The Evolution of Armor

10.04.20035 Min Read — In West Point

I was always fascinated by my grandfather’s collection of model tanks. They are, by far, the most striking items in his office, clearly showing his pride as a retired armor officer. All of the models on his shelf, from an early German panzer to the technologically advanced and deadly Abrams tank, are vehicles that mark key stages in the development of armored warfare. Even being ten years retired, my grandfather knows that, due to the changing environment of modern battlefields, the next model tank he'll assemble may be quite different from the more conventional designs currently lining his shelf. From its humble beginnings as a support platform for infantry, armor developed into an indispensable force that has dominated the battlefield through the Gulf War, but this success, for which armor has received great accolade, has forced the platform to be reassessed and designed for the modern battlefield.

Da Vinci’s design originally called for "...secure and covered chariots which are invulnerable...," but it was not until long after his time that the need for such a weapons platform arose and came into existence. It was the stalemate of the Great War that brought on the necessity of armored warfare. Upon the blow of a whistle, soldiers, who had enlisted into the war for romantic ideas would climb out of their foxhole and inevitably charge to their deaths at the hand of heavy machine guns. These machine guns formed effective defensive positions for both sides, slowing progress to advances of meters and feet. In response to this slow and bloody combat, the British and the French began development of a platform capable of overcoming the German defensive positions. Their ideas came to fruition, and with the creation of the Mark I and Renault tanks, they changed the face of war forever.

Once fielded, armor played a great role in the offensive against the Germans. Armor proved to be a decisive force in many of the later battles, removing much of the defensive advantage inherent in trench warfare. It was quite capable in combat, as shown by its capabilities to execute operations forward of the trenches, sustain direct heavy fire from infantry and machine guns, provide both suppressive and direct fire in coordination with other forces, and psychologically deteriorate the enemy. In November of 1917, British armored forces proved these capabilities at Cambrai, where 300 tanks attacked a six mile front of German trenches, completely clearing their defendable positions. American armored forces performed just as admirably, crushing the Germans in the Meuse- Argonne Offensive, an action that earned them two Medals of Honor and twenty one Distinguished Service Crosses for the operation. The support that armor provided to the doughboys was undeniably of great value, saving lives and being one of the final factors that assured the defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm and his forces. Despite its accomplishments, early armor’s effectiveness was greatly reduced by mechanical problems and environmental conditions, preventing the platform from taking center stage. In the years following the Treaty of Versailles, many of these problems were overcome, allowing the platform to more fully perform to its potential.

The Panzer Korps of World War II demonstrated to the world that armor was much more than a platform of mobile infantry support. The theories developed by General Heinz Guderian demonstrated the might of massed armor on the battlefield through its capability to quickly and decisively engage and destroy opposing forces. German Blitzkrieg was entirely dependant on the utilization of speed and mobility, and Germany’s thousands of tanks and supporting vehicles provided such a platform. In 1939, the Panzer Korps that came to dominate all of Europe shocked opposing forces into retreat, and destroyed those with the intestinal fortitude to put up a fight. In 1944, it was similar blitzkrieg tactics, practiced by General Patton that destroyed the Panzer Korps. The advent of blitzkrieg tactics elevated armor to the forefront of the battlefields of World War II, and its threat and lethality has remained ever since.

Throughout the years following the Second World War, armor and the threat of blitzkrieg remained a dominant force. During the Cold War, Western planners anticipated and feared the threat of a Soviet blitzkrieg sweep across Europe. Their fears of such a blitzkrieg fueled an arms race, most specifically in the development of armor and anti armor weaponry. The western powers and the Soviets each strove for dominance on the armored battlefield through the development of superior quantities and quality of armor. Throughout the cold war, armored forces were refined for a long and drawn out battle of heavy armor. Armor developed into a faster, stronger, and more durable steel beast. These refinements played a great role in armored tactics, even beyond the fall of the Soviet Union.

In February of 1991, an allied UN force, led and comprised primarily of Americans, began the ground invasion of Iraq. This offensive, known as Desert Saber, was to force the surrender of the dictator Saddam Hussein. Using blitzkrieg tactics, Allied forces drove across the Iraqi desert in record speed, destroying the enemy forces that dare oppose them. Allied armored forces destroyed the Iraqi armored corps at the Battle of Medina Ridge without taking any major damage from the Iraqi tanks. Throughout the conflict, US armored forces and their combined arms elements were responsible for the destruction of seven of nine of the heavy Republican Guard divisions, along with countless regular divisions. Armored forces achieved what had previously only been imagined by armor theorists. They caused thousands of casualties and advanced hundreds of miles without the loss of a single tank from direct enemy fire. The conflict showed the extreme effectiveness of the American Tank Corps and the M1 series tank.

The success of the current American Armor platform, epitomized by its performance in the Gulf War, deters enemy forces from engaging it in combat. The performance of the M1A1 tank was above and beyond anything imagined by its designer. The M1 series is seemingly indestructible by any other tank, and many nations view it as such. Their inability to develop a force able to counter the Abrams has forced these unfriendly nations to attempt to draw it into conditions in which they are more capable of destroying it. These steel beasts are forced into a decreased role, as the enemy army forces conflict in tight urban areas where tanks cannot effectively be used due to civilian populations and concealed anti armor weaponry. This new environment raises the need for modern armor to be redesigned to be more suited for urban combat in order to pursue the enemy into his cowardly strongholds. Armor, in some form, shall always be in hot pursuit of the enemy.

Armor remains in ongoing transformation. Just as it developed into an infantry support vehicle, an implement of blitzkrieg, and the modern near-to-indestructible tank, armor will take on yet another form that will be able to engage and destroy the enemy in the next generation of battlefield. Visionaries along the lines of Guderian and Patton will emerge yet again and reinvent the platform and the tactics that go along with it. I desire to serve as an armor officer like my grandfather; however, I recognize my service will be much different than his. I embrace this fact, looking forward to being a contributor in defining the new face of combat, and the latest model tank in my grandfather’s collection.

© 2018 by Sean McBride. All rights reserved.
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