Cold War Tanks
Starting from the sundry families of light, medium and heavy tanks, the strategists and tacticians of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact got to work revising the tactics and technologies inherited from WW2. This led to the development of new armored vehicles including Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and other specialized vehicles.
The two power blocks prepared for a large-scale conventional conflict until 1960, when the nuclear deterrent policy started to occupy the bulk of military spending and strategic thinking. However, armored warfare did manage to keep pace with the development of new, smaller and more efficient AT missiles, munitions and electronic targeting devices. These armaments were employed in many decolonisation wars, preventive conflicts and in the Middle-East. Some were what we now call “asymmetric wars”, like Vietnam or Afghanistan. Others were more balanced types of conflicts like Korea, the three Israeli wars (1956, 1967, 1973), or the Iran-Iraq war, where both sides fielded MBTs and armored vehicles.
The MBTs became more and more costly with the development of new composite armor, new and more complex ammunitions, and new sets of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) equipment. Additionally, advancements in electronic warfare, fording equipment, flares, on-board infrared vision and radar, flame-throwers, grenade launchers, remotely operated machine guns, etc. added to the cost as well as to the efficiency and destructive power of the MBT.
MBTs were supposed to replace all the older types of tanks simultaneously but only a few countries had the technological, financial and political capabilities to build such machines (namely members of the United Nations Security Council- USA, USSR, United Kingdom, France and China). At the same time, many other nations of the world began to develop their own derivatives from these main models, tailored for their military needs and industrial capabilities. With the transfer, purchase, and expansion of technology, new industries capable of building such tanks have continued, and will continue, to design and refine the new generations of MBTs of the post-Cold War era.
The rapidly increasing costs, as well as the need for better tactical flexibility, created a market for cheaper, but still deadly-effective vehicles. Light tanks and “low-tech MBTs” were prevalent on the export market. Wheeled tanks (experimented with during WWII) also found new markets in some third-world countries as well as in the arsenal of the world’s biggest armies. Armored cars, preferably with true off-road capabilities were, and still are, part of the armies of many countries today and their builders are now flourishing.
In the 1980s, many “third world” nations developed home-grown industrial capabilities which, while being able to create an MBT from scratch, could completely modernize existing ones to extend their service life by decades. This had two advantages at the time. Building starting from something already in existence and very well known was a cost-saving solution – even from the development perspective alone. Second, it also saved considerable money from a training and maintenance point of view. Since it was based on an already-existing model, it was easier to modify training procedures (due to new ergonomics), to train maintenance crews, or to change ordnance, transport, storage, and spare parts management than it was to create an entirely new model from scratch.
Upgrading was a natural process which triggered a wave of local versions depending on the needs of each user. A complete refurbishing upgrade was a combination of changes that lead to, in effect, a brand new tank. Most of these 1980s-90s programs were aimed at converting so-called 1st generation vehicles to at least 2nd generation standards. These modifications ranged from engine improvements (US or German engines and transmissions were often preferred), gunnery improvements (adoption of the standard NATO L7 gun for example) or with new Firing Control Systems, (gun stabilization, target management computer, laser range finder, new day-night all-weather IR sights).
Last but not least, protection improvements were developed to replace obsolete Rolled Homogenous Armour (RHA), including simple add-on appliqué plates, classified composite modular armour (ceramics-alloys-kevlar), or Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) bricks. The front arc protection often ranged up 250 to 800 mm equivalent of RHA.
Israel was probably one of the most proficient countries in this discipline, literally morphing every single tank bought or captured into a new model. This began with old stock M4 Shermans refurbished into the M-50 and M-51 (sometimes called Super Shermans) with modern FCS and a French cannons. The Centurion was developed into the Sho’t, captured Soviet tanks were given L7 105 mm (4.13 in) guns, new FCS and other improvement, forming the Tiran family. The M48 and M60 were radically upgraded as the Magach and the Sabra.
This experience was also useful during the creation and successive upgrades of the Merkava MBT and made the Israeli defence industry one of the most influential players on the market worldwide. Israeli expertise was, for example, instrumental in the complete refurbishment of Centurions into the Olifant in South Africa.
Upgrading national tanks for export was an especially popular “sport” for private venture. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s markets, most of these projects failed despite their respectable qualities simply because of cost issues. Cheap, second-hand tanks were stockpiled with détente in the late 1980s and were sold at scrap value or given away at shipment cost only. This doomed many conversions and even new projects aimed at export like the Brazilian Osorio and Tamoyo (based on the Leopard and M41 Walker Bulldog respectively), the US-Chinese Jaguar, French AMX-32 and AMX-40, German Super M48, Italian OF-40, Ukrainian T-84-120 Yatagan, British Vickers Mk.4 Valiant, Mk.7 & VFM-5, and the American Super M60 and Stingray, just to name a few.
BMP-23 in a regular green livery, 1980s
Camouflaged BMP-23D, 1990s