A Century of Tank Warfare

Oscar E. Gilbert and Romain Cansière

Casemate, Philadelphia, 2017, 160 pages

Book Review published on: September 22, 2017

Oscar E. Gilbert and Romain Cansière provide a concise history on the evolution of tanks and armor doctrine in Tanks: A Century of Tank Warfare. The authors analyze tank development and operations from World War I to contemporary conflicts in only 160 pages. It is an excellent rapid read for those interested in learning the highlights of tank warfare over the past century. The book is more than a historical account of events, however; it provides readers context on current operations and provides insight on the possible future of armored combat systems.

Tank enthusiasts may frown when learning that the authors view tanks primarily as “infantry support weapon[s].” However, Gilbert and Cansière are critical of military institutions that were slow to develop and field tanks due to lack of vision or selfish protection of infantry forces. The U.S. War Department’s Ordnance Department is the object of embarrassing criticism for squandering the M1917 tank program, which resulted in no tanks delivered to American Army forces in Europe before the end of the World War I. After the war, the Americans, French, and British—who fielded tanks in numbers—are noted for not fleshing out doctrine and mechanization during the interwar years while ironically, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany moved ahead.

Gilbert and Cansière highlight the fruition of combined arms operations during World War II. Tanks were instrumental to success on the battlefield, and they were the “tip of the spear” for balanced combined arms forces. The Germans’ successful offense in Western Europe is a result of their combined arms doctrine that enabled the Panzer divisions to rout the British and French. However, despite this significant achievement in the evolution in tank warfare, the authors dispel the myth of German Nazi “superiority,” noting the costly seizure of Stonne and Germany’s eventual downfall caused by invading the Soviet Union with insufficient transportation and logistics assets. Even Michael Wittman’s famous exploit at Villers-Bocage in 1944 is revealed as exaggerated propaganda. And, although the Americans were surprised by the shattering effect of blitzkrieg, they are commended for rapidly adjusting their organizations and methods during and after the North African campaign by adding more infantry to their armor formations and by streamlining the operations process to exploit the rapid pace of mechanized operations.

The concept of “quantity versus quality” is addressed as the authors discuss the staggering scale of Soviet tank production and operations during World War II. The Soviets continued with the “quantity is a quality of its own” paradigm through the Cold War, fielding tanks in immense numbers for their army. Members of NATO followed the “quality” philosophy, with the belief that fewer tanks of advanced technology could counter a Soviet onslaught, just as their former adversary—the Germans—did from 1941 to 1945. This led to the extinction of light, medium, and heavy tanks in favor of the all-purpose “main battle tank.” Although initially conceived to be somewhere between the medium and the heavy range, modern main battle tanks have become behemoths, weighing fifty-five to seventy tons with layered armor and 120 millimeter guns. Thus far, the Americans have demonstrated the superiority of the “quality” model with successful employment of M1 Abrams tanks in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. This appears to have made an impression on the Russians, who recently began fielding the sophisticated Armata series.

While the tank, or armored gun system, appears to have a permanent place in combined arms operations for the foreseeable future, the main battle tank concept may be in its twilight. The authors assert that the weight of a main battle tank is an issue because of a rising emphasis on rapid deployment of forces, and that antiarmor systems will outpace armor technology. They assert that the light tank may return, noting that the M1118 Armored Gun System and General Dynamics Griffin demonstrator are a prelude to what may be next in evolution of the tank.

Readers will appreciate this writing on the evolution of the tank and armor warfare. Gilbert and Cansière’s work is comprehensive despite its conciseness. For example, it addresses the employment of tanks in lesser-known conflicts such as the Indio-Pakistani and Sino-Vietnamese wars. The book provides context for contemporary tank operations and offers a perspective on the way ahead.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas