The Tank after One Hundred Years

15 September 2016


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:


Mechanized Armor Enters the Fray

On 15 September 1916 one of the pivotal events of industrialized warfare occurred: the tank was used in battle for the first time in history. Mobile fire has been the crucial offensive weapon of warfare since the beginning of civilization and warfare, whether that mobile fire took the form of chariot archers, mounted horse archers, a ship of the line, or mechanized armor, as with the tank. Before industrialized warfare the heaviest armored unit was heavy cavalry (or possibly elephants, though elephants were never armored to the extent that cataphracti or medieval knights were armored), which was a shock weapon — mobile, but not mobile fire. The tank was able to combine mobile fire with heavy armor in a way that no non-mechanized force was capable, and this made it a distinctive feature of industrialized warfare.

The Battle of the Somme had started on 01 July 1916, and with two and half months into the “battle” it was obvious that the Somme would be like most WWI battlefields: largely static and dominated by defense: trenches, barbed wire, and machine gun nests, which had arrested the progress of any offensive and so had precluded decisive attainment of objectives. Up to this time, the technology of the industrial revolution had strengthened the defense, but with the introduction of the tank all that changed. Mechanized armor brought mobile fire into the age of industrialized warfare, and mechanized armor has remained, for a hundred years, the primary spearhead of offensive action.

Despite its initial effectiveness as a “terror weapon,” the pace of tank development was somewhat slow for wartime conditions. The Germans did not introduce their first tank until the A7V was deployed in March 1918, and the first battle between tanks took place during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. Early tanks were mechanically unreliable, and were fielded in smaller numbers than would have been necessary to fundamentally change the conditions of battle. In many ways, this paralleled the use of aircraft during the First World War: the technology was introduced, but not yet mastered.

It was not the introduction of the tank that ended the First World War. However, an adequate conceptualization of mechanized armor began to emerge during the interwar period, when tanks underwent extensive development and testing, and Heinz Guderian wrote his Achtung — Panzer! (much as Giulio Douhet wrote The Command of the Air during the interwar period). The tank truly came into its own during the Second World War, combined with close air support in a highly mobile form of maneuver warfare that came to be called Blitzkrieg. The largest tank battle in history took place during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, almost thirty years after the tank was first used in combat.

In The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier I speculated that armored helicopters could take the place of tanks in a mechanized spearhead. Though helicopters will always be more vulnerable than a tank, because they can never be as heavily armored as tanks, they are today the premier weapon of mobile fire and could press forward the attack far faster than tanks. Helicopter gunships, however, have not yet been fully exploited for battlefield use, partly because they appeared on the scene at a point of time in history when peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states was already a declining paradigm, and so they have filled a very different combat role.

The paradigm of hybrid warfare that is emerging in our own time — a form of warfare probably more consistent with the existence of planetary civilization than the past paradigm of peer-to-peer conflict among nation-states — has no place for heavily armored mobile fire comparable to the place of the tank in twentieth century warfare. The forces now actually engaged in armed conflict (as opposed to appearing in military parades) tend to be lighter, faster, and stealthier. Despite the tendency of warfare to press forward the rapid development of technologies under conditions of existential threat, we have seen that it can take decades to fully assimilate a new technology into warfare, as was the case with the tank. It will probably take decades to get beyond doctrines of mechanized warfare established in the twentieth century and to adopt a doctrine more suitable for the forces employed today.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

10. The Somme after One Hundred Years

11. The Tank after One Hundred Years

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twentieth century war collage

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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