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The tank is a combat vehicle that is protected against fire by armor . The name is an abbreviation of the original term "Panzerkampfwagen". It mostly rolls on caterpillars and, as a military vehicle , is usually armed. This includes the main battle tank , so one with a rotatable turret equipped tracked vehicle , as well as armored vehicles in very different versions to which the Radpanzer count.

The characteristic properties of a tank are armor protection, mobility in the terrain and, depending on the area of ​​use, different firepower . The designers of a tank model have to find an order-based compromise between these properties. The armor usually consists of armor steel , sometimes in combination with ceramic and fiber-reinforced plastic layers . Today, tanks are mainly powered by diesel engines , sometimes also by gas turbines , which, in combination with wheel or track drives, enable off-road mobility. Under certain circumstances, extensive sensors for clarification or other technical devices are important.

The combat or combat weight is made up of the empty weight and the weight of ammunition, fuel, crew, etc. together.

German main battle tank Leopard 2A5
Soviet T-72 tanks (1983)
Transport tanks on the Belgian National Day


Until the 1930s, the term tank was still common, and is still used in English and Russian-speaking countries. The German military scientist George Soldan wrote a decade after the end of the First World War:

“The term 'tank' was a clever disguise; it was intended to give the impression that they were large, mobile fuel containers. For this reason, the moral success of the 'assault wagons' that had suddenly emerged out of thick fog and headed towards our front, hitherto unknown to our troops, was a considerable one. Something completely new presented itself with an apparent inviolability. "

- George Soldan

Even in the English factories that made parts for the first tanks, the word tank was used as a disguise: workers should actually think they were building massive water tanks. Tanks were a technical innovation that the military wanted to keep secret for as long as possible.

In the Scandinavian countries, armored vehicles are called stridsvagn / stridsvogn , literally translated as "chariots"; thus there is a reference to the chariot of antiquity, at least in terms of deployment and use. The Israeli Merkava literally translates as a chariot, as does the French char de bataille .


propelled howitzer M109
Armored recovery vehicle Buffalo
Reconnaissance tank lynx

Armored vehicles can be categorized according to different criteria. The purpose, weight and type of drive are common.

Until after the Second World War , many armies categorized according to weight into light, medium, heavy and super-heavy tanks. The weight classes in the armies differed and were adapted to the state of the art, so they cannot be compared with one another. The tanks were later categorized according to their purpose, although some categories did not persist, such as. B. the distinction between battle tanks in heavy tanks or infantry tanks , in the following also armored personnel carriers and armored personnel carriers or transport tanks . In addition, assignment is sometimes difficult because tanks have been modified repeatedly or have been successful in functions that were not originally intended. The Sturmgeschütz III of the German Wehrmacht can also be categorized as a tank destroyer , although it was designed as a self-propelled howitzer .

The heavy tanks or unrealized tank projects were also called land cruisers or land battleships in the early days of tank construction .

A basic distinction is made between battle tanks on the one hand and support tanks (such as recovery and pioneer tanks) on the other. The latter are armored like battle tanks and are mobile in order to be able to follow them in battle, but are either not armed at all or only armed with machine guns for self-defense.

Armored vehicles are developed and modified for various purposes. Possible uses are or were:

  • Armored recovery vehicles : mostly unarmed tanks with cranes and strong winches for the recovery and repair of damaged and stuck or broken down heavy vehicles from areas where enemy fire is to be expected (e.g. Buffalo recovery armored vehicles )
  • Bridge-laying tanks : mostly unarmed vehicles that make it possible to make rivers and trenches passable under enemy fire (e.g. beavers )
  • Driving school tanks: for training tank drivers
  • Flammpanzer : tanks for bunker combat, equipped as the main weapon with a flamethrower.
  • Anti-aircraft tanks : equipped with anti-aircraft guns as anti-aircraft gun tanks (e.g. Gepard ) or missiles as anti-aircraft rocket tanks (e.g. Roland ) against low-flying objects
  • Lead tank : fitted with sensor and communication technology vehicles (eg. Generally based on a transport tank Lynx )
  • Infantry tanks: Main battle tanks with low engine power and speed, with armament designed for ground combat to directly support the infantry (e.g. Mark I ), the role of which has been taken over by combat, rifle and artillery tanks since the Second World War
  • Jagdpanzer : tanks optimized for fighting other tanks, mostly with a low silhouette (without a turret) and with a powerful cannon or missile armament. Occurrence during and after the Second World War (e.g. Jagdpanzer 38 (t) ). Since then, the role of light tank destroyer vehicles, armored personnel carriers and combat helicopters has been taken.
  • Main battle tank : optimized for a wide range of uses to support infantry and combat other tanks
  • Landing tanks : floating tanks that travel from ships over the open sea to land (e.g. AAV7 )
  • Airborne tanks: from light and small weapons carrier vehicles to battle tanks, with correspondingly weak protection and armament (e.g. Wiesel , M551 Sheridan , BMD (tank) ). Thanks to their compact dimensions and low weight, they can be air-loaded or air-loaded .
  • Mine clearance tanks : mostly unarmed vehicles for clearing land mines , often retrofitting outdated battle tanks (e.g. boars )
  • Mine-laying armor : weapon systems in which a mine-throwing system is installed on a tracked chassis.
  • Panzerhaubitze : Carriers of howitzers (e.g. Panzerhaubitze 2000 )
  • Armored mortar : modified transport or armored personnel carrier , the main weapon of the mortar ( mortar is).
  • Armored car : A lightly armored vehicle based on passenger car technology. Usually not considered a tank.
  • Engineer tanks : mostly unarmed vehicles for carrying out leveling and dredging work under enemy fire. They are used to clear and create obstacles and coverings (e.g. badgers ).
  • Radar reconnaissance tank: for reconnaissance of the battlefield (e.g. radar reconnaissance tank 91-2 )
  • Missile tanks: for transporting, possibly erecting and firing missiles (e.g. MLRS , M474 )
  • Medical armor: for the treatment and rapid removal of injured persons (e.g. piranha medical armor )
  • Armored personnel carrier: well-protected tank for the transport and fire support of an infantry group, mostly armed only with a light cannon (e.g. Puma )
  • Floating tanks : armored vehicles developed for reconnaissance or for landing operations on beaches, which can move easily over water as well as over land and thus belong to the amphibious vehicles (e.g. AAV7 )
  • Spähpanzer : fast, small, low-noise, far-reaching telecommunication-capable, only lightly armed vehicles, today mostly designed as wheeled armor (e.g. lynx )
  • Transport tanks : at most lightly armed vehicles with space e.g. B. for infantrymen, injured persons or ammunition and armor only against light infantry weapons, today mostly designed as wheeled armor (e.g. fox )
  • Weapons carrier: lightly armored vehicle that transports a weapon and can fire it directly; consists of an armored hull and (in the known cases) a lightly armored turret that can be rotated 360 °; z. B. Rhm.-Borsig Waffträger or Ardelt Waffträger

