Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image


Title: British Challenger tank
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Tanks, often referred to loosely as armor, armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), or tracks, are tracked and armored fighting vehicles armed with a high-velocity, flat-trajectory main gun for direct-fire engagement. This distinguishes them from artillery, which primarily employs indirect fire. Conceived in World War I as a means of ending the bloody stalemate of trench warfare, tanks were first employed by the British in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. They came into their own during World War II.

Among tank developments in the Cold War period was the end of the heavy tank in the 1950s. Technological advances allowed their functions to be performed by lighter, more maneuverable, and less expensive MBTs (main battle tanks), combining the old World War II medium and heavy tanks. Guns increased in caliber from 76mm, 88mm, and 90mm at the end of World War II to 105mm and even 120mm. Tanks appeared in a bewildering array of models. Their many variants included bridge-layers, flamethrowers, and engineer and tank recovery vehicles. In addition to their main guns, tanks mounted one or more machine guns for antiaircraft protection and for engaging personnel and thin-skinned vehicles.

During the Cold War, tanks received improved engines and were capable of higher speeds. Systems also developed to provide protection for crews against the new threats posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) attack. New sights, night vision equipment, improved laser rangefinders and thermal imaging systems, and more powerful guns and projectiles also came into widespread use. In the ongoing race between projectiles and armor, more effective armor emerged in the form of layers of steel interspersed with ceramic-based light alloys providing excellent protection against both kinetic and chemical energy rounds.

United Kingdom. The United Kingdom possessed a number of tanks from World War II that saw extended postwar service. Among these was the Comet (A34), with a 77mm main gun. It fought in the Korean War and remained in service until the early 1960s. The Centurion (A47) remained the principal British main battle tank of the first decades of the Cold War. The Centurion Mk VII mounted a 105mm main gun. It was widely exported and saw combat service in Korea, the Middle East, southern Africa, Pakistan, and Vietnam. It remained in service until 1969. The heavy A22 Churchill Infantry tank, first mounting a 75mm and later a 95mm main gun, fought in Korea.

The threat posed by Soviet heavy tanks in Europe led the British to develop the Conqueror heavy tank. Entering service in 1956, it mounted a 120mm gun. A new tank also mounting a 120mm main gun, the Chieftain Mark V MBT, came on line in 1963. Chieftains were exported to Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, and Oman. The chief British MBT of the 1980s was the Challenger, introduced in 1983. It mounted a 120mm rifled gun and performed well in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Among tanks built specifically for export were the Vickers Mk I MBT (1964) with a 105mm main gun, sold to Kuwait and to India; an improved model Vickers Mk III MBT (1973), sold to Kenya and Nigeria; and the Khalid MBT (1981) with a 120mm gun, sold to Jordan.

France. In the immediate post–World War II period, France relied extensively on World War II equipment, on U.S. tanks supplied to the French Army at the end of the war but also on stocks of captured German tanks, most notably the Panther. The most successful of French-designed tanks was the excellent lightweight, air-transportable AMX-13. Introduced in 1952 with production continuing into the 1980s, it had an automatic loader for its long-barreled 75mm main gun, later upgraded to 90mm and then 105mm. The French sold the AMX-13 widely abroad, including to Israel.

Until the mid-1950s, both France and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) relied chiefly on the U.S. M47 Patton as their MBT. These nations and Italy then decided to develop a lighter and more powerful MBT for their common use. The Germans produced the Leopard, while the French developed the AMX-30. It entered production in 1966 and mounted a powerful 105mm main gun along with a coaxial 20mm cannon. A large number of AMX-30s were sold abroad, including to Spain.

West Germany. When the West German government was permitted to rearm in 1955, it initially employed the U.S. M47 Patton as its MBT. With the failure of the joint French-German tank project, however, West Germany developed the Leopard. Produced during 1965–1984, it was also built under license in Italy. Mounting a 105mm gun, the Leopard 1 sacrificed armor protection for speed and maneuverability. This reliable, effective MBT attracted a number of foreign purchasers and was exported to a number of Western nations.

United States. Initially, the United States continued a number of its World War II tanks in service. The 75mm-gun M24 Chaffee was the main U.S. light tank until 1953. It was the first U.S. tank to enter the Korean War and saw wide service abroad in other armies during the entire duration of the Cold War. France employed it in Indochina, and Nationalist China modified its M24s with a 90mm main gun.

