. Tank, infantry, and engineer task forces are normally formed to attack a fortified area. Individual tanks or pairs of tanks can work together with rifle squads or platoons.
Tanks need infantry on the ground to provide security in urban areas and to designate targets. Against targets protected by structures, tanks should be escorted forward to the most covered location that provides a clear shot. On-the-spot instructions by the infantry unit leader ensure the tank's fire is accurate and its exposure is limited.
When the tank main gun fires, it creates a large fireball and smoke cloud. In the confines of an urban area, dirt and masonry dust are also picked up and add to this cloud. The smoke and dust of the explosion further obscure the target. Depending on local conditions, this obscuration could last as long as two or three minutes. Infantry can use this period to reposition or advance unseen by the enemy. Caution must be exercised because the enemy might also move.
Tank cannons create an overpressure and noise hazard to exposed infantrymen. All dismounted troops working near tanks should wear their Kevlar helmet and protective vest, as well as ballistic eye protection. If possible, they should also wear earplugs and avoid the tank's frontal 60-degree arc during firing.
Tanks are equipped with powerful thermal sights that can be used to detect enemy personnel and weapons hidden in shadows and behind openings. Dust, fires, and thick smoke significantly degrade these sights.
Tanks have turret-mounted grenade launchers that project screening smoke grenades. The grenades use a bursting charge and burning red phosphorous particles to create this screen. Burning particles can easily start uncontrolled fires and are hazardous to dismounted infantry near the tank. The tank commander and the infantry small-unit leader must coordinate when and under what conditions these launchers can be used. Grenade launchers are a useful feature to protect the tank but can cause significant problems if unwisely employed.
The tank's size and armor can provide dismounted infantry cover from direct-fire weapons and fragments. With coordination, tanks can provide moving cover for infantrymen as they advance across small open areas. However, enemy fire striking a tank but not penetrating is a major threat to nearby infantry. Fragmentation that is generated by antitank rounds and ricochets off tank armor have historically been a prime cause of infantry casualties while working with tanks in urban areas.
Tanks require extensive maintenance, proficient operators, and skilled mechanics, as well as daily resupply of large quantities of bulky petroleum products such as fuel, oil, and grease. They are vulnerable to the weapons effects of other tanks, attack helicopters, mines, ATGMs, antitank guns, and close attack aircraft. When tanks operate in urban areas, dense woods, or other close terrain, reduced visibility leaves them vulnerable to dismounted infantry attacks as well. In such situations, they are usually restricted to trails, roads, or streets; this severely limits maneuverability and observation. Existing or reinforcing obstacles can also restrict or stop tank movement.
Military theorists generally agree that a defending army could hope for success if the attacking enemy had no greater than a 3:1 advantage in combat power. The best intelligence estimates in the 1970s, however, concluded that the Warsaw Pact armies enjoyed a much larger advantage. Continuing budget constrictions made unlikely the possibility of increasing the size of the American military to match Soviet growth. To solve the problem of how to fight an enemy that would almost certainly be larger, the United States relied, in part, on technologically superior hardware that could defeat an enemy at ratios higher than 1:3. To achieve that end, the Army in the early 1970s began work on the "big five" equipment systems: a new tank, a new infantry combat vehicle, a new attack helicopter, a new transport helicopter, and a new antiaircraft missile.
Tanks offer a vast array of capabilities: excellent cross-country mobility, sophisticated communications, enhanced target acquisition, lethal firepower, and effective armor protection. All of these characteristics are interrelated.
Armor-Protected Firepower. The armored vehicle is an integrated weapons system capable of defeating most targets on the battlefield. The tank main gun is a high velocity, direct fire weapon used primarily against enemy tanks and hard targets. The amount of ammunition carried aboard the vehicle and the types available permit armored vehicles to engage a wide variety of targets for sustained periods of combat. Its armor affords protection to the components of the armored vehicle, including its crew, from the effects of small arms fire, shell fragments, and some direct hits, depending on the type and range of the enemy weapon. Its armor also allows the tank to close with the enemy and maneuver while under enemy fire or friendly close supporting fires with a degree of survivability that other weapons systems do not possess. The platform also provides a significant degree of protection for the crew while operating in an environment contaminated with chemical weapons.
Mobility. Tank units are capable of conducting mobile ground combat over a broad area of operations. Tank units can remain dispersed, yet quickly mass for employment at a decisive time and place. Tanks, by virtue of their full track, possess a high degree of cross-country mobility. In addition, global positioning systems (GPS) allow today's tanks to move to virtually any designated location with greater speed and accuracy than ever before. Tanks can quickly mass the effects of their weapon systems while remaining physically dispersed to limit effective enemy counteraction. When properly utilized, the tank’s mobility allows it to deliver firepower against several enemy locations within a short period of time.
