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The Revolution in Tank Design

The most technically significant elements of the 1941 tank force were two new designs, the T-34 medium tank and the KV heavy tank.

The T-34 was intended to replace the BT cavalry tank. It had benefited greatly from Soviet experiences in tank warfare in Spain in 1937 to 1938 and against the Japanese in 1938 to 1939. These tank battles, although small scale compared later with the Great Patriotic War fighting, had important technological lessons for the Soviet tank designers.

It made clear that the existing levels of armor protection, little changed since the Great War, were completely inadequate when faced with contemporary tank and antitank guns. This prompted the Soviets to adopt "shell proof armor" on both tanks, so that when production started in 1940, they were unquestionably the best armored tanks in the world.

Secondly, the fighting convinced the Soviets of the soundness of equipping their tanks with a good dual-purpose gun of superior performance to the opposition. Anticipating foreign improvements, the new tanks leap-frogged forward in armament, going from a 45mm gun to a 76mm gun. Once again, this made both tanks the best armed of all contemporary tanks.

Finally, the wartime experiences convinced the Soviets of the vulnerability of gasoline engines on tanks, leading them to adopt a new diesel engine. This engine, the V-2, had been the standard powerplant of Soviet medium tanks since then, having been used (in improved form) through the 1990s on the T-72 tank.

Although Soviet histories of tank design have portrayed the T-34 as emerging from Red Army requirements, in fact, it was more the result of innovative ideas of the design bureau that were not initially supported by either the Red Army or the military industry. Had the Red Army's tactical-technical requirements been precisely fulfilled, the design would have been considerably inferior in armor, firepower and mobility and would have resembled contemporary British cruiser tanks. Instead, it became the tank which set the pace for all later the Great Patriotic War tank development.

Although there is a widespread perception in the West that Soviet tanks stem from a formal process steered by Soviet army doctrine and tactics, in the case of most tank innovations, this has not been the case.

The origins of the KV heavy tank were similar to the T-34. The original requirement for the KV called for a multi-turreted monstrosity similar to the pre-war T-35. This conception was resisted by the design team. According to legend, it was Stalin who authorized the team to pursue a more modern design against the wishes of the Red Army bureaucracy.

In any event, the KV represented the most thickly armored and heavy tank of its day. This tank was developed based on the lessons of the wars of the 1930s which showed that all existing tanks could be defeated by existing antitank guns like the ubiquitous German 37mm gun. The aim of the program was to deploy a "shell-proof tank that could assist the more numerous cavalry tanks in securing a breakthrough against enemy infantry protected by modern antitank weapons like the German 37mm PaK 36.

It was not intended specifically for tank fighting, so its gun was no better than that on the new T-34 cavalry tank. Since the KV was not intended for the exploitation role, mobility was not a major concern; it was powered by the same V-2 diesel as the cavalry tanks, even though it was 10 tons heavier. This tank was conceptually similar to British infantry tanks, though larger, more heavily armored and better armed.

In addition to the T-34 and the KV, a third tank was also in development, the T-50 infantry tank, intended to replace the T-26. This was a very sophisticated light tank roughly comparable to die German PzKpfw III. It had severe engineering shortcomings, and so was not available when war broke out. This twist of fate had enormous implications for Soviet tank programs in the Great Patriotic War. With the T-50 not ready for mass production, the T-34 cavalry tank was pressed into both cavalry and infantry tank roles, much to the benefit of the Soviet armored force.

The new T-34 and KV tanks were available in substantial numbers in June 1941 with some 508 KV and 967 T-34 in service. The best German tanks were the PzKpfw III, armed with a 37mm gun, and the PzKpfw IV, armed with a short 75mm gun with poor antiarmor performance. There were 1,449 PzKpfw III and 517 PzKpfw IV available in June 1941. They were inferior to the new Soviet tanks in armor, firepower and mobility. The revolutionary combination of armor, firepower and mobility of the T-34 tank established it as the technological pace-setter of the Great Patriotic War tank design.

The locus of tank technology shifted from its traditional center in England and France, eastward to Germany and the Soviet Union as Germany responded to the challenge of matching the T-34. The technological arms race between Germany and the USSR, prompted by the revolutionary T-34, set the pace for worldwide tank development throughout the Great Patriotic War.

In spite of substantial numerical superiority, and important qualitative superiority, the Soviet tank force was decisively defeated by the smaller and more modestly equipped German tank force in the summer of 1941. The roots of this defeat are connected mainly in the Red Army's lack of preparedness for war, exacerbated by the corrosive influences of the purges of the officer ranks in the late 1930s. From a technological standpoint, the defeat highlighted shortcomings in Soviet tank design philosophy, some of which continue to be trademarks of Soviet tank design. The T-34 tank design stressed the "Big-3" armor, firepower and mobility to the exclusion of other key tank-fighting features.

Crew layout was poor; the turret only accommodated a crew of two, and so the commander could not execute his command functions and had to double as a gunner. The commander was not provided with adequate vision devices, and the hatch design made it impossible for the tank commander to ride with his head outside the tank as was the German practice. Soviet tank commanders, already hampered by inadequate training, were overwhelmed with the simple mechanics of operating the tank. They were unable to develop an awareness of the terrain or the location and status of friend and foe around them.

Soviet tank crews were thus hindered in carrying out cooperative battlefield tactics, making them vulnerable to the better coordinated German tank units. The Soviets did not understand the revolutionary implications of radio technology on the command and control of tank units and few tanks had radios. They had developed a mistrust of radio communications because of the disastrous results of poor Russian radio security in the 1905 war with Japan and the 1914 battles with Germany. These early failures discouraged proper tactical radio doctrine in the army in the 1930s, and this deficiency was further exacerbated by the backwardness of the Russian electronics industry.

The radio shortcomings had a synergistic effect with the poor command and control features of the tank, leading to abysmal tank tactics. Soviet tank units were very vulnerable to the more experienced German tank and antitank units. Total Soviet tank losses from June to December 1941 were 20,500; German losses from 22 June 1941 through the end of February 1942 were only 3,402, a 6:1 exchange ratio. While the causes of the high Soviet losses were more clearly attributable to strategic and tactical failures, technical design flaws aggravated these problems.

The Soviet tank designers had some appreciation for these shortcomings, but as is evident in recent Russian writing on the subject, there was little contact between the designers and combat tank crews. The Soviet tank design process was to filter combat experience through the central Red Army bureaucracy (the GBTU Tank and Armored Directorate) and pass the assessments to the design bureaus in the form of design requirements. The Soviet designers had some projected improvements on the drawing boards in 1941 to ameliorate these technical problems, but the exigencies of the time led to their abandonment.

It should be recognized that discussion of wartime tank development focuses on the technological imperitives of tank-versus-tank fighting. The Soviets considered it essential that their medium and heavy tanks be capable of defeating opposing tanks, and this requirement often dominated tank design. However, the Soviets also recognized that tank-vs-tank combat is not that common, and that a tank had to be armed with a gun firing a useful high explosive round to deal with antitank guns, enemy infantry and other typical targets. This attitude stands in contrast to several armies (notably the British) which often built designs stressing one firepower capability to the exclusion of the other.

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Page last modified: 05-03-2019 18:34:15 ZULU