How long before a main battle tank design becomes obsolete?

This question is prompted in part by the current “how to creatively destroy a modern MBT” thread, the “Libya” thread, and also by random bits I read recently about tanks on wikipedia.

For instance : in an article about the WWI French tank B1bis, there was a mention of it destroying unharmed some large number of German tanks all by itself, and taking in an absurdly high (say, 200) number of hits from tanks and anti-tank guns without being damaged. Or about the first Gulf war, where it seems that the crew of an American MBT could have taken a nap while being attacked by a group of older soviet design tanks without much concern apart for the noise. Also, I noticed the large range of tank designs still in use in various countries. Some for instance are still fielding T-34s, which no doubt were excellent tanks 70 years ago.

So, it seems that at some point a tank becomes totally obsolete in that it essentially can’t harm a more modern or better equipped tank, and/or can be destroyed essentially before the crew even notice there’s an enemy tank present. And the time it takes for a tank to become obsolete can be quite short (as in the B1bis example above, since the German tanks couldn’t have been that much old, and the B1bis was of no use for the Germans anymore in quick order, being itself obsolete).
So, I have several questions :
1)The French MBT design (Leclerc) is about 20 years old. It’s about the same for the current British Challenger, and the German Leopard 2 is even older (dating from the 80s). I didn’t look up for the American, Israeli, etc… MBT, but anyway : although a MBT costs an awful lot of money and can’t just be replaced every other year, and although I guess improvements are added to the basic design, 20 or 30 years seems quite long given how quickly technology progresses. So, for how long can an army use a design before it becoming utterly obsolete (as in the example above, not being any challenge for a recent tank)?
2)Are first world MBT roughly equivalent in capacities, or not at all? For instance, assuming that a country fielded a new tank design in 2000, could we assume that the much older Leopard 2 wouldn’t stand a chance against it?
3)Do MBTs even are somewhat equivalent to begin with? For instance, a Challenger is as old a design as a Leclerc. Is it conceivable that a British armored brigade could shred to bits its French equivalent (or the other way around, doesn’t matter) without breaking a sweat?
4)What countries are able to design and produce MBTs about equivalent in efficiency to those mentioned? USA, UK, France, Germany, Israel, I assume Russia and China. Somebody else?
5)Why armies are fielding totally obsolete tanks (say, a T-55)? I can understand if their potential enemies aren’t much better equipped, but in the extreme example of the T-34, what use could it have (I assume that every single modern man portable AT weapon would easily destroy it)? Also, some of those countries have quite a lot of those obsolete designs. Hundreds of them. So, wouldn’t they be better off with, say, 25 modern MBTs than with 250 1950-era designs, even assuming that their neighbours are fielding 1950-era designs too?

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention. There hasn’t been a major land war between great powers in a long time, and with the end of the cold war the need for new tank designs hasn’t increased by that much. And the tanks of first world countries have been upgraded significantly since they were designed in the 1980’s - bigger guns (for example, the M1 Abrams tank originally had a 105 mm gun, and now has a 120mm one, additional armor panels, much better targeting computers and optics, better communications, and so on.

If say, France and Germany went to war, we would probably see a major burst of tank development during the conflict.

2&3) For the most part, modern tanks aren’t too far apart in capabilities. The same 120 mm gun is used in the Leopard 2, M1 Abrams, South Korea’s K1A1 and Japan’s Type 90, for example. Tactics and training would play at least as large a part in a battle between these tanks as their quality.

  1. Off the top of my head, Italy, Japan, and South Korea build their own first rate tanks. Other than that, I am pretty sure that most of the other countries that have the economy and industrial infrastructure to design their own tanks (like Canada or Spain) choose to just buy some other country’s tank instead.

  2. Countries that field obsolete tanks often can’t afford new ones, or no one will sell them modern tanks, like North Korea. And even if they could afford 25 new tanks vs 250 old ones, in some situations having more crappy tanks is better. For example, the 250 old tanks are probably going to be better at intimidating the local peasants, since they can be 10 times as many places at once. And also, labor is cheap in those sorts of places, so even if they get some newer tanks, it makes sense to keep the old ones functioning.

The Leopard 2 is a particularly popular tank, and various versions of it are fielded by more than a dozen countries, including, by the way, the two you just named.

I think the timing has largely to do with how soon the other side is able to build a new tank with thicker armor and a bigger gun.

I once read some though we would lose WWII because by the time we could put a new tank in the field, the war would be over. The blazooka saved us.

Another story was military playing off the armor and shell suppliers, complaining first the shells were penetrating the armor. When they got better armor, they complained the shells wouldn’t penetrate it.

If nothing else, reverse speed would increase.

Here’s an article about the latest defence against anti-tank missiles,just tested this week.
New technologies continue to be developed.

1)While the original designs are a couple decades old, they are constantly being refitted with newer power plants, optics, fire control systems, etc. Reading up on it, it looks like major upgrades occur every 5-10 years depending on development of the subsystems and each country’s budget. And they don’t upgrade every tank, but enough for their ‘flagship’ brigades, and rotate accordingly with each round upgrading the oldest tanks. Leclercs, Challengers, Leopards, etc probably have the original chassis, but almost everything else is fairly modern.

2)I think each level are equivalent. The trick in a modern war would be trying to make sure each such level combat one another - your top line regiments against theirs, second-best against their second-best, etc. And there is a world of difference between top-line NATO-level forces and everyone else.

