Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Tank is Dead

Events in the Nagorno-Karabakh war back in September 2020 hinted at the new reality of warfare. These truths were thrown into sharp relief during the Ukrainian war, where light forces equipped with modern tank-killing weapons have annihilated Russian armoured columns. Swarms of cheap drones have given precision data allowing the modern anti-tank weapons to find and spectacularly destroy the lumbering dinosaur from the last century.
These lighter forces are more mobile, a cheaper platform and more agile with better ability to punch above their weight. They are a transformative option that signals the end of the century of the tank. Interconnectivity allows information dominance in the battlespace blah blah obsolete blah blah blah Cyber! Blah blah blah…


Knocked out T-90 in Ukraine.

How many times recently have you read an article about the ‘Death of the Tank!111!’ from any number of media sites? They cite the ability of modern anti-tank weapons that have rendered the tank too vulnerable and have thus made them a liability on the modern battlefield. Well the pass-time of predicting the tanks demise is a long and proud one, and it has always been proved wrong. For the rest of this article we shall be looking at some of the previous claims of the end of the tank, from the first days when the tank crawled from the primordial mud of the Somme.

The Pioneers:
As we all know the Mk.I tank lurched its way across a muddy Somme swamp in September 1916. They had been born from the need to break the superiority of the machine gun. Throughout the war they had a chequered effect, and it has long been argued if they were a war winning weapon (for a more detailed argument see Tavers, 1992).
While historians are debating the effect of the tank during the First World War, there were similar contemporary debates after the war. In December 1919 Major-General Sir Louis Jackson gave a speech to the Royal United Service Institution. In it he stated:

‘The tank proper was a freak, the circumstances which called it into existence were exceptional and not likely to recur. If they do, they can be dealt with by other means.'

(Quoted in Harris, 2015)

While this may have been the opinion of a single such officer, there were other voices that cautioned not to become too enthralled by the tank, including one that was instrumental in designing the tank:

‘By the adoption of springs and other mechanical devices a speed of 20 miles an hour, which is a great deal faster than a fox hound, can be attained across country over hedges and ditches and so forth, and one thousand miles have been run without any appreciable wear and tear in the gear. This tank weighing 30 tons is able to pass over a brick lying on the road without crushing the brick, so delicate is the mechanism.
On the other hand the methods of anti-tank warfare have also made a profoundly significant advance. A new-form of grenade has been devised which can be discharged from the ordinary rifle capable of inflicting mortal injury on the wonderful little instrument which I have just described.
And the same thing applies to the growth of the tank as to the dual system of gun and armour. Whether the tank by increased speed, by the use of smoke, by increased protection, and by some other devices can maintain its ascendency cannot yet be foreseen. Of course its value against all enemies unprovided with these special means of offence will remain. The whole subject, however, is highly experimental and we should be most unwise to commit ourselves to any large programme of tank construction, involving heavy expense, until much more definite results can be reached and the whole practical aspect of this new war weapon has been further examined.’

(Churchill, 1920)

The argument being put forward here is that while the mechanical faults and inside conditions that plagued the tanks during the First World War were largely corrected, and that great developments had been taken in refining the vehicle, anti-tank methods had also advanced. Anti-tank guns had for the first time appeared and were more than capable of killing contemporary tanks quickly and effectively. But despite these concerns the tank did not die out, indeed it could be said to enter a golden age where everyone was experimenting with weird tank ideas.

No Really, It Is Dead Now!

For this episode of the Tank is Dead, one would like to show you a newspaper article from a very well known name. It was published in 1940 of all dates:

(Thanks to Andrew Hills for supplying this)

Later in the decade chemical energy rounds such as HEAT and HESH were developed, or came into common use. These could knock holes through huge thicknesses of armour, and they became smaller and lighter, allowing a humble infantryman to carry a weapon that could kill a tank. Indeed, by the end of the War in Europe around 35 percent of British tank losses were knocked out by shaped charge warheads.

It’s Dead Jim!

