Soviet tourists at the Eiffel Tower.
The NATO and Warsaw Pact tanks of 1990 were immediately recognizable as lineal descendants of the tanks of 1949. All had a single main gun mounted in a rotating turret atop the hull, and the chassis was generally similar, with the driver at the front and the engine at the rear. There had, however, been some diversions on the way. The US developed the 152 mm combined gun and missile launcher, which served in the M551 Sheridan and the M60A2 but was then abandoned, whereas the Soviets perfected a similar system using a 125 mm barrel. The British experimented with liquid propellant for the tank round, which would have both simplified and reduced the stowage inside the tank and greatly improved safety, but this failed owing to difficulties in measuring the precise amounts needed. In the Soviet T-64 and T-72 the use of an automatic loader enabled the crew to be reduced to three men – a radical reduction which most Western armies considered at one time or another, but which was always rejected, even though it would have helped to ease their manpower shortages.
The Swedes aroused considerable interest in many armies with their S-tank, which had no turret, the gun (a modified version of the British 105 mm L7) being fixed instead in the glacis plate. The gun was trained in line by rotating the vehicle on its tracks and elevated by using the adjustable suspension system. The British were sufficiently interested to lease a company’s worth of S-tanks for a year of trials and exercises in West Germany, and they also built a prototype of a similar vehicle. But the British project was dropped in favour of the traditional rotating turret, while the Swedes, having praised the virtues of the S-tank for many years, replaced it with the German Leopard 2, which had a conventional rotating turret.
One problem designers were always wrestling with was that of the overall height of the vehicle. Taking three typical 1960s tanks as an example, the Soviet T-62 was lowest at 2.4 m and the US M60A1 the highest at 3.26 m, with the British Chieftain in between at 2.9 m. There were two limiting factors: the height of the sitting driver dictated the height of the hull, while the height of the standing loader dictated the height between the floor and the turret roof. Various solutions were found. The French and Soviet armies placed a maximum height limit on selection for tank crews, while the British introduced a semi-reclining position for the driver. The main problem, however, was that of the loader, who had to stand to perform his job, and the only effective solution was to get rid of the task altogether by installing an automatic loader. It was for this reason, rather than economy of manpower, that Soviet tanks from the T-72 onwards were fitted with autoloaders.
Some unusual solutions were tried, although few ever progressed beyond range testing. The West Germans, for example, tested a tank with two 105 mm guns, in an effort to increase the firing rate, but that proved a dead end. In a different approach in the quest for ever greater tank-killing power, the British used one Centurion chassis to test a 183 mm gun in a boiler-plate turret and another for trials with a 180 mm gun in an open mount with a concentric recoil system and an automatic rotary loader. Neither progressed beyond the prototype stage.
During the period of the Cold War, tanks certainly increased in capability, with bigger guns, thicker armour, more powerful engines and ever more sophisticated command-and-control systems, but one major consequence was that the weight grew inexorably. In the British army, for example, the initial version of the Centurion, which entered service in the mid-1940s, weighed 49 tonnes, while the final version, the Mk 13, weighed 52 tonnes. The successor, the Chieftain (1960s) weighed 55 tonnes, and the next tank, the Challenger (1980s), a massive 62 tonnes. Even the Soviets, who believed very strongly in keeping tank weights down, suffered from similar problems: their T-34/85 (1940s) weighed 32 tonnes, while the T-54 (1950s) came in at 36 tonnes, the T-62 (1960s) at 37 tonnes and the T-72 at 43.5 tonnes.
Lessons from the Tank Programmes
The national programmes outlined above were hugely expensive, but there were other aspects which added significantly to the defence budgets. There were, for example, many projects which were either purely experimental or which were intended for production but never got beyond the prototype stage. For example, the US army’s experimental T92 was developed in the late 1950s. It included many new features, such as a 90 mm smooth-bore gun and a very low silhouette, but was cancelled in 1960 on the grounds that its hull and turret were so different from preceding tanks that production lines would have required complete retooling, which would have been more expensive than simply improving the M48 to produce the M60. The total costs of this abortive programme, including the development of the gun and the construction of eleven prototypes, was $25 million (at 1960 prices).
The NATO armies were faced with a major dilemma. First, information about Soviet equipment was sparse and, in general, the details of a new Soviet tank were learned only after it had entered service in East Germany with the GSFG. But, as has been made clear above, new-tank programmes were lengthy – a minimum of ten years for a completely new tank and gun – and there were many pitfalls. On those occasions that armies tried to shortcut the lengthy procurement system in order to get a new tank or a new gun into service quickly, they almost invariably landed in trouble, as did the US army with the M47 and M48 in the early 1950s. Even worse was the later experience with the M60A2, when the apparently simple ‘interim’ arrangement of marrying the 152 mm gun/launcher to a new turret on an existing chassis went seriously awry.
New programmes were, if anything, even worse. Design work on the replacement for the M60 started in 1965 with the German–US MBT-70 collaborative programme. After that programme had collapsed, however, and with numerous bureaucratic adventures (particularly with the US Congress) en route, the first M1s did not reach operational units until 1982 – seventeen years later. In the UK, consideration of a Centurion replacement began in 1951 and the first production Chieftains started to enter service in 1967, just one year fewer than the US M60 replacement, and without the complication of an ill-fated collaborative programme, although the new tank was not really satisfactory until well into the 1970s.
The fielding of a new type of tank was by no means the end of the story, however. Not only did design problems have to be sorted out, but in-service tanks were constantly being modified to incorporate such features as a new gun, additional armour or updated electronics. If the type was still in production, such improvements were incorporated into new builds, but they were also retrofitted into existing tanks, frequently at maintenance depots, in an effort to keep the design up to date. The British army, for example, fielded no less than thirteen major versions of the Centurion and ten of the Chieftain, while versions of the US M48 reached M48A5. One of the significant features of such retrofits was that they usually appeared in defence budgets under headings such as ‘maintenance’, while only new production vehicles appeared under the named tank programme, making it virtually impossible to ascertain the total ‘cradle-to-grave’ costs of a long-serving tank such as the M48, M60, Chieftain or Leopard 1.