Necessary Observations Regarding the Comparison of Tanks

It is common in our field of interest to compare individual tanks with each other. It is even more common to try and answer the questions:

In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is not the tanks themselves that are being compared, but numbers-simply the tactical and technical characteristics (TTCh). Sometimes we need to be reminded that the tactical and technical characteristics of any combat vehicle are, generally speaking, often idealized. They can differ significantly from the characteristics of the actual vehicles.

Quality is often not mentioned in these arguments, instead, categorical assertions are often made, such as "the running gear of this tank is better" and that is the end of discussion. This, seemingly, settles many disagreements, as frequently no one disagrees. But what does "better" mean? Better as compared to what?

What is the basis for assertions such as the ability to penetrate armour? This is a relatively complex process that in and of itself only provides a quantitative measurement. It does not address the issue of the probability of defeating the target; for example, the IS-2 was able to defeat the German Panther from a range of 1,500 metres. Yes, that is true. But what was the probability that this would occur? In addition to the obvious matter of armor penetration, there were two other very important factors: optics and the use of the optics by the gunner. How does one now make the comparison?

Everyone sees in the TTCh of a tank the thickness of its armor, but few go to the effort of understanding its quality. What is this armor made of? What is its chemical composition? By what technological method was it manufactured? This can best be expressed by people with the technical knowledge, by using a mathematical expression of armor hardness, using the Brinnel Scale. Hardness is very important, but by far not everything! What about brittleness? Steel can be very hard, but at the same time brittle. In fact, this occurred with German armor in 1944-45. All these factors remain relatively hidden, when in fact the resistance of armor to penetration depends upon its quality. For example, the forged armor of the Ferdinand was significantly more resistant to armor-piercing rounds than, say, the rolled armor of the Panther.

Similar comments can be made in relation to tank gun ammunition, which is often overlooked. It is usually considered sufficient to provide the caliber, weight, and muzzle velocity of a particular round. This far from being sufficient information! In the first place, what type of round is it: armor-piercing, sub-caliber, and so on? There are many nuances and hidden dimensions. For example, does it have HE filler (APHE) or it is a solid-shot round? In some cases this has decisive significance, for example, in the case of the German "spaced" armor used in some later production Pz-III tanks. 20mm thick armour was fitted in front of the existing 50mm frontal armour with an air-space bin between. When an APHE shell struck this armor, the detonator functioned upon contact with the first 20mm of armor, which caused premature detonation of the round. As a result the main armor remained intact. For example, the A-19 122 mm field cannon, and later standard armament for the IS-2 tank and the ISU-122 assault gun, fired only a chambered armour-piercing round (APHE). As a result of this, the Pz-III could not be defeated in a frontal shot even by the 122 mm gun, while the famous Panther could be completely penetrated straight through even from 1,000 metres.

In the same fashion, there is a large difference between blunt-nosed and sharp-nosed projectiles. The effect of "normalization" permitted the blunt-nosed projectile (more precisely, a sharp-nosed projectile with blunt tip and ballistic cap - APCBC) to better penetrate sloped armor than a normal pointed projectile. (Read more about "normalization" effect here). Once again the matter turns on the quality of manufacturing. For example, there is a well known condition that existed in the early part of the war relating to the Soviet 45mm anti-tank gun. Theoretically, the 45 mm projectile should have penetrated the armor of the German Pz-III tanks, but in practice this frequently did not occur. Tests were conducted to determine the causes for this failure. The tests showed that the projectiles had been re-heated during production, resulting in the reduction of their armor-penetrating capability (rounds didn't penetrate armour but broke on pieces).

It is now becoming clear that the comparison between two tanks is not a simple matter, as it seems to so many people. What is meant by the question of the "best tank"? To this day many believe that the German King Tiger was the best tank. Lets stipulate this, and lets agree also that the Germans were not fools (how else could they have produced the "best tank in the world"?). Now we must ask ourselves, why did the Germans, who we have agreed are not fools, not halt the production of all their other tanks and throw all their productive resources into the manufacture of the "best tank in the world"? The answer is that this tank was extremely expensive to produce. And now we have exposed its first deficiency, and this is no matter is it deficiency of the tank, the design process or the state of the economy. The tank was too expensive to build at certain conditions. Simplicity and efficiency of production are critical factors: history confirms this. History has shown that the numbers game proved decisive, where it was better to have five T-34s or Shermans than a single Panther.

The same may also be said concerning the critical factor of reliability and being able to quickly repair a tank, that is, ability to repair damage to the tank without sending it back to the factory. In this regard, the German Panthers, Tigers, and King Tigers show up rather poorly, according to the testimony of a large number of German engineers. The Soviet T-34 design allowed exceptionally ease repair (in the field). There are many confirmed cases where a damaged tank was transported to a field repair base and a few hours later was back in combat. (The Germans considered this tank as destroyed, and would-be Wittmans added it to their scores! Here is yet another source of myths.)

It turned out that standardization had exceptional significance. An enormous number of various armored vehicles were created on the basis of the T-34. But this is not all. Standardization can substantially ease the repair of tanks, the training of repair personnel, driver-mechanics, and crews in general. The Germans also had their own "T-34", the German Pz-III tank, on the basis of which were also created a large number of vehicles. Soviet specialists gave this tank high marks and were quite surprised by the fact that by the end of the war the Germans in essence abandoned it and undertook to construct the fantastic monsters like the King Tiger, Maus, and other designs. While it would seem that the decision was obvious: standardisation and utilization of the outstanding chassis from the Pz-III.

Many people attempt to explain the superiority of one tank over another by placing them in some kind of 'ideal conditions', that is, those conditions in which these tanks never fought and will never fight. For example, on a level playing field, like knights on a jousting field. If tanks were tested in this manner, then mobility, reliability, and cross-country performance would not be needed! Why bother? Make the armor thicker and the cannon more powerful and success will be ensured! Why do the engineers of all countries test new vehicles in field trials? Why are the reliability of individual components and the tank as a whole subjected to such intense scrutiny? In addition, the overwhelming majority forget that some vehicles were created in general not for combating other tanks but, shall we say, for storming of fortifications, or supporting friendly infantry.

Another widespread misunderstanding involves efforts to compare two tanks using statistics of losses of these tanks in several operations. Overall losses of particular types of tanks are identified and then it is determined which loss numbers are smaller. This is fundamentally unreliable, since the cause of the losses is often very unclear. It is possible that tanks drove into a minefield or were destroyed by air attack. But it is most probable that the tanks fell victim to anti-tank artillery. Statistics confirm this, for example about 80% of German AFV losses at Kursk and Balaton were caused by Soviet artillery (of any kind: anti-tank, field, howitzers, anti-aircraft).

A tank is too expensive an item to be used simply as an anti-tank weapon. Both in the Soviet and German armies the destruction of tanks was assigned first of all to anti-tank, field, and self-propelled artillery. Tanks were advised, conversely, to avoid direct engagements, since this led to unjustified losses. It was recommended to operate only from cover and ambush, and only in the concluding phase of the war did the Germans, clearly having lost the war, change their tactics. This did not help but only increased their losses. German and Soviet design engineers, like the engineers of all countries, compared tanks not to establish "the best over the best", but to discern their strength and weaknesses and understand what an obvious or potential enemy possesses. Such a comparison is useful for domestic tank design and production. What is the purpose in endless arguments by amateurs, overwhelming numbers of whom have never been in a tank, and many have not once seen a tank up close?

Written by:
Valeriy Potapov
Translated by:
James F. Gebhardt
Proof-read by:
Chris Amundson

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