On September 15th 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, 49 British tanks rumbled slowly across the battlefield toward the German lines. While many of these new military creations broke down, roughly one third made it across No-Man’s-Land and sent the Germans troops running. From that day forward, the tank became an important piece of weaponry which every major power in the world developed and deployed over the following century. From the fields of Western Europe to the Russian steppe, tanks were integral to how armies fought the Second World War. From the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights to the border region shared by Iraq and Iran, the Middle East has seen some of the largest tank battles of the past 50 years.
As with any military weapon, the major powers of the world have continued an arms race involving tank production since that September day during World War One. Tank developers have pushed the limits of technology in an attempt to achieve the highest rating in the three most important tank characteristics: mobility, protection and firepower. Of course, pushing to have the best protected, fastest and most powerful tank costs considerable money. Tank armor has gone through radical changes over the years, moving from steel plates to composite material made up of steel, plastics, ceramics and other classified material. Engines have improved in power and reliability. Gone are the tractor engines of World War One, replaced by turbocharged diesel and, in some cases, turbine engines producing well over 1,000 hp. Tank guns have become larger and more accurate and fire a range of projectiles from ‘regular’ high-explosives to guided missiles. Finally, computers, high end optics and advanced warning and protection devices all make today’s frontline tanks deadly and expensive.
The following list takes a look at 10 of the top-of-the-line tanks in use today. These tanks are considered the best because they score highly in the three categories of mobility, protection and firepower. That said, they are ranked not by which one is ‘the best’ but instead by which tanks cost the most per unit. Monetary values have been updated as close to 2014 figures as possible, often using government or production company reports.
The ZTZ-99 was introduced into service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2001. Like previous Chinese tanks, the ZTZ-99 ‘borrowed’ heavily from the designs of Soviet-era tanks and there are similarities to the Soviet T-72’s appearance and use of a 125mm main gun. The angular welded turret and 1500 hp diesel engine show the Western influence which the Chinese have incorporated into their newest tank. Chinese designers have also fitted this vehicle with a laser defense system meant to warn of incoming missiles, disrupt targeting and sighting equipment and even blind human operators who are targeting the tank. For those projectiles which get past the laser system, a classified armor package, including explosive reactive armor, protects the crew of three inside this 58 ton vehicle.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a policy of building two types of tanks: a cheap mass produced version suitable for export (T-62, T-72) and an expensive high end version (T-64, T-80). In recent years this policy proved to be too expensive so the decision to focus on one type of tank was taken. The result was the T-90. There are various models of this tank with the cheaper T-90S exported to countries like India. The higher end (and nearly twice as expensive) T-90AM currently serves with the Russian army. This tank is an evolution of the T-72 using a newer 125mm main gun, newer 1230 hp engine and an advanced array of armor and defense equipment. The T-90AM has the latest fire-control equipment and uses an advanced explosive reactive armor which is said to be highly effective against the newest Western ammunition. It also sports an active protection system which can destroy many types of incoming prjectiles. Like the T-72, the T-90 has a three-man crew and uses an automatic loader for the main gun.
Following their experiences fighting the Egyptians and Syrians with Western tanks in the 1960s and 1970s, the Israeli Defence Forces opted to design and build their own tank. The result was the Merkava series of tanks. Today, the current version is the Merkava IV armed with a 120mm main gun. The Merkava is built with protection as the number one priority. The tank’s armor is a composite of steel and ceramic and is modular in design which allows for quick removal and replacement of damaged parts. The engine is placed at the front of the tank which adds extra protection to the crew and any infantry who can ride in the back. This armor has been shown capable of standing up to most anti-tank weapons with only two Merkava IV destroyed during the 2006 Lebanon War – and only one of these was destroyed by enemy anti-tank missiles. An active protection system is currently being fitted to these tanks which improves the probability of destroying incoming enemy missiles.
The Arjun first entered service with the Indian Army in 2004. The latest version, the 55 ton Arjun Mk II, finished its trials over the past two years and is now entering service. This newest Indian tank contains many of the modern features found on the newest Russian and Western designs. The tank uses a 120mm rifled main gun which can fire conventional ammunition and guided missiles. Armor is provided by a modular composite which is classified but is likely to include steel and ceramic material similar to other tank designs. Defensive equipment includes laser warning receivers, infrared jammers and aerosol smoke grenades to counter incoming guided antitank missiles. The Arjun Mk II has added explosive reactive armor to increase protection further, as well as improved navigational equipment and optics to aid the crew of four in operating the vehicle.
The oldest tank on this list, the Leopard 2 first entered service in 1979. Since then the tank has gone through a number of upgrades and modernizations with the 2A6 model being the ‘standard’ frontline version in use today. Like most Western tanks, the Leopard 2A6 uses a 120mm smoothbore main gun which can fire an assortment of projectiles with very high accuracy. The 63 ton tank uses an advanced armor package which is composed of steel, ceramic, tungsten and plastic. Armor is thickest on the front of the turret, hull and sides. The engine is a 1500 hp diesel which can propel the tank up to 45 mph. As with most Western tank designs, ammunition is stored in a separate compartment to prevent catastrophic explosions like those witnessed in Soviet/Russian tank designs. One of the most successful tank designs, the Leopard 2 is used by several nations with the 2A6 currently in service with Germany, Canada, Finland, Greece and Portugal. A newer 2A7+ model is currently being tested and marketed with a price estimated of around $12 million per unit.
Of all the tanks on this list, the M1 Abrams is the most battle proven. In 1991 and 2003, this tank proved it was superior to any Soviet era tank the Iraqis had. In fact, the greatest threat to Abrams came not from enemy tanks but from IEDs and insurgents striking the side and rear of the tank with advanced Russian antitank weaponry. The latest version of the Abrams is the M1A2 SEP. This model weighs over 69 tons thanks in large part to its advanced armor which consists of composites with depleted uranium and graphite. It is armed with a 120mm smoothbore gun which, with the aid of advanced electronics and optics, can fire with a high level of accuracy. The tank can be further upgraded with the Tank Urban Survival Kit (TUSK) which adds, among several things, reactive armor to the sides, slat armor to the rear and a remote control machine gun on the turret roof.
Considered one of the most reliable and best protected tanks in the world, the Challenger 2 has been in service since 1998. It has seen service in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq where, in conjunction with the M1 Abrams, it dominated any Iraqi tank it faced. The Challenger 2 uses the newest form of armor known as ‘Chobham armour’ whose composition is highly classified but said to be more than twice the strength of steel. This protection is complemented with additional panels of explosive reactive armor on the sides and front and slat armor around the rear of the tank. This 69 ton tank is propelled by a 1200 hp engine making it one of the least maneuverable tanks on this list. However, the armor protection and accuracy from its 120mm rifled main gun more than make up for this shortcoming. Outside of the United Kingdom, only Oman operates the Challenger 2.
The newest South Korean tank, the K2 is one of the most advanced tanks in the world. Having never been in combat, it’s hard to rate the tank’s abilities but on paper the specifications are impressive. The K2 combines all of the best characteristics found in Western and Russian tank designs. Similar to the Leopard 2, the K2 uses a 120mm 55 caliber smoothbore gun and a 1500 hp diesel engine. The armor is a classified composite material with an additional use of modular explosive reactive armor for enhanced protection. Missile warning and jamming equipment helps the tank detect incoming antitank missiles and jam their controls while deploying a protective aerosol smoke screen. Like the T-90 and Merkava, the K2 is said to be capable of operating an active protection system to destroy incoming missiles, although this is still under development. Also similar to Russian designs, the crew consists of only three people with the loading of the gun done by an autoloader.
The Type 10 is the newest Japanese tank, entering service in 2012. Weighing only 48 tons, the Type 10 is highly maneuverable with a reported top speed in excess of 70 km/h. Like most Western tanks, armament is a 120mm smoothbore gun which can fire domestically made ammunition or NATO compatible rounds. Armor protection is modular and uses a composite blend of hardened steel and ceramic. In comparison to the other tanks on this list, the Type 10 may be slightly less capable against other main battle tanks but very resistant to handheld antitank weapons like Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPG). Like Russian tanks, the Type 10 has a three man crew and uses an autoloader in place of a fourth crewman. A warning system and smoke dispensers provide passive protection against any incoming guided antitank missiles.
This is France’s main battle tank and currently the most expensive tank in the world. Figures on the cost of this tank vary greatly depending on who you talk to. Critics within the French government say each Leclerc has cost France $23 million or more. Companies who build and upgrade these tanks give a more conservative (but still ridiculously high) figure of $12.6 million per tank. The Leclerc entered service in 1992 after 15 years of development and trials. The tank uses modular armor which can be taken off and replaced quickly. The armor is a composite of steel, ceramics and Kevlar. Protection on the roof of the turret and sides is very thick and the tank even has redundant electrical systems to ensure survivability. Like other Western tanks, the Leclerc uses a 120mm smoothbore gun and 1500 hp engine. It only has a crew of three and uses an autoloader very similar to the one used in South Korea’s K2 Black Panther, reportedly able to fire 12 rounds per minute. Advanced optics and computer systems make this one of the best tanks in the world – and the most expensive.