When tanks first appeared in World War 1, they were flawed. Yet everyone knew they had potential. Just over two decades later, tanks proved to be an invaluable asset. With thicker armour, more speed and powerful guns, the tanks used in World War 2 were vastly superior to their predecessors. Throughout the Cold War, tank design was further refined. Today, most tanks are either from the Cold War era, heavily upgraded versions of Cold War tanks or derivatives of designs from back then. Recently, people have been suggesting that tanks are on their way out.
By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Ted Banks. - http://www.navy.mil/view_image.asp?id=11188 Image:031214-N-3236B-020.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115024
M1A1 Abrams firing its 120mm cannon
Anti-tank guided missiles have existed for decades. But we only realised their significance after their performance in the Syrian Civil War. Hundreds of tanks have been destroyed or rendered inoperable by ATGM strikes. Including T-90, Leopard 2A4 and even M1A2s in Yemen. Earlier this year, even drones started destroying tanks. The vulnerability of tanks in modern combat is clear. However, they are not obsolete.
Tanks are still the most well-protected vehicles on the battlefield. Any modern tank can survive hits from RPGs. Also, out of all vehicles capable of firing on the move, tanks have by far the most firepower. But as mentioned earlier, they are susceptible to ATGMs. So why would any army want to use them?
The truth is tanks are not ideal for battlegrounds in Syria or Yemen. This is due to the abundance of ATGMs. However, if the enemy doesn't have them, tanks can be a useful asset for clearing towns from insurgents. They are particularly effective when the town has been cleared of civilians and the insurgents have dug in. Militants fighting in an asymmetric war will usually create holes in walls to fire from, barricades and all sorts of constructs which will make defeating them as difficult as possible. In such circumstances, brute force may be necessary.
(U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Angel Heraldez)
Insurgents will often hide in high buildings. A concealed militant armed with a sniper, machine gun or rocket launcher can inflict a lot of damage, even against a better equipped, more numerous and well-trained force.
Modern tanks, whether MBTs or not, will generally have cannons larger than 100mm. Highly-explosive rounds fired from a tank will destroy enemy positions with ease. For example, combatants hiding behind a concrete wall don't stand a chance against a tank round. Buildings suspected of housing militants can be selectively destroyed by tanks sweeping through a city.
In locations overlooked by a hill, tanks can be perched above the town. IR signatures can be picked up by reconnaissance assets such as drones and then the positions may be relayed to tank operators, or the enemies may be detected by the tank's own electro-optics. Once the positions have been determined, the tank can function as line-of-site artillery. A tank can fire directly at a building full of combatants, not only neutralising the fighters but also their purpose-built 'murder holes', traps and fortifications. Destroying enemy positions before entering a settlement will 'soften' the enemy up, and the psychological impact of the bombardment will make them more inclined to surrender.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Dale Griffin)
A militant hideout reduced to rubble
So why not just use aircraft instead? Tanks can sit and watch the area for much longer, are much more cost-effective and can view the town from a perspective where it is more likely to spot enemies through windows or notice battlements such as 'murder holes' (holes in the wall which can be used to fire weapons while remaining concealed). In night combat, a tank with a view which overlooks a town can easily identify enemies while remaining unseen. Allowing it to comfortably weaken the opposing force.
Tanks in modern asymmetric warfare essentially serve as mobile, armoured artillery with the capability to detect and engage targets which are in their line-of-sight. They are an indispensable asset for sieging towns.
Tanks were built for conventional warfare. They are primarily designed to face a similarly equipped opposing force in open terrain. Their role is to hunt and destroy enemy vehicles, not just other tanks but also IFVs, APCs, etc.
By 7th Army Training Command from Grafenwoehr, Germany - Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2018, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70003384
Modern armies have caught on to the concept of stopping a tank formation with ATGMs. Which is why many NATO members are regularly training their troops on ATGM use. However, the truth is ATGMs alone won't stop a combined arms penetration. Particularly with drones becoming an important aspect of modern warfare. That might sound counterintuitive due to drones being capable tank hunters. However, drones could make life hell for ATGM crews. A squadron of drones armed with light munitions can devastate a line of ATGM operators, making it much less risky to send in tanks.
