The Tank as RMA:
A Case Study in Real World Technical Revolution

Karl Lautenschläger
Senior Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Wednesday, September 5th, 2001

Analyzing the tank as the embodiment of a typical Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) provides a case study in "real world" technical revolution. Some proponents of military-technical revolutions have claimed that the tank revolutionized warfare. If this is true, then we should be able to determine exactly where and when the tank changed the landscape of the battlefield. What historical case or cases embody the tank as RMA?

Although the tank was introduced as a basic set of technologies during World War I, it did not revolutionize land warfare at that time. The strategic and tactical impact of the tank on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918 was minimal, as only rudimentary technologies had been developed by that time, leaving battlefield performance severely constrained. On the other hand, there were some early campaigns made successful, at least in part, by elegant and effective employment of armored vehicles. Three examples of these early campaigns were in Palestine in September of 1918, in Manchuria in August of 1939, and in North Africa in December 1940 through February 1941.

The German invasion of France in 1940 is the obvious example of where the tank was seen worldwide as having had a major impact for the first time. The Battle of France may best serve to describe and define an RMA in terms of tank operations. In order to assess just how, the 1940 campaign in France will be viewed at three levels: at the campaign level, within the armored division, and the tank as a weapons system.

At the campaign level, the tank contributed significantly to rapid advance of German forces. Panzer and motorized infantry divisions advanced together, with more traditional (horse and foot) infantry divisions protecting the flanks of the advance. However, tank divisions were just the tip of the spear, and for only some parts of the campaign. Many breakthroughs, assaults, and river crossings were made by other kinds of forces as well, including airborne, glider-borne, combat engineers, and standard infantry divisions. The combination of these arms, along with close air support and impressive tactical communications, ultimately gave the German armed forces an impressive success. Within the armored division, the tank was just one combat element, sometimes intended for assault, sometimes intended for support. Out of fourteen fighting battalions in the standard Panzer Division, only four were armored. With motorized infantry, artillery, anti-tank, reconnaissance, and combat engineer battalions, the Panzer Division was above all an integrated combined-arms unit. Note too that the German infantry division of this time, except for a lack of tanks and many fewer motor vehicles, was itself a combined arms unit of similar structure. To this day, heavy divisions and forces follow this model. In the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, the United States deployed 190 combat battalions, only 33 of which were armored. Finally, contrary to popular conception, the tank as a weapon system was not quite mature in the 1940 campaign. Of more than 7,000 tanks deployed by both sides, about 5,700 had multiple deficiencies in combat capability. Of the remaining 1,380 tanks, not a single tank on either side was fully capable of tank versus tank combat, even by the standards of the day.

More striking, in the face of traditional images of the tank and Blitzkrieg in the Second World War, is the fact that Germany did not practice highly-mobile combined-arms warfare and employ technically impressive tanks at the same time. The notable Panther and Tiger tanks did not enter combat until long after blitzkrieg-type operations had ceased to be possible. There is also a common conception today that technology can dramatically reduce one's own casualties. The case of the tank in World War II suggests otherwise. Even in the most spectacular German victories, early in the war, in Poland, France, and the first six months in Russia, came at substantial cost in lives and machines. They only appeared at the time to be quick and easy victories in the context of the then recent memory of the First World War.

The other powers adopted and adapted the tank in similar but distinctive ways. The Russian T-34 medium tank was arguably the best all-around tank of the war. Notable for this survey is that its combination of sloped armor, high speed, and respectable firepower was the result of a long evolution (from 1931) that only matured into an effective system after June 1941, and then continued to be effective with successive upgrades. Both Soviet Russia and the United States brought an element to the tank revolution that Germany did not: overwhelming industrial capacity. Each producing over 75,000 tanks plus 15-20,000 other types of armored fighting vehicle, the United States and Russia each tripled what Germany could do, suggesting that this neglected aspect of technical change could be as important in the future as well. The U.S. Army not only fielded armored divisions, but formidable infantry divisions. Completely motorized and with a tank battalion and a tank destroyer battalion both semi-permanently attached, the typical U.S. infantry division looked much like, and surpassed in combat power, the German Panzer division of June 1941.

The tank did indeed revolutionize warfare, but not in ways typically attributed to an RMA. It bestowed a new standard of combat capability on army maneuver units. After the tank matured technically and was integrated into operational forces, there was no going back. Yet, while raising combat capabilities of army divisions to a new standard, the tank did not replace established forces, suddenly making them obsolete. Rather, it added a new element to several existing and still essential ones. Nor did the tank bring a "mission panacea" to land forces, a universal solution for force applications. Finally, it did not enable forces to wage war with few or no casualties.

If the tank is indeed typical of other technical revolutions in military and naval affairs, and other research by this author indicates that it is, then this suggests a different model for future military-technical revolutions than the one commonly and currently assumed. The term "Revolution" has to be used in a qualified sense. Rapid change certainly can be driven by technology, but it inevitably takes time to establish a truly effective new combat capability. Once matured, and possibly splashed suddenly on the scene, technology can and has established new standards of combat capability. Yet those standards are seldom fully realized outside a limited spectrum of strategic and tactical situations. Finally, as the case of the tank vividly illustrates, the situation that initially brings about such a military-technical revolution is likely to recur over time, but it is seldom a continuous and sustained state of affairs.

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2001