Tanks seem to represent the old style of warfare – more up close and personal than the hightech, automated, drone-reliant operations that we imagine as the cutting-edge of warfighting technology. Yet the concept of the tank is proving hard to destroy. First introduced on the Western Front during the First World War, they were seen as the new wonder weapon, a game-changing technology. “Everybody was staggered to see this extraordinary monster crawling over the ground,” is how one eyewitness put it at the Battle of the Somme, while another described tanks as a “complete and utter surprise” to the Germans.

Since then, tanks have proven their ability to seize key land objectives, initiate rapid reactions to enemy movements, and penetrate defences in a way few other weapons systems can. They act as a powerful deterrent – physical and psychological – while armoured formations have frequently been instrumental in shaping the outcome of conflicts from France in 1940 to Israel in 1967. Their position in the hierarchy of combat vehicles may have changed over the years, but they continue to prove their worth, particularly with combined arms support, and their ferocious firepower has made them essential on the ground in Ukraine.

To save on mechanical wear and tear, tanks are often transported to the battlefield by either rail or specialised transporters. Image Credit: Corona Borealis Studio/ www.Shutterstock.com

Ukrainian forces have, at times, used their T-64 main battle tanks to great effect, particularly in heavily mined areas, where risking their more advanced models, including the Abrams, would be a tactical mistake. Indeed, their value led US Army Chief of Staff General James McConville to tell reporters at a press conference last October that: “You don’t need armour if you don’t want to win.”

When it comes to Ukraine, meanwhile, other commentators have suggested that more tanks are needed, partly because the lack of decisive air power makes heavy armour essential for getting past entrenched defensive positions. The motley crew of disparate tank models available to the Ukrainians could be a problem if they continue to rely on heavy armour – though in that respect they have fared far better than their Russian opponents.

“Tanks have been effective in providing mobile protected firepower, which is helpful on a dynamic battlefield when one is either advancing or retreating,” says Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert in how military forces employ emerging or advancing technologies.

“In the more static battlelines of the current war, however, they are less valuable compared to traditional relocatable or self-propelled howitzers,” Clark adds. “Nevertheless, in a world of proliferated loitering munitions, tanks offer protection, provided they are designed to defend against overhead attacks. Some tanks are vulnerable to weapons dropped on top of the turret, which may not be as well-armoured and may contain the magazine.”

Next-gen tank technology

The environment in Ukraine has certainly been challenging for armoured vehicles. The flat landscape in the country’s eastern and southern regions makes it hard to conceal columns of vehicles on the move. Furthermore, the proliferation of drone technology has improved surveillance to the point where it is hard to launch a surprise attack using tanks.

“Armour-infantry-artillery-engineers combined arms teams have shown their relevance on today’s battlefield,” says Brigadier General Geoffrey Norman, director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team at US Army Futures Command. “They also possess an unparalleled ability to move through dense urban and wooded terrain, but their pace, protection and massed firepower is limited.”

One of many Russian tanks left destroyed by Ukrainian roadsides during the early phase of Russia’s invasion in 2022. Image Credit: anmbph/ www.Shutterstock.com

Both Kyiv and Moscow have lost many tanks: altogether, some 3,000 are currently rusting in Ukrainian fields, according to a recent report in The Independent. Yet Russia has suffered far greater losses, including during major defeats in Bucha in 2022, Vuhledar in early 2023, and numerous others around the eastern town of Avdiivka towards the end of 2023, where Ukraine reported that Russia lost 44 tanks and 60 armoured personnel vehicles in a single day (though, at the time of writing, they have since prevailed). The effectiveness of tanks depends not only on their design, armour and weaponry, but also on how they are used. Like all warfighting systems, they have both strengths and weaknesses.

“The pros of armour are that it enables formations to advance through enemy defences and create breakthroughs for exploitation by follow-on forces or to quickly respond to demands around the battlefield,” observes Norman. “Its cons include weaknesses to some top-attack weapons and bottom-attack mines, higher consumption rates of fuel, ammunition and spare parts than dismounted formations, and signatures which can sometimes be detected by drones and loitering munitions. The weaknesses, however, can be mitigated through training, tactics and organising into combined arms teams.”

The number of tanks Russia has lost in Ukraine since the start of Putin’s invasion.
International Institute for Strategic Studies

Indeed, the faith that military forces around the world have in the future of armoured vehicles has led to ambitious new programmes to create the next generation of tanks. Norman is part of the team working on the US Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV), which will provide a family of mobile armour systems that will complement the existing Abrams tank, which though supplemented will not be replaced.

