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The US Army Once Thought Russian Tanks Were Invincible

Russian T-80 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Was the US Army correct in its Cold War thinking about Soviet Armor? In 1980, the U.S. Army had a terrifying vision: an armada of Soviet tanks sweeping across Western Europe, all the way to the English Channel. And the U.S. Army feared it had no weapons that could stop this vision from becoming a reality.

“In the arms likely to dominate the outcome of a future battle for Central Europe — armored fighting vehicles and counterweapons — the U.S. Army, then, probably will remain qualitatively and quantitatively inferior,” wrote U.S. Army Major General Paul Gorman in a secret 1980 study that wasn’t declassified until 2014.

The situation sounds eerily familiar to today, where critics question whether Russia’s next-generation T-14 Armata tank is superior to Western models. Or, whether U.S. and British anti-tank weapons will be effective against a Russian invasion of Ukraine that will rely on tanks for maneuver and firepower.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States accepted that its forces in Europe would be outnumbered by a massive Soviet war machine that by 1980 comprised 50,000 tanks — or five times the American tank arsenal. But U.S. leaders had always comforted themselves with the thought that Soviet numbers could be offset by superior American technology, training and tactics.

But by the end of the 1970s, when American military power had ebbed to its post-Vietnam low, Pentagon planners worried that the Soviet Union had achieved superiority in tank quality as well as quantity. In particular, they warned that the new T-72 outclassed the M60A1 and M60A3 — essentially upgrades of the 1950s M48 Patton — that were the backbone of the American tank arsenal at the time.

Even the first M1 Abrams tanks entering service — armed with the 105-millimeter cannon instead of the later 120-millimeter cannon — would have difficulty knocking out the more heavily armed T-72.

The U.S. Army rates the best current Soviet tank clearly superior to its main battle tank,” the Army report warned.

It assessed the T-72 as superior to the M60A1 by virtue of superior firepower and armor protection. The T-72 was also believed to have numerous advanced features that the M60 lacked, including an “automatic electronic rangefinder, possibly laser rangefinder,” an autoloader to increase rate of fire, a snorkel to cross rivers without needing bridging equipment, and an anti-radiation liner to protect the crew from nuclear weapons. The Army did at least credit the M60 with carrying 60 rounds of main gun ammunition versus 40 for the T-72.

Nor could salvation be found in the anti-tank guided missiles that had begun entering service in the 1970s. Tests and mathematical modeling by the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory estimated that U.S. TOW and Dragon anti-tank missiles and the M-735 tungsten core round for the 105-millimeter cannon had a probability of kill (pK) as high as 77 percent against the front armor of a Soviet T-62 tank. But against the T-72, that probability dropped to as low as 22 percent, with even the upcoming M-774 depleted uranium round only having a 50 percent chance to kill a T-72 according to the worst-case models.

That meant defense against a tank-centric Soviet invasion of Europe would be difficult until the 120-millimeter-armed M1 arrived in the mid-1980s.

“Whether one uses informed U.S. or Soviet calculations, the conclusion is that NATO can expect, through 1984, no advantage over the Soviets in quality of armor or antiarmor weapons, and only a modest redressing of its present quantitative disadvantage,” the study concluded.

But were these dire predictions justified? It’s hard to be sure. While U.S.- and Soviet-made armor did clash in the 1973 and 1982 Arab-Israeli wars, a climactic — and perhaps apocalyptic — battle between American and Soviet armies never happened. Still, the much-vaunted T-72 seemed more of a paper tiger in the 1982 Lebanon War, when Israeli Merkava tanks armed with 105-millimeter guns disposed of them. And pitted against the Abrams in the First Gulf War, Iraqi T-72s seemed almost pitiful.

While Moscow could try to blame these debacles on the incompetency of their allies, or the fact that they were using inferior export models of Soviet equipment, that 1970s generation of T-72 tanks and MiG-23 fighters was not impressive in action. Even Syrian-manned T-90s may have been knocked out by U.S-made TOW anti-tank missiles supplied to Syrian rebels in 2016 and 2017.

As the Nazis with their Tiger and Panther tanks could attest, merely having the most powerful tanks doesn’t guarantee victory. Well-trained crews, flexible command and control, reliable logistics, and plentiful airpower are more important than the thickness of a tank’s armor.

In the end, that 1980 U.S. Army study seems less about the superiority of Soviet tanks, and more about the fact that U.S. tank design atrophied between 1945 and 1980. With defense dollars and priorities focused on nuclear weapons and chasing guerrillas through Asian jungles, tanks had become far from the most vital component of U.S. military power. It wasn’t until the M1 Abrams arrived in the 1980s that the U.S. could claim to have a cutting-edge tank, and arguably the best in the world. On the other hand, many Soviet tanks tended to resemble the 1950s T-55 (itself descended from the World War II T-34), which suggests that changes in tank design tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Nonetheless, compare a Little Willie tank from World War I to an Abrams, and it’s obvious that tanks do change as technology progresses. Tanks inevitably change just as warfare does, and just as inevitable are the cries that the enemy’s tanks are superior. Fears that the Soviets had better tanks in 1980 are echoed today by warnings that the M1 and other Western tanks are inferior to the T-14 Armata, with its active protection system to shoot down anti-tank rockets, sophisticated sensors and data networking, and powerful 125-mm cannon housed in an unmanned turret while the crew remains safely cocooned inside the thickly armored hull.

U.S. Marines Tanks

M1 Abrams Tank. Image: U.S. Government.

For its part, the U.S. and other nations are developing new designs as well. The U.S. Army, for example, wants a family of armored vehicles that will include robot tanks. France and Germany are exploring a joint European tank that might feature a 140-millimeter cannon.

No doubt there will be Russian experts that will claim their tanks are inferior with these platforms enter service — and demand that the Kremlin fund the design of newer, better models (regardless of whether the T-14 has even entered production yet).

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in The National Interest, 1945, Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.