When the tank appeared on the battlefields of World War One, it sparked terror among armies, who had no answer to it at first. The Germans attempted to counter it with new artillery tactics and later, new artillery weapons to destroy the armored beasts, followed by their first attempt to copy the British behemoths. After World War One ended, all of the militaries involved (the professional ones, at least) reviewed their activities during the war, trying to learn what had gone right, and – more importantly – what had gone wrong.
Regarding the tank, it was found to be useful, certainly, but it suffered from all the ills of any prototype concept, being ridiculously unreliable, too large, too slow, and poorly armored by the end of the war. The next two decades saw continual developments in all of the nations who felt that they might well be on the front line of the next war which – platitudes and wishful thinking about the “war to end all wars” aside – knew was coming.
World War two proved to be the watershed in tank design that most militaries expected. Designs were refined, weapons were improved, and tactics were evolved by force. In general, the things that didn’t work were ruthlessly cast aside, in favor of what worked. This cycle, of course, worked in both directions.
Tanks have severe weaknesses. For the crews, the most important weakness was a painfully limited view. Sticking one’s head outside a tank in the middle of a fight was not conducive to long life, and the visions blocks inside the tank had severely limited fields of view (and still do), limiting the crews’ ability to see anything outside of their steel box. For this reason, specially trained infantry had to escort the tanks across the battlefield to protect them long enough to make it into contact with the enemy…whose infantry could be expected to be armed with whatever anti-tank weapons they had access to, usually in large quantities.
The infantry forces of the world were not about to concede the battlefield to the metal beasts, however.
From the beginning, in WW1, non-armored forces struggled to find countermeasures against the tank. By 1946, dedicated anti-tank artillery had been joined (albeit briefly) by anti-tank rifles. During the “interwar period”, anti-tank hand grenades were developed; while effective, the grenades were really desperation weapons, given how they had to be used. Another weapon was the anti-tank landmine. A very effective class of weapon, they are strictly defensive in nature, and could be problematic in use, as the mines themselves could not be easily re-positioned at need.
Then came the “bazooka”.
A combination of simple rocket technology pushing a small warhead based on the “Monroe Effect”, the first crude “bazookas” deployed by the US Army proved to be highly effective tools for the infantry. Their only real downside was their very short range, compared to tank cannons. Still it was a major advance.
The American bazooka was copied directly by the Germans, in their “Panzerschrek” (or, “tank’s bane”), who had jump-started their own research program early in 1943 with their “Panzerfaust” (or, “armor-fist”), a one-shot weapon much like a conventional hand grenade. Both weapon concepts continue today, in a variety of models.
But, it was quickly recognized early on that a ‘middle ground’ was needed. Where conventional – if specialized – artillery was effective, the materials involved in building the dedicated weapons took away from more conventional artillery fire missions. At the same time, hand-held weapons – while also effective – were quickly being countered with better tank armor, and better coordination between enemy tanks and infantry.
In the aftermath of World War 2, the victorious states quickly divided into two mutually hostile camps, initiating the “Cold War”. And, like their fathers in the interwar period, continued the search for the middle ground.
To a great extent, anti-tank artillery disappeared after WW2, in a concession to realism, because the class of weapons was simply not dynamic enough to keep pace with the speed demands of a modern battlefield. It was here, however, that the next development arrived.
Although very crude versions of the “recoilless rifle” were developed in World War 1, the Second World War would see their mechanical maturity, and the first deployments in combat, in the hands of German paratroopers.
Resembling a conventional artillery tube, the recoilless rifle barrel is much thinner, for its caliber. Recoilless rifles work, basically, by firing a shell from a specially designed shell casing. This casing is perforated to allow a portion of the ballistic gases to vent to the rear, through a hollow breach. While not completely “recoil-less”, these weapons were a serious threat to tanks, as their warheads were fully capable of destroying a “main battle tank” of the day in one shot. And, while too heavy to be carried by hand, they were still light enough to be mounted in the back of a Jeep or pickup truck.
The recoilless rifle, in its turn, was sidelined by improvements to tank armor. Replacing it, however, was the ATGM. The Anti-Tank Guided Missile dawned in the early 1950’s. They were crude by modern standards, were hard to control in flight, and had a limited range, but technology was advancing rapidly, and the weapons improved dramatically in the 1960’s, especially in warhead technology.
The 1970’s dawned, and with it, the ATGM. In 1972, the US Army deployed the TOW Missile System to Vietnam, where it quickly began destroying tanks, being fired from helicopters. But this was just the proverbial ‘opening round’.
On October 6, 1973, the armed forces of Egypt invaded the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula. The furious, three-week long battle that resulted fundamentally changed the landscape of war for the first time since World War 1.
The Israelis had built up a well-deserved reputation for military prowess, one that would hold true in 1973…but not without taking a severe bruising in the process.
When Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and overran the Israeli defensive line, they halted and set up their own line, waiting for the Israeli counterattack. That should have been the first sign of trouble. Israeli tank commanders, however elected to not wait for more infantry to come up to support them, and attacked directly into the Egyptian line. The result was a bloodbath: the Israelis lost more than sixty tanks in a matter of minutes, as Egyptian ATGM troops cut the unsupported tanks to shreds.
The Israelis had met the Malyutka.
The 9M14 Malyutka (NATO Reporting Name : AT-3 ‘Sagger’), first produced by the Soviet Union in 1963, is probably the most-produced ATGM in history, a weapon still in both production and use as of this writing.
A tiny weapon, the Malyutka/Sagger fits into a briefcase-sized carrier. Assembled at its launch sight, the missile has an effective range of 500-3,000 meters. Its warhead remains potent even today: although no longer effective against most tanks, it remains very effective against buildings and light vehicles. The weapon’s warhead is in the same general category as that of the RPG-7, but has a much longer range.
Armies – and other groups – took note.
Now, there are a wide array of ATGM’s prevalent throughout the world. From the European MILAN launchers mounted to Toyota Hilux pickup trucks in the Chadian desert, to American Javelin missiles destroying invading Russian tanks in Ukraine, lightweight military forces around the world have finally found the balance they need to meet heavier forces equally on the field.
The dust these changes have stirred up have not fully settled as of 2023. Tanks remain dangerous actors on the battlefield, pundit declarations to the contrary aside. But, as we increasingly enter a period of “discount war”, high-powered weapons in the hands of light, fast-moving forces with tiny logistical footprints and easy-to-acquire and -operate combat vehicles is forcing a serious rethink of the scope of military action…
…At least, among those who pause long enough to reflect on the question.