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This article is about the history of Tanks in the Cold War
Georgian T-72, covered in reactive armour.

In the Cold War, the two opposing forces in Europe were the Warsaw Pact countries on the one side, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries on the other side. The Warsaw Pact was seen by the West as having an aggressive force outnumbering the NATO forces.

Soviet domination of the Warsaw Pact led to effective standardization on a few tank designs. In comparison, NATO adopted a defensive posture. The major contributing nations, France, Germany, the USA, and the UK developed their own tank designs, with little in common ,while the smaller nations of NATO purchased or adapted these designs.

After World War II, tank development continued largely as it had been because of the Cold War. Tanks would not only continue to be produced in huge numbers, but the technology advanced dramatically as well. Tanks became larger and their armour became thicker and much more effective. Aspects of gun technology changed significantly as well, with big advances in shell design and terminal effectiveness. However, nowadays most tanks in service still have manually breech-loaded guns, a trait of the earliest tanks which is shared with most self-propelled and field guns.

Many of the changes in tank design have been refinements to targeting and ranging (fire control), gun stabilisation, communications and crew comfort. Armour has evolved to keep pace with improvements in weaponry, and guns have got bigger. There have been no fundamental changes.

The design and budgeting of tanks has known severe ups and downs. Right after the war, tank design budgets were cut and engineering staff was often scattered. Many war planners believed that the tank was obsolete, now that nuclear weapons were on the scene. It was felt that a tactical nuclear weapon could destroy any brigade or regiment, whether it was armoured or not. The Korean war proved that tanks were still useful on the battlefield, given the hesitation of the great powers to use nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, many nations' tanks were equipped with NBC protection, allowing mechanized units to defend against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, or to conduct breakthroughs by exploiting battlefield nuclear strikes.


Development of the main battle tank

Medium tanks gradually evolved into the new concept of the Main Battle Tank. This transition happened gradually in the 1950s, as it was realized that medium tanks could carry guns (such as the US 90 mm, Soviet 100 mm, and especially the British L7 105 mm) that could penetrate any practical level of armor at long range. The World War II concept of heavy tanks, armed with the most powerful guns and heaviest armor, became obsolete since they were just as vulnerable as other vehicles to the new medium tanks. Likewise, World War II had shown that lightly-armed, lightly-armored tanks were of little value in most roles. Even reconnaissance vehicles had shown a trend towards heavier weight and greater firepower during World War II; speed was not a substitute for armor and firepower.

The Main Battle Tank thus took on the role the British had once called the 'Universal tank', filling almost all battlefield roles. Typical Main Battle Tanks were as well armed as any other vehicle on the battlefield, highly mobile, and well armored. Yet they were cheap enough to be built in large numbers. The classic main battle tanks of the 1950s were the British Centurion, the Soviet T-55 series, and the US M47 and M48 series. These three basic vehicles were upgraded significantly over time. For example, the Centurion began life with the highly effective 17-pounder (76.2 mm) gun, but was upgraded to 20 pounder (84 mm) and then 105 mm main armament by 1959, with improved fire control and new engines. The T-55 started with a 100 mm gun, but has been upgraded with both 105 mm and 125 mm guns, much improved fire control systems, new engines, track, etc. The M47 series evolved through to the M60 series. These vehicles and their derivatives formed the bulk of the armored forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact throughout the Cold War. Some of them remain in use in the 21st century.

Light tanks

Light tanks continued to be built, but for very limited roles such as amphibious reconnaissance, support of Airborne units, and in rapid intervention forces which were not expected to face enemy tanks. The Soviet PT-76 is a good example of a specialized light tank. It is amphibious and has the firepower to kill other reconnaissance vehicles, but it is very lightly armored. The US M551 Sheridan had similar strengths and weaknesses, but could also be airdropped, either by parachute or LAPES.

Heavy tanks

Heavy tanks continued to be developed and fielded along with medium tanks until the 1960s and 1970s , the development of anti-tank guided missiles and powerful tank guns rendered them ineffective in their role. The combination of large HEAT warheads, with a long effective range relative to a tank gun, and with high accuracy meant that heavy tanks could no longer function in the stand-off, or overwatch role. Much cheaper antitank guided missiles could fill this role just as well. Medium tanks were just as vulnerable to the new missiles, but could be fielded in greater numbers and had higher battlefield mobility. Furthermore, the value of light tanks for scouting was diminished greatly by helicopters, although many light tanks continued to be fielded.

The development of antitank weapons and countermeasures

There was also talk that tanks were obsolete and budgets decreased a bit after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Israeli tanks were destroyed in unheard of quantities by man-portable wire guided missiles (ATGMs), fired by Egyptian infantry. Subsequent analysis showed that Israeli forces had underestimated their opponents during the first phases of the war; their all-tank tactics ignored the newfound ability of Infantry armed with cheap AT weapons to stop tanks. The solution to this new battlefield environment was both tactical and technical. Tactically, there was renewed recognition for the need for combined-arms tactics. This led to greater mechanization of Infantry and advanced artillery tactics and warheads. Tanks alone were vulnerable to Infantry, but a combined team of tanks, mechanized Infantry, and mechanized artillery could still win in the new environment.

In 1974, the United States initiated an impressive programme to modernise its existing tank fleet and start real mass production of the M60A1, and later the M60A3; at the same time the M1 was developed. Budgets for tank design and production picked up during the administration of president Ronald Reagan, as the cold war threatened to get hot.

In response to infantry-portable and vehicle-mounted ATGMS, ever more capable defences were developed. Spaced armour, composite, explosive reactive armour, and active protection systems—like the Russian Shtora, Drozd, and Arena—were added to old and new tanks. Despite these improvements the larger missiles remained highly effective against tanks. This was demonstrated in 1991 when in a friendly fire incident, Hellfire anti-tank missiles destroyed one of the latest M1 Abrams tanks.

Missile armed tanks

The U.S. M551 Sheridan was an air-mobile light tank with a 152 mm gun/missile launcher.

During the latter half of the 20th century, some tanks were armed with ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) which could be launched through a smoothbore or (in the case of "Shillelagh") a rifled main gun barrel with a provision to prevent imparting "spin" to the missile. In the U.S., the M60A2, M551 Sheridan, and prototype MBT-70, with 152 mm barrel/launchers used the Shillelagh infrared-guided missile. The MBT-70 was cancelled prior to production due to high cost, and superseded by the M1 Abrams, which used a conventional gun. The M551 and the M60A2 were widely considered disappointing due to problems of overall complexity, sensitive advanced electrical systems (some components of which involved the Shillelagh guidance system) and issues related to the conventional rounds with combustible cases, though the Sheridan would serve into the 1990s before finally being withdrawn. The M60A2's were eventually replaced by M60A3s using conventional 105 mm guns. In the 1980s the M1 Abrams and M2 Bradleys became the main US fighting vehicles.

While U.S. experiments with gun-launched missiles led to a dead end, the Soviet Union put this technology into service in the mid-1970s, and it continues to be used in CIS forces. Tanks capable of firing gun-launched missiles in Russian service include the T-72, T-90, and upgraded T-55 (T-55AM2). Ukraine also employs missile-armed T-64, T-80, and T-84 tanks.

See also



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