Shock Effect. The shock effect on the enemy that tank units can create is both physical and psychological. This shock effect is increased in proportion to the number of vehicles employed. Shock effect, in a properly executed assault, has a devastating effect on enemy morale and a favorable effect on friendly morale. To exploit tanks shock effect, aggressive employment of the combined arms team is essential.
Extensive communications. Radio is the primary means of communication for tank units. Each tank is capable of transmitting/receiving on one frequency while simultaneously receiving on another frequency. The use of visual signals and the single channel ground/airborne radio system (SINCGARS) facilitates rapid and secure communication of orders and instructions.
Flexibility. Tank units are capable of responding rapidly to the ever-changing environment of the battlefield. Units engaged with the enemy can, with the proper use of supporting arms, disengage and be given a new mission. Tanks can group, disperse, and quickly regroup again in response to changing tactical situations.
A clear understanding of the tank employment limitations enables commanders to both plan effectively and fully exploit the capabilities of tank units. Limitations fall into three general categories – those inherent to the vehicle, existing obstacles, and reinforcing obstacles.
Size. The size of a tank makes it difficult to conceal in some terrain. This limitation is substantially overcome by positioning tanks in areas that minimize their exposure to enemy observation until they are ready to be employed.
Weight. The weight of tanks prevents use of low capacity bridges and requires the use of special equipment and techniques for recovery of immobilized vehicles. Planning for the necessary support, as well as the careful selection of routes and areas of operation reduces this limitation.
Noise. The noise created from the operation of tanks will give warning of their presence. Surprise, however, may be achieved by moving tanks forward just prior to their commitment, and by advancing rapidly under the cover of supporting arms.
Visibility. Tank crews enhance visibility with vision devices. However, peripheral vision is limited. Unless a member of the crew is observing the sector in which hostile actions occur, it may go unseen. The tank is susceptible to ambush by tank-killer teams when operating in close terrain. It is also vulnerable to mechanical damage caused by terrain or obstacles hidden from view e.g. brush covered gullies. Conducting a detailed terrain analysis can reduce these limitations. Also, infantry should accompany tanks operating in close or broken terrain to protect them from ambush.
Fuel Consumption. The fuel consumption of a tank is high in comparison to wheeled vehicles. The tank crew can use the external auxiliary power unit (EAPU) during operational pauses to reduce the amount of fuel consumed. Careful planning and a coordinated logistics effort are required to insure that armored vehicles’ fuel requirements do not impose an insurmountable logistics burden.
Maintenance. Tanks are complex and require time dedicated to maintenance. Tank vehicle crews accomplish preventive maintenance during halt, rest periods and periods of resupply without interrupting support functions. However, systematic relief of individual tanks or units is required to permit thorough maintenance. Failure of commanders to recognize or plan for this will result in unnecessary and excessive tank non-availability due to mechanical failure.
Existing Obstacles. Of all the limiting factors that inhibit tank vehicle operations, none has a more decisive effect than terrain. Terrain may dictate the number of tanks that can be employed, but it will seldom prohibit their employment entirely. The full striking power of tanks is best achieved over rolling terrain that permits massing and exploitation of their cross-country mobility. Nevertheless, between the extremes of terrain – rolling terrain as opposed to impassable terrain – there is considerable ground that can be negotiated by tanks. Heavy rainfall usually reduces the trafficability of an area and imposes restrictions on tank movements. Extremes in weather reduce the efficiency of tank crews. Although tanks have little difficulty in snow less than 24 inches deep, they tend to skid or slide off embankments and are unable to negotiate slopes when the snow becomes packed or icy. The limiting effects of terrain and weather can be reduced by prior reconnaissance of tank routes, proper planning, and by providing for the reduction of existing obstacle that cannot be bypassed.
Reinforcing Obstacles. In past operations, the most effective reinforcing obstacle and the one most frequently employed, was the antitank minefield. Mines, whether arranged as a barrier or planted at random, can temporarily stop the forward movement of tanks. Other reinforcing obstacles frequently encountered that tend to restrict the movement of tanks are tank ditches, tank traps, and roadblocks. Normally, many of these obstacles are temporary deterrents that can be overcome by proper employment of organic weapons, equipment and personnel. Given time and resources, engineers can generally reduce even difficult obstacles.
Communications. The heavy reliance upon radio communications for command, control and coordination of tank units makes them vulnerable to enemy electronic warfare (EW) and/or signals intelligence efforts. Tank unit commander and tank crews must be able to operate in a hostile EW environment and employ communication security procedures to overcome this limitation.