Anti-tank 101 Part II

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German Army MILAN equipped with an AGDUS combat simulator.

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The idea for the tank destroyer stemmed from the assault gun, a weapon originally intended by the Germans to accompany advancing infantry and support them by knocking out anything likely to impede their further progress. Conventional wisdom suggested that mounting such a gun on what essentially was a tank chassis provided increased mobility and protection for the crew, as well as a more economical alternative to the tank. This less costly, highly capable vehicle was simple in concept and construction. Lacking a rotating turret, it was easier to build and, with proper armament, proved extremely effective on the offensive as an anti-tank weapon, particularly when employed in an ambush position.

Little good can be said about the results of American and British efforts to build effective self-propelled tank destroyers in the early 1940s. It was not until late 1944 that the U.S. Army became fully operational with its evolved M-36, which mounted a 90mm gun firing a twenty-four-pound armor-piercing shell able to penetrate 122mm of armor at a range of 915 meters. It was also capable of using a tungsten core round which had nearly twice the armor penetration capability of the standard round. The U.S. 2nd Armored Division was quite successful with the M-36 against various panzers in the final assault on Germany in early 1945. U.S. Army enthusiasm for offensive, highly mobile tank destroyer vehicles able to aggressively hunt and kill enemy tanks culminated in the best American example of the war, the M-18. Considerably smaller than the M-36, it weighed far less, had a better gun, and was the fastest tracked vehicle of the war. With relatively light armor protection, M-18 crews counted on their maneuverability, speed and firepower to get the vehicle out of trouble in combat situations. It served with the U.S. and other armies into the 1960s.

Russian efforts to develop an effective counter to the newly introduced German PzKpfw V Panther tank produced an important result in 1943, the SU-85, a clever modification of the very successful T-34 tank. In the SU-85, the T-34 turret was replaced by an armored compartment mounting an 85mm anti-aircraft gun. It was a competent, useful weapon which was eventually redeveloped to accept a Soviet 100mm gun, making it more than a match for any German tank.

The impressive German Panther led directly to development of the Jagdpanther, a tank destroyer of great size (103,000 pounds) and capability. The Jagdpanther, with its 88mm gun, was able to kill any other tank at a safe range of 2,500 meters.

Of the various types of anti-tank vehicles devised since the 1950s, the best is probably the Austrian SK 105 Jagdpanzer, a light tank design with a 105mm gun. It is equipped with an automatic loader, eliminating one crew member, and fires a shaped-charge round capable of penetrating armor of 360mm thickness at a range of 1,000 meters. Another noble anti-tank vehicle is the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 (S-tank) developed after WWII. An indigenous heavy tank without a turret, its 105mm gun was fixed to the chassis and was aimed by turning the vehicle and adjusting the suspension height.

Following their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, when they provided Polikarpov aircraft to the Republicans and saw the planes used effectively against Italian-supplied tanks, the Soviets directed their Ilyushin design bureau to go to work on a new anti-tank aircraft in 1937. The product of this effort was the Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft. More than 36,000 Shturmoviks were produced in World War II, and it was perhaps the best anti-tank aircraft of the war. The initial version carried only a pilot, but his vulnerability to attack from the rear led to a two-seat version in 1942 which accommodated a rear gunner for the protection of pilot and plane. Still, the attrition rate of Shturmoviks was terribly high. But their effectiveness against German tanks and other armored vehicles was such that, coupled with Soviet industry’s ability to produce the plane in numbers far surpassing the losses incurred, the Shturmoviks ultimately overwhelmed their adversaries. They pioneered successful aerial rocket attacks on German tanks while braving intense anti-aircraft fire.

Certainly, the British Hawker Typhoon ground support fighter-bomber, which suffered a number of early developmental problems, came into its own as a very good and high-achieving machine by the time of the Normandy landings in mid-1944. Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannon in the wings and eight rocket rails under them, the 400 mph Typhoon became a near-perfect firing platform, excelling in ground attack and pounding German tanks in a performance second to none.

The main American aerial tank-killer in the final year of the Second World War was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a big, heavy, escort fighter that could dive much better than it could climb. The Thunderbolt carried eight .50 calibre machine-guns and two three-tube rocket clusters and was on a par with the Typhoon in its ability to seek out and destroy enemy tanks, trains and other vehicles. But the greatest achievement of the Americans in the field of aerial anti-tank warfare is undoubtedly the Republic Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known in the U.S. Air Force as the Warthog. Like its WWII P-47 ancestor, the 1970s A-10 is a rugged aircraft, able to absorb and survive substantial battle damage. It brings a unique, amazingly powerful armament to the combat zone; a 30mm General Electric seven-barrel Gatling-style cannon able to shoot at a rate of up to 4,000 rounds a minute. It carries up to 1,350 rounds of either high explosive, incendiary or armor-piercing shot, the latter having a depleted uranium core with exceptional armor penetration capability. The A-10 delivers sixty-five of these rounds in a two-second burst, a barrage that has devastating effect on most modern tanks. The A-10 is the universally acknowledged king of the aerial tank-killers.

