Tanks, often referred to loosely as armor, armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), or tracks, are tracked and armored fighting vehicles armed with a high-velocity, flat-trajectory main gun for direct-fire engagement. This distinguishes them from artillery, which primarily employs indirect fire. Conceived in World War I as a means of ending the bloody stalemate of trench warfare, tanks were first employed by the British in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. They came into their own during World War II.
Among tank developments in the Cold War period was the end of the heavy tank in the 1950s. Technological advances allowed their functions to be performed by lighter, more maneuverable, and less expensive MBTs (main battle tanks), combining the old World War II medium and heavy tanks. Guns increased in caliber from 76mm, 88mm, and 90mm at the end of World War II to 105mm and even 120mm. Tanks appeared in a bewildering array of models. Their many variants included bridge-layers, flamethrowers, and engineer and tank recovery vehicles. In addition to their main guns, tanks mounted one or more machine guns for antiaircraft protection and for engaging personnel and thin-skinned vehicles.
During the Cold War, tanks received improved engines and were capable of higher speeds. Systems also developed to provide protection for crews against the new threats posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) attack. New sights, night vision equipment, improved laser rangefinders and thermal imaging systems, and more powerful guns and projectiles also came into widespread use. In the ongoing race between projectiles and armor, more effective armor emerged in the form of layers of steel interspersed with ceramic-based light alloys providing excellent protection against both kinetic and chemical energy rounds.
The Soviet Union ended World War II with a large inventory of AFVs. Their excellent T-34/85 remained in production until the late 1940s. In 1947 the Soviets introduced an upgraded model, the T-34/85 II, that remained the principal Soviet MBT into the 1950s. Produced under license in both Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, it was widely exported, and production did not cease until 1964.
The T-34/85 II saw extensive service in the Korean War with the Korean People’s Army (KPA, North Korean Army). It also fought in the successive Middle East wars and in Africa, and it saw combat as recently as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The Soviets led in the post–World War II development of armored personnel carriers (APCs) and modified them to carry a variety of weapons. These were gradually replaced by the Bronirovanniy Transportnaya Rozposnania (BTR, armored wheeled transporter) series of eight-wheeled APCs through missile-armed Boevaya Razvedyvatnaya Descent Mashina (BRDM, airborne combat reconnaissance vehicle) scout cars and the BMP series of personnel carriers. The BMPs mounted a large gun capable of providing effective support to dismounted infantry. They also carried antitank missiles and were constructed so as to allow infantry to fight from inside the vehicle, which distinguished this infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) from the less-capable APCs.
Along these lines the Soviets developed the PT-76 light tank, which had no equivalent in the West. As large as an MBT, the PT-76 was, however, thinly armored and was developed chiefly to lead amphibious assaults and conduct reconnaissance. Easily identifiable by its pointed nose and low, round turret with sloped sides and flat roof, the PT-76 was an amphibian without any preparation. Movement through water was accomplished by means of water jets from the rear of the hull. Mounting a 76.2mm main gun, the PT-76 entered service in 1955 and continued in Soviet service until 1967. It saw wide service in the armies of Soviet bloc countries but also was widely exported to Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. It fought in the Vietnam War, in the 1965 India-Pakistan War, and in conflicts in Africa. It continued in wide service well past the Cold War.
The IS-3 (Josef Stalin-3) remained the principal Soviet heavy tank immediately after World War II. The first postwar Soviet MBT, introduced in 1948, was the formidable T-54, itself a refinement of the T-44, the short-lived redesign of the T-34/85 at the end of World War II. It mounted a 100mm main gun.
The T-55, a follow-on T-54, appeared in 1958. Among many improvements was a more powerful engine. The T-54/T-55 had a long service life. Production continued until 1981, with a phenomenal 95,000 tanks manufactured, more than any other tank in history. Both the Chinese and Romanians produced copies. Even at the end of the Cold War, T-54/T-55s constituted some 38 percent of Soviet tank strength and as much as 86 percent of non-Soviet Warsaw Pact armor. Reliable and relatively inexpensive, the T-54/T-55 was exported to more than thirty-five other nations. The T-54/T-55s had a mixed combat record. While sufficient to crush the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, they were not successful against Western-supplied Israeli armor in the 1967 Six-Day War or Coalition tanks in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In 1953 the Soviets introduced their last heavy tank, the T-10 Lenin. It was basically an enlarged IS with a 122mm main gun. Expensive to build, heavy, and difficult to maintain, the T-10 was phased out in the mid-1960s in favor of the T-62, but it nonetheless equipped a number of Warsaw Pact armies and was exported to both Egypt and Syria.