Saturday 16 March 2024

There are Always Two

The tank was initially conceived as a mobile fortress; huge and slow. However, the army had to rein in their appetites from a 300 ton monster to just 28 tons. This didn’t mean that the idea of a mobile fortress died off. The mass of tanks continued to grow and the development of the K-Wagen clearly suggested that not only Lebedenko was thinking about Tsar-tanks. Only the prompt end of the First World War stopped these giants from reaching the battlefield. Although, the monstrous projects that were built by 1919 were about as useful as the rest of the Tsar family: a tank that doesn’t fight in addition to a bell that doesn’t ring and cannon that doesn’t shoot.

T-39, the first Soviet "large" heavy tank. Thankfully, clearer minds prevailed.

For obvious reasons, Soviet tank designers didn’t even think about a heavy breakthrough tank. Ironically, the most numerous tank in the Red Army at the time was the British Mark V that fit this role perfectly. The USSR began working on its own heavy tank in the early 1930s. It just so happened that they ended up with two designs over and over again for two decades. They choice was always made in favour of the lighter one, but it didn’t prevent work on the heavier one from moving forward.

The T-35 was the first "small" heavy tank, but everything is relative. In the end, it turned into a "large" one.

The Red Army’s system or armaments designated heavy tanks as Type B (Bolshoi - large). There were also maneuver (medium) tanks and small (light) tanks. This system was copied from the British, who were the trendsetters at the time. However, they did not succeed at creating a breakthrough tank and the role of medium tanks was carried out by overgrown light tanks. An analogue of the Soviet support tank was explored and rejected. Tankettes also found their own place. Other countries had their own ideas of what a medium or a heavy tank should look like.

One of the potential replacements for the T-35. This tank weighed 59 tons. This project was not built.

If one looks at what was happening in the UK and France, then the processes that took place in the Soviet tank industry will not look so surprising. The issue of light tanks inflating into medium ones was common at the time. Medium tanks also grew into heavy ones. For instance, the light Renault NC morphed into the Char D2 which weighed 20 tons. It all started with a requirement for thicker armour and a radio operator. The situation with the Char B was even more interesting. It started out as a medium tank, but the Char B1 that went into production was already a heavy. The French also preserved an artefact from the First World War: the Char 2C (FCM 2C). It was nearly useless, but the French kept it around and even tried to build a more modern one. Ten of these “Tsar-tanks” were periodically rolled out for exercises.

Compared to the above, the SMK-1 was very reasonable.

These demonstrations had an effect, as other nations looked at the Char 2C attentively. This included the Red Army. Just like the French, they wanted a 65 ton heavy tank. By 1933, this project grew to a mass of 90 tons. As for the maneuver tank, it grew into something unintelligible. While the T-28 looked somewhat like a maneuver tank in 1932, the tank that was put into production was nearly a heavy tank by weight, armour, and armament. There was now a new tank class: “powerful”. This class was introduced for the TG-1 tank developed by Eduard Grate, who set out to build a maneuver tank but ended up making a 25-ton tank instead of 18-19 tons. Further development of the powerful tank concept led to the T-35, which initially weighed 38 tons and then ballooned to 50.

In the end, the KV-1 won as the lighter and more protected option. That didn't mean that the army gave up on a "large" heavy tank.

The T-35 took the place of the T-39, which was the correct solution. The latter (and to a lesser degree, the former) were perfect examples of Tsar-tanks that don’t fight. It is no wonder that the T-28 was used in heavy tank brigades alongside the T-35. The T-28 could meet the requirements for a 1930s breakthrough tank, but the T-35 could not. At the very least, the T-35 was 6 times cheaper than the T-39 and could serve in parades just as well. The Red Army ended up with two breakthrough tanks, one a little smaller, one a little larger. Of course, the army wanted an even larger tank, but their means were limited.

The T-220 tank was not born by accident. Having left the SMK-1 behind, the military wanted a new "large" heavy tank.

The proponents of a large breakthrough tank had their day. In 1938, it was decided to make one “large’ 55-57 ton tank to replace both the T-28 and T-35. This was the start of the T-100 and SMK tanks. However, the idea to build something lighter surfaced in December of 1938. Kirov factory’s SKB-2 began to work on the KV tank and factory #185 began to work on a tank called 050. This topic was designated “small tank with heavy armour”, although this “small tank” was expected to weigh 40 tons. While the 050 remained on paper, the Red Army accepted the KV into service since the large breakthrough tanks seemed quite questionable.

