Can Medium Size Countries still afford Main Battle Tanks?

Given the fact that a modern Main Battle Tank such as the basic Abrams M1A2 now costs $10 million [R 150m], even a modest fleet of 300 tanks would today be prohibitively expensive at a cost of R 44 billion. 

If so, how can any self respecting nation with a pretence of having an army still afford them?

If not, what is the alternative?

Main picture:  Stridsvagn 103

The Status Quo

In the case of the Iraqi Army before the First Gulf War, it comprised 5,500 tanks and before the Second Gulf War 1,800 tanks, of which 700 were the “relatively capable” T-72s. Even if many of the remainder were the more obsolete T-55s, the investment in such a huge tank force is now beyond the resources of most countries.

What most countries including the USA have been doing is merely upgrading their existing tank fleet with the latest electronic equipment and bolt-on reactive armour. Even though the bulk of the American Abrams fleet of 8,000 units was manufactured after 1986, all of them have been upgraded to the latest standard.

Abrams M1A2 Main Battle Tank

Abrams M1A2 Main Battle Tank

This principle can only be applied to a certain extent. For instance, a WW2 era T-34 cannot possibly be upgraded to the same standard as an Abrams M1A2.

Why tanks?

From a purely defensive point of view, an army does not require tanks. However, warfare is not simply about defending but also evicting an attacker from one’s territory. For this, it requires an armoured force.

If one takes the first Gulf War as an example, the Iraqis might have possessed a formidable tank force, yet they were outshot, outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the Americans and British. At a tank crew level, the Iraqis were woefully trained. The extent of this deficiency is born out by the fact that despite destroying two thousand Iraqi tanks, only one British tank was slightly damaged and 23 American tanks were damaged mainly by American forces. Manpower losses & casualties by the Americans, as far as I can ascertain from the detailed statistics, is 1 KIA and 23 WIA.

M1A1 Abrams in Baghdad riding over a car

M1A1 Abrams in Baghdad riding over a car

It should also be remembered that the Coalition Forces faced partially dug-in Iraqi tanks whereas their tanks were completely exposed. Yet despite the paucity of visible frontal armour, the combination of skill and superior technology easily overcame this disadvantage.

Also contributing to this mismatch was the lethality of the Abrams’ 120mm M256 smoothbore gun. Its reach was a few hundred metres further than that of the Russian supplied Iraqi tanks.

Other options

In spite of Army Commanders salivating at the possibility of possessing such capable tanks, defence budgets often cannot justify such expensive tanks.

So what costly item on the tank can be forfeited? The armour protection, the gun size, the electronics suite?

Surely, all of these are indispensable? Perhaps the maxim in the case of all these items is more is better.

Stridsvagn 103 - The silouette is so low that it appears to be permanently in a hull-down position

Stridsvagn 103 – The silouette is so low that it appears to be permanently in a hull-down position

What about the turret?

The last time that this option was implemented was with the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 – the world’s only turretless tank. The ostensible reason for such a radical design was crew protection. Indubitably, with a much lower profile, the frontal area exposed would be reduced increasing protection. In addition, with the slope of the armour being more gentle, the effective armour protection would be substantially increased.

The Swedes’ Rationale

The Stidsvagn 103 was produced from 1967 until 1971.  In this period 290 S-Tanks were built. A tank that was no more than 2.14 m (7 ft) high was ideal for camouflage.

The decision to abandon the turret was made after studying the casualty rate from WWII and the Korean War. In both conflicts, tanks were most often destroyed when their turrets were hit.

Stridsvagn 103-Gun elevated using suspension

Stridsvagn 103-Gun elevated using suspension

This led to the conclusion that height was the primary factor which exposed the tank and made it vulnerable to enemy fire. After considering options which included an oscillating turret, the Swedish designers decided not to include it at all.

Its main armament was the Bofors 105 mm L74 rifled gun, joined with three medium machine guns.  Two of these guns were fixed as anti-infantry support, while one was intended to provide initial defense against aircraft and helicopters.

The S-Tank was designed to be as safe for its crew as possible. Its armour was extremely sloped, which provided protection equivalent to 192–337mm thick armour.  Its armour was actually between 90 and 100 mm.

The low silhouette reduced the chance of a direct hit significantly, as the designers relied on the enemy to miss its target. It was also fully amphibious, which made the tank very adaptable.

S-Tank with an attachment for clearing mines

S-Tank with an attachment for clearing mines

Its performance was deemed excellent on rough terrain and it was to be the first line of defence against any potential threat to Sweden.

Although the tank never saw combat, it was part of the Swedish tank arsenal for 30 years, from 1967 to 1997, when it was replaced with the Swedish-built Leopard 2 tank and its successor, the Stridsvagn 122.


Another alternative

For the small cash strapped country where the even the cost of tank transporters would weigh heavily of the budget, the solution has to be a six wheeled heavy armoured car such as the South African Rooikat with its 76mm high velocity gun.



Especially in the African context where at most one will encounter armed militia in pick-up trucks or WW2 era T-34 tanks, this would be an ideal solution.



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