Main Battle Tanks are a crucial part of modern armed forces. They combine the mobility and speed of motor-vehicles with the killing-power of artillery, and can also help infantry assault entrenched defensive positions. Modern tanks are all but invulnerable to the crude and improvised weapons used by most partisans and rebels, making them invaluable in the extermination of such groups. All in all, a properly-used and handled tank of a sufficiently modern model can be a formidable weapon.
However, this is not true in fiction. Tanks will be destroyed right and left by the Humongous Mecha or Monster of the Week, with their firepower doing little to no damage. Essentially Red Shirt for armored vehicles, this is where a normally effective force of tanks serves as nothing but cannon fodder to make the enemy look intimidating.
Note that this does not involve tanks getting destroyed in the normal course of warfare. This is when tanks are completely useless for any purpose other than getting blown up for dramatic effect, even when you'd normally expect them to be effective. A tank column getting wiped out by the enemy through good tactics and properly placed weaponry is not this trope. An entire company of tanks firing at the enemy and doing no damage at all, followed by getting destroyed in one shot is this trope. This is about tanks themselves being useless, not just incompetent leadership.
In Real Life tanks have been designed for two purposes: winning battles, and winning campaigns. NATO and the USA specifically designed tanks for the former purpose, and the USSR and Warsaw Pact designed their tanks for the latter. More specifically NATO focused on fielding high-maintenance nigh-invulnerable tanks that could beat WP tanks in set-piece tank duels, whereas the WP focused on fielding cheap tanks with good reliability and fuel-efficiency that could go long distances at high speed across rough terrain and defeat NATO logistics personnel in hit-and-run engagementsnote This is not to say that NATO weren't prepared to use tanks to attack an enemy's supply lines, or that the WP wouldn't have used tanks to help assault defenses or fight enemy tanks, but these were not the primary roles each respective force had in mind for them .
What this works out to on the field is tanks fighting while or inbetween speeding along with other vehicles, and tanks fighting while crawling alongide infantry on foot. Despite their higher costs, even NATO tanks are very vulnerable to (handheld) anti-tank weaponry in the latter role. Indeed, despite what we said about 'being nigh-invulnerable against ill-equipped opponents' urban warfare tends to expose the weak top- and rear-armor of tanks to potentially lethal attacks and ambushes by infantry at short ranges. Good tank commanders always know how to balance the need to avoid losses and their need to accomplish their immediate objectives - losses are inevitable, but they will never be wasted.
But in many Kaiju series, tanks are very poorly commanded and used. Tanks will be shown to line up directly in front of the monster and get stomped, despite the fact that modern battle tanks can reliably hit small-ish targets many kilometres away (and even over the horizon). Additionally, despite most militaries carrying ammunition designed to penetrate the thick armor plating of other tanks and defensive fortifications, they will never be able to cause even superficial wounds to the monster.
Even in more "realistically" basedHumongous Mecha shows, the mecha can destroy tanks with ease despite being larger targets and not having any heavier weapons or armor than battle tanks. In fact, these reasons are why most militaries consider the idea of Humongous Mecha to be impractical to begin with. This can be justified if there is an extreme technological gap between the combatants. Usually, conventional tanks would have about the same problems with anyImpossibly Graceful Giant war machine as they do with their old nemesis the ground attack aircraft, but in a practical situation the technology enabling that grace would be applied to the tanks first. Tanks could be said to be the Red Shirt counterpart to the Mecha-Mooks of the enemies.
In superhero series, tanks are never any threat to superheroes, usually only serving as an impromptu missile, getting swung at another tank, or flipped upside down. This can be justified if all the characters are Made of Iron, but you'd still think the military would learn their lesson after a while.
When tanks are not useless, and are, in fact, quite awesome, then it's Tank Goodness. If the things being destroyed are called "tanks" but aren't or the depiction of tanks is incorrect, then it's Tanks, but No Tanks. A subtrope of Armor Is Useless. Compare The Worf Effect, Red Shirt, and Five Rounds Rapid. Contrast Mecha-Mooks, when it's the Humongous Mecha that are getting the stomped.
