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Titans of War: Tanks Reshape the Battlefield

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Titans of War: Tanks Reshape the Battlefield
: Photo: Robert M Schalk/U.S. NavyThis week marks the anniversary of the first use of the tank, one of the 20th century's most-iconic weapons. To honor this game-changing milestone we're taking a look at past, present, future and those tanks that might have been.
During the First World War, infantry and cavalry assaults proved suicidal in the face of barbed wire, machine guns and modern artillery. By 1916 it was a bloody stalemate with neither side able to advance, until the British unveiled a new secret weapon: the tank.
Combining firepower, protection and mobility, the tank made warfare mobile again and did away the trenches of WWI. The tank could make strategic advances faster than ever before. The Germans were the first to master this technique, which they called blitzkrieg or "lightning war." WWII saw German tanks roll across most of Europe by 1940.
Many now argue the heavy tank is an industrial relic, made obsolete by smart bombs and guided missiles, unsuitable to urban counter-insurgency. But with new types of armor, new weapons and new electronics, the tank looks set to dominate warfare well into the 21st century.

Left: Present: U.S. Abrams M1A2

Considered by many to be the finest tank in the world, the Abrams M1A2 is the mainstay of the U.S. Army. It has advanced armor and a 120-mm gun with a computerized control system capable of scoring a first-round hit against a moving target several kilometers away. The most-controversial feature is the engine, a jet turbine capable of driving the 68-ton tank at over 40 mph -- but with a gas mileage reportedly as low as one-third of a mile per gallon.
: Photo: Tony Nicoletti/Daily Record Present: UK Challenger II The British rival to the Abrams, the Challenger also mounts a 120-mm gun and has a more conventional diesel engine. Its armor is legendary: During the invasion of Iraq, a Challenger with damaged tracks was hit by eight rocket-propelled grenades and one guided missile without injury to the crew. The vehicle was back in action within six hours. Only one Challenger II has ever been destroyed in action, by friendly fire from another Challenger.
: Photo: Francois Mori/APPresent: Israeli Merkava Mk IV The Israelis arguably have more experience than anyone in modern tank warfare -- experience that is embodied in the indigenous Merkava series. Unusual features include a light mortar capable of firing high-explosive and smoke rounds in addition to the main gun. It places a high priority on crew survival, with the engine set in front of the crew compartment as additional protection.
Recently, however, casualties from anti-tank missiles during the 2006 war in Lebanon have triggered a debate over the armor's efficacy.
: Photo: Associated PressFuture: Russian "T-95" The Russians have a long history of producing highly effective tanks, but cash shortages since the end of the Cold War have made matching Western technology difficult. Recent official statements indicate that the Russian military will introduce a new generation of tanks ¬-- speculatively known as the T-95 -- for 2010. The new model is believed to have an outsize gun in an unmanned turret, but there is no reliable information about whether the "T-95" even really exists, and it may be more hype than reality.
At left, Russia's Black Eagle tank -- another prototype for future use -- moves during a demonstration at the Ground Equipment Omsk-99 weapons show in the Siberian city of Omsk, Tuesday, June 8, 1999. The show attracted potential buyers from more than 40 nations.
: Image: U.S. Army Future: U.S. Future Combat System The U.S. Army's next generation of manned and unmanned vehicles is known as the Future Combat System, with the XM1202 Mounted Combat System being the nearest to a battle tank. At less than one-third of the weight of the Abrams, the MCS can be carried by a Hercules or C-17 aircraft. Heavy armor gives way to an "active protection system," which intercepts incoming missiles and rockets. But with costs spiraling -- $300 billion to equip just a third of the Army -- it has become a political hot potato, and both Obama and McCain have talked about slashing funding.
: Past: Leonardo da Vinci's "Tank" War chariots have existed since the earliest times, as well as various wheeled protective enclosures used to approach fortifications. Leonardo da Vinci sketched a number of war machines: In 1499 he devised a moveable barricade to defend the city of Pisa. His plan for a prototype "tank" was a wheeled shelter driven by crank handles, with cannons pointing out in all directions.
"There is no company of men at arms so great that they will break it," Leonardo boasted in a letter to his employer, the Duke of Milan.
: Photo: Lt. Ernest Brooks/Imperial War Museum Past: Mark 1 'Mother' HG Wells wrote about "Land Ironclads," the land-going equivalent of battleships in 1903. The British Army built the real thing during World War I. The secret new contraptions were referred to as "water tanks for Russia" -- hence the name "tank". The Mark 1 had a crew of eight (four were required for steering) and was armed with two six-pounder guns and two machine-guns. It moved at walking pace, but the new caterpillar tracks were an effective way of getting through the mud and craters or no man's land. German troops were reportedly terrified of them.
: Image: Tank Museum GuidePast: The Liberty/ MkVIII The first American-made tank was the Liberty or Mark VIII, an evolution of earlier British designs, produced immediately after WWI. It was bigger than earlier models and heavier at 37 tons. The greater length meant it could cross wider trenches, then seen as one of the tank's most important roles. It was armed with two six-pounders and seven machine guns, and required a crew of 12. At five and a quarter miles an hour it was easy to outrun, but tanks soon became more powerful and faster.
: Photo: Corbis Might Have Been: German Maus Panzer VII The Germans used a succession of bigger and bigger tanks during WWII, from the six-tone Panzer I to the 68-ton Panzer VI "King Tiger." The logical extension of this trend was the Maus, a 185-ton monster armored like a battleship. This type of vehicle is wildly impractical -- few bridges could cope with that sort of weight.
But Hitler liked the idea, and a considerable amount of resources were poured into building several prototypes which were near to completion by the end of the war.
At left is the Panzer VI, already massive and cumbersome.
: Photo: Mark PellegriniMight Have Been: U.S./German MBT-70 Another project that never took off was the MBT-70, a German-American cooperative venture for a 1970s' supertank packed with the latest gadgets. It featured a combined gun/missile launcher, pneumatic suspension, which could "hunker down" or rise over obstacles, and a separate rotating pod in the turret to keep the driver facing forward. Both countries eventually decided the MBT-70 was too complex and too expensive, but to tank enthusiasts it remains a fascinating might have been.
: Photo: Cato EdvardsenMight Have Been: S Tank, Sweden The Stridsvagn 103 of "S Tank" was an innovative 1950s Swedish design with no turret. The gun was fixed in the hull, and was raised and lowered using the suspension. The crew of three included a rear driver who faced backward; the S-tank could be driven in reverse as fast as forward, keeping the gun pointing at the enemy. In tests the S-tank performed well compared to British and American tanks of the time. It was finally retired in 1997 without ever having seen action.


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