Similar vehicles are also used for civilian purposes, e.g. B. as

  • armored vehicles for the transport of valuables or personal protection,
  • Fire fighting tank ,
  • Lifeboat used to evacuate space travelers from the rocket launch site during an emergency
  • Transport tanks for personnel transport and other armored special vehicles for the police.



Early on in the history of war has been attempted to use armored vehicles for military purposes. In ancient warfare, the chariot was used both for long-range combat by archers and for close combat to overrun enemy lines . The covered, wheeled battering ram was used when a fortress was besieged . So the attacker was able to bring the battering ram to the fortress wall, protected from the arrows of the defenders.

da Vinci's design

All further designs and attempts, among others by Leonardo da Vinci , failed because of the problem of the drive. Muscular strength of humans or animals was not suitable for this. Only the steam engine and the combustion engine developed in the 19th century made efficient propulsion possible. James Cowan was the first to propose a steam engine-powered military vehicle in the shape of a turtle in 1855.

In 1903, HG Wells' story The Land Ironclads appeared in Strand Magazine . In the story, set in any particular country, it comes to a war of position in which no movement possible seems - until the opponent bicycle cavalry and country common armored war machines are used which the opposing infantry destroyed and are even capable of wide trenches to overcome. Wells developed the concept of this modern war machine years before the tank was invented. His war machines are, however, considerably larger than the tanks were then and are more reminiscent of small, land-based armored cruisers . It is noteworthy that the shooters in Wells tanks already work with a kind of joystick and have sighting devices with automatic aiming .

Around 1900, the engineer Franz Klotz , who worked for Škoda in Pilsen , developed a "tank bell" and had it patented. On a chassis, the armor should be set up so that it can move vertically. If this vehicle was involved in a battle, the armor should be lowered to ground level and the enemy should be fought with machine guns. The armor was then raised again to a height of about 30 centimeters above the ground and the journey continued. However, this "Klotz tank bell system" was not accepted by the military authorities.

Austro-Daimler armored car

One of the world's first armored vehicles was manufactured in Austria-Hungary by Paul Daimler . The Austro-Daimler company in Wiener Neustadt developed the first armored car in three years of secret work. In March 1906, this vehicle was presented to the public for the first time as part of an international automobile exhibition organized by the Austrian Automobile Club in the premises of the kuk Gartenbaugesellschaft in Vienna and then presented to the army during the autumn maneuvers . The armored car had a four-wheel drive with solid rubber tires and an all-terrain transmission to enable it to negotiate steep slopes. It was fully armored and equipped with a hand-rotating dome with two machine guns. The presentation of the performance also included an exploration trip. In just one day, the armored car covered a distance of around 160 kilometers, mostly in poor road conditions.

After the end of the maneuver in Teschen , Emperor Franz Joseph I wanted to inspect the vehicle himself. After a detailed explanation of the street armor, the performance of the car was to be demonstrated again. When the engine was started, the officers' horses shied away from the unusual noise. In the confusion that followed, the emperor grumbled about an unusable invention. The sales contract , which was ready to be signed , was then put on file. After long efforts, the Austro-Daimler company finally obtained approval from the War Ministry to sell the vehicle abroad. It was acquired by France .

Model of the motorized gun designed by Gunther Burstyn in 1911 . Displayed in original size in front of the Army History Museum in Vienna on the occasion of the exhibition "Project & Design - Military Innovations from Five Centuries" (June 16 to November 6, 2011).

Nicaragua used a tank for the first time in American military history as part of the banana wars in Honduras in 1907 . This was an armored truck with two machine guns mounted on it. The inventor was the head of the Nicaraguan military academy, the former Bavarian artillery captain Karl Uebersezig.

