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Military: The Main Battle Tank

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Military: The Main Battle Tank

An incident in the Gaza Strip on Dec. 12 focuses attention on the main battle tank -- whose future is in question.


Rumors surfaced that an Israeli Merkava Mark 3 main battle tank (MBT) had been penetrated by anti-tank munitions in the Gaza Strip during a Dec. 12 raid. Although statements by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) suggest that no meaningful penetration occurred, as neither the crew nor the tank was taken out of action permanently, the incident focuses attention on the MBT -- a weapon designed for a world war that has not occurred.

Almost all of the world's best MBTs were designed to destroy other MBTs on the northern European plain in what would be World War III. The possible exception to this is the Israeli Merkava, which also was designed primarily for the global war purpose -- but also, peripherally, to operate in the Palestinian territories.

Today, however, few of the world's MBTs are sitting across the border from other MBTs. The Conventional Forces in Europe treaty limited and structured the Cold War dynamic, which further shifted with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Neither Egyptian nor Syrian armor really threatens Israel. Iraq's armor was crushed in 1991. Since then, the prospects for a vast armored battle anywhere in the world have fallen dramatically. This is not to say that the prospect might never arise again, but the history of the MBT in the 21st century thus far has had little to do with other MBTs.

MBTs in Urban Warfare

Rather, U.S. and Israeli tankers historically have been employed mainly in urban environments, despite the tactical vulnerabilities of such employment. The spatial constraints of urban fighting make the weaker portions of an MBT's armor vastly more exposed and vulnerable, particularly the top and rear quarters where the armor is lighter and easier to penetrate. Urban environments also offer better channeling of movement toward mines and improvised explosive devices, which can threaten the MBT’s other point of vulnerability, its belly.

This, of course, is not a new problem. The same basic dynamic existed in the war-ravaged cities of World War II. The classic counter has been a heavy infantry escort for armor in urban areas. This point is of particular relevance for the IDF: when dealing with Palestinians, the IDF has in some situations gotten comfortable with hunkering down inside its heavy armor (both the Merkava and its armored vehicles) and allowing that armor to absorb whatever punishment Palestinians can dish out. When dealing with Palestinians, for example, the IDF has in some situations gotten comfortable with hunkering down inside its heavy armor -- both the Merkava and its armored vehicles -- and allowing that armor to absorb whatever punishment Palestinians can dish out.= Is this what you mean? If so, the heavy infantry escort aspect still is unclear.

Successful hits against Israeli MBTs by Hezbollah fighters using modern anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), coupled with the IDF’s increasing concern that such weapons will pop up in the Palestinian territories, have raised questions regarding the ultimate fate of MBTs in this century. However, although the proliferation of the latest generation of ATGMs (not to mention explosively formed projectiles and the cruder but massive improvised explosive devices that can throw even a MBT into the air), certainly makes MBTs more vulnerable, vulnerability does not equate to obsolescence. The MBT remains the platform that can absorb the most punishment in an urban environment. Although MBTs do not come cheap, there are times when that combination of frontal armor and firepower -- though designed for a very different purpose -- has a very real utility.

The Future

Today, however, few efforts are being made to field new MBTs -- especially not fundamentally new designs, and especially not in NATO countries. The M1 Abrams MBT design is the only class of vehicle the U.S. Army does not plan to replace eventually. The chief MBT designs -- the U.S. M1A2 Abrams, German Leopard 2A5/6 and the IDF Merkava Mark IV -- all tip the scales in excess of 60 tons. (The Russian T-90 is significantly smaller and lighter, but again, there do not appear to be significant plans for a replacement.) This still does not explain why new MBTs are not being fielded=and this is a key point of your analysis.

Thus? fairly revolutionary developments such as Britain's Chobham armor or Israel's Merkava design are not in the cards.= again, don’t understand why. The fundamental characteristics and levels of protection for MBTs are likely to remain fairly static, with incremental improvement -- even as weapons against them continue to evolve more rapidly. Indeed, the late days of the Cold War saw the maturation of a plethora of anti-tank technologies in the United States alone. And as clear as the superiority of the U.S. Abrams design over the Soviet T-72 design was established in the 1991 Gulf War, so too was the MBTs vulnerability to airpower.

The one exception to this trajectory is the add-on of active protection systems (APS). APS is essentially a point-defense system for armored vehicles that is intended to detect and destroy incoming rocket-propelled grenades and ATGMs before they ever reach the vehicles' armor. The principle is the same as larger close-in weapon systems designed to defend large ships from anti-ship missiles, although technological improvements (as well as new ways to intercept the incoming rounds) are being developed to fit such a system to an individual vehicle. APS is already slated for Israel's Merkavas (a major conclusion of after-action investigations following the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah) and the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems fleet.

Such improvements, should they prove effective, could temporarily tilt the balance back in favor of MBTs once more, though one of the standing questions is how well APS can be employed alongside dismounted infantry=can this term be explained, or rewritten, for non-military readers? But the ultimate implication of APS is that the weight of MBT armor and the consequent burden on logistics that it entails may no longer be necessary=the weight of MBT armor may no longer be necessary?

Instead, the current portfolio of MBTs on the market may prove to be the pinnacle of MBT development. Some may be reminded of the Battle of Surigao Strait at Leyte Gulf in 1944 -- the last naval engagement between battleships in history -- and wonder whether a similar moment in history has not already happened for the MBT.

But it is also worth remembering that Iowa-class battleships participated not only in Korea and Vietnam, but the Gulf War as well, and that the final two were stricken from the U.S. Naval Vessel Register as late as 2006. The MBT no doubt turned a corner in its life cycle at the end of the Cold War and in the 1991 Gulf War. But its final contribution to history has by no means been made. = is your whole argument that they are needed for urban warfare, and thus they are necessary? If so, I would strengthen that. I’m quite confused as to your argument.

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