Has tank a future?
Abhijit Bhattacharyya

Introduced 93 years ago at the battle of Ypres in 1917 at the fag end of the First World War, tank (known as main battle tank/MBT) continues to adorn the stage and inventory of virtually all major armies of the world and produced by thirty one countries at present. Surprisingly, however, only six countries effectively used their home built tanks during the Second World War.

Understandably it was the British manufactured Matilda tank which first made its operational role felt in the deserts of North Africa in 1940-1943. Though slow and carrying only a 2-pounder main armament, Matilda tanks were the best available to the British General O’Connor’ in the early part of the war which saw action with the 7th Armoured Division against the Axis force consisting of the German and Italian troops.

In the epic tank battles of North Africa the Italians used their own M-13 MBTs but were comprehensively beaten and made to surrender to General O’Connor, ceding 500 miles of territory and facing the ignominy of 130000 soldiers being taken as prisoners of war thereby resulting in the total destruction of the Italian 10th Army in January-February, 1941.

In came the German 5th Light Division and the 15th Panzer Division under the command of Major General Erwin Rommel which through various vicissitudes of violence were totally decimated at the battle of El Alamein in October, 1942. The Africa Crops of Hitler was destroyed in the desert and capitulated before the combined might of the 8th and 21st Army of Field Marshal Barnard Montgomery who emerged victorious under the overall strategic guidance and leadership of Churchill.

Subsequently, however, the German made Tiger I and Panzer VI Tiger MBT scripted perhaps the most memorable of all tank battles in the history of warfare in two fronts; in Kharkov (January-March, 1943) and in the battle for Kursk (July-1943). Not to be left behind, the Russians too came up with their home made T-34 MBT, which was tough and reliable, moving into action by making the best use of terrain to cover the advance toward German positions. The T-34 was simple, easy to produce, mechanically sound and arguably the best all round tank of the Second World War. Thus, by the time of the impending German attack on Kursk salient, the Soviets were fully prepared with 13, 00, 000 men and 3600 tank waiting to take on 8,00,000 men and 2700 tanks of the German Army.

Sixty five years have passed since the end of the Second World War but nothing like those spectacular long drawn, mass formation tank battles have ever been fought. Yet, tanks are still produced, poured and procured by most of the armies transcending national barriers.

Following table, as gleaned from Military Balance 2010 (published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London), would show that out of the 166 nations that possess armed forces, except 41, 125 nations have tanks of various types and make in their military inventories.

World tank users & inventory

S.No.

User country

Type of tank

Numbers

Manufacturer country

1. North America

1.

Canada

Leopard


121

Germany

2.

USA

Abrams


5850


USA

2. Europe (NATO)

3.

Belgium

Leopard


40


Germany

4.

Bulgaria

T-72


362


Russia

5.

Czech Republic

T-72


175


Russia

6.

Denmark

Leopard


167


Germany

7.

Estonia

None


-


-

8.

France

Leclerc, AMX-30-


637

 

9.

Germany Leopard


1385


Germany

10.

Greece

Leopard, M-60, M-48


1688


Germany & USA

11.

Hungary

T-72


30


Russia

12.

Iceland

None


-


-

13.

Italy

C1 Ariete, Leopard


320


Italy & Germany

14.

Latvia

T-55


03


Russia

15.

Lithuania

None



-

16.

Luxembourg

None


-


-

17.

Netherlands

Leopard


60


Germany

18.

Norway

Leopard


72


Germany

19.

Poland

Leopard, PT-91,T-72


946


Germany & Russia

20.

Portugal

Leopard, M-60, M-48

225


Germany & USA

21.

Romania

TR-85, T-55


299


Russia & Romania

22.

Slovakia

T-72


245


Russia

23

Slovenia

M-84,T-55


70


Russia

24.

Spain

Leopard, M-60

498


Germany & USA

25.

Turkey

Leopard, M-60, M-48

4503

Germany & USA

26.

