Despite those who believed that the atomic bomb had rendered conventional weapons obsolete, tanks—also known as armored fighting vehicles (AFVs)— saw wide service after World War II. The Soviet Union in particular saw AFVs as an essential element in forces that would engage the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on the plains of Central and Eastern Europe.
One lesson learned in World War II was the need for all military components in a military force to be as mobile as the tanks. This led to the introduction of armored personnel carriers (APCs) to transport infantry but also to mount antiaircraft weapons, rockets, and mortars. The Soviets led in this development. Their Boevaia Mashina Pekhoti (BMP, Combat Infantry Vehicle) series was the first infantry fighting vehicle in the world. Infantry could now fight from within the vehicle, and some BMPs mounted a powerful gun and carried antitank missiles, enabling them to provide effective close infantry support. Self-propelled guns also continued in wide use.
In modern wars, armor, infantry, and artillery work together as a team in battle. Infantry and armor provide mutual support and protection. Tanks without accompanying infantry are vulnerable to enemy tank-killer weapons, while infantrymen in turn fall prey to small arms, machine guns, and other direct-fire weapons. Infantrymen and artillery help to protect the tanks from the tank killers, and the tanks engage enemy direct-fire weapons and armor. Offensive tactics envision armor employed en masse, in large formations to overwhelm an enemy and make deep penetrations.
The Soviet Union planned to utilize its far larger numbers of AFVs offensively. The Soviets thus opted for fast, maneuverable tanks with excellent firepower. Nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protection was a low priority. The Western powers, assuming that they would be standing on the defensive against far larger Soviet formations, adopted defensive tactics. The British gave top priority to firepower, followed closely by protection for the tank crews as the second priority and then mobility as the third priority. As a result, the British fielded some of the heaviest tanks of the Cold War era. The Americans adopted a middle position. Speed and maneuverability held top priority, followed by firepower second and protection third.
In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union gradually moved away from nuclear warfare doctrine back to maneuver warfare. By the 1970s, the doctrine of the deep battle held sway in Soviet military thinking. Soviet armor doctrine evolved into something akin to that of World War II. Other forces would open gaps in an enemy front, which would then be exploited by massed armor formations, up to that point held in reserve. Armor columns would then drive deep into the enemy rear areas.
American and NATO strategy relied on firepower and slow withdrawal to inflict maximum punishment on Warsaw Pact attacking forces. This doctrine shifted in the 1980s in the AirLand Battle concept combining airpower, air mobility, and armor in a united offensive strategy in which NATO forces planned to outmaneuver and outfight the Warsaw Pact armies.
Although the dreaded confrontation between the Warsaw Pact and NATO forces did not occur, Soviet tanks saw action in the restive satellite states, helping to quell an uprising in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) in 1953 and to crush the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The almost completely bloodless 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia that ended the Prague Spring involved some 2,000 Warsaw Pact tanks, the largest deployment of armor in Europe during the Cold War. Tanks also took part in fighting in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War.
In Asia, tanks participated in the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949) and in the Korean War (1950–1953), notable as the first clash between U.S. and Soviet armor. At the beginning of the conflict, the Korean People’s Army (KPA, North Korean Army) had a tremendous advantage in military hardware, including some 150 T34/85 medium tanks. The Army of the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) had no tanks at all. The United States first deployed M24 Chaffee light tanks, hastily dispatched from Japan. The arrival in Korea of more powerful M4 Shermans and M26 Pershings, along with the 3.5-inch bazooka antitank rocket, helped turn the tide against the KPA armor. Korea’s terrain precluded large tank battles, although each side employed tanks as mobile pillboxes in dug-in positions for long-range pinpoint sniping fire against enemy positions.
Communist AFVs, chiefly the Soviet PT-76 light amphibian tank, were deployed mostly during the Vietnam conflict’s last few years and primarily in an offensive role. People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) forces deployed some 100 T-34 and T-54 Soviet-supplied tanks in their unsuccessful invasion of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) in the spring of 1972 and lost 80 percent of them. In the final 1975 communist offensive, PAVN armor units with Soviet T-54s and T-55s, now better trained and integrated with infantry and artillery, proved an important element in the swift conquest of South Vietnam.
In the Middle East, tanks saw widespread service in Arab-Israeli wars, in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), and in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989). Perhaps no other conflicts of the period captured the world’s imagination as did the numerous wars in the Middle East, which saw some of the largest tank battles in history and proved useful laboratories concerning the design and employment of armored fighting vehicles. For the most part, the Soviet Union acted as chief supporter and arms supplier to the Arab states, and the Western powers, particularly the United States and France (at least until after the 1967 War) supported Israel. The fighting in the Middle East also saw the beginning of a new age in warfare with the first employment of antitank and antiship missiles.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the tables were almost turned, thanks to Israeli complacency and new Egyptian tactics. Israel had invested heavily in the Bar Lev Line, a static defensive front along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, in effect rejecting maneuver tank warfare in which the bulk of armored forces are held back in mobile reserve. Egyptian troops struck in force across the Suez Canal, while Syrian troops simultaneously invaded the Golan Heights. These offensives caught the Israeli defenders completely off guard. On the Golan Heights, Syria deployed 1,400 tanks including Soviet T-34s, T-54s, and the latest T-64 model. To break through the thick Israeli minefields and defenses, the Syrians also utilized specialized armor vehicles such as flail tanks, bridge-layers, and engineer tanks. At the end of four days of savage fighting, however, Israeli forces (which included only 177 tanks) centered on British Centurions defeated the attacking Syrians.
With 1,700 tanks and another 2,500 armored vehicles, the Egyptian force on the Suez front was even larger. The Egyptians pushed across the canal with two armies and more than 1,000 tanks. The Egyptians promptly inflicted heavy losses on the counterattacking Israelis, releasing barrages of shoulderfire missiles and in two days destroying 260 Israeli tanks. This success emboldened Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who decided on a deeper penetration of the Sinai. But this took Egyptian forces beyond the range of their surface-to-air (SAM) missile cover. The Egyptian offensive on 14 October involved more than 2,000 tanks on both sides, making it second in history only to the World War II Battle of Kursk in numbers of tanks engaged. The Israelis brought up reinforcements but were still outnumbered two to one in tanks, a disadvantage offset by superior hardware and training and the involvement of the Israeli Air Force. The Israelis not only stopped the Egyptian advance but also destroyed some 500 of their tanks.
Israeli forces then crossed over the canal and were in a position to inflict a resounding defeat on the Egyptians when a cease-fire went into effect. Israel won the Yom Kippur War but at a high cost, including the loss of 830 tanks. Many analysts concluded that the Yom Kippur War spelled the end of the tank era, as small, wire-guided missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) had caused about a third of Israeli armor losses. The conclusion proved premature.
Israeli tanks, most notably their superb new Merkava MBT, took part in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and destroyed the Syrian 1st Armored Division. Although there were no interstate wars involving Israel thereafter, tanks and other AFVs continued to play a key role in intrastate operations as perhaps the most visible component of Israeli security operations against the Palestinian uprising.
Despite the proliferation of new antitank weapons and predictions that the day of the tank was over, when the Cold War came to a close with the collapse of the Soviet Union, AFVs were still very much a part of the world’s military establishments.
References Foss, Christopher F., ed. The Encyclopedia of Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles: The Comprehensive Guide to Over 900 Armored Fighting Vehicles from 1915 to the Present Day. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 2002. Miller, David. The Great Book of Tanks: The World’s Most Important Tanks from World War I to the Present Day. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing, 2002. Tucker, Spencer C. Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.