The tank first arrived on the battlefield in 1916 when it was deployed by the British Army against the Germans in World War One. It was developed as a weapon which could cross No-Man’s Land, crush the fields of barbed wire and break through the enemy’s trenches – the whole time well protected from enemy machine gun fire and shrapnel. By 1918, the first tank-vs-tank battle occurred between the British and the Germans. Powered by tractor engines and equipped with around a half inch of armor and a variety of machine guns and cannons, these early tanks were slow, lumbering machines which could often be as dangerous to their own crew as they were to the enemy. Nonetheless, the tank was here to stay and these weapons indicated a new direction in thinking when it came to how nations built and used their armies over the coming decades.
Like all weapons of war, the introduction of the tank to the battlefield led to an arms race as each nation worked to get the upper hand over the other. Since World War One the competition over tank design has focused on the three main characteristics of firepower, protection and mobility. Tank guns got larger, armor thicker and engines more powerful. Additionally, tank makers found that a market developed as other countries came looking to buy tanks of their own. The result is that the tank became an integral part of the massive arms export market, serviced primarily by the United States and Russia who last year alone sold a combined $56 billion in military equipment. In 100 years, the tank has come a long way. Advanced armor, high-tech sensors and communication equipment, improved engines and cutting edge weaponry all make this piece of military equipment one of the most sophisticated on the battlefield.
The following looks at 10 of the most sophisticated tanks used today. These tanks are on here because they have the most advanced array of weaponry, protection and electronics that can be found in a tank. Don’t be fooled however. Some of these tanks were first produced as far back as the 1970s and 1980s. While their designs may date back to the disco era, these tanks have been continually upgraded and enhanced over the decades to make them as capable (if not more so) and advanced as some of the models produced over the last few years.
10 T-84 Oplot-M (Ukraine)
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was left with a tank factory in Kharkov which had been producing the T-80UD main battle tank (MBT). In an effort to develop their own tanks, it was decided to take the T-80 design and modify its design to meet the needs of the Ukrainian military. The result was the T-84 which, over time, evolved into the T-84 Oplot-M. This particular tank has been heavily modernized to make it one of the most sophisticated tanks fielded today.
Like most Russian/Soviet-style tanks, the Oplot is armed with a 125mm smoothbore gun which can fire a variety of explosive and armor piercing ammunition, as well as laser guided anti-tank missiles. The ammunition is loaded by an autoloader which takes around eight seconds per round. To find and hit targets accurately the crew use panoramic and thermal imaging sights while the gun utilizes a ballistics computer – part of a fire control system which allows the tank to fire accurately while on the move. In addition to the Oplot’s regular armor, the tank also has advanced explosive reactive armor and a countermeasure system to jam and confuse enemy anti-tank missiles.
9 Type 99 A2 (China)
For the most part, Chinese tanks of the last 50 years have not been considered sophisticated, especially by Russian and American standards. This resulted from the fact that for much of this time, Chinese tanks were developed and reverse engineered from captured or covertly obtained tanks. The result was often a tank that looked like a Soviet/Russian design but was far inferior in every respect.
Recently, that trend has started to change. While there is no denying that modern Chinese weaponry is still heavily based on foreign technology and designs, newer tank designs definitely display higher levels of sophistication. Defined as an enhanced third-generation MBT, the Type 99 is one of these tanks. The Type 99 is built by NORINCO and originally entered service in 2001 with the more advanced A2 variant entering production in 2009.
The latest tank has advanced composite armor with additional explosive reactive armor modules installed. Like Russian and Western tanks, the 99 A2 has a heavily digitized interface and battle management system which improves the tank’s efficiency and ability to operate on the battlefield. Like many other tanks on this list, the Chinese tank is also reported to be equipped with an active protection system which can detect and defeat incoming missiles with a high degree of success.
8 AMX-56 Leclerc (France)
The Leclerc entered French service in 1992 and today there are over 400 serving with the French military and over 350 with the United Arab Emirates. For much of its production run, the Leclerc was the most expensive tank in the world, thanks in large part to the sophisticated systems found on board. The tank is unusual for a Western-designed MBT in that it uses an autoloader. Nonetheless, this autoloader is very fast and can reportedly load up to 12 rounds a minute for the 120mm smoothbore gun. An all-digital fire control system allows the gunner to pick out six targets and engage them all in a little over 30 seconds. Thermal sights and laser range finders all help in identifying and targeting the enemy as far out as four kilometers. Armor on the newest models of this tank includes tungsten and titanium modules and explosive reactive armor modules. All of this sophisticated technology is further protected by laser and missile warning systems, as well as infrared decoys and anti-personnel grenades.
7 Challenger 2 (Great Britain)
In service since 1998, the British Challenger 2 is often stated to be the best protected tank in the world. This is thanks to its highly classified ‘Dorchester’ armor which is said to be a composite of ceramic and various metals layered together. The Challenger 2’s armor is so strong that on more than one occasion in Iraq it withstood a barrage of enemy rocket-propelled grenades. Only one has ever been destroyed and that was thanks to friendly-fire from another Challenger 2. In addition to its regular armor, this tank is also equipped with explosive reactive armor modules. Unlike most other MBTs, the Challenger 2 is armed with a rifled 120mm gun which gives it a high degree of accuracy. Helping the crew use the tank and its gun to the best of their ability is a Canadian-made fire control computer and a British-made battle information system which integrates all of the tank’s systems and displays together.