With the coming age of the combat helicopter in the 1960s and 1970s Vietnam War, it became possible to mount a sighting unit on the rotor mast of such an aircraft, together with a small video camera, giving the crew the ability to hide low behind trees or hills while stalking a tank, sight, aim and rise briefly to launch a fire-and-forget missile before departing without ever having been a target themselves. What would become the state-of-the-art attack helicopter of the 21st century, the Boeing McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache, an awesome anti-tank weapon, entered development in 1976 armed with the American AGM-114 Hellfire (Helicopter-borne Fire and Forget) missile. With a semi-active laser guidance system, the Hellfire can be launched either directly at its target, or indirectly, when the weapon will seek and find the target. It can follow the Apache laser designator to the target over a range of up to five miles. For the modern tank crew the Hellfire is the most fearsome of threats.

In 1916, German soldiers began using anti-tank rifles and machine-guns, both of which fired armor-piercing (AP) bullets in an effort to cause bullet splash fragments to enter the British tanks and injure their crews. Such weaponry was only marginally successful and, in the early 1930s, a British Royal Artillery Lieutenant-Colonel named Blacker began work on a design for a small, high explosive anti-tank bomb which could be placed over a rod or spigot and launched to a range of about ninety meters. In trials, his “Baby Bombard” failed to impress, but later, in the hands of Major Mills Jefferis, Blacker’s notion was revised and reinvented as the Projector Infantry Anti-Tank (PIAT) weapon, an awkward, cranky, extremely demanding device with the reputation of being almost as intimidating to the shooter as it was threatening to the target. Despite its quirks, the PIAT was used effectively by the British Army through much of the Second World War.

Another significant method of attacking tanks in that war was the 60mm anti-tank rocket launcher known as the “Bazooka.” The ultimate evolution of work by scientists Robert Goddard and Clarence Hickman, the bazooka was intended to provide the individual American infantryman with an appropriate way of defending against or attacking an enemy tank. It was simply a shoulder-supported steel tube for launching a rocket. It had two grips for aiming and the rear grip housed the trigger. Its rocket was capable of penetrating three inches of steel. It became the Bazooka when U.S. Army Major Zeb Hastings decided to name it after the “musical instrument” used by Bob Burns, the Arkansas Traveller, a radio comedian of the time. The improved M-9 version could be broken down into two sections, making it easier to carry. A larger, 88.9mm version followed which was an excellent anti-tank weapon in the Korean conflict from 1951. It was known as the Super Bazooka. Nearly half a million bazookas were used by the U.S. Army and Allied armies in World War II.

The Germans also developed a bazooka-type weapon, an 88mm adaptation called Panzerschreck (Panzer Terror) and it was even more effective than the bazooka. But they had an acute shortage of the required nitrocellulose rocket propellant and began development of a shaped-charge alternative. The result was the Panzerfaust (Armored Fist), a disposable anti-tank launcher capable of firing a round that could penetrate 140mm of tank armor and ruined the day of many an Allied tank commander. The Panzerfaust contained a hollow-charge bomb at one end, which was propelled by a small charge of gunpowder and the firing was nearly recoil-less. The early version was difficult to aim and was soon replaced by the Panzerfaust 30, whose warhead had a substantially larger diameter than that of the launch tube. The new bomb had four flexible fins which were wrapped around the boom. The tin section fitted into the tube and the shooter held the launch tube under his arm, aimed and fired. The range of the weapon was about thirty meters. It entered full production in late 1943 and was followed in mid-1944 by two advanced versions offering increased ranges of sixty and 100 meters.

After the war, the Allies learned that the Germans had been making important progress in their development of an anti-tank missile known as the X-7. It was to be the forerunner of all such future weapons. The X-7 could be directed onto its target and deliver a far more destructive payload than that of any anti-tank gun. A French derivative of the X-7 was first used in combat by the Israelis in 1956. They later found themselves on the receiving end of a Soviet version called the Snapper in their 1967 conflict with the Egyptians.

