Are Tanks Obsolete Weapons?

I understand that in the Gulf war, US Airforce and marine pilopts effectively destroyed an entire iraqui tank division, in about 3 hours. These were the finast main battle tanks that russia could make-not some cheap export model. However, without air cover, a $2 million tank is a sitting duck. Our pilots just blew them apart with armor piercingmmissiles. So, why does the US army still plan on new models-are these weapons dinosaurs?

Isn’t that the answer to your question? Along with building very expensive tanks, we are building very expensive airplanes. I assume that we hope to have the upper hand (or at the least have the ability to offer air support) to our tanks.

There’s an old maxim that relates to bombardment vs. occupation. You can blast the bejeebers out of your enemy from afar, but until you actually occupy his space, you haven’t won anything. (I’m paraphrasing wildly.) The infantry is therefore one of the most important factors in the conflict. And tanks are an integral part of an effective infantry force.

Tank vs. plane isn’t a fair fight, usually. Tanks aren’t designed to fight planes. However, tank vs. infantryman is equally unfair. I think tanks, or some variation thereof, will continue to be an important part of our armed forces.

FWIW, I don’t think the Soviet T-72s and T-54s used by the Iraqis during the Gulf War were exactly top-of-the-line Soviet models, although I could be wrong.

Oh my.

And I suppose that Pearl Harbor demonstrated that ships were unable to withstand arial bombardment, either. So why are we wasting money on a navy? (beyond carriers, of course, since they carry our ultimate flying weapons.)

Hey, I wonder if I could find an example of an airfield being taken by an armored force – that would pretty much show that air power was obselescent, too, right?

Maybe we should just revert to rocks-paper-scissors as a means of conflict resolution. (No fair using dynamite!)

The Russian top-of-the-line model is the T-90, I believe, which replaced the T-80. I don’t think they managed to make many of the former before the USSR collapsed. Still, the T-72 is not exactly useless yet. The front armor is thick enough to deflect 120mm - if it’s lucky.

A T-64 or T-55 is definitely obsolete.

Modern MBT’s are incredibly dangerous. Just because they, like all ground forces, are vunerable to air attack doesn’t mean they’re useless - it just means you’d better support them with your own air cover/anti-aircraft forces.

Check out the stats on an Abrams sometime. They’re frightening.

The reason te Iraqi armor was destroyed is because, for some reason, they decided to fight a defensive war - which is not what tanks are designed for. If Saddam had sent his entire army south into Saudi territory the first day of the war, attacking entrenched Aliied forces, the Air force would have managed to slow them down a bit, but not stop them. Instead, they stayed in place and let themselves be bombed for a month.

In modern warfare, the only thing which can stop an armored force is another armored force. unfortunately for them, the Iraqis were not employing modern warfare.

I remember reading the manual for an old computer game called Command HQ which discussed this–every weapons system is called into question at some point. Are multi-million dollar helicopters obsolete because they can be knocked out by $100,000 hand-held missiles or RPG’s? (Witness Somalia…) Are all surface ships obsolete because they are vulnerable to missile attack? Are tactical bombers obsolete because cruise missile do the same thing without risking a pilot? Every tool has places where it’s appropriate to use and where it’s not. Usually it takes a quantum leap or a long evolution in technology to make one whole breed of tools completely useless.

Combined arms strategy is critical to modern warfare–ideally the strengths of each of your weapons systems are utilized to nullify the weaknesses of your other weapons. We still need ground troops to seize territory in war, and armored cav is extremely valuable in that role–mobility, firepower, and protection on the ground are still important.

This is not necessarily correct. Armor will always be vulnerable to well-armed infantry in confined spaces, and anti-tank missiles can be extremely effective (witness the TOW missile). In addition, un-armored artillery has been instrumental in deciding many tank battles in the modern era–Rommel springs to mind…

egkelly, I recommend you pick up Into the Storm*, by Tom Clancy and Ret. Gnl. Fred Franks. Franks was the commander of the VII Corps during the Gulf War. It was his armor corps that executed the “left hook” against the Iraqi Republican Guard. He lays out most of the advantages and disadvantages of armor on the battlefield, and also lays to rest some of the more persistent rumors about US air superiority and kill ratio.

Bottom line: Air ain’t everything, and though the Air Force would like to believe that a war can be won with air power, it just isn’t so. Sauron’s point holds. If you can’t occupy, you can’t win.

