Tank Duel: Follow Up

One of my great pleasures from this blog is to receive comments, especially those that lead to excellent scholarly discussion. On my recent post I received a comment from David Wilma.

"I suspect (I have not studied the issue) that tank development since WWII has been based on both mission and the likely opponents. Smaller nations (except Israel) do not do tank development so they take what the market offers. And these procurement actions are not always based on good science, i.e., corruption and politics. 

So a question would be what is the likely outcome of both and individual encounter between an M-60 and a T-72, and larger battles. Is the M-60 necessarily second best? How would the M-60 units prevail?

I remember reading about the 1968 war in which Israeli tanks overpowered Egyptian(?) tanks because the Soviet-supplied hardware lacked air conditioning. I'm sure there were other factors, but the crew with the most on the ball has a great advantage. "
I thought my response was lengthy enough to warrant a new post as a follow up rather than as a comment response. For the 2nd paragraph of the question I was forced to speak with a good friend of mine, a former M1A2 commander to find the answer.

The Soviets have always adopted the principle of more and cheaper.. Even down to their steel sabot ammunition. We scoff at this in the U.S. but it has been the fundamental core doctrine for their armed forces since even before WWI. It led directly to the development of the A-10 Warthog (Satan’s Cross as the Russians call it) and the Apache. The Soviets during the Cold War had more tanks than we had infantry platoons.. Quite scary when you think about it.


Strategic Fit

What fits for the Soviets does not fit for smaller countries usually, because they field a very small army. Sweden is a good example, they went a completely different direction in tank design. One of their recently retired tanks (Stridsvagn 103)* is a fixed gun that has a breakthrough suspension that allows them to elevate the front of the tank (over snowbanks and what not). Because it is designed to fight in the snow and in large forests they didn’t feel like they needed a rotating turret. Put that in any other country and you have a possible disaster. The Israelis developed the Merkeva tank, which is an excellent tank but again it is designed for desert warfare. It is inadequate when placed in any other role.

M60 vs T-72

The T-72 has the advantage of a superior gun, superior penetration and superior range- the 125mm gun vs the M60’s 105mm. The T-72 also had superior armour protection, and a very low silhouette. The M60’s advantages were its fire control system, and rate of fire. But overall the T-72 is the superior tank and will be victorious in the majority of fights. The T-72 was really not of the same generation, and a better match for the M60 would be something around the T-64 series. The U.S. did not really leap ahead in tank design until the development of the M1 Abrams, of which the T-80 is essentially a copy (and which also doubled the price of the average Soviet tank). Since the T-80 the Soviets/Russians have made mostly cosmetic improvements on their tanks; Jane's Defense calls them "same whore, new lipstick".

The System

When you are fighting satellite nations or countries that import the Soviet designs, one important consideration is that the Soviets designed the T-72 to fill a niche in what my friend the Abrams commander describes as a system of legos. The T-72 is designed to operate with ZSU-23s for low level air defense, followed by BMP2s carrying infantry, BRDM-4s for scouting with anti-tank missiles, and all followed up by the tracked MTLB with platoon sized detachments. In the air the Soviets field the SU-24 for air superiority and the SU-25 "Frogfoot" for close air support. Once you remove any piece of this system it starts to collapse, so importing nations not only have to possess all the equipment but train their soldiers in replicating the Soviet system.

David also asks how well the Russians have been able to maintain their level of training and readiness with this system. It is an irony of the post-communist era that the Russians have maintained one of the largest armies in the world - but they cannot really afford to send it anywhere. The war in Afghanistan was like our war in Vietnam, and had major impacts on the morale and thinking of the modern Russian military. Above all there is simply very little money available for improvements upon old equipment and expansions in training programs, and the former Soviet lego system has already become obsolete on the modern battlefield. 

My thanks to William Wallcoen for his insights that helped shape my response.

* Thanks to Parab from Battleground Europe forums; he has informed me that Sweden has recently retired the 103 tank and has adopted the Leopard.


David said...

Here is a different way to pose the tank duel question: which army fielded the best tank decision.

You have pointed out the various comparitive factors such as biggest guns and thickest armor, etc. As you have also pointed out, other decisions figure in. How is the tank complimented with other equipment, as in the Soviet pattern? How many tanks are deployed? Are the tanks deployed in terrain that suits them.

So a response to the duel question is A is better than B unless other factors take effect.

AP said...

interesting, well made article.

Review Daddy said...


Dress Shirt said...

ou have pointed out the various comparitive factors such as biggest guns and thickest armor, etc. As you have also pointed out, other decisions figure in. How is the tank complimented with other equipment.

Anonymous said...

How do you figure the merkeva is only good in the desert? Since it hasn't be tried anywhere else except the cities of Lebanon (and all tanks are at a big disadvantage in cities) what is this comment based on?