During the Cold War, if you served in the U.S. military in Germany, bad thoughts kept you up at night. This fear came from a location called the Fulda Gap. The strategic decisive point was located between East Germany and West Germany on the way to Frankfurt and the Rhine River. It was believed the Soviets would lead a mass armored attack on perfect terrain for tanks that would overpower NATO and the United States.
What was to be done? Build a new super tank to plug that critical avenue of approach. The MBT-70 was the tank designed to waylay the Soviet horde. Made by a joint effort between the United States and West Germany, this armored hulk was going to change everything.
MBT-70: What Happened?
The MBT-70 could kill long-range targets. The suspension was unique to position the gun for accurate fire better. It was going to be highly survivable. This made-from-scratch project became expensive though. There were schedule slips in getting it ready for serial production. The West Germans and Americans finally said no and scrapped the project.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the tanks of the day for the NATO side were the West German Leopard 1 and the American M60. Both countries wanted improvements to those models. The Soviets brought on their upgraded T-62 and that hastened the development of a new tank for the allies.
Good Armor But Bad Teamwork
In 1963, engineers and designers envisioned the MBT-70 having enhanced steel-layered tungsten alloy armor and then softer steel below. This was complicated because the West Germans and the Americans had different prototypes. They couldn’t agree on the way forward, they had trouble building on teamwork, and few spoke both languages. Both sets of design groups incorporated different engines and guns. The West Germans wanted to use the metric system and the Americans did not.
Pneumatic Suspension Could Have Been a Winner
One interesting innovation was a suspension that could be lowered to four inches off the ground to provide a better defensive position for the tank. It could duck behind trees and emplacements, reducing its silhouette to make the tank a difficult target for the enemy. When operators raised the suspension, the tank could travel faster on roads.
The Crew Sitting in the Turret Was Not Practical
Another aspect of both designs was that the crew was going to sit in the turret to be better protected against chemical weapons and nuclear fallout. The problem was that the driver suffered from motion sickness in this configuration.
Neat Ideas That Did Not Come to Fruition
The Americans chose robust gunnery with a powerful 152mm gun/launcher to shoot a diverse set of rounds. This had an early auto-loader and laser range finder, even a ballistic computer that was ahead of its time. It could also fire a Shillelagh anti-tank missile. There was a remote-control 20mm anti-aircraft gun. All of the systems sounded fantastic, but they never tested well. The 152mm caseless rounds did not work correctly and the anti-tank missiles never integrated completely. The Germans chose a simpler 120mm Rheinmetall gun.
High Cost and Delays Led to Failure
By 1968, both teams had a prototype for testing. But as you can imagine, all of these technologies became expensive, and delays plagued the program. Planners envisioned a cost of $200,000 per tank, but this amount ballooned to one million dollars each. In 1969, the Germans threw up their hands and withdrew from the project to make their own Leopard 2. Congress poked into the program and by 1970 determined that with its high cost and long lead time the MBT-70 should be canceled.
But the technology was great. The West Germans took some of the better ideas and built the Leopard 2 and the Americans incorporated the most doable innovations into the Abrams tank. Regarding collaborating on a new tank in the future, both countries said no way.
Bonus: M1 Abrams Photo Essay (The Best Tank Ever)
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.