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The Evolution of Tanks

by Benjamin Sheng

When the mighty tank appeared on the scene in World War I, it spelled the end for the calvary. Never again would brave soldiers charge on horses attacking enemy lines. Instead, a vehicle covered with armor to deflect enemy bullets, equipped with tracks perfect for trekking through mud, and mounted with impressive weaponry to eradicate enemy bases rolled out. It could transport troops and shield them from enemy fire. The tank changed modern warfare forever, participating in not only both world wars, but also countless others. Tanks were what Gorbachev used to crush rebellions in Georgia and what were used in the war in Iraq. And in the present day, tanks are battling each other in Ukraine, some to free and some to oppress. 

"The Land Ironclad"

Brilliant minds of the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne described tank-like designs long before the first tanks were even created. Da Vinci’s design featured a moving compartment surrounded by fan-like armor, while Verne’s was in essence a “land ironclad”. The earliest tanks were in reality crude machines, unrefined and fragile – some of them were simply tractors covered with metal. These early tanks were designed to move through military obstacles like rough ground and barbed wire while protecting the weaponry it carried. Because the technology was so unrefined, these early tanks were often not able to move more than 10 miles an hour and had very limited range. All of that soon started changing after the first World War ended. Tanks started becoming better armored and faster, as well as having a larger range and larger bullets.

German Panzers

Tanks were what allowed Nazi Germany to acheive its success in the first two years of World War II. The strong Panzer divisions were able to easily crush any resistance in the German campaigns in invaded European countries. As most countries started to realize, the improvement of both tanks and antitank weaponry would prove of utmost importance in war. 

This led to what amounted to an arms race between tanks and antitank weapons, not unlike that which happens in the natural world when predator and prey evolve new tricks. After World War II and during the Cold War, tanks would carry thicker and thicker armor, and new and better ways of killing tanks would be developed. Moreover, it seemed that antitank weaponry was always a step ahead. Guns capable of piercing through tank armor evolved into antitank missiles capable of blowing up a tank with one hit.

Sadly, the tank was always one step behind in the arms race. When missile developers realized that hitting the well-protected glacis, or slanted front, of the tank was ineffective, the Javelin was developed, a missile that seeks the turret of the tank, where the armor is weakest. Even fancier antitank weapons use infrared and radar to drop explosives directly on top of tanks. The vulnerability of tanks, as well as the failure of Russia to use them properly in its “special military operation” has drastically undermined its reputation.

conventional vs modern antitank weapon paths

Almost half of Russia’s former tank inventory has been lost in the war with Ukraine. Images of destroyed Russian tanks, abandoned Russian tanks, and captured Russian tanks are all too common. Opponents of the tank argue that it is too bulky, too costly, and too vulnerable to attack by antitank weapons, which range from guided missiles to dive-bombing drones.

However, it would be wrong to claim that the tank has lost use in wars simply because Russia has used them so poorly. Tanks need to work together with other military forces, especially warplanes, which are needed to provide air cover. Russia’s failure to acquire air supremacy in Ukraine was one reason that it lost so many of its tanks. Another reason was that its decision to utilize autoloaders in its tanks in a vulnerable position allowed antitank weapons to target the tanks’ explosive ammunition. Nevertheless,while wars are still fought with soldiers, some vehicle is needed to provide troops with cover and break through enemy lines. If a tank is not used, then antitank weapons will be ready to destroy whatever takes its place.

A future tank design

Tanks will certainly change as time goes on. Lighter tanks will be more affordable, safer than current tanks, and better able to maneuver and evade antitank weapons, but will also be more vulnerable. Heavier tanks with more armor, while temporarily becoming better protected, could later fall prey to even more powerful antitank weapons. Next-generation warplanes are likely to become motherships for drones. It’s very possible that tanks will do the same on land and carry multiple light probes that can then be deployed to destroy enemy targets. The tank will never go obsolete because the basic design is so crucial in war; it will only evolve.


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