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Anime And Manga
Full Metal Panic! is a good example of some more "realistic" mecha shows that shows tanks as useless, but mecha as nigh-unstoppable (especially after they cheat with the Lambda Driver). Justified early on, as the first major fight in the series features top-of-the-line mecha against explicitly obsolete Cold War era tanks, but later played straight.
Gundam: Depending on the series, this can swing one way or the other. In more "realistic" shows like The 08th MS Team, this is played straight. Justified a bit more in some of the more fantastical versions like Gundam Wing, where each mech is practically an army unto itself.
It is shown in Mobile Suit Gundam MSIGLOO that a pure tank unit will likely be slaughtered by a MS Team, Herman Yandell's crazy skills notwithstanding, as tanks are slower and less agile, which goes a long way in the battlefield, their powerful guns notwithstanding.
If by "skill" you mean insanity for engaging in close combat in a ludicrously tightly packed formation when the enemy is in mechs literally the size of five story buildings and thus would be visible for about a dozen miles even in uneven terrain and so could be mowed down like cattle with even WWII era optic sights at thousands of meters using said powerful guns...
Zakus are unsurprisingly enough shown to go down against tanks that are less then one 1/5th of their size, though this mostly tells more about their status as Mooks then the ability of the tanks.
Guntank in the original series is an advanced prototype hybrid of Mobile Suit and tank that proves less than effective on the battlefield. The G-Bull, on the other hand, averts this trope.
Then there were the Guntank variants that appeared in IGLOO, which kicked all kinds of ass while operating primarily as very large (and fast) tanks.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The opening episode has the UN deploy tanks in mass numbers to try to combat the first angel. They are of course hopelessly outmatched and the UN forces make no further land participation until the finale of the season.
Rebuild of Evangelion has shown tanks deployed at various additional battles, including long-range bombardments and close-range running battles. They failed to have any impact on any of those battles.
Pumpkin Scissors has lots of tanks. Too bad they can't stand up to one guy and his handgun.
correction: one gargantuan Super Soldier that's been conditioned to ignore pain, and his 13mm, armor-piercingHand Cannon.
The intro of Madox-01 shows tanks being blown up easily by a Mini-Mecha... in a dense urban area. It was a mock battle to show off the new prototype Mech.
The last case is more of a subversion, though, since Major General Armstrong commanded her men to remove the fuses from the rounds to limit the damage done to the facilities where the battle was held. Besides, the tanks were still useful even when they couldn't actually harm Sloth, because they were able to push him around and outside where he froze solid.
In Dragon Ball, if an army of tanks attacks a Big Bad, he'll crush them in mere seconds. Guaranteed.
In Aldnoah.Zero, the United Earth government used tanks to combat Martian Kataphrakts in 1999. Lt. Marito's flashbacks show us this didn't go well at all. Though even in 2014, Earth-developed Kataphrakts are still ridiculously outmatched against their Martian counterparts.
In the Sturmtruppen comics, Tanks are often played for laughs as they fall apart, run out of gasoline and fall into pits of various kinds. The few time they're efficient they'll end up running over their own soldiers.
In Uber, the Nazis' "tank"-class superhumans can easily destroy regular tanks in close combat, but can still be killed by a direct hit from a tank shell. The "battleship" superhumans, meanwhile, are totally immune to tank fire and can fling tanks around like beach balls.
Averted in Code Geass: Lelouch of Britannia. Like in the source material, tanks are clearly inferior to Knightmare Frames. But in his under-equipped unit that Lelouch commands in North Africa, where he has to make up for limited supply of Knightmares by supplementing them with tanks he pulled out of storage, he's able to use good tactics to make up for their inferior mobility. And even physics-defying Knightmare Frames go down after being hit by 140mm railgun shells.
Films — Animated
In The Incredibles, a bunch of tanks try to take on the giant robot, and of course do nothing to it. To their credit, they did actually try to fight intelligently, aiming for the joints rather than trying to shoot it's near-perfectly spherical hull.
Films — Live-Action
Pick a Kaiju movie, any Kaiju movie. Guaranteed there will be at least one scene where tanks line up and fire at the monster to no effect. With one notable exception in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.
In Iron Man 1, Tony Stark (in his Iron Man suit) gets matched up against a tank. He just looks at it, fire a dinky missile at it, and walks away. Said tank then explodes. The tank was able to accurately hit Iron Man and knock him out of the sky in the first place, at least.