U.K.

Challenger, Chieftain


386


U.K.

3. Europe (Non-NATO)

27.

Albania

Type-59


373


Russia

28.

Armenia

 T-72, T-54

110


Russia

29.

Austria

Leopard


114


Germany

30.

Azerbaijan

T-72, T-55


320


Russia

31.

Belarus

T-80, T-72, T-55


1586


Russia

32.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

T-84,AMX-30, M-60


325


China,Russia & USA

33.

Croatia

M-84, T-72M, T-55


291


Russia

34.

Cyprus

T-80,
AMX-30


147


Ukraine & France

35.

Finland

Leopard


100


Germany

36.

Georgia

T-72, T-55


41


Russia

37.

Ireland

Scorpion light tank


14


UK

38.

Macedonia

T-72

31


Russia

39.

Malta

None


-


-

40.

Moldova

None


-


-

S.No.

User country

Type of tank

Numbers

Manufacturer country

41.

Serbia & Montenegro

T-72


212


Russia

42.

Sweden

Leopard, Streetvan


280


Germany lang=EN-US style='font-family:"Times New Roman","serif"'> and Sweden

43.

Switzerland

Leopard


352


Germany

44.

Ukraine

T-80, T-64, T-72, T-55


2988


Russia


4. Russia

45.

Russia

T-90, T-80, T-72, T-64, T-62


23000


Russia & Ukraine


5. Middle East and North Africa

46.

Algeria

T-90, T-72, T-62, T-54, T-55


1082


Russia

47.

Bahrain

M-60


180


Russia

48.

Egypt

Abrams, M-60, T-62, T-54, T-55


3723


USA & Russia

49.

Iran

Zulfiqar, T-72, M-60, T-62, hieftain


1613


Iran, USA, Russia, UK.

50.

Iraq

T-72,
T-55


149


Russia

51.

Israel

Merkava, M-60, Centurion, M-48


3501


Israel, USA & UK

52.

Jordan

Challenger; Khalid, M-60, M-48


1182


UK, Jordan & USA

53.

Kuwait

Abrams, M-84


368


USA, Russia

54.

Lebanon

T-54, T-55, M-48


326


Russia, USA

55.

Libya

T-90, T-72, T-62, T-54, T-55


2205


Russia

56.

Mauritania

T-54, T-55


35


Russia

57.

Morocco

T-72, M-60, M-48


580


Russia & USA

58.

Oman

Challenger, M-60


117


UK & USA

59.

Qatar

AMX-30


30


France

60.

Saudi Arabia

Abrams, AMX-30, M-60


910


USA, France

61.

Syria

T-72,
T-62, T-55


4950


Russia

62.

Tunisia

M-60


84


USA

63.

UAE

Leclerc,
OF-40, AMX-30


471


France lang=EN-US style='font-family:"Times New Roman","serif"'>, Italy

64.

Yemen

T-72, M-60, T-62, T-54/55


790


Russia, USA


6. Central and South Asia


65.

Afghanistan

T-62, T-55


Numbers unknown


Russia


66.

Bangladesh

T-59, T-69


232


Russia, China

67.

India

T-90, T-72, T-55, Vijayanta, Arjun


4047


Russia, India

68.

Kazakhstan

T-72


980


Russia

69.

Kyrgyzstan

T-72


150

 


Russia

 

70.

Nepal

None


-


-

71.

Pakistan

A1-Khalid, T-80, T-69, T-85, T-59, T-54/55, M-48

2461

Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia

72.

Sri Lanka

T-55


62


Russia

73.

Tajikistan

T-72, T-62


37


Russia

74.

Turkmenistan

T-90, T-72


680


Russia

75.

Uzbekistan

T-72,T-64, T-62


340


Russia

7. East Asia and Australasia

76.

Australia

Leopard, Abrams


149


Germany & USA

77.

Brunei

Scropion light tank


20


U.K.

S.No.

User country

Type of tank

Numbers

Manufacturer country

78.

Cambodia

T-59, T-54/55


150


Russia

79.

China

T-96, T-88, T-98, T-79, T-59


11550


Russia and China

80.

Indonesia

AMX-13, PT-76, Scorpion


350


France, Russia, UK

81.

Japan

Type-74, Type-90


880


Japan

82.

Korea (North)

T-34, T-54, T-55, T-59, T-62, PT-76


4060


Russia

83.

Korea (South)

Type 88 K1, T-80, M-47, M-48


2300


Korea & USA

84.

Laos

T-54, T-55, T-34, T-85, PT-76


35


Russia

85.

Malaysia

Scorpion-90, PT-91


74


UK & Russia

86.

Mongolia

T-54, T-55


370


Russia

87.

Myanmar

T-72, Type-69


255


Russia, China

88.

New Zealand

None


-


-

89.

Papua New Guinea

None


-


-

90.

Philippines

Scorpion


65


UK

91.

Singapore

Centurion,
AMX-13


546


UK, France

92.

Taiwan

M-60, M-48, M-24 Chaffee, M-41


1831


USA

93.

Thailand

M-60, M-48, M-41, Scorpion, Type-69


848


USA, UK, China

94.

Vietnam

T-62, T-59, T-54, T-55, T-34, PT-76


1935


Russia

8. Caribbean and Latin America

95.

Antigua and Barbuda

None


-


-

96.

Argentina

TAM, AMX-13


336


Argentina & France

97.

Bahamas

None


-


-

98.

Barbados

None

-


-

99.

Belize

None


-


-

100.

Bolivia

Light tank


54


-

101.

Brazil

Leopard, M-60, M-41


371


Germany, USA

102.

Chile

 Leopard


309


Germany

103.

Colombia

Stuart light tank


12


USA

104.

Costa Rica

None


-


-

105.

Cuba

T-34, T-54, T-55, T-62, PT-76


900


Russia

106.

Dominican Republic

M-41 light tank


12


USA

107.

Ecuador

 AMX-13, Leopard


180

 

France & Germany

108.

E1 Salvador

None


-


-

109.

Guatemala

None


-


-

110.

Guyana

None


-


-

111.

Haiti

No active armed
forces

112.

Honduras

Scorpion light tank


12


UK

113.

Jamaica

None


-


-

114.

Mexico

None


-


-

115.

Nicaragua

T-55, PT-76


137


Russia

116.

Panama

None


-


-

117.

Paraguay

Sherman, Stuart


17


USA

118.

Peru

 T-55, AMX-13


336


Russia, France

119.

Suriname

None


-


-

S.No.

User country

Type of tank

Numbers

Manufacturer country

120.

Trinidad and Tobago

None


-


-

121.

Uruguay

Chaffee, M-41


105

 

USA

122.

Venezuela

AMX30, AMX13, Scorpion


190


France, UK

9. Sub-Saharan Africa

123.

Angola

T-54, T-55, T-62, T-80, T-84


300


Russia, China

124.

Benin

PT-76


18


Russia

125.

Botswana

Light tanks


60


-

126.

Burkina Faso

None


-


-

127.

Burundi

None


-


-

128.

Cameroon

None


-


-

129.

Cape Verde

None


-


-

130.

Central African Republic

T-55


03


Russia

131.

Chad

T-55


60


Russia

132.

Congo

T-34,T-54, T-55, T-59, T-62, PT-76


53


Russia

133.

Cote D’Ivoire

T-55, AMX-13


15


Russia, France

134.

Democratic Republic of Congo

T-59, T-62, PT-76


89

Russia

135.

Djibouti

None


-


-

136.

Equatorial Guinea

None


-


-

137.

Eritrea

T-54, T-55


270


Russia

138.

Ethiopia

T-54, T-55, T-62


246


Russia

139.

Gabon

None


-


-

140.

The Gambia

None


-


-

141.

