For much of the 20th century, a single valley, in a sedate corner of Central Europe, obsessed and terrified Nato planners more than any other. If the Cold War ever went hot, the US was sure, this would be the spot that their communist enemies would choose to invade West Germany. Snuggled amid the fields and woodlands of Hesse, the Fulda Gap doesn’t look like much – but the US had a point. If the Soviets had ever taken the valley, after all, they would have been halfway to Frankfurt – with a major US airbase tantalisingly close by.

And how would the Soviets have managed it, had they ever received orders from Moscow to give the Yankees hell? If you’d asked that question to experts at the time, they’d probably have laughed. By the end of the Cold War, the Soviets had 4,200 tanks in East Germany, and another 8,200 armoured vehicles, and these behemoths would have been the steel fist of the Soviet punch through Western Europe. Not that the US couldn’t have given as good as they got – their M48 Patton, weighing nearly 50t, could drive at 30 miles an hour and fire a shell nearly three miles.

All that feels like ancient history now, of course. With the rise of desperate insurgency wars, from Afghanistan to Syria, it’s easy to imagine that the age of the tank ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – or, perhaps with Desert Storm’s dash through the sand dunes of Iraq the same year. In truth, though, tanks are merely evolving. From France to the US, officers and defence planners are busy developing the main battle tanks of the coming century. With their machine learning and robotic gadgets, they’re likely unfamiliar to veterans of the Fulda Gap. Yet, in their ruthless ability to kill the enemy, they’re really not so different at all.

Productivity tanks

As we begin our conversation, Brigadier General Ross Coffman says he’s at an auspicious place to talk tanks. He’s currently sitting, Coffman explains, in the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, where George Patton put some of the earliest American tanks through their paces after the First World War. Listen to Coffman for long, moreover, and you almost feel like ‘Old Blood and Guts’ himself is right there on the line, with his straightforward demeanour and clear understanding of what needs to be done when faced with the enemy.

“As a soldier, you’re asked to fight in the nastiest, toughest conditions known to man,” says Coffman, director of the US army’s Next-Generation Combat Vehicles (NGCV) Cross-Functional Team. “You just have to get into situations where you have to close with and destroy the enemy. The role of the main battle tank, as we close with and destroy the enemy, cannot be understated.” Whatever counterinsurgency specialists might claim, Coffman is adamant that tanks are just as important now as they were when he commanded a tank against the Iraqis in Desert Storm.

“Tanks are these big monstrosities – that’s the way we need them to be. But now they can be part of a system with robotic vehicles around.”

Dr Corde Lane


The CAGR for the global armoured vehicle market from 2019–2025.

Grand View Research

When tanks show up on the battlefield, Coffman rather laconically adds, your enemies “know it just got real”. If nothing else, his enthusiasm is bolstered by hard military statistics, which prove that armies everywhere still consider tanks as vital parts of their arsenals. Joining the fray in 1980, the US built around 8,000 Abrams tanks, with the model over recent years seeing service against everyone from Saddam’s Republican Guards to the Taliban and Isis. This is a ongoing phenomenon too – in 2019, the US army received 135 new Abrams tanks, which were duly doled out to armoured brigades across the nation.

The world’s foremost military power is not unique in its loyalty to the tank. France, for instance, still has 406 Leclercs. Unsurprisingly, rising powers like China and India are getting in on the act too. Delhi plans to have 1,640 T-90 tanks in operation by the end of this year. The People’s Republic, for its part, boasts that its Type 99 is the “King of Tanks”, with Chinese engineers proclaiming that the model is a kind of “super” tank. No wonder, then, that the global industry for armoured vehicles was worth around $25.5bn in 2018, a figure expected to rise by over 5% a year to the middle of the decade.

All the same, it would be wrong to imply that, royalty or not, existing tank models are perfect – especially now that modern technology can make them so much better. Coffman says this encompasses everything from the relatively mundane – think power consumption and lighter armour – to higher-tech areas like target identification and situational awareness. Dr Corde Lane, director of the human research and engineering directorate at the US Army Research Lab, has his sights set similarly high. As Lane explains, army officers and scientists are beginning to think about how we “integrate” troops and technology, “Tanks are these big monstrosities – that’s the way we need them to be. But now they can be part of a system with robotic vehicles around.”

