Why use tanks, specifically, to suppress/intimidate protesting crowds?

Over the decades I recollect many pictures/reports of tanks being used to intimidate or crush protests by civilians - China, Egypt, now in Libya.

I wonder about the choice of tanks - isn’t the role they are designed for fighting (a) other tanks, and (b) moderately fortified positions?
Wouldn’t their main armament be unusable if you want to shoot up protesters, but not your own city? And isn’t a tank crew’s field of vision somewhat limited?

Mate, I think it is a self-answered question:
Armoured position.

They have them, and the armour is generally impregnable relative to simple protesters. And they do a very fine job of crushing people, if that is your objective, with the added bonus of being scary and sending the message: do not fuck with us.

  1. Scare people

  2. Ever seen a tank. Big, intimidating monsters they are.

  3. Might be needed if the protesters are armed as they are fairly well protected.

  4. And in one protest in Pakistan in the late 1970’s, the only army unit near by was an armored regiment.

Because tanks are… intimidating?

If they want to take you out, you’ll be taken out. Re: Tiananmen Square. You can burn a police car, throw rocks at troops, retaliate with guns. But you can’t do much of anything against a tank if the Army decides that lives will be lost. That’s the ultimate in intimidation.

Tanks are scary.

Tanks are used for a lot more than just taking out other tanks or attacking fortified positions. The “thunder runs” in Iraq were more for intimidation and to make a point than they were anything else. Tanks were also sometimes used in Iraq to clear areas of hostiles. If you’ve got a dozen guys armed with AK-47s, if you send in a tank and park it in the middle of the street, there’s not much that they can do about it. Using a tank allows you to control an area without fear of having your own people shot, or hit with rocks, etc.

If you’ve got 1,000 troops but you are up against 50,000 protesters, your troops could easily be overwhelmed. But if you drive just 5 tanks into the square, those 50,000 protesters effectively can’t do a thing about it.

Your average tank has at least two machine guns, which are very useful against protesters. The first is the coaxial, which is right by the main gun and is operated by the gunner; its field of vision is a bit limited, but it makes up for it with incredible accuracy and all of the tank’s imaging devices (like infra-red vision). The second machine gun is the commander’s gun, which is located to the turret roof by the commander’s hatch; the its user has an excellent field of vision and a high vantage point. Against any sort of infantry out in the open - and that includes protesters - the combination of the two is devastating.

Plus, you can run people over.

In addition to being a mobile machine gun platform and temporary (but impregnable) fortress, the tank would also serve as a makeshift bulldozer, able to crush any barricades or other structures put up by protesters.

And things.

Tanks are usually mixed with armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles in a combined arms unit. Many people still refer to these as “tanks”, though. Besides, if you have an uprising to crush you don’t really want to bother sorting out which vehicles in which units would be best. Just send in the nearest armored brigade, which will consist of tanks and mechanized infantry.


You’re correct that a tank shouldn’t fight against infantry without support. But that sort of doctrine is really about fighting pitched battles against infantry equipped with modern anti-tank weapons. Here the tank’s lack of visibility makes it really easy to ambush.

Tanks were originally designed primarily as support for infantry units. During World War I, at the end of the War, a tank would go in and absorb the full force of the entrenched machine guns of the defenders while infantry would be keeping right on the tank’s ass, using it as cover.

Tanks were frequently used this way throughout World War II and you still hear about them being used for such a purpose up to this day. Obviously during World War II other tactics were developed and you had tanks being used mostly against other tanks and as rapid forward forces.

But yeah, tanks are good tools to suppress people because they’re extremely difficult to take out with anything short of specially designed munitions or heavy ordinance from other military vehicles. A tank is about as intimidating as it gets, too.

Bring out the scoops!

Tanks are intimidating for crowd control in the short term. We saw this in China and now in Libya. However, when the crowd reaches a critical mass, even tanks can be overcome. Tanks are very vulnerable at close range to hand held rocket devices or a kid with a can of gasoline. There are other terrorist means when in close. If the Libyans have sufficient numbers and resolve, we may see such means used. At another critical mass, we may see the military join up ranks with the protesters.

There have been a few civilians that have gotten control of tanks even in the U.S. and the results are not a joke.

However, they aren’t impenetrable as the documentary by the same name shows because they can throw a track and get stuck in the mud but even then, their may be some tough guys willing to lend you a hand a drag you and your tank across the county line before the Sheriff has his way with you.

How often has a crowd of civilians reached a critical mass large enough to actually disable or destroy hostile tanks? I can think of… umm… no examples. Maybe there’s one I’m forgetting.

It’s very easy for type “Hey, you could take out a tank with some gasoline.” It’s a hell of a lot harder to do it. This reminds me of the threads we have now and then where people express amazement that mounted troops were ever effective when you could do like Mel Gibson did in “Braveheart” and chop at the horse’s legs with your sword (or some other silliness) - yeah, well, let’s see how well you actually pull that one off when four thousand pounds of horse and blades is thundering at you at twenty miles an hour.

A tank’s fifteen times bigger and twice as fast and tanks don’t shy away from spears. Sure, hop on with your can of gasoline. I’ll be running away.

Tanks are scary and powerful and immensely dangerous. They’re the perfect crowd control devices.

Was the US tank in Iraq that had the mysterious hole ‘drilled’ (lased?) in it used for crowd control?

Did they ever figure out what did it?

(if this is classified, I don’t know any of you)

I’ve seen photos of tanks destroyed by civilians in Budapest in 1956, and the Chinese destroyed a number of armored vehicles in Tienanmen Square. Molotov cocktails aren’t exactly complicated to make, and tanks are vulnerable to them. Modern tanks have better fire suppression capabilities than earlier vehicles, but the supply isn’t infinite.

I could be wrong, but the first well documented use of tanks in civil unrest may have been the Bonus March in Washington in 1932. The U.S. Army, then reduced to skeleton strength, supposedly only had a few dozen light tanks. But Gen. MacArthur, zealous as always about leftist rebellion, made sure they were on hand for the newsreels and photographers.

Cop: “At that time it was the biggest gun on the streets of San Diego.”

“At that time”?

Yes, I know he just misspoke I but I like the image of gangbangers and cops fighting tank battles in the San Diego streets.

I’m sure APCs and Armored cars are much more common for riot control, but Tanks look much cooler on TV. Remember what shows up on the news is always going to be a distorted version of reality. It is their job to show stuff that is unusual and dramatic and the stuff that makes international news is going really unusual.

Ideally, the best place to live is someplace that never mentioned on the 6 O’Clock News.

To sum up:

  1. Overwhelming force. A tank is generally invulnerable to anything a normal crowd of demonstraters can do while being capable of attacking the crowd.

  2. All terrain mobility. A tank can drive through most baricades demonstraters will erect.

  3. Anonymity. The tank crew is invisible to the crowd which is psychologically intimidating.

  4. Symbol of power. A tank represents a nation’s military power and reminds the crowd of how much force the government has available.

  5. Symbol of martial law. A tank is a military not a police vehicle. It demonstrates that the government is not bound by legal restraints in attacking a crowd.