In the 2003 Hulk movie, the Hulk is attacked by a squad of 4 tanks. He throws the first one like a hammer, rips the second one's turret out, then proceeds to beat the crap out of the third one with that same turret, and finally disables the fourth by bending the cannon muzzle to aim at the gunner. It is awesome to behold.
It is openly stated in Starship Troopers that tanks are useless against Mobile Infantry; too small and agile to hit with heavy ordnance, too heavily armored to give a right damn about anything other than heavy ordnance, and they all carry the kind of havoc that can eat a tank.
Honor Harrington: Tanks have generally been phased out due to Powered Armor becoming widespread in modern militaries. One of the short stories in the Worlds of HonorAnthology series features tanks, but they are stated to only be useful because the planet they are on has little in the way of a modern military force. One of the characters is killed using a tank in a duel against a Havenite shuttle, though the shuttle is destroyed as well. However, in Echoes of Honor the Allies POWs' assault on the Havenite base during their Great Escape is seriously aided by the fact that they take the armor park of the base and use the tanks stationed there, which prove surprisingly efficient, as the speed and surprise of their assault minimized a coherent response by defenders in Powered Armor.
In World War Z, the tanks present at the Battle of Yonkers were nearly useless. Their main ammunition did nothing against a zombie unless the crew was lucky enough to get a headshot, and nobody thought to bring enough anti-personnel rounds to make a difference. And using the tanks to run over the zombies didn't work because the zombie guts would clog up their treads, which any real-life tanker would point out is extremely unlikely, as most tanks can function just fine with a lot of blood and guts and much worse things (i.e. full-sized trees) stuck in the treads.
In Andrey Livadny's The History of the Galaxy series, standard treaded or wheeled vehicles are considered vastly inferior to Humongous Mecha/Real Robots. The first time this is proven true is at the very start of the First Galactic War, when the Earth Alliance fleet attempts to invade Dabog, its own Lost Colony. However, since Dabog has a bit of a Deathworld feel to it, the early colonists had to struggle and innovate in order to beat the environment and terraform the planet. Specifically, the big threat are giant dinosaur-like lizards and swamps that make traditional vehicles useless. Instead, they studied the lizards' leg joints and based their walker vehicles on them. They proved superior to the Alliance invasion forces due to their maneuverability and ability to cross any terrain, even when piloted by farmers. After the Alliance fleet nuked Dabog (because they actually managed to fight off the invading troops), it learned its lesson and replaced most of its treaded/wheeled tanks with Humongous Mecha based on Dabogan designs. The Free Colonies followed suit. Centuries later, Combat Planetary Machines (i.e. traditional vehicles) are only useful as troop transports, if that.
Live Action TV
Doctor Who: In "Robot", a tank is rolled out in an attempt to stop the eponymous robot, but is quickly destroyed by it instead.
Subverted in BattleTech, though the Mechwarrior video games tend to play it straighter (Seen in the Video Games section below). 'Mechs and tanks coexist in-universe and tanks are used by all major militaries. Tanks can mount just as much weaponry and armor as a 'Mech, but are somewhat easier to disable if something inside gets damaged and are less mobile than a 'Mech of the same size. The "tanks are inferior" attitude does exist in-universe, particularly among the more naive Mechwarriors, but veterans always warn their younger comrades that underestimating the power of a tank is a good way to get yourself killed. The ComGuards in particular absolutely love combined-arms teams of infantry, tanks, and 'mechs all working together, and they are damnably hard to deal with using 'mechs alone. Clan Hell's Horses also likes fielding combat vehicle centric, or combined arms formations, and they can make it work as Clan tech is way more advance and tougher than Inner Sphere tech. All the other Clans do not hold the same views as the Hell's Horses and generally treat tanks with condescending disdain and regarding them as obsolescent relics of a world past, in which their attitude would cost them dearly during the Invasion of the Inner Sphere (even though the majority of their losses is more due to their fatuous Honor Before Reason attitude rather than underestimation of combined arms warfare).