Thanks for the many insightful replies. What I was really trying to say was that the modern battle tank, seems to be at (or near) a dead end in its evolution. For example, we have made them with extremely thick armor-yet it is still possible to pierce the armor (with a comparativelt cheap shell or missile). We have given them extremely powerful guns, yet they can still be outranged by missiles. Finally, when you add up the cost of all the technical sophistication, you find you have:
(1) a very EXPENSIVE weapons 9up to $2 million a pop)
(2) a very HARD to transport weapon (the bridges in Bosnia were too weak to carry our ABRAMS tanks)
(3) a very expensive to maintain weapon (the ABRAMS gets around 20 gallons/mile at speed).
Also, you have a highly trained crew. So, i repeat my original thesis-are we spending too much for these highly sophisticated tanks? I WOULD NOT want to be a tanker, facing an enemy with a modern airforce>

(1) compare it to the cost of those fighter jets you keep raving about.
(2) It is easier to put together a temporary bridge than to build an air strip capable of handling fighter jets.
(3) Maintaining an armored column is expensive. So is maintaining a fighter squadron. So is maintaining attack helicopters. Modern warfare ain’t cheap.
(4) At the risk of offending several generations of my ancestors, do you think a tank crew is a more highly trained unit than the crew of a fighter jet? Puh-leeze.

Nobody is arguing that being in a tank without air support is fun. But I would also not want to be a pilot if the only thing standing between my base and an advancing enemy column was my squadron of fighters.

If you want to examine the effectiveness of armor in modern warfare, I suggest you first throw away the idea that armor is designed to provide a defensive emplacement secure from enemy air power. You might as well evaluate an infantryman based upon how well he stands up to an arial strafing run.

(a) It’s still possible to knock down a stealth bomber with a '50s AAA piece. Does that make it a “dead end” too? Ballistic missiles outrange fighter, but that doesn’t rule them out either.
(b) Aircraft are far more expensive than tanks, and take far longer to build and repair.
© Aircraft are harder to transport in the sense that they have to be “stored” in well-prepared airfields with co-located supplies and maintenance facilities. Tanks aren’t as constrained as this.
(d) Aircraft are far more expensive to run than tanks.

Basically, I’d go with the point above that there’s a place for all types of weapons; to assume you don’t need one is to let yourself in for a rude awakening. What should be discussed is the mix of your forces required in the current global situation. In the 1960s Britain stopped fitting warships and even fighters with guns, believing that guided missiles would “rule the world”. Nowadays the US Navy is working on gun-armed warships specifically for shore bombardment.

A low-tech enemy can throw tanks at you, but without steady stocks of missiles (the UK had to borrow NATO stocks of Sidewinders during the Falklands War) or well-protected nearby airfields aircraft can’t solve every problem. It would be a very expensive way to fight a war.

It’s a rock/paper/scissors thing that had its “modern” birth in the combined-arms army of Philip of Macedon, according to Archer Jones in The Art of War in the Western World. In Philip’s (and later Alexander the Great’s) army:

Light (projectile weapon) Infantry could attack Heavy (shock weapon) Infantry and defend against Light Cavalry, but were vulnerable to Heavy Cavalry.

Light Cavalry could attack Heavy Infantry and defend against Heavy Cavalry (the “run and shoot”), but were vulnerable when attacking Light Infantry (who were more accurate).

Heavy Cavalry could disperse Light Infantry, but were vulnerable to Light Cavalry and could have trouble attacking Heavy Infantry.

And all, of course, could attack each other. Each had advantages and vulnerabilities. By the time of the American Civil War, light and heavy infantry had combined via the bayonet, while cavalry carried both sabre and pistol. As a result, cavalry was vulnerable to infantry, but could raise hell if they got into the rear of the enemy. That’s sort of what you want to do with tanks.

Today, the modern battlefield might look like this:

Antitank troops can defend against tanks, but are vulnerable to air attack.

Antiaircraft troops can defend against air attack, but are vulnerable to tanks.

All troops are vulnerable to artillery, but artillery are vulnerable to both air and tank attack.

That’s a really, really simplistic description which I’m sure will be challenged, but it sort of works.

Maybe not, but would you rather fly missions in hostile territory with SAM’s and AAA flying around you, all the while on the lookout for enemy aircraft? As far as general safety goes, we lose aircraft every time we get into the smallest conflict because they’re constantly being used, but we rarely lose tanks. IIRC, the few Abrams destroyed in the Gulf War were hit by friendly fire.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s a country in the world that currently could nullify U.S. air superiority. Which modern air force would you be referring to?

