The M48 Patton II* medium tank (also known as a main battle tank), was rushed into service as a consequence of the Korean War and of the Soviet pressures on West Berlin. The difference was that whereas the M47 was an interim tank, the M48 was a brand-new design with new hull, turret, tracks, suspension, and transmission.
Initial problems were soon solved, and the M48 went through many modifications to become a highly effective fighting vehicle and one of the most important post–World War II tanks. Although it saw considerable service during the Vietnam War with both the U.S. Army and Marines beginning in 1965, this was rarely against communist armor. Fighting in the Middle East with the Israeli Army, however, the M48 achieved an enviable record against its Soviet counterparts.
Compared to the M47, the M48 had a more rounded cast turret and a wider, lower cast hull. It weighed approximately 114,000 pounds, had a 750-hp engine, and was capable of 30 mph. Design work began at the end of 1950 and the first prototype appeared for testing in December 1951. The tank entered service in July 1952.
The M48 was the first U.S. medium tank to do away with the hull-mounted machine gun. This change dispensed with the assistant driver/machine-gunner and reduced the crew size to four. The M48 was easily identified by a large infrared/white light, a 1 million candlepower searchlight for effective night operation, usually mounted atop the mantlet. The first variants of the M48 had the 90mm (3.54-inch) gun; the M48A5 version mounted the British designed 105mm (4.1-inch) gun and substituted a diesel engine (also in the M48A3) for the earlier gasoline variants. It was thus virtually the follow-on M60 tank.
The M60 was essentially a refinement of the M48 begun in the late 1950s; later a number of M48s were rebuilt as M48A5s, essentially M60s, making the two tanks virtually indistinguishable.
Many other nations received the M48, including West Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, China, South Korea, South Vietnam, Spain, Thailand, Tunisia, and Turkey. The Israelis repeatedly modified and upgraded their M48s. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon some Israeli M48s were the first tanks fitted with ERA. Many M48s remain in service, including more than 2,000 M48s with the Turkish Army (where it is designated the M45A5T1).
* The M46 medium, known both as the Pershing and unofficially as the Patton. The M47, was officially designated the Patton.
Both sides also employed tanks during the long Vietnam War that followed. Initially the ARVN forces used the M24 Chaffee light tank and M113 APCs. The U.S. military believed initially that Vietnam was not an appropriate environment for armor, but ultimately it deployed some 600 tanks in that theater. Although some lighter tanks, such as the M551 Sheridan and M50A1 Ontos, proved ill-suited for the local combat environment, the perception was eventually dispelled by the M48A3 Patton. Employed in search-and-destroy missions, the Patton came to be known for its jungle-busting ability in clearing paths through dense vegetation. Its 90mm main gun proved an effective bunker-buster, and its tracks and great weight could survive mines and could grind down Vietcong bunkers. The dozer variant of this tank commonly had claymore mines directly attached to its working blade for added firepower. Tanks helped protect convoys and secure LOCs, were a powerful asset in the defense of bases, and served as a rapid-reaction force. In a counterinsurgency support role, they helped clear out communist strong points, patrol secure areas, and engaged in sweeps and ambushes.
Tanks were prime targets for communist forces, who attacked them indirectly with mines or directly with RPGs, Sagger antitank missiles, satchel charges, or mines. The latter were the principal cause of U.S. armor losses in Vietnam. Whereas crews of the heavy M48 had a good chance of surviving a mine detonation, crews of lighter vehicles did not.
In the guerrilla warfare environment that marked so much of the Vietnam War, attacks on tanks with RPGs, such as the Soviet RPG2 (Vietnamese B40) and RPG7V (Vietnamese B41), were common, especially when tanks were in static positions. M48 crews sandbagged their tank turrets for crew protection. When armor was used on the defensive, night laagers (defensive perimeters) would be set up with fighting positions between each vehicle. Concertina wire and claymore mines supported the defensive perimeters, and listening posts were set up. Harassment and interdiction artillery missions were employed to keep communist forces off balance and away from the laagers. The tankers learned that they could protect against RPGs by putting cyclone fencing around their positions.
Beginning in 1972 the Americans also had to contend with the Sagger (9M14M Malyukta) antitank guided missile. The tankers attempted to counter this threat by firing at the gray plume of smoke at the launch site in hopes of causing the gunner, who controlled the flight of the wire-guided missile with a joystick, to flinch and miss the target. Crews of tanks under way might also maneuver their vehicles sharply in hopes of disrupting the missile’s flight path or attempt to confuse its control system by the use of flares. Suicide bombers with satchel charges or antitank grenades might be countered by throwing an explosive charge out of the tank or by using a tactic known as “back-scratching,” whereby one tank fired small caliber weapons at a buttoned-up friendly tank under attack.
Production dates: July 1952–1959
Number produced: 11,703
Manufacturer: Alco Products, Chrysler Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Fisher Body Division of General Motors
M48: 90mm gun, commander’s .50-caliber machine gun. M48A1: mild steel hull and turret, commander’s gun mounted within the cupola
M48A2: incorporated fuel-injection engine, larger fuel tanks, and modified suspension
M48A3: rebuilt previous models with diesel engine
M48A4: fitted with M60 turret and Shillelagh gun/missile system
M48A5: more than 2,000 earlier M48s were rebuilt and fitted with the M68 105mm main gun developed from the British L7A1, also diesel engine
Crew: 4 (commander, driver, gunner, loader)
Armament: 1 x 90mm main gun (1 x 105mm gun on M48A5); 3 x 7.62mm (.30-caliber) machine guns (commander at cupola, loader, coaxial); 2 x 6 smoke grenade dischargers
Weight: 103,969 lbs.
Length: 22’7” (30’5” with gun forward)