Upgrades to armour

When it rolls out the factory sometime in the 2030s, the main battle tank at the NGCV project will be a sight to behold. Led by Coffman and run from a sprawling facility near Detroit, the new tank will be far lighter than the Abrams, a development made possible by remarkable new materials (the NGCV also works on various other armoured vehicles beyond tanks).

By using strong, lightweight metals like titanium – or titanium alloys and hybrid polymers – the NGCV can build machines that travel faster and further than the 70t Abrams. Other physical innovations include a new battery, which could let tank crews fire their guns even if the engine was turned off.

Nor is the US army alone in making its tanks lighter and more practical. For example, as the brainchild of both France and Germany, the European Main Battle Tank borrows features from both countries’ older models – with engineers hoping to make their new tank, due to be ready by 2035, 6t lighter than either France’s Leclerc model or the Federal Republic’s Leopard 2. Indian engineers are working in the same ballpark, hoping that the replacement of their Arjun tank can be 15t lighter. In fact, suggests research by UK Land Power, the main battle tanks of tomorrow will all weigh around 50t – or the same as the brutally effective but technically simplistic Tigers from the Second World War.

Impressive, certainly, but talk to Lane and Coffman and it becomes clear that the real opportunities are less in the literal nuts and bolts of new vehicles, but in what Coffman calls reducing “the cognitive burden” on soldiers, so that they can “focus on making decisions faster than their adversaries”.

In practice, that means making armoured vehicles smarter and not just tougher by turning steel and rubber into a fifth crew member. As an example, Coffman mentions his team’s work on autonomous driving, borrowing from Tesla and the private sector to develop machines that can navigate rough terrain unaided. Lane makes a similar point, explaining how the artificial intelligence (AI) within tanks could advise the commander where to go. If it’s muddy or rainy, for instance, the programme could warn where the tank risks getting stuck. If the enemy is at the top of a hill, it could suggest how to reach them. More than just boosting mobility, though, this technical wizardry might actually help tankers fight. AI, says Coffman, could soon be used to identify enemy vehicles, and help troops prioritise them based on threat. Lane agrees, taking the principle even further. He describes AI that learns with the soldiers who use it – so, if a tank commander spent a week aiming his turret upwards toward the enemy aircraft buzzing overhead, the platform could hypothetically learn to alert him of new aerial threats even faster. More than that, Lane sees vast potential in taking humans out of the equation altogether, and instead deploying robotic tanks to engage the enemy remotely.

The talk over technology

All this obviously has the potential to transform warfare, but Lane is careful to emphasise that no AI is infallible. For one thing, he highlights the dangers of cyberattacks, and how even fairly simple ruses can confuse automated systems. It’s all well and good to teach an AI to halt at red stop signs, he says, but what if the enemy puts black tape over them? Similar tests on autonomous vehicles in civilian life, after all, suggest that can “trick the algorithm into thinking it’s a speed limit sign, not a stop sign, so now it doesn’t have to stop”. It’s not hard to see how this could quickly spell disaster for tanks columns in action – what if they drove gunfirst off a cliff or into an ambush?

“You just have to get into situations where you have to close with and destroy the enemy. The role of the main battle tank, as we close with and destroy the enemy, cannot be understated.”

Brigadier General Ross Coffman

The solution, Lane explains, is to ‘teach’ the computer to understand what those blacked over signs probably mean in reality. Harder, perhaps, are questions around the morality of letting armoured killers loose without human supervision. Lane himself is relatively sanguine. Though he declines to “give a straight up or down answer” he suggests that, whether we like it or not, we “will learn to trust technology to do more and more things”. Coffman isn’t quite so sure. “We will always be focused on ethical conduct on the battlefield,” he says, even if that means keeping computers away from the trigger.

It would be wrong, though, to imply Coffman isn’t excited about what comes next for tanks and their crews. Among other things, he suggests we might soon have armoured vehicles linked up to flying robots, which then relay information back to commanders miles before they even meet the enemy. “The robots’ strength of doing the mundane will allow the humans to focus on the art and science of warfare,” he says. If only those NATO officers who spent half a century worrying about the Fulda Gap could come back and see that.


Abrams tanks were received by the US army in 2019, enough to equip 1.5 combat brigades.