Ghana

None


-


-

142.

Guinea

T-34, T-54, PT-76


53


Russia

143.

Guinea Bissau

T-34, PT-76


25


Russia

144.

Kenya

Vickers Mark 3, T-72


188


UK 7 Russia

145.

Lesotho

None


-


-

146.

Liberia

None


-


-

147.

Madagascar

PT-76


12


Russia

148.

Malawi

None


-


-

149.

Mali

T-34, T-54, T-55, T-62

51


Russia

150.

Mauritius

None

-


-

151.

Mozambique

T-54


60


Russia

152.

Namibia

T-34,
T-54, T-55


-


Russia

153.

Niger

None


-


-

154.

Nigeria

Vickers Mark 3, Scorpion, T-55


433

UK, Russia

155.

Rwanda

T-54,
T-55


24


Russia

156.

Senegal

None


-


-

157.

Seychelles

None


-


-

158.

Sierra Leone

None


-


-

159.

Somalia

M-47,T-54/55


33


USA & Russia

160.

South Africa

Olifant


167

 


South Africa

S.No.

User country

Type of tank

Numbers

Manufacturer country

161.

Sudan

T-59, T-54, T-55, T-62, M-60


360


Russia & USA

162.

Tanzania

T-54, T-55, T-59, T-62, Scorpion

100


Russia, UK

163.

Togo

T-54, T-55, Scorpion


11


Russia, UK

164.

Uganda

T-54, T-55, PT-76


172


Russia

165.

Zambia

T-55, T-59, PT-76


182


Russia

166.

Zimbabwe

T-59, T-69

 


40


Russia & China

(Source: Various editions of Military Balance, published by International Institute for Strategic Studies, London)

 

The most revealing feature of the table is that the main producer-cum-distributers of MBT to the contemporary arms bazaar are only five; France, Germany, Russia, UK and USA- the total number of 31 countries producing tanks notwithstanding.

In the second rung of tank suppliers, stands Italy and China, the latter steadily stepping into the shoes of the former USSR which used to cultivate friends amongst developing nations of the third world Afro-Asian and Latin American field by supplying T-34, T-54, T-55, T-59, T-62 and PT-76 light tanks at a hugely concessional rate with Russian experts and maintenance men of the machines standing “on call”.

In the third category of tank manufacturers lies Argentina, India, Iran, Jordan, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and South Africa which have managed, or at least trying to manage, to induct the home grown tank technology into their own armed forces. In this venture, after along gestation period, India’s Arjun suddenly appears to be doing well. In fact, the recent one-on-one extreme heat and dust environment in the desert of Rajasthan, the competition between the Arjun and the Russian T-90 brought back to the fore the oft suspected decline in the quality of Russian technology owing to mass migration of Moscow technologists seeking dollar in the greener pastures of London, New York Paris. In essence, the success of Arjun is the success of the Indian enterprise till proved to the contrary by further test and trial of the tanks in trying conditions. Thus, referred to as the state-of-art MBT, a limited of 124 Arjun has already been inducted into the tank regiments, but import of Russian/Ukrainian tanks is still high on preferred agenda of the Indian army.

Although for most armies around the world, armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) fleets constitute the backbone of their offensive combat capability, in many cases nations are struggling to keep and maintain their AFV assets owing to ongoing financial crisis coupled with shrinking budget, high cost of production, procurement and modernisation and an equally shrinking market born out of other areas of government having higher priorities on the available funding.

On top of all these, however, happen to be the receding possibility of all-out tank warfare across the globe. In fact, post-Second World War except the Soviet operation in Afghanistan and the US enterprise in Korea (1950), Kuwait (1991) and Iraq (2003) there has hardly been an intensive tank warfare in any combat theatre.

Even in Indian context, the extensive use of tank in war has been only twice, during 1965 Indo-Pak conflict at Khem Karan, Punjab and again in 1971. The other wars and skirmishes of India with Pakistan in 1947-48 (Kashmir), 1999 (Kargil) and China in 1962 virtually saw no major tank movement and manoeuvre against the adversaries.