As early as 1911, the Austrian Lieutenant Gunther Burstyn drafted the plan for a motorized gun that had the properties of a modern battle tank: armor, a chain drive and a rotating gun turret. Burstyn was ahead of his time and knew that in a war to come the greatest obstacle would be getting through the enemy trenches safely. His technically ambitious design also contained four movable booms in order to be able to pass wider trenches. Burstyn submitted his plan to the Technical Military Committee of Austria-Hungary , but the latter classified the motorized gun as a worthless fantasy product. All that remained of it was a patent . The German Reich reacted similarly to Burstyn's draft. The revolutionary idea was thus put into a drawer, a prototype was never built. Only in the Army History Museum in Vienna is there a contemporary model of the “Burstyn tank”.

The first tracked vehicles to be used were the tractors from Holt-Caterpillar . A simple circulation chain ensured that the purely civilian devices could move better on uneven or difficult ground than the vehicles with tires or spoked wheels. Nobody thought of military use here around the 1880s. In 1912, the Australian engineer and inventor Lancelot de Mole submitted plans for an armored full-track vehicle to the French War Department . At the time, however, the plans were completely ignored.

All proposals by civil specialists to introduce an armored fighting machine were rejected before the First World War .

First World War

In the fall of 1914, the Allies first started considering how a powerful motorized weapon could be used to set the front, frozen in trench warfare, into motion again.

The first tanks were used by the British armed forces in the First World War from September 1916. They were simply armored vehicles armed with either machine guns or cannons. The armaments project had the deliberately misleading camouflage name Tank , which was intended to simulate the construction of movable water tanks .

In early 1915, the British officer Ernest Dunlop Swinton set out to develop an armored fighting machine. His plans were rejected in the first instance by the General Staff and the War Minister Lord Kitchener . Swinton used his political influence and was able to get a test drive through. This failed. In this situation, the then Minister of the Navy, Winston Churchill, took the initiative: he called the tank design (see Mark I ) unceremoniously a landship and thus fell into the portfolio of the Royal Navy . Churchill formed the Landships Committee from naval officers and civilians . From September 17, 1915, Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson built the final prototype , later called Mother . As the project took shape, the committee was given the cover name Committee for the Provision of Tanks in December 1915 ; hence the English term tank, which is still used today .

Reconstruction of a German A7V tank

The British Army carried out the first tank attack on September 15, 1916, with moderate success at the Battle of the Somme . On November 20, 1917, the British Army attacked the German positions (" Battle of Cambrai ") with the enormous number of 375 tanks at the time . Depending on the armament, a distinction was made between two variants of these tanks: “Male” (“male” with two 5.7 cm guns in oriel towers on the sides and three machine guns) and “Female” (“female” with five machine guns; two after each both sides, one firing forward). The British succeeded in a surprise attack (there was only a brief preparatory artillery fire); this resulted in a deep penetration into the German front. The German Army had to bring in all available reserves . A few days after the start of the battle, the Germans counterattacked, using storm troops on the western front on a large scale for the first time . On December 3, the battle ended with almost unchanged fronts. From a tactical point of view, the battle had a major impact on the course of the war. A quick attack with tanks and storm troops after a short gunfire seemed to make a breakthrough in the completely static trench warfare possible.

The first tanks reached only low speeds in the field because their engine power was still low; its own infantry could easily follow. Their main use was that they could pave a way for the infantry through extensive barbed wire barriers and machine gun positions. Only the faster vehicles, known as cavalry tanks like the Whippet, were able to break through a gap in the enemy's defense and advance into the hinterland . The armor was vulnerable to guns , hand grenades and flamethrowers . Deep shell holes and wide trenches (" armored trenches ") could already represent an insurmountable obstacle for the tanks. Many tanks failed due to technical defects. The French Renault FT , which had a central, rotating gun turret , turned out to be trend-setting for further tank development . The FT had 35 hp and weighed 7 tons.

Film recordings of tank operations in the First World War.

The Supreme Army Command was initially of the opinion that the tank was at best a "shock weapon", which would be able to provide its own side with a psychological advantage, but which could not achieve any resounding success in the long term. This assessment was based not least on the deficiencies of the tanks of the time. The value of the armored weapon was only recognized late. At that time, the German war economy lacked the necessary resources. At the turn of the year 1917/18 the Army Command sent the “1. German tank department ”for tactical training for the assault and training battalion to Beuveille . Their shortcomings became apparent at the practice site there. The German tanks were relatively slow and cumbersome. On February 1, a preliminary inspection of the department by Colonel Meyer, Chief of Motor Vehicles, took place. Therefore, only about 20 copies of the German A7V combat vehicle were produced.

Many of the captured Allied tanks ( booty tanks ) were reused by the Germans in their own ranks.

During the First World War, the first skirmishes between tanks took place.

Between the world wars

Between the world wars, engineers in many countries experimented with the most varied of concepts to further develop the tank. Often the developments were based on the previously known types of troops: slow infantry tanks, fast cavalry tanks, heavy artillery tanks and oversized "mobile fortresses" were the result of these considerations. In particular, experiments with multi- turn armored vehicles did not prove successful in use, since the mostly different armament did not provide any advantage in combat.

Finally, the form of the main battle tank with a weapon turret , which is still common today, prevailed. The independent importance of the weapon was increasingly recognized and became the benchmark for development. Most of the tank constructions between the world wars remained in service until the outbreak of the Second World War , where they had to prove their functionality for the first time. Then a rapid development of the armament technology of the tanks began.

The Soviet Union began mass production of the T-37 light reconnaissance tank in 1933 . He could swim and is considered to be the first swimming tank .

Second World War

Soviet main battle tank T-34/76
American armored personnel carrier M2

The British and French lost their technical lead in tank technology and tactics in the early 1930s . There the tank was still primarily viewed as a support weapon for the infantry. Officers who pleaded for the massive use of this weapon system (e.g. the later French President Charles de Gaulle ) were unable to assert themselves with their concepts.

The German Wehrmacht consistently relied on tanks when rearming or rearming before the Second World War and implemented the theories of General Heinz Guderian , who advocated strong tank units independent of the infantry, as also advocated by General Ludwig von Eimannsberger . In the first years of the Second World War, great successes could be achieved in the so-called Blitzkrieg , as the opponents had underestimated the tactical and operational capabilities of the tank. The initial German successes were actually achieved with rather weak tanks ( Panzer I , Panzer II , Panzer III ) - only 198 Panzer IVs took part in the attack on Poland ; in the western campaign 278 pieces. Since 97 of them were completely destroyed, it was recognized that the Panzer IV was not designed for the function of the main battle tank (its armor and gun were too weak).

The increasing motorization of the ground forces brought about the separation of battle tanks and artillery tanks (e.g. Sturmgeschütz III ) as a new type of tank .

Lightly armored, open-top tracked and half-track vehicles such as German armored personnel carriers 250 and 251 , British Universal Carriers and US-American M2 and M3 were developed and built to transport soldiers and material or to serve as weapon carriers . Such vehicles were not available to the Soviet Union, so they improvised with mounted infantry on battle tanks. After the war, armored personnel carriers and transport tanks developed from this type of vehicle.

During the war, tank technology developed very quickly. With the appearance of new tanks, especially the Soviet T-34 main battle tank from 1941 , the SU-76 artillery / tank destroyer from 1942 and the changing tactics of the opponents, who learned from their mistakes, the German operational superiority was more and more lost . Also due to the clear numerical inferiority, the German armored forces could no longer achieve any significant successes even with later technically superior German tank models such as the Panther and Tiger . The technical development went more and more in the direction of heavy armament and armor. The lack of availability of correspondingly powerful engines had a limiting effect here. The low availability of rare materials such as molybdenum for armor and the shortage of materials such as rubber also set limits to the efficiency of the tanks. Specialized tank types such as the tank destroyer were now developed.

Towards the end of the war, the tanks of the western allies could not keep up with the performance of German tanks, but due to the large numerical superiority and the almost complete air superiority , a different tactic could be used. The fight against tanks was mainly carried out by ground attack aircraft , also known as attack aircraft . The tanks were used for infantry support. The M4 Sherman was a well-built and universal main battle tank of the war, although nowhere did it perform excellently. Some of the numerous versions were floating and mine-clearing armored vehicles, which were mainly used during the Normandy landings . The first anti-mine tank was the British Matilda during the Africa campaign .

For the tank models of the Second World War see:

Cold War

After World War II, combined arms mobile combat became even more important. So the armored personnel carrier, which could carry the infantry to battle and then provide further support, was introduced. Transport tanks and other armored vehicles for support troops were developed. The importance of artillery tanks has grown.

The spread of the anti-tank guided weapon with shaped charge warheads (see HEAT ) led to a further development of armor technology. Electronic sensors (infrared, laser) were increasingly used to improve target accuracy and night combat capabilities. The impending danger of nuclear war made it necessary to equip armored vehicles with NBC protection .

According to different operational doctrines of NATO and the Warsaw Pact , the development of the tanks proceeded differently. The Soviet Union and its allies developed vehicles that were easy to use and long range so that the relatively poorly trained conscripts who made up the majority of the army could use these weapons. These conscripts only served two years, which meant that their training was always very rudimentary. This made it possible to maintain a very large armored force. However, some of these requirements had to be paid for with inadequate armor protection and weaker main weapons. On the other hand, very high production figures could be achieved in this way. For its part, NATO relied on very complex systems that were supposed to meet the high requirements for armor protection, firepower and mobility. However, the training expenditure was also higher, which was compensated by the fact that a large part of the work was carried out on professional soldiers, who committed themselves for a longer period of time and could be trained accordingly in detail. It would not have been problematic to achieve similar production figures as the Soviet Union achieved with the T-72 , but the costs would have been much higher.

Meaning today

To this day, battle tanks developed during the Cold War form the offensive backbone of most modern land forces. (There are, however, the first examples of complete renunciation, such as that of the Netherlands.) Their tactical value has been greatly reduced by asymmetrical warfare and the greater availability of inexpensive Russian anti-tank weapons around the world. Even in conventional symmetrical combat management, the combat value of battle tanks without adequate anti-aircraft defenses or with a superior enemy air force ( air superiority ) is severely limited. Examples of war history are North Africa, Normandy and the Second Gulf War . Due to the changed threat situation, the states are increasingly relying on airmobile, lighter armored units or wheeled armored vehicles , which have many components in common. The western armed forces in particular rely on modular construction in order to adapt vehicles to the task at hand (e.g. new armored platform ). Russia also has a similar concept with Armata . In order to optimize the combat value of battle tanks for combat in urban environments, conversions such as the Leopard 2 PSO are being tried out . In addition to optimized mine protection, it also has improved all-round visibility, motion detectors that are intended to contain the blind spot in the close range, and a secondary weapon on the turret that can be controlled from the interior of the tank .



