Tank warfare

With all the weaponry arraigned against it including, amazingly, an anti-tank rifle it is a wonder that the tank has survived and can still dominate the battlefield.

But for how long?

That is the question. Will the air-land battle configuration carry the day as it did for the coalition forces in Iraq during the second Gulf War or will the many vulnerabilities spell the demise of the tank on the battlefield.

It appears that it is time that doctrines and tactics must change to deal with these vulnerabilities.

One thing is clear, the tank as a platform of manoeuvre over long distances and wide open spaces is still a requirement.

Ways and means of being able to deploy it even under the shadow of a nuclear response are continuing apace because it still remains the most formidable tool for concentrated force projection for any army anywhere.

In any event, in spite of the large array of anti-tank devices arraigned against it, the tank remains the weapon of choice for the creation of conventional deterrence.

Some experts believe that far from becoming obsolete, the tank can keep evolving to meet modern-day threats in a network centric battlefield.

Yet, it remains a symbol of potent power projection over wide undulating landscape such as deserts and plains though it has proved to be vulnerable in mountainous terrain and in jungles as in Afghanistan and Vietnam, respectively.

So also in built up urban landscapes like in Sri Lanka where the Indian Peace Keeping Force found it difficult to operate with tanks.

The Germans conquered most of Europe through what was called blitzkrieg tactics of mass armored attacks with a very high degree of shock and awe.

It was only in the Battle of Kursk against Russia on the eastern flank that the German tactic was blunted and the tide of the war turned in favor of the Allied Forces during World War II.

Kursk is considered the last of the great tank vs tank battle but the Indian Army added a chapter of its own in tank warfare by decimating nearly a hundred Pakistani tanks mostly the sophisticated Pattons at Asal Uttar in Punjab during the 1965 war.


In large measure it is true that the tank is evolving even as the threats are increasing. The threats include that from airborne platforms like the ground attack aircraft and the missile armed helicopter.

This was illustrated by the Indian Air Force’s dramatic decimation of a tank thrust through Longewala in the Rajasthan in the early stages of the Indo-Pak war of 1971.

More than three dozen Pakistani tanks and scores of soft-skinned support trucks and infantry vehicles.

This was made possible by the total absence of air cover for the Pakistani tank thrust and multiple errors committed by the Pakistani commander. The vulnerability from the air was underscored.

It has long been known that the tank tracks which facilitate its easy travel over difficult terrain are indeed its most vulnerable point.

Land mines can destroy the track links rendering the tank immobile and even if it can still use its main gun and anti aircraft cannon it becomes a sitting duck for rocket-propelled grenades and fire from prowling enemy tanks and recoilless rifles fitted on light utility vehicles.

This too was illustrated during the 1965 war with Pakistan when Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid of the 4 Grenadiers destroyed five Pakistani tanks over two days of fighting using a recoilless rifle mounted on a Jhonga utility vehicle.

He shot three tanks in quick succession but was gunned down by the fourth Pakistani tank. He won the Param Vir Chakra for his feat.

Over the years with the intention of protecting the tank from land mines several devices like flails and ploughs have been incorporated in lead elements to clear the land mines far forward from the tank tracks.

The flails strike the earth in front of the tank and force them to explode harmlessly. The ploughs dig them up and push them away from the tracks and clear a path for the regiment to the enemy’s first line of defence.

None of this happens stealthily but to the full accompaniment of roar of tank engines and artillery gunfire from the defending forces. However, once a lane is cleared and the tanks make a breakthrough close quarter battles are swift and vicious.

In recent times protection to the sprocket and road wheels of the tracks against rocket propelled grenades is sought to be provided by fixing projectile-proof skirts along the sides of the tracks.

The whole purpose of creating a tank has been to have a safe platform from which the main gun capable of firing in 360 degree direction can be deployed swiftly into and through the battle-zone.

Enhancing mobility

As the throw-weight of the anti-tank direct fire artillery and relatively recently of anti-tank projectiles and missiles increased so did the thickness of the armor protection of the tank gun.

Mobility suffered with the addition of explosive reactive (ERA) armor welded over the main armor to take the punch out of the high explosive anti tank (HEAT) rounds with their shaped charge warheads.

The leading edge of the shaped charge explodes against the tank armor and the follow-on charge of molten metal punches a hole through the secondary armor causing explosions within the tank.

For some time, especially after the manner in which the Indian Air Force destroyed the Pakistani tank thrust into Longewala it had become axiomatic of predict the downfall of the main battle tank on the battlefield.

This, coupled with the many different kinds of fire and forget missiles launchable by manpack squads and utility vehicles as well as by helicopters currently available in the arms bazaar, did presage hard times for tank survival on the battlefield.

But as they say, things are still evolving. Wherever tanks are currently involved in combat and hostilities new gadgetry is being produced to counter threats to the main battle tank.

Not long ago a tank encased in a metal cage was breaking news. The case was intended for the ‘Afghanistan experience’ where the rocket-propelled grenade would prove lethal.

The cage was intended to prevent the RPG from hitting the tank superstructure by causing it to explode when its piezoelectric crystal hits the case and is crushed. The likelihood of the cage becoming enmeshed in the shrubbery is high.

The Israelis who have been in a constant state of warfare have developed what appears to be a lasting solution to tackle incoming missiles.

It has developed what is described as an active protection system named Trophy. It is a shotgun-like contraption attached to a radar system to tell about the threat and the direction it is coming.

In quick-reaction mode the weapon fires a burst of slugs into the flight path of the incoming missile/
projectile tearing it apart well away from the main battle tank.

The display of the direction of the threat also enables the Israeli tank to engage the source of the threat. Recent experience has shown that the system has successfully shielded the tank and crew from attack.

This appears to be in many respects a better option than creating a drone tank so as not to lose valuable crew and their expertise-a course that India is pursuing.