Underrated: Anti-tank weapons

“Anti-weapons” are much better value for money than aircraft carriers

Underrated
Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

“Anti-weapons” are rarely appreciated by the public. Tank, aircraft and ship crew may be the heroes of screen and fiction, but that role is rarely extended to those who man anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and who lay mines. Instead, the focus is on resistance by similar weapons: other tanks, aircraft and warships. They are indeed important, but this leads to an underrating of anti-weapons and the related doctrine, procurement, training, tactics, experience and command skills. Anti-weaponry helps define the possibilities presented by existing weapons. They are crucial at the level of tactics. Tactical factors affect operational possibilities and thus strategic options.

Objectively, the role of anti-weapons is abundantly clear. This was the case in the past, whether German 88mm guns in the Second World War or Sagger missiles deployed by the Egyptians in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In the First World War, tanks—highly conspicuous targets—proved vulnerable to mines, artillery pieces firing low-velocity shells, and machine-guns firing armour-piercing bullets. The Allied breakthrough in 1918 owed more to the successful use of artillery-infantry coordination than to tanks. Anti-tank capability exceeded that of its armoured target in the 1920s, and in 1930 George Patton observed that effective anti-tank weapons had reduced tanks’ effectiveness.

In the Second World War, the response of all powers was to increase tank armour, as with the Soviet JS2 and the German Panther and Tiger tanks. This led to more powerful anti-tank guns, both static and self-propelled. In addition, infantry were equipped with hand-held anti-tank weapons. A major advantage was their relative cheapness in comparison to a tank. Thus, Germany produced more than 23,000 PAK 40 anti-tank guns and 6.7 million Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets.

Moreover, mines were responsible for between 20 and 30 per cent of wartime tank casualties. The capabilities of anti-tank weaponry ensured that combined-arms formations were more effective than those focused solely on tanks, as the overcoming of anti-tank guns required infantry support.

As with other legacy systems, the upgrading of tanks has helped to push up their cost, with the result that tank strength is lower than in the Cold War. That means that the loss of each tank is more problematic and also that there is a growing mismatch between the number available and the scale of the target. Thinking in terms of conflict between tanks sidesteps this point, but the mismatch is increasingly relevant given the nature of warfare. Even if destruction can be avoided, damage remains a central problem. The cost of replacing damaged tank tracks is formidable, let alone that of dealing with engine problems.

The limitations of tanks remain those that have existed from the outset, notably problems with reliability and vulnerability. Despite their cross-country capabilities, tracked vehicles tend to be less easy to operate and maintain than their wheeled counterparts, and to require more maintenance and fuel.

Armour is useful for protecting infantry against those opposing them in the urban environment, as was seen in facing the insurrection in Iraq. At the same time, the vulnerability of tanks has been displayed over the last 20 years in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and by the Kurds when resisting attack by Iraqi tanks. Modern American, Israeli, Russian and Turkish tanks have all fallen victim. Thus, in Yemen, the Houthis employed anti-tank missiles to destroy Abrams tanks used by Saudi Arabia, while in 2017 French-provided Milan anti-tank missiles were likewise employed by the Kurds. Losses are to be expected, and there have been considerable advances in reactive armour and electronic counter-measures against anti-tank weaponry. However, there are also significant advances in anti-tank weaponry, both kinetic and electronic. The growing sophistication of armour electronic systems and of cyber-attacks means that tank operations are likely to be part of cyber warfare in future. And the protection cost imposed even by relatively simple anti-tank weaponry is formidable.

The degree of vulnerability to anti-tank weaponry will encourage a search for an alternative to the tank, not least less expensive, miniaturised, unmanned mobile weapons. They will be exposed to electronic attack, but do not suffer from the complex logistical burdens posed by supporting modern tanks, notably in providing fuel. Resupplying their needs not only is a formidable burden involving much manpower, but also needs dumps that require protection.

None of this suits the image of powerful tanks surging forward to deal out destruction. In the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans, the cinema seats literally shake when the German tanks advance in the re-creation of the battle of the Kasserine Pass in 1943. It is a marvellous coup de theatre—but, of course, the Germans lost in Tunisia. Mighty-looking weapons are not necessarily the bringers of doom.