Are the paradigms of the modern battle tank obsolete?

Since the beginning of the 30s, the logic underlying the evolution of the battle tank has remained the same, namely thicker armor, a more powerful gun, and a more efficient engine to maintain the mobility of the armored vehicle.

This is how the 30 ton tanks like the T34 or the Panzer IV from the start of the Second World War were gradually transformed into armored vehicles of more than 40 tons like the Panther and the M26 Pershing 2, and even beyond with the 57-ton German Tigers.

At the end of the Second World War, two schools appeared in the world: the Soviet school, with compact, lighter, and more economical tanks like the T54, the T64 and the T72, and the Western school, with heavier and more expensive tanks, like the M48 and M60 Patton, or the American M1 Abrams, but also the British Cheftain and Challenger. The exception in the West was represented by the French AMX30, and the Leopard 1 German tanks, much lighter than their contemporary American counterparts.

While a new generation of combat tanks is emerging today, with the T-14 Armata in Russia, and the MGCS in Europe, the paradigms underlying their development seem unchanged, with ever more protection and more firepower, so as to support the opponent's fire while destroying it before he himself can destroy it.

However, there is a program that radically changes paradigms in this area. The Israeli CARMEL program plans, in fact, to design a 35-ton armored combat vehicle, very mobile, very digitalized, served by a crew of only two men, initially designed as an alternative to the Merkava.

Can we, therefore, design a new generation battle tank that is actually more efficient than the previous generation, without giving in to the almost systematic increase in weight, gun caliber, and ultimately, price? The answer to this question requires going into “tank theory” in a little more detail…

Why and how is a battle tank effective?

Since the First World War, the battle tank has continued to have the same priority, namely to create a break in the enemy lines. By its firepower, its mobility and its mass, the tank can, in fact, destroy the opposing points of resistance, while creating, like the cavalry charges of the Middle Ages, a certain astonishment among the adversary.

If initially this tool was limited to breaking through enemy lines, in particular to cross enemy trenches, progress in terms of mobility made it possible to extend this notion of rupture to a more global level, by attacking enemy lines. opposing supplies, thus depriving him of the means to continue the fight.

This strategy was applied by the German armies during the first years of the Second World War, particularly against Poland and France, in the famous “Blitz Krieg”, which relied as much on mobility as on the firepower of panzers. Germans.

T72 defensive MBT battle tanks | Germany | Defense Analysis
While the battle tank plays a large offensive role, it also remains a centerpiece of defensive devices, especially to prevent opposing tanks from using their firepower and mobility to break through friendly lines.

But the tank was not limited to an offensive role, and during the Second World War, it was also integrated into the defensive systems of the armies, notably in a new function, that of "tank killer", the tank becoming its own worst enemy.

From a defensive point of view, the role of the tank is precisely to prevent the rupture, and to counter the astonishment that the opposing tank can cause. In addition, it could quickly change its posture and transform into an offensive weapon, if the opportunity to carry out a counterattack appeared.

From these missions, and their constraints, it is possible to abstractly model the combat tank according to 3 criteria:

  • la mobility, which depends above all on the mass of the tank, therefore its armor, and the power of its engine
  • la lethality, which mainly depends on the firepower in the broad sense (caliber, ammunition, precision…), but also, to a lesser extent, on its mobility, as well as on the survivability of the opposing tanks.
  • la survivability, precisely, which depends on the armor, but also on the mobility, as well as the lethality of the armored vehicle, and of the adversary.

The combat potential of a tank is a complex, non-linear function established on these three criteria, with important notions of thresholds. The same goes for the price of the tank. We understand that if we want to destroy the adversary before being destroyed ourselves, the most obvious solution is to increase survivability, therefore armor, therefore mass, and lethality, therefore the power of fire, from his own chariot.

To maintain identical mobility, it is necessary to increase engine power. All of this results in a tank that is certainly more powerful, but also heavier, and significantly more expensive. This is how tanks have evolved over the last 70 years.

Paradigm reversal: the role of mobility

Another solution, however, appears from the previous formulation. Indeed, by significantly increasing mobility, it is possible to simultaneously increase lethality and survivability, with a very moderate variation in price.

It would even be possible to maintain identical survivability and lethality, by increasing the parameters of engine power and the mobility chain alone, while lowering the armor, and even the caliber of the main weapon.

This is exactly the challenge of the Israeli CARMEL project, which replaces conventional armor with much thinner armor, making it possible to reduce the mass of the armored vehicle to 35 tons compared to more than 60 tons for modern tanks, by making mobility the main weapon of the new tank.

Carmel Is Israel Next Gen Tank Platform Featured image MBT battle tanks | Germany | Defense Analysis
A view of what Israeli CARMEL could be. Note the low caliber gun, and the great protection given to the running gear.

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  1. In the heyday of the AMX13-SS11, the 75's combat boost was 1500, which allowed us to fire 3 T54s before this one was able to wait for us. The flight duration of the SS11 was 21s at 3200m, which largely allowed reaching a mask if the start of the shot was observed.
    Obviously your hyper-velocity tank must accelerate all these parameters: it is in this sense relevant; just as the automatic loading (barrel type of the AMX13, brilliant for the time) should allow a crew of 2 (side by side in the body) with rapid and efficient telemetry.
    But you ignore the mines: the Germans at Kursk sent dogs with a magnetic mine on their backs under the opposing T34s. However, there are now robot dogs.
    The tank of more than 35T is already doomed if only by its prohibitive cost / predictable losses.

    • On mines, this is, in fact, a major factor, particularly in Ukraine. Now, it is as much a cause of the evolution of this conflict, as a consequence: the stagnation around the lines has made it possible to deploy vast minefields, which had not been deployed at the start of the conflict, on both sides and on the other, when the conflict was much more dynamic. The question is whether, in the case of a future confrontation, we are moving more towards a dynamic conflict, or a static one. In 2020, when the article was written, the notion of static, defensive conflict seemed timeless. Today, we must actually take this into account.
      Afterwards, mines pose an identical problem against a 60/70 ton tank and a 40 ton tank. Once tracked, it becomes an easy target.


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