Armor optimization through inclination
PT-91 , improved T-72 with reactive armor
A Stryker in Iraq with Slat Armor as additional armor

Since the first days of the tank, the armor has consisted of different steel alloys that have been processed with different hardening processes. Aluminum can also be used in lightly armored vehicles . It is not enough to make the alloy as hard as possible, because then an impacting bullet can cause the armor to shatter, similar to glass. Hardness and ductility must be in balance. This is why surface-hardened types of steel ( e.g. nitrided steel ) are used, where the surface is harder than the rest.

The construction can make a significant contribution to the effectiveness of the armor. A projectile emits most of its kinetic energy when it hits the armor at a right angle . The flatter the angle, the less energy acts on the armor. Thus, the construction of the tank is optimized so that the armor is not at right angles to the expected projectiles. (see: armoring # inclined arrangement )

Shaped charge projectiles ( HEAT ) and rockets posed an enormous threat to battle tanks after 1942 (through bazooka , fist cartridge , PIAT ), as they could penetrate armor made of steel in thicknesses that made it no longer practical to build a tank that was safe against it. Advances such as composite armor , spaced armor or reactive armor made the tank competitive again.

With reactive armor, plates, which are designed as small explosive charges, are also attached to the surface of the armor. In the event of a projectile striking, these detonates prevent, for example, the development of the armor-piercing metal spike of the hollow charge or are intended to deflect the projectile.

Fabric mats (Spall-Liner) made of high-strength fibers such as aramid (Kevlar) protect the crew from splintering and bullet remnants in the interior. When the liner itself penetrates, the opening angle of the splinter cone is influenced. They can be found on many (especially western) tanks.

The armor is reinforced to a level that is still acceptable in terms of weight. Although more than half a meter depth of armor at the front is by no means unusual today, a tank cannot have this armor thickness everywhere for weight and other obvious reasons (mobility, transportability). In most cases, the armor is sufficiently dimensioned to repel the previous generation of enemy anti-tank weapons. The armor strength is still given in RHA (rolled homogeneous armor) , but this is only a rough comparison value, because the armor reacts differently to the different projectile types.

The subsequent reinforcement of the armor was already practiced in World War II and is still used. On the one hand, there are temporary means such as sandbags, armored chain links or tree trunks. On the other hand, there are armor plates (also called armor aprons) that were added later , usually at a certain distance from the original armor. With the advent of shaped charge projectiles, cage armor  - known in the 21st century as slat armor - has been used to detonate the projectile before it hits the armor. While wire mesh was used in the past, modern constructions are now made of steel and are more like a grid. They offer effective protection and are a simple, lightweight alternative that is not only used for tanks. Reactive armor can also increase the combat value of a tank relatively easily through modernization measures. All these subsequent measures have the disadvantage in common that they increase the weight and consequently the mobility suffers.

There is more and more an arms race between armor and anti-tank weapons of various kinds, which have often been further developed to attack less armored parts such as the top, the rear, the bottom or the tracks.

New demands have been made since the end of the Cold War . The asymmetrical warfare in third world countries ( Iraq , Chechnya , Afghanistan ) shows less the use of heavy armor-piercing weapons than simple weapons. The aim is improved protection of tanks against landmines and improved all-round protection instead of strong frontal armor.

Information about the composition and thickness of the armor is often subject to confidentiality. Some examples in which modern western main battle tanks were destroyed by the effects of their own weapons (“ friendly fire ”) allow conclusions to be drawn about their armor. During the Second Gulf War in 1991 , for example, it became apparent that a US Hellfire missile could destroy an M1 Abrams . During the Third Gulf War in 2003 , a British Challenger 2 mistakenly attacked a British tank of the same type. Two crew members were killed and the other two injured. The tank was written off as a total loss.

Distance-active protective measures

Distance-active protective measures or active armor are all active systems against attacking projectiles that do not only consist of passive armor materials. These include B. Systems that automatically warn the crew of enemy forces, especially of approaching projectiles. In some cases, they are also used to independently take countermeasures, such as automatically turning the turret with its heavily armored front and the barrel weapon towards the attacker, actuating the smoke launch system in order to obscure approaching missiles with seeker heads, and electronic countermeasures against radar-guided missiles and against laser-based systems. In addition, approaching projectiles can also be attacked directly. This happens, for example, with omnidirectional shot charges from smoke throwing cups or with directed shot charges from rotating launchers.


Bow machine gun of the T-34
BMP-1 : 73 mm smoothbore gun and anti-tank missile
2K22 Tunguska : Two
automatic cannons and anti-aircraft missiles

The armament is very different depending on the type and purpose and is subject to technical progress . The spectrum ranges from machine guns and machine guns to various artillery pieces and rockets. In common, most tanks have machine guns against attacking infantry. For close defense against enemy infantry, they can fire omnidirectional fragmentation grenades from smoke throw cups.

The first English tanks (Mk. I) had a male version (with cannon and machine gun armament) and a female version (with only machine gun armament). The cannon-armed tanks were to attack fortified positions, the infantry tanks armed with machine guns were to cover their own advancing infantry. Later it became generally necessary for main battle tanks to be armed for a tank confrontation.

In the further development, ever larger calibers were used in order to be able to penetrate the increasingly thick armor of the enemy tanks. Main battle tanks have been using smoothbore cannons since 1962 ( T-62 ) and 1979 ( Leopard 2 ) . The most common calibers for tank cannons today are 120 mm (west) and 125 mm (east).

