Cold War Main Battle Tanks II

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US Tanks

In the late 1940s the US army was equipped with two principal types of tank. The most numerous was the M4 Sherman medium tank, armed with a 75 mm gun and weighing 32 tonnes, which had proved a great success in the war, despite an unfortunate tendency to ‘brew up’ (i.e. to catch fire when hit). The second was the newer M26 Pershing, which had a much more powerful 90 mm gun, although, at 42 tonnes, it also weighed considerably more. Tank development was progressing at a relatively slow pace with the aim of introducing a new tank to replace these two in the mid-1950s when in 1950 the Korean War broke out, leading to a demand from the field army for newer and better tanks, to be delivered as quickly as possible.

This led to several ‘crash’ programmes, in the first of which a turret designed for the proposed mid-1950s tank was mounted on the existing M26 Pershing hull to produce the M47. The second design was based on a number of features of an experimental heavy tank and resulted in the M48. However, the US army paid a severe penalty for attempting to rush these two designs through the design and development stages, and the initial production versions of both the M47 and the M48 were unfit for combat use. Neither saw service in the Korean War, for which they had been designed, and it took several years to put everything right.

In the mid-1950s most Western tanks were armed with 90 mm guns, but Soviet tank armour was increasing in effectiveness, so the major armies started to seek even more powerful weapons. The US army produced an experimental 90 mm gun with a smooth bore, which enabled it to fire fin-stabilized projectiles, but in a competition with US-designed 105 mm and 120 mm guns and the British-designed L7 105 mm gun the latter won and was adopted, albeit with a US breech-block. At the same time it was decided to replace petrol engines with diesels, not least because the range of early M48s was a meagre 112 km. All of these enhancements, coupled with a totally new turret, were then incorporated into an improved M48, which was originally designated M48A2; but it was then decided that it was so different that it warranted a new designation, and as the M60 it served for many years as the army’s standard medium tank.

In the late 1950s development started of a 152 mm gun/launcher which was to be mounted in both the new air-portable light tank, the M551 Sheridan, and the planned MBT-70, which was under development with West Germany. Hopes for the new gun/launcher were very high, and, in view of the Soviet tank threat and possible delays in the MBT-70 programme, it was decided as an interim measure to mount the weapon in a totally new turret on the M60 chassis, the new version being designated M60A2. The project was approved in 1964 and a prototype was running in September 1965, leading to an order for 300 in 1967. What had appeared to be a neat interim design, however, turned into yet another major problem, with difficulties being encountered not only with the gun/launcher, but also with the Shillelagh missile, the 152 mm conventional round, and the mating of the new turret to the existing chassis. Production started in 1969, but was quickly suspended due to the unreliability of the first off the line, and service acceptance was not achieved until 1971, although even then the first operational unit was not formed until 1974. Thus it had taken ten years to get an ‘interim’ model using a majority of existing components into service. The M60A2 actually remained in service for under ten years, in what was a singularly poor programme and a very bad bargain for the US taxpayer.

With the collapse of both the US–German collaborative MBT-70 programme and the ‘austere’, US-only, XM-803 programme, the US army found itself in the early 1970s in the embarrassing position of being without a viable future tank. However, in 1973 contracts containing an outline specification were placed with two US companies, who then developed and built prototypes which ran competitive trials in 1976. Later that year it was announced that the Chrysler tank had won and would be put into production as the M1 Abrams. Although the tank was a purely American design, it was constructed from the British-developed ‘Chobham’ armour, while the main gun was a British L7 rifled 105 mm in the first version (M1 and Improved M1) and the German smooth-bore 120 mm in the MlAl. One of the major new features of the M1 was the use of a gas-turbine power unit, which provides high power, but at the cost of high fuel consumption. The tank eventually entered service in 1982.

British Tanks

The British had suffered from a succession of somewhat indifferent tank designs during the Second World War, but at the start of the Cold War the British prime production tank was the Centurion, which proved to be a great success. It was heavier than its contemporaries, the US M48 and the Soviet T-54, but the British were determined to have a well-armed and well-armoured tank following their experiences of being been consistently outgunned by German tanks, particularly the Panther and the Tiger. The Centurion’s main gun was progressively improved: the early tanks were armed with a 76 mm gun, but this was replaced first by an 83 mm gun and later by the L7 105 mm gun, which was so good that it was adopted by virtually every other army in NATO, except the French.

In the late 1940s the British also developed a heavy tank to meet the NATO requirement to defeat the Soviet JS-3. The Soviet tank’s armour was so thick that a very powerful gun was required to defeat it, and the British selected a US 120 mm gun, which, with its associated ammunition, was so large and heavy that the Conqueror tank, in which it was mounted, weighed 65 tonnes. The Conqueror earned a reputation of being slow and suffering from relatively poor mobility, although its top speed was only marginally less than that of the Centurion and its power-to-weight ratio (10 kW/tonne) was identical. Only 180 were built, and all were deployed in West Germany between 1955 and 1968 as tank destroyers.

In the 1950s the British started a project for their next tank, to replace both the Centurion and the Conqueror. This again followed their invariable Cold War priorities of firepower and protection, although one of their earliest decisions in this project caused considerable surprise among their NATO allies. The very powerful British L7 105 mm tank gun and its ammunition had become the virtual NATO standard in the 1950s, being installed in US M48s and M60s, British Centurions and West German Leopard Is, but the British themselves then became the first to leave the standard by insisting on a new 120 mm gun for this new tank. Initially, the new tank – named Chieftain – was beset by problems, particularly with the engine, transmission and suspension, but these were eventually resolved, particularly when an order from the shah of Iran for 700 tanks produced both money and an even greater sense of urgency to find a cure. The original staff requirement had been issued in 1958 and a prototype was running in 1959, but the Chieftain did not enter full service with the British army until 1967.

The search for a successor to the Chieftain began with a joint future-tank project with West Germany, but when this broke down in 1977 the British were forced to continue on their own in a project known as MBT-80. However, the contract to sell Chieftain tanks to Iran had led to a much improved version, known as Shir 2, of which several prototypes had been completed when the new Khomeini government suddenly cancelled the order. The British then decided to produce a modified version of Shir 2 to meet their own requirement for a Chieftain replacement. This tank, which had a new hull and power pack, but the same L11 120 mm gun as the Chieftain, was eventually placed in production as the Challenger, entering service in 1983.

German Tanks

The West German tank industry produced just two tank designs during the Cold War – Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 – both of which were outstandingly successful. The Leopard 1 was originally produced as part of the 1950s Franco-German project, but, when this fell apart, the German entry was placed in full production in 1963 for the German army. Some 4,561 Leopard 1s were produced in Germany between 1965 and 1979, with another 920 in Italy.

The Leopard 1 was conventional in design, being armed with a British L7 105 mm gun, powered by a multi-fuel engine, and with a crew of four. The design incorporated the lessons learned by the German army on the Russian front in the Second World War and was well armoured but also highly mobile. The Leopard 1 became the virtual NATO standard tank of the 1970s, equipping the Belgian, Canadian, Danish, Dutch, West German, Italian and Norwegian armies.

The Leopard 2 was started as a low-key insurance against the failure of the US–German MBT-70 programme, which turned out to have been a wise precaution. When the collaborative project was cancelled in January 1970, the Bundesheer placed orders for seventeen prototypes of the German design, which were completed in 1974. Production started in 1979, with 2,125 being produced for Germany, 445 for the Netherlands, and others for the Swiss and Swedish armies. One of the significant features of the Leopard 2 was the Rheinmetall smooth-bore 120 mm gun, which fired fin-stabilized ammunition and was able to penetrate the NATO standard heavy-tank target at a range of 2,200 m.

French Tanks

In the early post-war years the French worked hard to re-establish their military industries, one of the most important being tank design and production. Like the UK and the USA, the French produced a heavy-tank design in the late 1940s, intended to counter the JS-3. This 50 tonne tank was armed with a 120 mm gun, but did not go into production because large numbers of US M47s were made available under the US Mutual Defense Assistance Program. France then joined with Germany in a collaborative programme to develop a new medium tank, but, when they failed to agree with the Germans on a winner, the French placed their entry, the AMX-30, in full production in 1967. The AMX-30 was less heavily armoured and thus 3 tonnes lighter than Leopard 1. Also, whereas other NATO armies at that time were standardizing on the British 105 mm L7, the AMX-30 was armed with a French 105 mm gun. This had a rifled barrel, and its only anti-tank round was a unique HEAT projectile in which the charge was mounted on ball-bearings; this meant that, while the projectile body spun to maintain stability in flight, the charge remained stationary (or spun at a very slow rate), which, according to the French army, considerably enhanced its effect. All other NATO tanks carried at least two, if not three, types of anti-tank round, such as HEAT, HESH/HEP and APDS projectiles. The only other NATO country to buy the AMX-30 was Greece.

Several efforts to produce a replacement for the AMX-30, including a joint project with Germany, failed. In the end a new version, the AMX-30B2, was placed in production in 1981, and 693 of the original model were upgraded to the new standard. As the Cold War ended, a totally new French tank, the Leclerc, was about to enter production.


The NATO countries’ experiences with tanks typified much that was good about the Alliance, as well as some of its failures. There was a considerable exchange of information about the Soviet armoured threat and about each other’s plans for countering it. There was also a large degree of agreement on standards – particularly on weapon calibre, ammunition types, fuel and so on

There were also some substantial efforts – the term ‘heroic’ might not be an overstatement – to achieve collaboration. The Franco-German attempt in the 1950s and the German–US attempt in the 1960s both resulted in prototypes, but there were also several others, including one between West Germany and the UK in the 1970s, and another between France and Germany in the early 1980s, which came to naught even before the prototype stage had been reached. Part of the reason was that, for the countries concerned, the tank was so pivotal to the army’s prestige and to its self-image that, no matter how good the intentions at the start of a collaborative project, national considerations frequently reigned supreme. Another reason was that countries considered it vital to their national interests to maintain their own national research-and-development capabilities, as well as tank, gun and ammunition production bases. There were also the potential export markets to be considered. There was, however, one advantage in all this, in that, once the major tank producers had paid the research-and-development costs and had fought out their political battles with each other, the smaller NATO nations were then able to move in and place their tank, gun and ammunition orders at very advantageous prices.

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.



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.


The true cost of a tank is difficult to discover, not least because the various nations involved use differing criteria to arrive at a final figure. With these provisos in mind, a careful analysis of the unit costs of US tanks at 1972 prices arrived at the following figures:

M47 $207,300

M48 $203,400

M60 $185,200

MBT70 $1,058,200

M1 $570,000

Prices steadily escalated, and the hull, turret, gun and most components cost more as the Cold War progressed; the British Challenger 1, for example, cost £3 million at 1985 prices. Most components increased in cost, but by far the greatest cost escalation was in the electronic devices, such as fire-control systems, sensors, engine controls and radios.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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