The board game also to some extent puts the lie to the idea of tanks being less well armored than 'Mechs — by the construction rules, a tank or other combat vehicle can at least in principle actually carry more armor than a BattleMech of equal tonnage (which has fairly strict limits on how much it can put on each hit location). Tanks still have enough weaknesses to keep the 'Mechs very much in the center of the game's attention, but they're certainly no jokes. Even the iconically low-budget 25-ton Scorpion with its low speed, limited armor, and small-caliber autocannon main gun can be a legitimate threat to at least low-end light 'Mechs, or to heavier ones if fielded in quantity.
Subverted in King of Tokyo. Playing the Tanks card nets your Kaiju 4 Victory Points and immediately discards the card, implying that your Kaiju stomped them. However, playing this also does 3 damage to your Kaiju, which means that the tanks did score a good hit.
Subverted in Heavy Gear. The titular mecha are much smaller and lighter than battle tanks with considerably less firepower and armour, complementing battle tanks by being utilized in terrain impassable to large armoured vehicles or where the expense of battle tanks isn't merited. The invading CEF, who initially didn't have Gears, made extensive use of hover-tanks and did very well for themselves.
This is given a strange justification in the MechWarrior series and its source Tabletop Game. Tanks are among the lighter mainstays of most militaries, with Battlemechs and even Aerospace Fighters mounting heavier armor and weapons (e.g. between a 100 ton tank, a 100 ton Assault Battlemech and a 100 ton heavy Aerospace Fighter the tank will typically have less armor and fewer weapons). Granted, the latter are practically tanks themselves, just with legs or fusion jets.
The tanks in Armored Core might as well be plushies for all the good they do.
In the first Rune Factory game, the main opponent the Sechs Empire sends an armored battle tank to defeat the player. By this point, your character is strong enough to defeat the tank easily, at which point the opponent says "Maybe it was a manufacturing defect." At the climax, the opponent sends dozens of tanks to destroy your town. Then the huge Dragon causes plants to grow and defeat the tanks by clogging them
Averted in most Front Mission games that features tanks, especially in Alternative. Mighty Glacier doesn't even enough to describe their potential (they can pack some big guns).
Tanks, as well as many conventional military vehicles, are somewhat more powerful in the cut-scenes, justified that most of the fight in the game is in close range (or in terrain where tanks would be less effective, like cities, jungles, or on bodies of water) where wanzers are more effective.
Enemy tanks are relatively easy to take out in the Halo games, while when piloting a tank the player can generally smash through just about anything.
Note that the essence of this trope is averted, however. Tanks are used by both sides, and the only reason they're so easy to take out, is that Master Chief keeps commandeering them...Or, he uses the Real Life tactic of 'Rocket Launcher'.
In cutscenes and backstory, human tanks are said to be weak and virtually ineffective against the invading alien forces, playing the trope straight.
In the game itself, in the hands of a competent player they're easily able to hold their own against "superior" alien vehicles while their shells' large knockback lets them play Ping-Pong with enemy infantry, making them one of the most versatile and arguably most powerful units for their cost. They are, however, virtually ineffective against the invader's walkers.
In Valkyria Chronicles your own tank, and tanks in general are quite effective. However in one event you are tasked with diverting the path of the enemy's humongous mobile battle fortress into an ambush where the Gallian Royal Guard's tank squad awaits. Your diversion is successful, the Royal Guard attacks, does absolutely nothing and is destroyed utterly making the mission entirely pointless.
In Mother 3, the Pigmask army deploys some tanks to break into Osohe Castle, which works out fine. They later use the same tanks to chase down your party, only to have one get destroyed by them (Having a Tomboy Princess with Psychic Powers and a Badass Grandpa packing explosives helped there), while another is crushed like a tin can by a Drago. The drivers of the remainder decide they've seen enough at that point and bail out.
Spoofed in The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, when Cumberland turns into a Humongous Mecha. The President of the United States wants to counter with a mecha of her own, but upon realizing they don't have one, she gives up and tells them to just send some tanks, knowing full well that those are just cannon fodder for mecha.
Played straight in Whateley, when Wallflower manages to handle three tanks at once with her force field. Discussed Trope later on, as she does the math to determine how much force she just handled...and realizes it was WAY more then she should have. Subverted in a later story, where tanks are amongst the ground forces that TPK Team Kimba.
In the finale of Kim Possible, tanks are powerless to stop the Lorwardian war machines.