The tank destroyers of World War II had the same armament as the main battle tanks. That changed fundamentally after the war. After unsuccessful attempts with recoilless guns (e.g. M50 Ontos ), anti-tank missiles are used.

Armored personnel carriers mostly have automatic cannons up to 40 mm caliber for infantry support. The fast-firing cannons can also be used against flight targets. Since this weapon is ineffective against heavily armored battle tanks, some armored personnel carriers also have anti-tank missiles (e.g. M2 Bradley , BMP-1 ). Some models had spherical apertures ; Infantrymen traveling with them could fire their handguns from the interior outside.

Artillery tanks carry long-range cannons (howitzers) for steep fire and only use them for defense in direct aiming. Mortar-carrying artillery tanks can only use their weapon directly to a limited extent, depending on the design. The Scandinavian artillery mortar system AMOS (Advanced Mortar System), on the other hand, is also able to shoot targets at a distance of 150 to 1550 meters in direct aiming at an elevation of −3 degrees to +85 degrees.

Anti-aircraft tanks carry automatic cannons or anti-aircraft missiles against air targets. In order to increase the practical rate of fire against fast aircraft, the automatic cannons are often bundled as twins or four of a kind or designed as a multi-barreled Gatling cannon . The automatic cannons can also be used against ground targets. Anti-aircraft tanks with mixed armament, such as the M6 Linebacker or the 2K22 Tunguska , carry both automatic cannons and anti-aircraft missiles. In modern anti-aircraft tanks, a fire control system with radar automatically aligns the armament to aircraft within range.

Tanks equipped with guns usually have automatic loading machines; for battle tanks since the 1960s (e.g. T-64 ), for artillery tanks since the 1990s (e.g. the 2S19 self-propelled howitzer ).

Until the middle of World War II, the tank had to stand still so that the gunner could fire an aimed shot. The strong pitching movements of the tank while driving, which were also transferred to the cannon, made a targeted shot while driving impossible. The M4 Sherman was the first tank with a gyro-stabilized main weapon. Later systems can also compensate for the steering movements of the tank. The turret rotates in the meantime so that the weapon remains aimed at the targeted target. Many armored personnel carriers (e.g. Marder 2 ) also use this technology.


Petrol engines

Initially, gasoline or petroleum engines were used as in-line, V or radial engines. The reason was that gasoline engines, especially before the introduction of the turbocharger in diesel engines, had a much better power-to-weight ratio than diesel engines. However, this type of drive had the disadvantage of a higher risk of fire and explosion in the event of fire. For this reason, diesel engines were used in some cases even before the Second World War. Today gasoline engines are out of use.

Diesel engines

High - speed four - stroke diesel engines have been used in armored vehicles since shortly before the Second World War . Today they represent the predominant and most developed type of drive. The early, rather robust, but not very powerful engines were further developed into supercharged high-performance diesel engines. These are used in practically all variants, for example as a V-engine , in a boxer arrangement or as an opposed piston engine . The engines have become increasingly complex, but tank diesel engines can sometimes be replaced in a few minutes. Compared to gasoline engines, diesel engines are more efficient, which means that the tanks have a longer range.

Multi-fuel engine

Multi-fuel engines are a well-used but rather rare type of drive. As the name suggests, it is an engine that can run on almost all types of fuel. At the beginning of the Cold War, many tanks introduced into the military in Germany were equipped with such engines, as a shortage of certain fuels was to be expected in the event of a war. The multi-fuel engine would have ensured mobility, regardless of the type of fuel. The disadvantage of this engine, however, was its low power, which is why it was no longer used after a relatively short time.

Gas turbines

Engine replacement on US M1 Abrams

Gas turbines are used as drives in some tank models. The advantage of the gas turbine drive compared to a reciprocating engine is the lower power to weight ratio ; the gas turbine is significantly lighter than a reciprocating engine with the same power and requires less space. On the other hand, there is increased fuel consumption, especially in partial load operation , which limits the range of the vehicle and can cause logistical problems in fuel supply. The tank is also easier to locate due to the higher exhaust gas temperature and the resulting stronger infrared signature.

Because of the disadvantages, only a few models with turbine drive were developed, since the higher total engine weight of piston engines plays a subordinate role in modern battle tanks with a total mass of 50 - 60 tons.

The problems of high fuel consumption and the non-existent power supply without a running turbine are attempted with additional power units and hybrid mixed drives (diesel and additional gas turbine) .

For the first time in an armored vehicle, the gas turbine drive in the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 assault gun was used as an additional drive to increase peak performance. The first main battle tank to be powered exclusively by gas turbines is the Soviet-Russian T-80 . The only other main battle tank powered by gas turbines is the US M1 Abrams .

Electric motors

Electric motors as armored chain drives or wheel drives were considered right from the start ( Holt Gas-Electric Tank ), but only rarely, and then unsatisfactorily, brought to series production (e.g. Jagdpanzer Elefant ). The use of electric motors would offer various advantages, for example gearboxes and drive shafts would be superfluous. The electric motors are supplied with electricity by generators that are driven by internal combustion engines. Today this type of drive is mainly used in locomotives and ships and is mostly designed as a diesel-electric drive . It is not yet possible to estimate what role they will play in future tank designs, including in relation to the development of hybrid electric vehicles .