3)I would love to see how successful each tank engages each against itself in war games. I think that comes down to which side of development is progressing faster - better munitions and fire control, or better reactive armor and other defense systems. But specifics of most systems and their effectiveness are classified. The generals know, but they won’t tell - nor should they. I am sure there is enough infighting over which systems should have greater development budgets. They do not need Joe the plumbers opinion.

4)Korea’s new K2 Black Panther demonstrates their capabilities. That is the latest and greatest design out there and will probably spur another round of upgrades. Japan has the capability to build a top-line tank, but is content with their current design. I doubt it is a match for others, but probably sufficient for when Godzilla shows up.

5)Most of the countries fielding older tanks - the majority of which are Soviet or Chinese designs - use them more for crowd control or against insurgencies that don’t have access to RPGs, than against other militaries. In addition to what RandomLetters said, the countries are familiar with that equipment, their factories are tooled to support them and more tanks allow more personnel to be trained to support them also.

If a hull is incapable of being upgraded any further (extra armour, more powerful engine, better gun) because the suspension won’t take the weight, then it’s reached the end of its development potential and you are better starting again. The Covenanter tank was obsolete before it left the factory, in this respect.

Not true, though. About the weight factor and not the Covenanter; that I don’t know.

Once you’ve reached your weight limit, it’s time to step back and ask what you really need. We could make much weightier tanks, but they’d be hideously slow and ineffectual in actual combat, and not much tougher than what we have now, and all that assuming we even can deploy them where needed.

Israel also makes its own tanks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merkava

Wow, the South Korean Black Panther tanks cost $8.5m apiece!

I’d like to see a comparison between the new Korean tank and the Merkava Mark 4; the Mk. 4 is only three years older, and despite superficial similarities to older Merk series, it’s essentially a brand new tank. Between the two of them, they’re the two most modern tanks in the world - and to the best of my knowledge, no other major defense industry is currently designing a more modern one.


The Merkava is designed with a different purpose in mind than other tanks. It is significantly heavier and slower.

According to Wikipedia, it’s only slightly heavier than M1A2; both are around 70 tons. The Merkava is a real oddball tank, though. It has a mortar, a passenger compartment, a rear door, and the engine is in the front.

IMO, as of right now, the Merkava is the best tank in the world, all things considered.

Really? Would you want to send one up toe-to-toe against an Abrams?

Actually, that’s not true - it was designed as a result of the 1973 war, and is intended to be used first and foremost in high-intensity tank-vs.-tank battles in the Sinai and the Golan Heights (while European tanks were designed for fighting in the Fulda Gap). It’s slightly slower than the Abrams on the road, but from what I understand, it’s actually faster on rough terrain. The engine in the front and rear door are there to improve crew survivability (it’s easier to fix a tank than fix a crew), while the crew compartment is basically an unintended bonus - the rear door leads to the main ammo compartment, so at one point the troops figured out that if you take most of the ammo out, you can carry passengers instead.

I don’t know how it would do against an M1A2 SEP. We’re talking about armor technology and fire control systems here, and that stuff is way beyond my ken.

I think absent a war, its more of an economic question rather than a technical one. Given the combined arms doctrine, its possible that an army can get away with using tier two or tier three tanks for as long as it wants.

The LeClerc has road wheels , while the leo has treads, so both have trade offs in capabilities. The main gun will mostly stay with the lifetime of the chasis , but newer sensors and life support can be added on.

Absent combined arms doctrine and air support, your just redoing kursk, it has probably been gamed enough that either side would win given the breaks.
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India has a domestic design in the process of being fielded

The soviets or the americans sold subsidized arms back in the day, when the t-55, 62,64,72 etc were top flight designs, you could get them for a song, now either we wont sell anything other than an export version, or they cant afford the top flight equipment and have decided that either they wont be invaded, or it wont matter if they come across a tier one military.

[quote=“Declan, post:17, topic:573550”]

I think absent a war, its more of an economic question rather than a technical one. Given the combined arms doctrine, its possible that an army can get away with using tier two or tier three tanks for as long as it wants.

Historically, this has not been true, at least in the world’s big armies. Nations with cheaper arms programs don’t always upgrade, but first-rate military powers have a long history of upgrading the main guns on tanks, often several times. The onyl reason we haven’t done so in a while is that there simply aren’t bigger threats that a 120mm smoothbore can’t handle.

That’s nto a gag line, either. The trend right now is towards smaller, faster “brushfire” engagements, and in any case armor technology is good but not

It’s all about roles. There’s nothing wrong with many WW2 tank designs - they were built with certain technologies, enemies, and conditions in mind. Weapon design is a lot like biologial design: it’s all about your resources and your environment and your strategic threats.

Historically, this has not been true, at least in the world’s big armies. Nations with cheaper arms programs don’t always upgrade, but first-rate military powers have a long history of upgrading the main guns on tanks, often several times. The onyl reason we haven’t done so in a while is that there simply aren’t bigger threats that a 120mm smoothbore can’t handle.

That’s not a gag line, either. The trend right now is towards smaller, faster “brushfire” engagements, and in any case armor technology is good but hardly making armored vehicles immune to enemy fire. So we don’t have agood reasons to put in a new, bigger gun. If anything, we might see slightly smaller guns, though I expect that won’t be the case - we have plenty of those on other armored vehicles.

I don’t know how it would fare against an Abrams, but my qualifier “all things considered” basically means that for the mission its designed for (urban combat), the Merkava is an incredible tank. I think the Abrams is comparatively inferior in that role (or at least, it was), although I don’t know just how much its been adapted to fit that role in recent years, I’m sure it has been in some respects. It has to have been.

I’ve always thought of the Abrams as more of an open battlefield tank.