After the war, the chemical energy anti-tank rounds were quickly combined with guided rockets, and suddenly there were statements of the tank being obsolete, these seemed to come to a peak during the Yom Kippur War, where Israeli armoured columns were smashed by man-ported Sagger anti-tank guided missiles.

But like all claims of the tank's demise, it missed one important thing. The new development that renders tanks obsolete gets countered. In the Yom Kippur the crews quickly learned how to deal with Saggers. The simple trick of waiting until the missile was about halfway through its flight, and then spraying the launch position with a burst of machine gun fire, and moving the tank a few feet forward would usually cause the missile to miss as the operator ducks to avoid the bullets, meaning the missile goes off guidance.
In the case of chemical energy warheads from the 1940s, composite and spaced armours were developed, with the first appearing on Wasp flamethrowers in 1945. Even against anti-tank guns there was a counter response from the tank. In the British case they developed the Close Support tank that was designed to blind anti-tank guns with smoke. While this turned out to be less successful than hoped, the simple expedient of combined arms being adopted enabled tanks to survive.

Even today there are questions about the new technologies such as drones. First off I would challenge the claim that drones are ‘cheap’. They are not:

Source: NaCTSO

 As you can see to be carrying any sort of payload, with the range to use it, you need to spend large sums of money. In addition, laser and directed energy weapons are just getting to the point when they can be used to destroy drones. A defence which may be adapted to deal with anti-tank missiles. The US currently seems to be going with a slightly different approach to the problem, adopting the main armament of its next generation of IFV to have the ability to engage drones and such threats, thus every IFV in the battle group would have an anti-drone capability. Whether this approach will work, or could be used to provide ATGM protection remains to be seen, as the choice of 50mm cannon raises serious questions in AFV design. But either approach could easily create a massive no fun zone for drones and ATGM’s around the tank.

In the latest war, where we apparently have seen the ‘death of the tank’, the Russian forces were, at the time of writing, still advancing slowly. Equally, on a number of occasions the Ukrainians have asked for large numbers of tanks to be supplied. This alone indicates that the tank is still a vital part of the modern military.
The fact remains, if you want to destroy the enemy with firepower, manoeuvre and shock effect you need a big cannon that can move around the battlefield, and is protected from enemy fire.
There is only one technological solution to this requirement, and that is the tank. Tanks will almost certainly change and gain new defensive systems, or need the support of new vehicles or capabilities from combined arms warfare, but they will remain.


    Churchill W (1920): Mr Churchill's Statement: Hansard: Volume 125, col 1356: debated on Monday 23 February 1920. Available at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1920-02-23/debates/260327d5-9b51-4ab3-9e4b-116dde81c6e8/MrChurchillSStatement?highlight=tank#contribution-b1cff7f9-56d1-496d-8a23-77ebb9cc8fca

        Harris, J (2015): Men, Ideas, and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903-1939, Manchester University Press.
    Tavers, T  (1992): Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 27, No. 3 (Jul., 1992), pp. 389-406 (18 pages). Available at:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/260897  


Next week, I think we'll have a little competition about tanks.


  1. Whenever I hear the tank arguments, I keep thinking back to the arguments about how the battleship would never be replaced -- until the aircraft carrier demonstrated, in the space of a few short years, how it was the new dominant weapon system.

    Perhaps the real question isn't whether there's no more need for tanks -- but whether the tank is still a primary weapon system, at least against modern enemies. After all, long after the CV became dominant, there were still useful roles for ships armed with large caliber guns. So, while you're right about the need for mobile protected firepower to create shock and attrition at critical points... once you've layered all the systems on in the giant game of chess that is defence versus offence, at what point does a tank stop being a tank?

    To draw the analogy out -- there are still extremely powerful warships not equipped with aircraft cruising the seas, but I don't think anybody would look at an Arleigh Burke DD and call it a battleship.

  2. In other words, I don't think the tank is dead yet -- but I do think it's no longer as simple as "tanks will remain always on the battlefield as a key part of the combined arms team."