[tangentially related hijack]
Perhaps the best quote I’ve ever read about U.S. air power is in Stud Terkel’s The Good War. He interviewed John Galbraith, who was part of an independent civilian commision created by Roosevelt to examine the effects of the air war and give unbiased results. The first line of the interview reads:

“The great principle of American war strategy is: We have airplanes, therefore they must be effective.”

He goes on to point out that that strategic bombing campaign in WW2 was largely ineffective except when targeting oil refineries; that air power worked far better in the tactical ground support role. Some very good info in the whole interview from an insider’s perspective, much of which runs contrary to the commonly taught history.

Granted, bombing is more precise now, but as we could tell from Kosovo, it’s still only as good as the people who designate the targets.

I sure hope tank design and production doesn’t end too soon. We’ve all seen those anime flicks with battle suits and armored mechs. Hopefully, thats where the next few generations of tanks are going to be headed. I would really like to see a guy in a walking tank, more maneuverable and way cooler by far.

Of course they are obsolete…where have you been…
haven’t you heard of the “H” Bomb?

IMHO, it’s unlikely that will ever happen; I think it’s just adolescent fantasy. Speed is extremely important on the battlefield. The axiom “get there the firstest with the mostest” still holds true. A wheeled or tracked vehicle has a distinct speed advantage over one with articulated limbs.

Besides, any weapon that can be defeated by those stupid Ewoks is doomed to fail. :slight_smile:

I think the idea behind “Mechs” (the most common sci-fi term for these things) is that they’re far better than tanks in traversing difficult terrain. Tanks may be fast (the latest-generation MBTs can reach 60 mph) but they can’t really manage steep inclines and broken ground, wghich is why those areas are in the domain of infantry.

That said, mechs will never be used in combat because they’re such big, east targets. Modern tanks are designd to be as low as possible, presenting as small a target as possible to enemy gun and missle fire. Tanks are made for assault, which is why most of their armor is in the front, as well as most of their sloped surfaces. Any legged vehicle will be by necessity high above the ground, probably taller than it is long, and incable of using terrain for cover. Besides, any leg would be especially vunerable to attack; tank treads, on the other hand, are hard to hit from the side and nearly impossible to hit from the front.

Still, I can see a day ehrn tanks become obsolete. It will probably come when improvements it infantry-carried anti-tank missiles - improvements in weight, accuracy and penetration - and improvement in personal body armor make tanks impracticle. Then they’ll probabaly disappear like thearmored knight in then face of the musket and pike.

I still think our military leaders are like the French Generals of the 1930’s-putting their faith in the Maginot Line!
The tank has evolved quite a bit from its birth in 1916, but it is probably time for them to go to the museums (along with armor and pikes). The reason is (as i stated), that coparitive advantage has shifted away from armor, and toward aircraft and missiles. This is a NATURAL evolution. As I say, the French generals were probably astonished that their multi-billion dollar Maginot Line was outflanked and bypassed by the german panzers-but their mindset was fixed in 1918.
I think the Gulf war shows us what major conflicts of the future will be like-massive destruction of surface units (including armor)but fairly low-tech aircraft. Plus, a tank can’t do a whole lot with its treads blown off! A $500 land mine can accomplish that quite handily!

Except most battles (on earth anyway) aren’t fought in those conditions, and you have to get there first before you can engage in combat. Realistically, I don’t see that a mechanical two-legged vehicle gains very much in managing inclines or broken ground, and in point of fact would seem much more likely to get stuck or fall down in bad terrain because the weight of the entire vehicle must rest on one foot whenever the thing moves. I’d like to see one try to operate on mud, snow, or ice. Terrain heavily obstructed by trees or rock would be equally inaccessible to both tanks and mechs, so they wouldn’t solve the heavy vehicle/bad terrain problem anyway.

I don’t think that personal body armor would ever be able to offer enough protection to make tanks obsolete, but I agree that infantry weapons potentially could if they were plentiful and powerful enough. Even so, ground troops will always need SOME transport mechanism, and somewhat ineffective protection is usually better than no protection at all. Barring any revolutionary weapons advancement, armored vehicles of some type will be around for awhile.

I think perhaps you are underestimating the effects our tanks had…

In that case, eg, I sincerely hope you never have a voice in seting appropriations or long-term strategy for our nation’s military.