The contemporary 21st century feature of main battle tank’s operational role, however, appears to be changing with the increasingly unorthodox and unconventional variety of warfare. Thus, whereas in the past the main role of the main battle tank was to carry out offensive and defensive operations during high- intensity military operations, recent experience of the British Army, US tank regiments and Marine Corps in Iraq has clearly demonstrated that the MBT is also highly effective in the urban operations in the direct-fire support role of dismounted infantry. Iraq war apart, the Israeli Army too have in recent times deployed its heavy Merkava tanks to deal with the Palestinians and other insurgents in urban areas around Gaza and Ramallah.

Understandably, therefore, the tank manufacturers have now started developing, often with the active assistance of the user, customized enhancements to enable the tank to be more effective during urban operations. However, there are difficulties here as war in urban land often is a war in the midst of non-military and civilian population who may not possess conventional lethal weapons but may use improvised explosive devices to cripple and restrict the use of a fifty ton steel armoured car the most vulnerable part of which is the caterpillar. Hence the German, British and Americans are going for improvement programme pertaining to the defensive protection gear of the tank. Thus, most countries in Europe despite having downsized their tank fleets following the end of the Cold War are still procuring new type of vehicles with new devices and systems upgradation.

Jane’s Armour and Artillery’s perceptive observation continues to be valid when it says “while the MBT was originally developed for high-intensity military operations, the recent experiences in Afghanistan too have once again demonstrated that the MBT has a vital role to play in all aspects of military operations” The present problem, however, is the troop survivability in the war zone of diverse range of threats. Though loss of men during hostility is always a matter of deep regret,for some western countries with decreasing human resources, it can lead to serious social turmoil and political ramifications. The 21st century Afghan war is an acid test for future MBTs as the experience leads the manufacturers to “safety-first” design thereof. “Provide the occupants with a high level of protection against some types of threat weapons” especially those which are likely to be used by the guerrilla warriors in the Afghan terrain. Understandably, therefore, for the Americans it is the 3200 MRAP (mine resistant ambush protection) armoured vehicles which happen to be their essential and standard mobile platform to counter the high-intensity counter-insurgency operators in the “badlands” of Afghanistan.

Thus the three main characteristics of mobility, fire power and protection are often interchanging in accordance with the priority of the users. Israel’s experience makes its Merkava perhaps the heaviest and slowest of all tanks owing to the peculiar need of enhanced protection and increased fire power of the tanks operations in a limited space in an urban-infested areas. The Russian T-34 tanks of the Second World War had to be prepared for a long cross-country manoeuvring owing to the vastness of the Russo-German frontier in 1942-1943. In South Asia, Indian Arjun tank’s power-to-weight ratio is considered inferior to Pakistan built Al Khalid because of Indian emphasis on firepower and armour protection thereby making it heavier and slower to operate. Pakistan, however, seems to prefer quicker movement of its tank fleet to change position with comparatively lesser protective deviceas the basic Pakistani philosophy has developed towards resorting to fire, forget and fall back tactics.

Nevertheless tank today certainly is more vulnerable and easier target to be hit by unconventional enemy fire than ever before. It can be immobilized by land mines, improvised explosive device and suicide bombers. It can also be assaulted from the helicopter gunship and surface to surface as well as air-to-surface missiles and everyday things are becoming more difficult owing to changed situation of conventional warfare. Nations are still building, operating and selling tanks no doubt. But for how long? That is the interesting question, thereby making this author think that perhaps the golden days of tanks are over. Little wonder, therefore, that while “MBT developments in western Europe has come to a virtual halt”, Asians (like China, Japan, India and South Korea) continue to develop at a very rapid pace. One dare suggest that perhaps tank on its own will no longer see the likes of the epic battles fought during the Second World War or not even the repeat of a Khem Karan.

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