6 Leopard 2A7+ (Germany)
Entering service in 1979, the Leopard 2 is an ‘old’ tank but remains one of the best all-around weapons on the market today thanks to considerable upgrades over the years. The current 2A7+ model takes all of the abilities of the previous versions and incorporates improvements which came about as a result of experiences using tanks in urban warfare – like Iraq. The Leopard 2 is armed with a 120mm smoothbore gun which fires a range of ammunition, including the ability to fire the Israeli-made LAHAT guided missile. The gun is fully stabilized and linked to a laser range finding system – all of which allows the tank to hit a target at up to 5km while on the move. An integrated command and information system, along with enhanced daylight and thermal sites give the newest Leopard 2 an advantage on the battlefield when it comes to hunting other tanks. For protection, the Leopard 2 doesn’t use explosive reactive armor but instead uses a base of multi-layered composite armor over which is placed modular shaped armor for increased protection.
5 Type 10 (Japan)
In the world of modern military equipment, the Japanese forces often get overlooked. This is, in large part, because the Japanese military is designed as a defensive force and its products are not exported as US and Russian equipment is. Nonetheless, the Japanese have produced a new and rather sophisticated MBT in the shape of the Type 10. Classified as an advanced third-generation or next-generation tank, the Type 10 (aka TK-X) entered service in 2012. Compared with Japan’s previous tanks, the Type 10 is a huge step forward in mobility, firepower and protection.
The vehicle is armed with 120mm smoothbore gun, similar to the Leopard 2, and is loaded with an automatic loading system to keep the crew at just three people. The tank is protected by a very advanced material called nano-crystal steel which is triple the hardness of regular steel. Additional composite armor modules add to the already powerful protection. The latest sensors, battlefield management systems and sights give the crew of this tank a high level of battlefield awareness in comparison to many other tank systems.
4 Merkava IVm (Israel)
For much of its history, Israel was reliant on obtaining its tanks from outside countries. Battlefield experiences over the last several decades led Israeli planners to push for a domestically designed and produced tank that met the needs of the Israeli defence Force (IDF). The result was the Merkava series of tanks. The latest model of this tank is Merkava IVm. This particular tank has a crew of four and can hold several more soldiers inside.
Protection is the #1 priority of the Merkava and the tank makes considerable use of modular armor which can be removed and replaced quickly. Even the paint and exhaust were taken in consideration as developers wanted a tank which was hard to see, even with thermal viewers. Extra protection is provided by the ‘Trophy’ system which can detect and alert the crew to incoming threats and destroy anti-tank missiles and rockets with small explosive charges. For offense, the tank uses a 120mm smoothbore gun which fires high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds as well as the domestically produced LAHAT guided anti-tank missile.
3 M1A2 SEPv2 (USA)
Out of all of the tanks on this list, the M1 Abrams is by far the most battle-proven. In service since 1980, the M1 is an older design but constant upgrades have kept it at the top of the list when it comes to ability and sophistication. The M1A2 SEPv2 uses the 120mm smoothbore gun found in many Western tanks and can fire explosive or advanced armor piercing rounds reportedly capable of defeating the most modern armor.
In terms of protection, this tank uses a design based on the British “Chobham” which is made up of layered steel, ceramics, plastic and Kevlar. The M1 goes a step further by adding depleted uranium which is extremely dense and hard to penetrate. The latest Abrams has greatly improved sights, displays and computers for the crew to use. This improvement includes newer thermal viewers for the commander and gunner, modernized GPS system and higher resolution displays. This means the crew can operate with each other and communicate with other friendly units far more efficiently on the battlefield. Additionally, a remote controlled weapons station on the turret means that the commander no longer needs to expose himself to snipers when operating the machine gun.
2 T-90AM (Russia)
The Soviet-era T-72 tank was and continues to be the backbone of many tank forces around the world. Over the last few decades the T-72 was upgraded and improved on a regular basis to remain competitive with Western designs. By the mid-1990s, the design had been upgraded so much that Russian designers decided that it warranted a new model – the T-90. For the most part, the T-90 looks like the T-72 but it also incorporates many of the advanced features from the more expensive T-80.
In terms of protection, the new tank is superior to the T-72 thanks to a new welded turret and the use of the advanced ‘Relikt’ explosive reactive armor which has been purpose built to stand up to the newest American armor piercing rounds. Additional protection is provided by a laser and missile detection and jamming system which makes it far harder to hit the tank with guided anti-tank missiles. For weaponry, the T-90AM uses an improved version of the 125mm smoothbore cannon found in other Russian/Soviet tanks. The gun uses an autoloader which, in around 6 to 8 seconds, can load a variety of explosive and armor piercing rounds or a highly accurate anti-tank missile.
1 K2 Black Panther (South Korea)
In the mid-1990s, the South Korean government decided to begin developing a domestically designed and produced tank. The result was the Hyundai-built K2 Black Panther which was operational by 2013/14. At first glance, the K2 looks like a Western tank with a large rectangular chassis and turret closely resembling the Leopard 2 and Leclerc. It uses a license-built version of the Leopard 2’s 120mm smoothbore gun as well as a 1500hp German diesel engine. The autoloader is very similar in design and performance to the Leclerc’s and can allow the tank to fire around 10 rounds a minute.
The gunner and commander have the newest day/night and thermal sights and in combination with the tank’s battlefield management and command and control systems, makes the K2 one of the most efficient and capable hunter-killer tanks around. Protection is provided by a classified composite armor and additional explosive reactive armor modules. For protection against enemy anti-tank missiles and rockets, the K2 is equipped with an active and passive protection system. The passive system warns of incoming threats and can start jamming and firing off decoys. The active protection system, similar to the Merkava’s ‘Trophy’ system, will attempt to destroy any missiles which are about to hit the tank by using a small explosive charge. Unfortunately, you won’t find any of these features in Hyundai’s latest line of cars and SUVs.