The M41 Walker Bulldog replaced the Chaffee. One of the first U.S. tanks to be designed around a suitable engine, rather than designing the tank first and then trying to find an engine to suit, it mounted a 76mm main gun. Widely exported, it saw extensive and long service in many armies.

In the 1960s the U.S. Army tried to counter the growing weight of tanks with the M551 Armored Reconnaissance/Airborne Assault Vehicle (AR/AAV) Sheridan, a lightweight, air-transportable armored vehicle with a heavy gun capable of knocking out any known tank. It mounted a 152mm gun, designed to fire the Shillelagh HEAT missile or combustible cartridge case conventional projectiles. The M551, although strictly speaking not a tank, was nonetheless used as one but had only limited armor protection. The Sheridan experienced numerous problems and did not enter service until 1968. It served in Vietnam but was poorly protected against enemy mines. The Sheridan remained in service with the 82nd Airborne Division into the 1990s and saw service both in Panama in 1989 and in the Persian Gulf War.

Sherman M4A3 and M4A3E8 medium tanks, the mainstay of U.S. armored forces at the end of World War II, fought with the United Nations Command (UNC) forces in Korea. There were many models and variants of the basic design, including dozers, 105mm howitzers, rocket launchers, tank retrievers, and flamethrowers. A great many Shermans were exported to other countries after World War II. Israeli Shermans, which were kept in operation for decades from a wide variety of sources, were also armed with an equally wide panoply of weapons, including antiradiation missiles. The French upgraded a number of Israeli Shermans with 75mm and 105mm main guns. Known as M50 and M51 Super Shermans, these fought modified M4 Egyptian Army Shermans in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The M26 Pershing tank, which entered service only in the last few months of the war in Europe, fought in Korea. Pending introduction of a new medium tank, World War II M26 Pershings were converted into the M46 medium with a new V-12 engine and cross-drive transmission. The M46 was unofficially known as the Patton, the name later officially bestowed on the M47. The M46 and the M26 bore the brunt of armor combat in Korea. The M46 had many of the same basic characteristics of the M26 and mounted a 90mm main gun.

The Korean War caught the U.S. Army in the midst of developing a new medium tank. The T42 design was not ready, but its turret and new gun were. As a stopgap measure, these were then adapted to the M46 hull, in effect the old World War II M26 with a new engine and other upgrades. This marriage of convenience became the M47 Patton. Mounting a 90mm gun, it entered service in 1952 and proved a successful design. Although it did not serve in the Korean War, it saw extensive service life in other armies, including in West Germany, France, Iran, Pakistan, the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), and Yugoslavia.

The M48 Patton II MBT was rushed into service as a consequence of the Korean War and Soviet pressure on Berlin. Entering service in 1952, it was a brand-new design with new hull, turret, tracks, suspension, and transmission. The M48 was one of the most important of post–World War II tanks. Although it saw considerable service during the Vietnam War, this was rarely against communist armor. In Middle Eastern fighting with the Israeli Army, the M48 achieved an enviable record against its Soviet counterparts. It too was widely exported.

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 virtually indistinguishable. The first M60 prototypes appeared in 1958. The M60 entered production in 1959 and service in 1960. It mounted the new British L7A1 105mm (4.1-inch) gun (known in the U.S. as the M68). The M60 also had a new fire-control system. The new tank weighed nearly 116,000 pounds and had a four-man crew. Its 750hp engine produced a maximum tank speed of 30 miles per hour. Armament consisted of the 105mm gun and two machine guns. Variants included the M60A1, with a new turret; the M60A2, which had a new turret with the 152mm gun/launcher developed for the M551 Sheridan; and the M60A3, which returned to the 105mm gun but with a thermal barrel jacket, a new fire-control computer with laser rangefinder, infrared searchlight, and night vision equipment. Most M60A1s were later modified to M60A3s.

The M60 was first supplied to U.S. Army units in Germany. Although no longer in U.S. active military service, the M60 was the principal U.S. main battle tank for twenty years, until the introduction of the M1 Abrams. The M60 saw combat in the Arab-Israeli wars and in the Persian Gulf War, when it served with the U.S. Marine Corps and the Saudi Arabian Army. A number of M60s remain in reserve and in the armed forces of many nations.

The M60's replacement, the M1A1 and M1A2 Abrams, is today probably the top main battle tank in the world. It began during a search by West Germany and the United States for a new MBT that could defeat the vast number of tanks that the Soviets might field in an invasion of Central Europe. The first production model M1 came off the assembly line in 1980. The M1 was a revolutionary design and also a sharp departure from previous U.S. tanks. The M1 was more angular, with flat-plate composite Chobham-type armor and with armor boxes that could be opened so that the armor could be changed according to the threat.