The number of main battle tanks in the US Army, compared to Turkey’s 569 and Germany’s 266.

The NGCV’s new M10 Booker Combat Vehicle is essentially a light tank that can accompany dismounted ground troops to take out enemy machine gun positions or bunkers. It will provide light infantry forces with an organic armour capability that they have not had since the M551 Sheridan was retired in the 1990s. This system uses proven technology – such as the Abrams fire control systems and turret architecture, a rifled 105mm tank cannon – and off-the-shelf components in an entirely new tank that weighs in at just over 40t.

“This enables the army to deploy two M10 Bookers on a single C-17 transport aircraft which marks a significant increase in the capabilities of light infantry forces when they deploy,” says Norman.

Later, the army plans to field the XM-30 Combat Vehicle to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, while a fully ‘Robotic Combat Vehicle’ will provide mobile fires and logistics support to ground troops. “One of the most significant advances with the XM-30 is it is ‘born-digital’, meaning that it is the product of cutting-edge digital design and development processes, and it will be built with a Modular Open Systems Architecture (MOSA),” Norman adds.

The choice of a MOSA design, relying on modular components that can be easily interchanged, means that as technology improves, and new systems created, it will be easier to upgrade key elements from weaponry to control systems – all without needing to drastically alter the fundamental design of the vehicle. Furthermore, it eliminates the risk of being tied to a particular systems vendor or any proprietary systems.

At the same time, the XM-30 will also have bestin- class soldier protection systems for its crew and occupants, and feature a new and updated version of infrared optics and advanced fire control systems, which are intended to improve accuracy, range and lethality. Its powertrain will likely include a hybrid diesel-electric powerpack and advanced running gear to improve its mobility, as well as reduce its logistic burden.

The effective firing range of the 125mm main gun on a T-64 tank.

“The Abrams transformation effort, known as M1E3, will result in a next-generation main battle tank,” Norman adds. “Its design and development are the product of years of research and development, as well as focused study of current and future battlefield threats. The M1E3 will retain the best attributes of the current Abrams tank, such as its exceptional lethality, while improving its protection from emerging threats, and decreasing its weight and overall sustainment burden.”

One-shot, one-kill

In Europe, eyes are focused on the combined efforts of France and Germany to deliver a next-gen tank in 2024. The Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) is being designed to meet the operational needs of a successor to Germany’s Leopard 2 and France’s Leclerc main battle tanks.

The new system will not only include a modular main battle tank, but also automated robotic systems, AI capability and a range of sophisticated weapons. As well as classic fire capability, the tank will be designed to accommodate electromagnetic weapons, electronic warfare functionality and laser weapons. The MGCS is intended to feature a reactive defence system in the form of a drone swarm to protect the tank, as well as increased protection from drone attacks.

Despite these gadgets, Clark says the main focus should be on what’s always made tanks so imposing. “All of those elements would be helpful,” he says, “but the most important will be better armour. With advancements in munitions, including loitering munitions and drones, tanks are becoming more vulnerable. To provide the mobile protection and fires they are needed for, tanks will first need to be survivable.

“Active protection systems are becoming more capable, using an outgoing round to stop the incoming drone,” Clark continues. “These systems, like the Israeli Trophy system, will likely make their way onto every tank and could be used to take out anti-tank drones like the Russian Lancet.”

It is clear, in short, that tanks are not only back in vogue, but set to get a significant upgrade to both deploy and counter new threats. For Norman, the tanks of tomorrow will be designed to work with combined arms teams in a way that enables them to avoid detection. This may be accomplished through dispersion, signature management, masking and concealment.

“The next imperative is to avoid being hit,” the general stresses. “This may be accomplished through disrupting or destroying incoming rounds, or it may be accomplished by operating where the enemy is not expecting the combined arms teams and their tanks, so as to avoid being targeted in the first place. The next imperative will be to survive being hit through advanced armour designs. Surviving the fight also includes battlefield repair and resilience to endure long campaigns.”

The combination of armour, firepower, mobility and automated systems – to the point where uncrewed missions are potentially possible – will make the tanks of tomorrow formidable fighting machines. Perhaps, in short, they will once again be the wonder weapon they seemed back in the Great War.