Firepower - mobility - protection are the three key aspects of any fighting vehicle. The effectiveness of a tank is determined by a balance between its protection, firepower and mobility. Known as the 'Iron Trinity'. A tank is a tracked, armored fighting vehicle designed for front-line combat which combines operational mobility and tactical offensive and defensive capabilities. Firepower is normally provided by a large-calibre main gun in a rotating turret and secondary machine guns, while heavy armor and all-terrain mobility provide protection for the tank and its crew, allowing it to perform all primary tasks of the armored troops on the battlefield. The role of tanks is to dominate the battlefield. They’re designed to be virtually invulnerable, while being able to destroy anything they encounter.
Tanks have heavy armor and a large-calibre main gun. A large gun needs a large turret, which in turn needs a large hull. Fitting thick armor to a large vehicle results in a lot of weight, which means a large engine has to be fitted to allow the tank to move at a reasonable speed. This results in a vehicle weighing 40 tons or more. Soviet tanks are often smaller than western ones: the Soviet T-80 weighs 43 tons, the British Chieftain weighs 56 tons.
Tanks have been key land warfare capabilities ever since they were invented by the British in the First World War. They continue to have two main roles: destroying enemy tanks and AFVs, or providing mobile, protected firepower. Many armies, including the British, concentrate tanks in specific brigades or divisions, along with a wide range of other armoured vehicles. These include infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and armoured reconnaissance vehicles. There is a wide range of AFV variants on tank, IFV and APC chassis, providing combined arms combat and combat support capabilities. Units and formations primarily equipped with AFVs are normally known as “armoured forces”; their tactics and operations and usually described as “armoured warfare”.
Armoured warfare is a combined arms activity. To conduct it, an Army needs more than just units of AFVs, manned by trained personnel. It also needs a full spectrum anti-armour capability. This is, in part, provided by tank guns and the cannon on other vehicles, but is also provided by anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW) and shoulder launched short range anti-armour weapons. Anti-armour defence is also enhanced by the ability to create anti-armour obstacles, including anti-tank mines.
Offensive armoured operations also require engineer support to breach and cross obstacles. Without an armoured engineer capability tempo will reduce and casualties increase. The same will occur if armoured forces lack the full spectrum of combat support and logistic support mounted in armoured vehicles. Self-propelled artillery has an important role in suppressing enemy forces. Concentrated artillery fire can damage all types of AFVs and can destroy light armour.
The 2003 Coalition attack on Iraq saw well-trained modern, networked high technology US and UK armoured forces comprehensively over-match less modern and trained Iraqi forces. The decisive role in rural and urban combat was played by the Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles of the US Army 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanised). Their advanced armour was largely impervious to Iraqi anti-tank weapons. This allowed them the conduct “Thunder Runs”; armoured brigade raids into Baghdad, the tipping point of the invasion. Similar armour was fitted to the British Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior IFVs. Both AFVs were almost invulnerable to the copious numbers of rockets fired by Iraqi forces, insurgents and militias. They could move at will through Basra.
Subsequently US and British tanks and IFVs proved essential in reducing casualties and defeating militia and insurgent attacks. The key US battles in Ramadi in 2006/7 and Sadr City in 2008 would not have succeeded without the Abrams tanks and Bradley IFVs of US armoured brigade combat teams. And without the firepower and protection of Warrior the British would have taken much heavier casualties during the heavy fighting against the Shia militia in Basra in 2006-8.
In the 1990s the Canadian Army abandoned their tank capability. But in Afghanistan, the 2006 Canadian battle in Panjawi District, Operation Medusa saw unexpectedly heavy fighting, where the Canadian Army’s light armour was overmatched by the Taliban. Canada rushed tanks back into service and has retained a regiment of Leopard 2 tanks ever since. The US Marines and Danish contingent employed tanks in Helmand province. And the British employed Warrior IFVs. Both the British and US Marines employed engineer tanks to breach IED belts.
AFVs played an important role in Russia’s 2008 war against Georgia and 2014 intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Wheeled AFVs deploying at speed over great distance were an essential component of the 2013 rapid French intervention in Mali and subsequent stabilisation operations across the Sahel. Forces deployed on international peace missions, make extensive use of AFVs.
The war in Syria saw extensive use of tanks and AFVs by Syrian government forces and rebel groups, including ISIS. Large numbers of ATGW were used by rebel groups, a capability that Syrian forces struggled to counter. Lebanese Hezbollah provide an illuminating example. Their initial intervention in support of the Assad regime saw them provide a light infantry battalion. It required support from Syrian tanks and artillery. By 2017 the Hezbollah contingent was a combined arms mechanised battlegroup, equipped with tanks, APCs and armoured engineers. The 2016-17 Iraqi government campaign to evict ISIS from captured Iraqi towns and cities made extensive use of AFVs. This saw intimate co-operation between infantry, tanks, armoured bulldozers, tactical drones and precision strike from artillery and aircraft.
While AFV fleets in NATO and Russia greatly reduced after the Cold War, the Ukraine crisis resulted in increased European defence spending, resulting in acquisitions of additional AFVs. These include Germany buying back 100 Leopard 2 tanks from the manufacturer, Lithuania ordering Boxer APCs and Latvia purchasing ex-British Army Scimitar and Spartan reconnaissance vehicles. US Army is refurbishing and updating its fleet of M1 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley IFVs and Stryker APCs. France has introduced the VBCI wheeled IFV and has an ambitious programme for new wheeled APCs and combat reconnaissance vehicles. Germany is introducing the Boxer wheeled APC and Puma IFV and is upgrading its Leopard 2 tanks. Poland has an ambitious programme for a wide range of new wheeled and tracked AFVs. The US, France and Germany have plans for future tanks to be introduced in the 2030s.
Any Russian attack on NATO would see extensive use of Russian armoured forces challenging British armour. These would have a large number of different types of AFVs, from lightly protected armoured personnel carriers to modern tanks with advanced armour. In the early stages of any conflict NATO AFVs would be considerably outnumbered. Russia continues to upgrade the protection of its armoured vehicles. In recent years Russia has been displaying prototypes of a new range of armoured vehicles that appear both better protected and heavier than previous Russian systems. These include the Armata tank, with a radical layout of the crew in the chassis and an unmanned turret, the Kurganets tracked IFV/APC and Bumerang wheeled APC/IFV.
Strong Europe Tank Challenge (SETC) is seen as a counterbalance to the Tank Biathlon organized by Russia, the participants are the army of NATO countries and some partners of this military bloc. Compared to Tank Biathlon, SETC is considered more attractive in that it gathers many of the world's leading tanks today, manufactured by Germany, Britain, France, and the United States.
In addition to the Western-style MBT lines, the first SETC competition in 2016 featured the Slovenian M-84, which is a paper-based version of the T-72 tank produced by the former Yugoslavia. permission of the Soviet Union. In 2017, Ukraine participated for the first time with the T-64BM and this year they returned with their most powerful tank T-84 Oplot. However, attracting the most attention at this year's tank race is probably the Romanian TR-85.
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