The KV-4 managed to catch up and even surpass not only the T-39, but also the German Löwe

The T-100 and SMK died in June of 1940. This was not the end, however, as work on a KV tank with a larger gun and thicker armour was already underway. The situation repeated itself by the end of 1940: you had the T-150 in the role of a small breakthrough tank and T-220 in the role of the large breakthrough tank. The T-150 had issues, but putting it into production was a more realistic proposition. The tank was cancelled, but the concept managed to eke its way into production, as by the end of 1941 the KV-1 had a 76 mm ZIS-5 gun and a weight of 50 tons.

The IS was the next among "small" heavy tanks, having proven itself in battle in 1944-45.

The T-150 was supposed to go into production under the name KV-3, but the famous intelligence report changed everything. The T-220 was reanimated as the KV-3 (T-223) and even heavier tanks were conceived under the index KV-4 and KV-5. As a backup plan, the old KV-3 (improved variant called T-222) was going to be put into production at the Kirov factory as the KV-6. The end of this scheme is well known. All these plans remained on paper and the KV had to be made lighter, not heavier. After a year and a half of trying to make a real heavy tank out of the KV-13, the Red Army received first the IS-85 and then the IS-122. The latter became the Red Army’s best heavy tank of the war, finally surpassing medium tanks in armament.

Object 701, the future IS-4. The project began at a weight of 54-55 tons and finished at 60.

Did anyone learn something this time around? Not a chance. Reports justifying 55-60 ton heavy tanks began appearing by September of 1943. In some cases, these tanks would weigh 80 tons or more. 55 tons was chosen as a reasonable limit and work on the Object 701 began. Thankfully, work on improving the IS-2 continued. Nevertheless, the USSR was once again working on a small heavy tank and a large heavy tank at the same time. Work on the former turned into the Kirovets-1, better known as the IS-3. The army really wanted to put the Object 701 into production in the spring of 1945, but Vyachelav Malyshev knew how this story would end and insisted on the IS-3.

The IS-7 confidently crossed the 65 ton mark and approached 70 tons, which led to cancellation of the project.

The fact that Malyshev was right became obvious in 1946. The military managed to take the IS-3 out of production. The USSR lost its small heavy tank, but production of the large heavy tank never quite took off. 52 tanks were barely made in 1947. There was another choice between a large heavy tank and a really large one. The IS-4 looked outdated and its mass approached 60 tons. The new IS-7 tank weighed “just” 65 tons. There was another even larger option with a 152 mm gun that weighed 100 tons. It is not known what kind of enemy this tank was supposed to fight.

All that is known today about the Object 718. Your eyes do not deceive you, its estimated weight was 100 tons.

The government lost its patience in 1949. The “small heavy tank” was being built in minuscule amounts and had no reserve for modernization. The “large breakthrough tank” was excessively heavy and came with a price tag of nearly 3 million rubles apiece. Shockingly, the situation was resolved without repressions and executions. On February 18th, 1949, the interested parties decided that no tanks weighing more than 50 tons will be built. Work began on another “small heavy tank”. There were slightly heavier ones developed as well, but they were only a few tons heavier. There were no more 100-ton monsters.

The "small" heavy tank emerged the victor once more in February of 1949, but for the last time. 

In conclusion, we must note that these “pairs” were not a unique phenomenon. Any country that could allow itself a large tank aimed to build one. They were not always called heavy. After witnessing the 60 ton “medium” tank called AMX 50 B, even the Maus would feel lighter. At the same time, the French had a 30 ton medium tank. Compared to some historical projects, the massive tanks of the Warhammer 40k Imperial Guard don’t seem so implausible after all. 

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.

1 comment:

  1. I would suppose the 'tank as a mobile fortress' idea was born out of the belief that the next war would be a repeat of WWI, where fortifications proved near-impregnable, so what could be better than a fortress than can also move?

    I'd like to know what Yuri thinks of Western tank development, as all Western MBT exceed 50 tons by a wide margin, and have done so for decades. While more powerful tank engines can solve the problem of tactical mobility, what of operational mobility (i.e., bridges and other obstacles that can't support a 70-ton tank)?. I recall a Quora discussion where a former NATO soldier saw Chieftain tank collapse a bridge when attempting to cross it.

    One of the criticisms I've read of NATO doctrine is, like WWII, the assumption is that 'we'll have plenty of everything on-hand' such as logistical and engineering support. You'd think the conservative approach would be 'we plan for scarcity.'