The American M60 tank was a stalwart during the Cold War having proved its mettle in Vietnam and holding the line against the Warsaw Pact in Germany in the 1970s. It was the precursor to the Abrams tank, and it is still in service in many countries. But how would the M60 actually have performed against the Soviet hordes in a kinetic battle in the 70s?
M60 Tank Proving Grounds: The Case of the Yom Kippur War
One way to answer this question is to examine how the M60 was used by Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
At the time, the Egyptians and Syrians wanted to take the Golan Heights and the Sinai. The Egyptians attacked first with artillery and fighter jets. The Israelis were surprised to say the least. The Egyptians were able to get two miles inside Israeli defenses. The Israelis woke up and fought back hard with the M60 tank.
But the Egyptians had AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles that could be remotely-fired. Israel immediately lost 100 tanks in the first day of that particular engagement alone. The M60 turret was tall, and that made for a large silhouette. The tanks easily caught fire after one hit.
The M60 performed in an outstanding fashion when defending the Golan Heights against the Syrians. This was likely due to more skilled tank commanders who were fighting like banshees for the survival of Israel.
M60: What Happened to Armored Warfare After Yom Kippur?
Both Americans and Soviets took careful notes after Yom Kippur. Both sides knew that the Middle East was perfect for mechanized warfare. Anti-tank missiles were going to revolutionize the way armored battles were fought. Both armies realized that an airborne sneak attack from fighter-bombers could destroy many tanks on the ground. The U.S. military was shocked because the Egyptians used Soviet tactics and inflicted much more damage to the vaunted Israelis.
The Soviets were dependent on their T-64 tank. The T-64 also had a high silhouette, and the Russians quickly grasped that it would be an easy target for anti-tank missiles. It weighed so much that it had poor maneuverability. The T-64 engine performed badly. The Soviets also wanted to change out the main gun.
Meanwhile, the United States realized it had to upgrade the M60. The Americans reacted first by replacing the turret and getting a new gun and missile launcher that could engage targets from 3,000 meters away. That was the M60A2 and it was only used in Europe for a short time. Then the Army called for the M60A3. The M60A3 had better armor and a thermal sight.
The Soviets upped their production of the new T-72 which had an improved gun and new armor as well. The T-72 could also go 37 mph and had a 200-mile range. The M60A3 had a 300-mile range but could only go 30 mph.
If War Was Fought in the 1970s, How Would the Tanks Have Performed Against Each Other?
First, it would have been a bloodbath. The tanks appeared evenly-matched on paper and they would have slaughtered each other. But the edge would have likely gone to the T-72 as it had better armor, a more powerful gun, and was faster than the M60. Also, doctrine played a role. The Soviets believed in massive and endless echelons and formations that would go on the offensive and overwhelm the enemy. The U.S. doctrine in the 1970s was more focused on the defense. The Americans knew they were behind the times and needed a strategic, operational, and tactical upgrade of its armored warfare doctrine. The Soviets had a better tank in the T-72 and the Americans weren’t ready for a mass attack. The U.S. Army lacked offensive initiative in the 1970s. The answer was to get a new and more imaginative doctrine, but that really didn’t happen until the Abrams and Bradley came in service in the 1980s. It was a good thing for the United States that a tank battle with the Russians did not flare up during the 1970s in Germany.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.