Little was achieved in the area of individual anti-tank weaponry after World War II until the 1960s when the Russians came out with the RPG-2, a weapon similar in style to the Panzerfaust, having a tube which launched an oversized grenade with fins and did so without recoil. While the range of the RPG-2 was just 150 meters, the shot could penetrate up to 180mm of armor. The weapon was later cloned by the Chinese who reworked it to fire a High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead which could go through 250mm of armor. Then the Russians went one better with the RPG-7, in which the grenade was now powered by a small rocket motor. The warhead was still fired initially by the old recoil-less charge, but once it left the tube its little motor ignited and dramatically accelerated it to the target up to 500 meters away. On arriving it could penetrate 320mm of armor and do appalling damage to the interior of a tank. The secret of its success lay in a new recipe for the explosive and a new way of “packaging” it. The Americans first experienced the effects of the RPG-7 when hit with it by the Viet Cong in 1966. The RPG-7, and an American one-man anti-tank weapon developed at about the same time, the M-72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon), were also significant in that they caused many nations to re-focus on the need for a really effective advanced one-man anti-tank weapon system. During this period the RPG-7 became the standard type for all Soviet-bloc countries, while the M-72 was adopted by the NATO alliance and some other Western nations. The M-72 was most effective at 300 meters and was able to penetrate 300mm of armor at that range. It was a 66mm rocket launcher made up of two concentric tubes which fired a shaped-charge warhead with a small rocket motor. It was shoulder-fired and was used to great effect in Vietnam and in the 1982 Falklands War.

Among the most interesting weapons of that era is the Swedish Carl Gustav, an 84mm recoil-less anti-tank gun that is fired from the shoulder and can utilize a range of ammunition types to tackle a variety of combat tasks. Another superb weapon is the BILL (Bofors, Infantry, Light and Lethal), which is also a Swedish design. The BILL is a truly revolutionary missile system. It contains a thermal imaging (TI) sight to detect heat from such sources as tank and armored fighting vehicle engines. Wire-guided, the BILL is specifically intended to target the vulnerable upper surfaces of tanks, which it attacks by overflying the target at low-level. When its guidance computer senses that the missile is in proper position, it detonates a downward-firing shaped-charge which then penetrates the thinner upper surface armor of the tank with deadly effect.

As impressive as the various shoulder-launched shell and rocket projectiles were, they made relatively little difference to the heavy tanks of the day with their massive front armor. Furthermore, in some conditions they could be hazardous to their users. These limitations and drawbacks, together with significant advances in shaped-charge technology, led directly to the development of one of the best weapons yet devised, the British LAW-80 94mm rocket. Incredibly, the LAW-80 warhead can penetrate more than 700mm of armor at an effective range of 500 meters. This amazing weapon is part rocket launcher and part 9mm aiming rifle. The operator simply fires a tracer / explosive bullet from the aiming rifle at the target tank. If his shot is accurate, he selects “rocket” and fires again, this time sending a 3.7-inch missile to the same aiming point hit by his tracer round. If his aiming round missed the target, he fires another tracer, and another, until he hits the tank. He then shoots it with a rocket.

Of the so-called “smart” weapons, two are quite special: the TOW and the MILAN. The TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked and wire guided) is a 1960s product of the American Hughes company and has been steadily upgraded and improved since the initial model whose range was 2,750 meters. It is the best anti-tank guided missile there is. The current version is able to penetrate armor plate of 800mm or thirty-one inches. The missile, in a sealed tube, is clipped to the back of a launcher tube which is equipped with the sight and guidance system. Refinements have included a shaped-charge warhead version designed to defeat explosive reactive armor, and one which is dedicated to attacking the thinner and more vulnerable upper surfaces of tanks, utilizing special sensors and charges that can fire downward while the warhead overflies the tank. Since establishing itself as the king of sophisticated anti-tank missiles when operated by Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, it has become the anti-tank weapon of choice in the inventories of many armies the world over. MILAN (Missile, Infanterie, Légere, Anti-char, or infantry, light, anti-tank missile) is the product of a French / German consortium, Nord Aviation and Bölkow, later joined in the effort by British Aerospace. It is a wire-guided infantry missile fielded by two men. It can be set up and ready to fire in seconds and, once fired, a hit is assured as long as the shooter keeps his sight aligned on the target. The advance MILAN 3 carries a warhead with two shaped-charges. One charge is on an extended probe ahead of the main warhead charge. This “precursor” charge hits and destroys any reactive armor that is protecting the main armor of the target tank. This action is followed instantly by the detonation of the main warhead charge, which can penetrate more than a meter of armor. MILAN 3 has both day and night thermal imaging capabilities, is efficient at overcoming countermeasures, such as pyrotechnic flares, and is not fooled by distractions such as the heat source of a nearby burning vehicle.

Even though anti-tank weaponry has become more and more sophisticated, there is still a place for the basic tank stoppers: fixed barriers and mines. The tactical minefield became a defense against enemy tanks with the development of contact and pressure mines which were set off by the track pressure over the mine. The most common tank obstacles appeared before World War II at the Maginot Line in France, along the German frontier with Czechoslovakia, in the Low Countries and, later, in England. They were called “Dragon’s Teeth,” made of concrete, often pyramid-shaped (some rectangular) and usually about one meter high. They were laid across probable tank routes, six ranks deep and virtually guaranteed to stop any tank that dared try to cross them. Simple and effective.

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