Leclerc overcomes a ditch: This ability is called the ditch-crossing ability

One of the requirements for armored vehicles is the greatest possible mobility. In detail, this means off-road mobility, maneuverability, possible range without refueling, speed and amphibious skills. This z. Sometimes contradicting requirements are met by armored vehicles and armored chains in different ways.

Chain drive

The chain drive ensures very good off-road mobility. Vehicles with such a drive can cope well with muddy ground, can cross ditches and overcome obstacles quickly and without damage with the impeller at the front, which is usually only found on tanks. Some tanks have an additional hydraulic gearbox, which primarily allows the use of a steering wheel instead of two brake levers and - even if this does not apply to all tanks - allows the tank to turn around its vertical axis. The sturdy chains withstand fire from handguns. With the advantages mentioned, this type of drive also has disadvantages: high weight, high fuel consumption and comparatively low speed on paved roads. In addition, the chains do not withstand any anti-tank weapons and can therefore become the Achilles' heel of the tank (the tank is still functional after such a hit, but unable to move and therefore an easy target).

Wheel drive

The wheel drive enables fast movement in easy terrain. Although the off-road mobility could be increased through improved running gear, wheel drives do not achieve the performance of chain drives in this respect.

Half-track tanks were used primarily during World War II , mainly to improve the off-road capabilities of wheeled vehicles.

Other movements

Heavy armored vehicles usually do not cover longer distances to their destination with their own power. The transport takes place by rail on a wagon or on the road by low loader .

Real swimming tanks are designed for landing operations and can also cope with moderate waves. Some other tanks also have amphibious capabilities, but in most cases they require some preparation. Even then, a calm water surface, like that of inland waters, is necessary. Many tanks are airtight because of the NBC protection, and therefore also waterproof. The heavy battle tanks are seldom able to swim due to their weight. However, they can be equipped with a snorkel and wade through shallower waters. The engine is supplied with the necessary oxygen through the snorkel. With the Leopard 2, a shaft can be placed on the tower hatch, so that the commander can also keep his head above the surface of the water while underwater. In an emergency, this shaft is wide enough to be used as an escape exit. Lighter tanks, especially wheeled tanks, can be buoyant. In the simplest case, the drive runs via the wheels or chains that turn in the water. Advanced vehicles are equipped with underwater propellers or water jet propulsion .

Sensor technology and vision systems

Vision systems of the Leclerc
Thermal image in the main scope of the Leopard 2A4, including five-digit display for readiness to fire, range and type of ammunition

The endeavor to have as complete armoring as possible leads to restrictions in the observation of the area around the tank. A big problem with tanks is the so-called “blind spot”, the close-up area around the tank, which the crew can hardly see or not at all. If the immediate vicinity of the tank is not secured by its own troops, enemy infantry can effectively attack it from close by, for example by attaching adhesive charges to vulnerable places (engine) or throwing explosive charges under the hull. Confusing situations (e.g. highly structured terrain, street fighting, night fighting) are particularly critical.

The original viewing slits of tanks offered only a very limited field of vision and often had to be closed under fire. In order to alleviate these problems, special optical systems such as fixed and rotating corner mirrors were first installed . With the development of the appropriate technology, various active and passive devices such as thermal imaging devices as well as passive aiming and observation devices were added, which enable the crew to improve visibility.

Despite these improvements, it must still be weighed whether the benefit of the better overview from open hatches reduces the risk of z. B. also predominates by snipers.

The first electronic sensors were infrared night vision devices for some of the German panthers towards the end of World War II. The technology was based on the active infrared method, in which the target had to be illuminated with an infrared spotlight. Since then, there has been an increasing use of electronic sensor and fire control technology such as high-resolution thermal imaging devices and radar devices. However, there is a risk of being susceptible to electronic warfare measures, which is why a parallel design for manual and automatic operation is sometimes carried out.

In the Second World War, the gunner was only dependent on an estimate to determine the target range. This was done by sizing the target in the sighting device. After determining the distance, the trajectory was determined in order to aim the cannon accordingly. The first tank with an optical rangefinder was the German Panther in version F, which, however, was not introduced before the end of the war. Since then, advanced distance determination has been based on triangulation , either passively using optical devices or actively using laser time-of-flight measurement. However, the laser beam can reveal an imminent attack if the targeted target (e.g. an armored vehicle) has laser detectors.


Loader with speech set for internal communication

The tank operations of World War I were difficult to coordinate; the vehicles were downright isolated. The communication could only take place in a cumbersome line of sight using flags, Morse code signals or detectors. But even inside a very noisy tank, it was very difficult for the commander to instruct the driver and the gunner.

A major reason for the initial success of the German tank weapon (Blitzkrieg) was the equipping of all vehicles with radio equipment , which greatly improved the command and control capabilities of the units. In the opposing armed forces, the tank units were either not equipped with radio equipment at all (France, Great Britain) or only with radio receivers (Soviet Union), so that a flexible reaction to changing situations was very difficult.

Transceivers later became standard equipment in these armed forces as well. The crew members wear headphones and can thus communicate using the internal intercom . As a rule, there is an outboard telephone connection at the rear of the vehicle, via which your own infantry can communicate with the tank crew even when the hatches are closed.

Networking and computerization

The degree of computerization is an increasing factor for new developments, but also for increases in combat value . This is called C3I (Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence) and C4I (Command, Control, Communication, Computer and Intelligence).

