When the first British tanks rolled across the muddy fields of the Western Front in northern France in mid-September 1916 during World War I, they caught the German Army completely off guard, and initially, the Germans had no way to counter the slow-moving massive behemoths. Mud and deep shell craters proved to be the only thing capable of stopping the tanks – which had been given the moniker as part of a deception effort to convince the Germans that the British were producing portable water tanks for use near the front lines.

Those early tanks became bogged down in the muddy fields, while mechanical failures were all too common. It also took until the end of the war for British military thinkers to determine how to best employ the lumbering machines. By World War II, the tank’s role had evolved – even as some military planners during the World War I predicted it had no future on the battlefield.

The tank proved vital to Germany’s early successes in 1940, where the “Blitzkrieg” smashed through enemy lines, resulting in France’s defeat in just six weeks – something the German Army a generation earlier had failed to achieve in four years. The tank ensured that World War II wouldn’t be a replay of the prior conflict.

Even today, the tanks is a mainstay of militaries around the world.

Anti-Tank Weapons

Just as the British were the early innovators in tank warfare, the German military had led the way in World War I with ways to counter the tank. While the heavy artillery of the era was more than a match for any tank, such guns were typically positioned behind the front lines – so various more compact weapons were developed for the infantry.

The ingenious Germans first came up with an improvised anti-tank grenade that took the regular “potato masher” stick grenade and added two or three more high explosive heads to create a larger, yet still throwable, bomb.

In 1918, the Germans then developed the first true anti-tank weapon: the Mauser 13.2mm Tank Abwehr Gewehr Model 18 or “Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr” more simply known as the Tankgewehr. It was essentially a super-sized bolt-action rifle that was based on the Mauser action, but unlike the Gewehr 98 – the standard service rifle used from 1898 to 1935, which featured an internal five-round magazine – the T-Gewehr was a single-shot weapon that had to be manually loaded fir each shot. It also differed from other rifles of the era in that it had a pistol grip and bipod.

By World War II as the armor thickness was increased, such oversized rifles did little to counter tanks, but specialized weapons including the M1 man-portable recoilless anti-tank rocket launcher weapon were developed. More famously known as the “bazooka,” it was copied and widely used throughout the Cold War.

The Germans also developed the single-shot Panzerfaust (“armored fist”), essentially a recoilless rifle that could launch a small but powerful shape charge at distances up to 200 yards. If it scored a direct hit, it was deadly. The warhead didn’t just explode; rather it would send a jet of hot metal into the tank’s cabin – killing the crew and even setting off the fuel and ammo.

Development of similar anti-tank weapons continued during the Cold War.

Anti-Tank Weapons in Ukraine

The Ukrainian military has seen much success on the battlefield thanks to the use of various modern anti-tank weapons including the United States-developed FGM-148 Javelin weapon system, a man-portable anti-tank system. It first entered service in 1996, and has been continuously upgraded. It was used extensively by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Javelin is a fire-and-forget platform that utilizes automatic infrared guidance that allows the user to take cover and avoid counter-fire immediately after launch. Its HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) warhead is capable of defeating modern tanks by striking them from above where the vehicle’s armor is the thinnest.

In addition, the British NLAW, Swedish Carl Gustav and German Panzerfaust 3 anti-tank rocket systems have also proven highly capable on the battlefield. So much so that some military pundits have suggested the day of the tank could be nearing an end.

That isn’t likely.

Instead, the tank will evolve – as it has done in the past. One thing is certain; tank designers will take note of a particular flaw with the Russian T-72 main battle tank (MBT). Many of those MBTs have been destroyed with their turrets blown off the hulls due to the storage of ammunition within said turrets. This so-called “jack-in-the-box” defect is one that Western militaries have been aware of for decades, yet was apparently underestimated by the Russians.

“What we are witnessing with Russian tanks is a design flaw,” Sam Bendett, an adviser with the defense research group Center for Naval Analyses, told CNN earlier this month. “Any successful hit … quickly ignites the ammo causing a massive explosion, and the turret is literally blown off.”

Evolution of the Tank

The role that the tank will play in future conflicts will likely change as much as its designs. The day of the tank charging forward also could be replaced by smaller unmanned combat systems – or drones, which are used to break through an enemy’s defenses. These could be a mix of ground-based and aerial systems that are deployed and clear the ground for the infantry.

Then smaller, even remotely controlled tanks could be used to hold the ground.

“A tank, in general, is — for ground stuff — the most lethal thing you can put on the battlefield,” Lt. Col. John Dolan, the chief of tactics at the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, told Task & Purpose last week. “It’s got a ton of armor, it can go really fast, it can see everything … I don’t think the time of the tank has passed.”

However, Doland also said that a tank can’t do everything by itself.

That is a fact that some Russian tank crews have learned the hard way, and have often paid for the lesson with their lives. Infantry has always been necessary to support a tank, but now it will likely be enhanced with drones and other aerial platforms.

“The current war in Ukraine has demonstrated that there is still a place for the tank on the modern battlefield, but that doesn’t mean it is going to be easy for armored troops,” explained John Adams-Graf, editor of History in Motion, and military vehicle historian.

“Despite advances, warfare still depends on taking and holding ground,” Adams-Graf told ClearanceJobs. “Tanks will still provide the most expedient method for doing that – though they will have to rely more heavily on aerial defense and defeating handheld anti-tank weapons more than ever before.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.