After initial M1 production had begun, the army decided to arm the M1 not with a 105mm but with a German-designed 120mm smoothbore gun. It was first available in 1984, and the first M1A1 with this new armament was delivered in 1985. The M1A1HA introduced new steel-encased, virtually impenetrable, depleted-uranium armor. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia bought the Abrams. Egypt produced more than 500 under a coproduction arrangement.

Soviet Union. The Soviet Union ended World War II with a large inventory of AFVs. Their excellent T-34/85 remained in production until the late 1940s. In 1947 the Soviets introduced an upgraded model, the T-34/85 II, that remained the principal Soviet MBT into the 1950s. Produced under license in both Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, it was widely exported, and production did not cease until 1964.

The T-34/85 II saw extensive service in the Korean War with the Korean People's Army (KPA, North Korean Army). It also fought in the successive Middle East wars and in Africa, and it saw combat as recently as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

As noted, the Soviets led in the post–World War II development of armored personnel carriers (APCs) and modified them to carry a variety of weapons. These were gradually replaced by the Bronirovanniy Transportnaya Rozposnania (BTR, armored wheeled transporter) series of eight-wheeled APCs through missile-armed Boevaya Razvedyvatnaya Descent Mashina (BRDM, airborne combat reconnaissance vehicle) scout cars and the BMP series of personnel carriers. The BMPs mounted a large gun capable of providing effective support to dismounted infantry. They also carried antitank missiles and were constructed so as to allow infantry to fight from inside the vehicle, which distinguished this infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) from the less-capable APCs.

Along these lines the Soviets developed the PT-76 light tank, which had no equivalent in the West. As large as an MBT, the PT-76 was, however, thinly armored and was developed chiefly to lead amphibious assaults and conduct reconnaissance. Easily identifiable by its pointed nose and low, round turret with sloped sides and flat roof, the PT-76 was an amphibian without any preparation. Movement through water was accomplished by means of water jets from the rear of the hull. Mounting a 76.2mm main gun, the PT-76 entered service in 1955 and continued in Soviet service until 1967. It saw wide service in the armies of Soviet bloc countries but also was widely exported to Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. It fought in the Vietnam War, in the 1965 India-Pakistan War, and in conflicts in Africa. It continued in wide service well past the Cold War.

The IS-3 (Josef Stalin-3) remained the principal Soviet heavy tank immediately after World War II. The first postwar Soviet MBT, introduced in 1948, was the formidable T-54, itself a refinement of the T-44, the short-lived redesign of the T-34/85 at the end of World War II. It mounted a 100mm main gun.

Title: Soviet T-55 tank
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
The T-55, a follow-on T-54, appeared in 1958. Among many improvements was a more powerful engine. The T-54/T-55 had a long service life. Production continued until 1981, with a phenomenal 95,000 tanks manufactured, more than any other tank in history. Both the Chinese and Romanians produced copies. Even at the end of the Cold War, T-54/T-55s constituted some 38 percent of Soviet tank strength and as much as 86 percent of non-Soviet Warsaw Pact armor. Reliable and relatively inexpensive, the T-54/T-55 was exported to more than thirty-five other nations. The T-54/T-55s had a mixed combat record. While sufficient to crush the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, they were not successful against Western-supplied Israeli armor in the 1967 Six-Day War or Coalition tanks in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In 1953 the Soviets introduced their last heavy tank, the T-10 Lenin. It was basically an enlarged IS with a 122mm main gun. Expensive to build, heavy, and difficult to maintain, the T-10 was phased out in the mid-1960s in favor of the T-62, but it nonetheless equipped a number of Warsaw Pact armies and was exported to both Egypt and Syria.

The successor tank to the T-54/T-55 was the follow-on T-62 of 1961, which remained in first-line Soviet service for two decades. Similar in layout and appearance to the T-55, the T-62 introduced a number of improvements. It also mounted the new, larger 115mm smoothbore main gun, the first smoothbore tank gun in the world. Its gun enabled the T-62 to fire armor-piercing, fin-stabilized discarding sabot rounds that could destroy any tank at ranges of under 1,500 meters. Nonetheless, the gun could only fire four rounds a minute, and its automatic spent-case ejection system was a danger to the crew.

The Soviets built some 20,000 T-62s, and it was the principal Soviet MBT of the 1960s and much of the 1970s. It constituted 24 percent of Soviet tank strength at the end of the Cold War. T-62s were also built in large numbers by the People's Republic of China (PRC), Czechoslovakia, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea). The T-62 had a checkered combat record. Many were exported to the Middle East, where they proved vulnerable to hostile fire.

While the T-62 was simply an improvement of the T-55, the next Soviet MBT, the T-64, was a new design and a significant advance in firepower, armor protection, and speed. It entered production in 1966 and was designed to replace both the T-54/T-55 series and the T-62. Initially it was armed with a 115mm gun, but Soviet designers decided that the tank was undergunned against the U.S. M60A1, so they upgraded the definitive version T-62A to a more powerful 125mm smoothbore. The T-62B version could fire the 4,000-meter-range Songster antitank guided missile. The new tank experienced numerous reliability problems and was never exported.

The T-72 of 1971 proved to be both more reliable and far cheaper to produce. Similar in appearance to the T-64, it utilized the same gun, suspension, and track. Although its enormous 125mm smoothbore main gun allows the T-72 to fire projectiles with great destructive capability, ammunition flaws mean that the gun has a reputation for inaccuracy beyond about 1,500 meters. The gun is stabilized, allowing it to fire on the move, but is only truly effective at short ranges, and most crews halt the tank before firing. This put the T-72 at an enormous disadvantage against Western tanks with far superior gun-stabilization systems.

A large number of T-72 variants have appeared, offering an improved diesel engine, improved armor, and better sights. The T-72 currently equips not only the Russian Army and the armies of the former Warsaw Pact states but is also widely employed in the Middle East and Africa. It has been produced under license in Czechoslovakia, India, Iran, Iraq, Poland, and the former Yugoslavia. It is in fact the world's most widely deployed tank. Despite its many sales, the T-72 has not fared well in battle.

Both Iran and Iraq employed T-72s during their eight-year war in the 1980s, but there is little information about their effectiveness. Iraq counted some 1,000 T-72s in its inventory during the Persian Gulf War, but they were easily defeated by the U.S. M1A1 Abrams, which was able to take on the T-72 and destroy it at twice the effective range of the T-72's main gun. No M1A1s were destroyed by Iraqi tank fire. Despite these failings, it should be remembered that the T-72 was not designed to defeat Western armor—that was to be left to the T-64 and T-80. Rather, it was intended as a relatively inexpensive MBT that would be reliable and easy to maintain and could be widely exported. It met these criteria well.

The T-80 was the MBT designed to take on and destroy U.S. and other Western tanks. The last Soviet Union MBT, it appeared in prototype in 1976 but did not enter production until 1980. It was basically the follow-on to the T-64 with the flaws corrected, including a new engine and suspension system. It is armed with the 125mm smoothbore gun and two machine guns and is protected by composite explosive-reactive armor. The T-80 continues in production both in Russia and Ukraine. It has gone through upgrades and has been sold to China, Pakistan, and South Korea.

Israel. Tanks were essential weapons on the relatively flat and open terrain of the Middle East. The first Israeli armored vehicles were a hodgepodge of converted trucks and buses. In the 1948–1949 War for Independence, Israel had few tanks available. The United States provided a number of World War II-vintage M4 Shermans, and the Israelis also secured surplus Shermans from other armies. These saw long service, undergoing a bewildering succession of upgrades, including heavier guns, improved engines, and modified turrets. Once they had reached the limit of possible improvements, a number were turned into self-propelled guns. Indeed, improvisation became a hallmark of the Israeli military. The British Centurion, one of the world's most successful tank designs, underwent upgrades in Israel beginning in 1967 to improve its range but also to improve crew protection, in which Israel probably led the world.

France also supplied AMX-13 light tanks (until France cut off arms shipments to Israel in 1967). Other tanks in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) included the British Centurion and the U.S. M47 and M60 MBTs.

Remodeled M60s are designated the Magach 6, 7, and 8. The Magach 7s and 8s fitted with a 120mm smoothbore gun are known as the Sabra. Israel offered this tank to Turkey and also converted a number of Turkish M60s to Sabras.

In their wars, the Israelis captured large numbers of Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks from the Arab armies. These were modified and added to the Israelis' inventory. Improvements included a new 105mm rifled gun, improved armor, and new fire-control systems.

In the 1970s, Israel began development of its own tank. Known as the Merkava, it entered service in 1978. Built on lessons learned in previous wars, the primary concerns in its design were firepower and armor protection. The Merkava underwent continued upgrades, with the Mk 2 appearing in 1983 and Mk 3 in 1990. One of the world's most powerful tanks, it also affords perhaps the best crew protection. The Mk 1 mounts a 105mm gun and also has a 60mm mortar in the turret roof. The Mk 2 has the same armament but improved armor and a new fire-control system. These two models were superseded by the Mk 3, introduced in 1990.

Tanks are expensive and difficult to design and manufacture, and the Arab states lacked such capability. Egypt manufactured tanks under license and produced an excellent APC. Saudi Arabia has also produced light armored vehicles. But for the most part, the Arab states have chosen to rely on foreign-manufactured AFVs.

Iran. Iran was forced, both because of its isolation from much of the world as a result of its Islamic fundamentalist government and a long war with neighboring Iraq, to manufacture its own tanks. One of its projects was to upgrade Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks captured during the long Iran-Iraq War. Known as the T-72Z Safir-74, this tank incorporates a 105mm rifled gun. The Zulfiqar MBT, however, combines components of the U.S. M48 and M60 and Russian T-72 tanks. The Iranians also produce their own APCs.

India and Pakistan. Aside from the Middle East, the largest Cold War–era tank battles occurred on the Indian subcontinent. Originally, both armies were equipped with World War II-vintage U.S. M4 Shermans. India secured from France the AMX-13 light tank and from Britain the Centurion MBT. Pakistan acquired the U.S. M24 Chaffee light tanks and the M48 MBT. These AFVs were the principal tanks of the first war fought between India and Pakistan in 1965. In their 1971 war, Pakistan also deployed Type 59 tanks from China, and India used T-55 tanks from the Soviet Union.

Following the 1971 war, India took steps to develop its own MBT. Beginning in 1974, India began design work on the Arjun. While the Arjun was undergoing development, India proceeded with local production of a Vickers MBT design, the Vijayanta (Victory) and the Soviet T-72. As the arms race on the Indian subcontinent intensified, Pakistan developed the MBT-2000 Al Khalid beginning in 1988.

China. China produced no tanks of its own during World War II or the civil war that followed. After the communist victory in 1949, China acquired a number of T-54s, and China simply copied these for its first tank, the T-59. Developed by NORINCO (China North Industries Corporation) in 1959, the T-59, a virtual copy of the Soviet T-54 with modifications, mounted a 100mm smoothbore gun. In the early 1980s a Type II appeared with the substitution of a 105mm rifled main gun. China exported the Type 59 widely. It remains in service in China and in many countries of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Western companies have since upgraded a number of these tanks.

The first Chinese indigenous AFV was the Type 62 light tank of 1962. In essence a reduced version of the T-59, it mounted an 85mm main gun. Most remain in service. The T-62 was exported to Albania as well as to Africa and other Asian states, with Vietnam the principal recipient.

Chinese armor doctrine copied that of the Soviet Union in placing reliance on large numbers of light amphibious tanks. The Chinese Type 63 light tank improved on the Soviet PT-76 but mounted the same 85mm main gun armament.

The next Chinese MBT design was the NORINCO Type 69. Believed to have appeared first in 1969, it was first seen in public in a parade in 1982. The Type 69 MBT employed the same basic design of the Type 59 but soon received the more accurate 100mm rifled gun. The subsequent Type 79 was virtually a Type 69 but with the 105mm gun. A number of Type 69 tanks were exported to Iran and Iraq. Completely outclassed by the U.S. M1A1 Abrams and British Challenger MBTs, a large number of Iraqi Type 69s were destroyed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The NORINCO Type 80 introduced many improvements. Much of the world first saw the Type 69, believed to have entered production in 1985, in scenes of Chinese tanks crushing the prodemocracy student movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989. It incorporated a 105mm gun that could fire both Chinese and Western ammunition and an improved fire-control system.

Japan. As with West Germany, Japan rearmed only as a consequence of the Cold War. Japan did not produce a post–World War II tank until 1962. Its Type 61 MBT for the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GDF) closely followed the U.S. M48 Patton, mounting a 90mm main gun. Its successor, the Type 74 MBT with 105mm gun, entered service in 1975.

Melissa Hebert and Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Hogg, Ian V. The Greenhill Armoured Fighting Vehicles Data Book. London: Greenhill, 2000.; Miller, David. The Great Book of Tanks: The World's Most Important Tanks from World War I to the Present Day. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing, 2002.; Tucker, Spencer C. Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer