During the Cold War, a collaborative effort between the U.S. and West Germany designed to develop a cutting-edge battle tank emerged as the “MBT-70” project.
U.S. intelligence learned that the Soviet Union was upgrading their primary T-62 battle tank with powerful modifications- including an autoloading main gun and improved armor.
In order to effectively counter the Soviet’s armored vehicles, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara opted for an unprecedented “super tank.” Although this effort never came to fruition, the jointly constructed armored vehicle contributed to future main battle tank capabilities.
How did the MBT-70 program first emerge?
During the Cold War, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states used various weapons systems that for the most part lacked common ammunition, fuel, and parts. Defense Secretary McNamara saw how this lack of cohesiveness could be improved upon in the armored tank arena.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, American forces primarily used the M60 Patton tank while West Germany sported the Leopard I.
In an effort to follow through with McNamara’s plan, Germany and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding that ensured that both countries would have equal say in the tank’s design and characteristics.
However, this ultimately became the reason why the MBT-70 program never came to fruition. Disputes surrounding every aspect of the MBT-70 design erupted during the tank’s design phase. Perhaps the most contentious dispute among the German and American engineers was whether or not to use the metric system.
German and American engineers could not agree on design
While tensions eventually upended the collaborative project, designers did agree on a few considerations. The MBT-70 was intended to sport a steel-layered tungsten alloy armor with an interior protective shell. This design would in theory protect against the 105m shells fired by Soviets at the time.
As explained by Defense Media Network, “Instead of having the crew stations inside the hull, as was usually the case, they were being put inside the MBT-70’s oversized turret, which would be protected against nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) threats. This also made it easier to work out the tank’s armor layout, which they agreed should consist of two spaced layers; an outer layer made of thick, hard, cold-rolled steel and an inner layer made of “soft’ steel that would also protect against “spalling,” or interior fragmentation of the armor.”
Another interesting characteristic considered by both sets of engineers was a pneumatic suspension system that could be lowered to four inches off the ground. This design would allow the tank to gain a better defensive position. Additionally, the proposed tank’s main gun was impressive.
Per the MBT-70’s layout, a 152mm cannon replaced the existing 105mm main gun. The main battle tank also possessed greater mobility than its near peers. The MBT-70’s greater acceleration gave it a higher top speed than both the American-made M60 Patton and the German-made Leopard I.
The MBT-70 project was ultimately nixed
In the end, design complications and lack of communication between its German and American engineers upended the MBT-70 project. The tank was too heavy to travel on Europe’s bridges and rail cars, rendering it useless for future combat on the continent.
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Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.