  • Command and Control : Improved command and control ability, whereby the vehicle itself can report its enemy situation in addition to position and condition (e.g. number of cartridges present, fill level of the tank, etc.) and, conversely, receives the overriding enlightened enemy situation - together with information about its usefulness of roads and bridges.
  • Communication : Encrypted radio communication with higher-level operational authorities that is difficult to clarify
  • Computer : Use of powerful computer technology. This enables, for example, a map display with internal and external forces, minefields, etc.
  • Intelligence : Modern software allows the crew to make extensive calculations fully automatically and therefore very quickly in order to recognize the enemy and - in the case of vehicles in a network - to select the suitable vehicles and weapon systems to fight the enemy. In addition, the probability of a hit can be increased by calculating the most favorable time to shoot.

Camouflage and concealment

Stridsvagn 122 with camouflage nets
Fog thrower on the turret of the
Ulan infantry fighting vehicle

In alternating, hilly terrain or in areas with thick vegetation (for example in the forest), an armored vehicle can be camouflaged relatively easily with simple means (for example a camouflage net ) . With the advent of thermal imaging cameras that record infrared radiation, it has become easier to detect even a well camouflaged tank, as the tank often has a different temperature than the surrounding landscape. As a countermeasure, attempts are being made to cover the armor surface with various materials that heat up and cool down to different degrees in order to reduce infrared radiation. There are special paint finishes for this, among other things.

While driving, the engine emits hot exhaust gases into the environment, which can also be seen with a thermal imaging camera. Even armored vehicles can be located behind obstacles. The choice of engine technology (gas turbines have a higher exhaust gas temperature than diesel engines) and the technology of the exhaust system (exhaust gas cooling by adding fresh air) can minimize this risk.

If an armored vehicle is discovered and an immediate attack is to be expected, a modern tank can take active measures to prevent it. Most tanks are equipped with pyrotechnic smoke throw systems or other smoke generators . Fog can also be generated continuously by injecting fuel into the exhaust stream. In order to disguise the thermal image , the smoke grenades that are fired contain small burning particles (as known from sparklers ).


Classic opponents of a tank are combat aircraft , tanks and infantrymen with small, armor-piercing weapons such as anti-tank weapons or anti-tank mines . Combat helicopters , artillery with homing ammunition , armed drones and small anti-tank guided weapons ( MILAN , TOW ) used by infantrymen are added to the modern battlefield .


Historical tanks are on display in military history museums in many countries. The largest collections include:

In many places captured or liberated by the Red Army , there are victory monuments in the form of tank monuments (tanks on a pedestal). During the Prague Spring 1968, many such monuments were razed in Czechoslovakia - the tanks were received as a symbol of Soviet rule and hegemony since 1945.

See also


  • Werner Oswald : Motor vehicles and tanks of the Reichswehr, Wehrmacht and Bundeswehr , Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 1982, ISBN 3-87943-850-1 .
  • Kenneth Macksey, John Batchelor: The history of armored vehicles, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munich 1978, ISBN 3-453-52081-5 .
  • Wolfgang Fleischer: German tanks 1935 - 1945. Technology, structure and operational principles of the German tank troops , Podzun-Pallas Verlag, Wölfersheim-Berstadt 1995, ISBN 3-7909-0555-0 .
  • Christopher F. Foss : The tanks of the Second World War. The illustrated reference work , Podzun-Pallas Verlag, Friedberg 1988, ISBN 3-7909-0315-0 . (formally wrong)
  • David Miller, Christopher F. Foss: Modern combat weapons. Technology, tactics and deployment , Motorbuch Verlag Stuttgart, ISBN 3-613-01925-6 .
  • Roger Ford: Panzer - From 1916 to today , Karl Müller Verlag, Erlangen 1997, ISBN 3-86070-676-4 .
  • CF Foss, JF Milsom, JS Weeks, G. Tillotson, RM Ogorkiewicz : tanks and other combat vehicles from 1916 to today , Buch und Zeit Verlagsges. Cologne, special edition.
  • Peter Schwarzmann: "Panzerketten - The tracks of the German tracked vehicles of the Second World War", Brandenburg publishing house, ISBN 978-3-943883-00-8 .
  • Eric Grove: World War II - Panzer , Verlag Wehr & Wissen, Bonn 1976, ISBN 3-8033-0250-1 .
  • Ferdinand Maria von Senger and Etterlin : The German tanks 1926-1945 , Bernard & Graefe Verlag, ISBN 3-7637-5988-3 .
  • Walther K. Nehring: The history of the German tank weapon 1916-1945 , Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-87943-320-8 .
  • Armin Halle, Carlo Demand: Panzer - Illustrated history of combat vehicles , Scherz Verlag.
  • Heinz Guderian: Warning - tanks! Cassell PLC, England.
  • Chris Bishop: War history WK II - battle plans of the tank war , Brandenburgisches Verlagshaus 2010, ISBN 978-3-941557-05-5 .
  • Thomas Müller: Chronicle of the military vehicles - German tanks , Brandenburgisches Verlagshaus 2010, ISBN 978-3-941557-72-7 .
  • Gerhard Siem: Chronicle of the military vehicles - heavy tanks , Brandenburgisches Verlagshaus 2010, ISBN 978-3-941557-09-3 .
  • Markus Pöhlmann : The tank and the mechanization of war. A German story from 1890 to 1945 , Paderborn 2016, ISBN 978-3-506-78355-4 .
  • George Forty: Tanks of World War Two , Bloomsbury USA, 1995, ISBN 978-1-85532-532-6 . (208 pages online PDF)

Web links

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