US Army

Happy centennial to the tank

File photo - Russian T-14 tank with the Armata Universal Combat Platform drives during the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015.

File photo - Russian T-14 tank with the Armata Universal Combat Platform drives during the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015.  (REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti )

Russia’s state-of-the-art T-14 Armata tank was unveiled to the world during rehearsals for the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade in April. At nearly $7.5 million each, the T-14s are among the most expensive armored vehicles to ever roll out of a factory, underlining the ongoing importance of tanks 100 years after their World War I combat debut.

According to Jane's Defence Weekly the T-14's armor can resist NATO anti-tank shells, including most armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding-sabot (APFSDS) rounds. The tank's most significant features include its unmanned turret and the ability to fire between 10 and 12 rounds per minute. The T-14 took five years to develop, further emphasizing that the days of the tank are far from over.

"Every generation of military thinkers since World War I has said that they don't need tanks anymore," David Willey, curator of The Tank Museum in Bovington, U.K, told FoxNews.com. "With the T-14 the Russians have revealed that their latest battle tank is the real deal again.”

“The tank is very much like the Swiss Army knife,” he added. “Its’ utility and adaptability is such that it can be used in numerous ways."

It all began 100 years ago when the armies fighting in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I were bogged down and both sides considered any and all options to break through. The horrific war led to the use of airplanes, poison gas and even the submachine gun. World War I can also be remembered for the tank’s introduction, with the debut of “Little Willie” in the late summer of 1915.

Earlier that year the British military, at the behest of the then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill established the Landships Committee, which was composed mainly of naval officers, politicians and engineers. This small committee first proposed a strategy to develop large wheeled "landships" that were estimated to weigh as much as 300 tons and could roll over any terrain. However, it soon became apparent that the costs, complexity and logistics of creating these vehicles were unrealistic. The decision was made to go smaller with a vehicle that could carry a crew and pave the way for infantry breakthroughs.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1915 the Committee conducted a number of trials with wheeled and tracked vehicles. In July 1915 the War Office became aware of the project and its operations were transferred from the Royal Navy to the British Army.

Under the Army's direction the first completed tank prototype was developed. It was dubbed "Little Willie" and is today the oldest surviving individual tank in the world. It is housed at The Tank Museum in Bovington. Little Willie was truly a precursor of the tanks to come. 

"The idea of the protected mobile platform had been played with since the Middle Ages by thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci," Willey explained. "But Little Willie was the first of these vehicles to utilize tracks and it was designed to have a domed turret."

The British military planners opted not to go with the turret with the Mark I and its subsequent tanks – which used sponsons (projections on the sides of the tanks) instead. The rationale was that the turret would have made the center of gravity too high when the vehicle had to climb an enemy trench parapet. However with their light tanks the French did embrace the turret, which was seen in the Renault FT tank, also known as the FT 17. 

The name “tank” came about thanks to the secrecy of the program, which tried to hide exactly what the military was building - "tank" suggested a container to transport fresh water to the front. In December the code word "tank" was officially adopted, and the Landships Committee officially became the Tank Supply Committee

While many hopes were pinned on the newly christened tank, it wasn't an instant success. At the Battle of Somme in 1916 some 40 tanks advanced over a mile into enemy lines. However, these lumbering vehicles, which did shock the enemy, proved too slow to hold their positions and many became bogged down in the mud. It has been argued that the military planners simply didn't know how to properly utilize these new machines.

"This was no different than many new technologies," said David Doyle, editor of Supply Line, which is published by the Military Vehicle Preservation Association. "The Wright Brothers’ initial attempts at flight were not what many people would call successful, and even their first 'successful' flight was a far cry from the status of aviation even a decade later. Similarly, early efforts at submarines could hardly be considered an instant success. The steps from concept to cornerstone of strategy are many, and more often than not resemble a shuffle – baby steps – than they do sprints."

However tank designs progressed quickly and by the end of the war the vehicle was used in massive attacks, allowing the infantry to break through. Specialized tanks were also designed.

"By the end of World War I we had personnel carriers, light tanks, engineer tanks that could lay a bridge or have instruments to detonate mines," explained Willey. "There was even a floating tank that was tested on a lake outside of London and considered for a landing on the Belgian coast."

One problem for the tank – as with many weapons – is that unlike the airplane, it had no civilian use and thus its interwar development was often slow.

Only after World War II did many western military planners even see the need to ensure that tank technology wasn't left to lag way behind. Prior to the advent of the M1 Abrams in the 1970s, the U.S. Army’s primary tank was the M60 Patton.

"The United States had considered the M60 as an interim main battle tank, but it proved itself in combat against Soviet-supplied T54/55s and T62s during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars," John Adams-Graf, editor of Military Vehicles magazine, told FoxNews.com. "It wasn't until the Soviet Union developed the T-64 with reactive armor, that the M60A3s deployed in Europe may have finally met their match, forcing the U.S to push ahead with the M1."

Yet throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War periods it has still been argued that the tank’s time has passed. At  100 years old, however, the tank continues to press on.

"There was a period at the end of World War II when one guy with a bazooka or Panzerfaust (anti-tank weapon) could take out a tank," explained Willey. "Then in the Cold War an attack helicopter could easily take out the tanks, but the problem is that attack helicopters can't hold ground. So what we may see is tanks taking on some advanced technology that might drip down from aerospace."

Willey noted that one such technology could be unmanned tanks that are remotely controlled, ensuring that no crews need to risk their lives. Just as the tank of 100 years ago was designed to protect the infantry, tomorrow's technology may also keep the tank crew out of the line of fire.