MBTs are the heavy cavalry of modern armies. Highly mobile, heavily armoured and well equipped, they will always lead the charge. As the most capable ground-based vehicles they have an important role to play for years to come. Whereas most IFVs, APCs and MRAPs are susceptible to lighter rocket launchers such as RPG-7s and M72 LAWs, MBTs are much more survivable. Therefore the notion that tanks are obsolete, yet the aforementioned vehicles are not, is ridiculous.
If backed up with airpower, a formation of tanks is very likely to overwhelm an enemy position. For example, if a base was to be surrounded by MBTs there isn't much that the defenders could do. The sheer firepower mixed with the heavy armour makes confronting a group of tanks a difficult and dangerous task; unless you have ATGMs, air cover or MBTs of your own. If tanks were to enter a strategic location such as an airbase and also received air support, there is very little that the opposing force could do. ATGM crews generally sit and wait for tanks to show up. So if tanks have entered a base which has already been bombarded chances are they will confront a few waifs and strays. In which case the tanks could likely withstand anything that they could face.
Tanks aren't just useful on the offensive. They are also great defensive weapons. A group of tanks lined up in hull-down position can devastate an incoming mechanized battalion. Modern tanks can track targets and have a hit probability rate exceeding 90%, making them lethal against all types of enemy vehicles. The velocity which tank shells travel at far exceeds the speed of ATGMs, meaning that they are advantageous when used in most ranges from the target.
By Megapixie - Drawn by Max Smith, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15252347
Hull-down position exposes just a small portion of the tank, meanwhile having a full view of the enemy.
All in all, tanks are truly the heavyweights of land warfare. If used strategically and in conjunction with airpower, they can lead the way on the ground. If a military intends on capturing land, then sending in land forces is necessary. Therefore tanks are and will continue to be an important part of armies, particularly in conventional warfare.
Problems, Solutions & the future of tanks
Most ATGMs are not lightweight and generally sit on tripods. However, man-portable ATGMs exist. Such as FGM-148 Javelins. These pose a significant risk to tanks as they can be carried and fired by a single person. Their portability means that they cannot be detected easily, unlike the 9M133 Kornet and BGM-71 TOW. They are also capable of destroying tanks in a single hit.
The only countermeasure which can effectively stop an ATGM is an active protection system. Hard-kill APSs can destroy, weaken or deflect incoming ATGMs. The Israeli Trophy APS has had a 100% success rate in real combat. Proving that active protection systems will be an essential asset for all tanks in the years to come.
Photo by Zachi Evenor (https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachievenor/41522375382)
Israeli Trophy APS
Advancements in armour technology could also be a game-changer in the near future. The pendulum between defensive and offensive advantage has swung before and will likely swing again. Innovation in armour materials could make current ATGMs unable to penetrate future tanks.
Tank gun technology will also evolve in the near future. The most likely technology to take over tank cannons in the future is electrothermal-chemical cannons (ETC). Many suggest that larger rounds are the way to go, however, that means that fewer rounds can be carried. Railguns are another option, but they are currently impractical. ETC guns, on the other hand, can be installed in existing tanks with minor modifications. ETC guns can fire rounds at much higher muzzle velocities than conventional cannons. An ETC gun can fire rounds at speeds from roughly 2500-4000 m/sec. That's in railgun territory. This means greater power, more penetration and less probability of missing a moving target. Another thing which makes ETC technology so appealing is that they can use existing barrels and even fire conventional rounds if necessary.
Perhaps the end goal in the future of tank design is to create unmanned tanks. The technology already exists and with autoloaders, tanks can fully operate on their own. However, there is a reason why they are not prevalent. Unmanned ground vehicles with mounted RCWSs are already in inventories across the world. These are generally used closeby to the operators. A tank, however, is designed to be an all-terrain vehicle which penetrates deep into enemy territory. Therefore chances are that the signal will be lost, making the tank a sitting duck which is ready to get captured. Also, jamming ground vehicles is much easier than jamming UAVs. Unmanned tanks are indeed game-changers, but right now they just aren't ready.
Tanks are here to stay. When used in combination with IFVs, UAVs, attack/fighter jets and attack helicopters they become an important part of a formula which is proven to be effective. Every individual military asset is vulnerable on its own. Tanks are no different. They are supposed to be part of a multi-faceted, combined arms force.