Because not all armored vehicles are tanks.
There are many different types of armored fighting vehicles in the world today. This page provides information on the most common. Note that it focuses on armored fighting vehicles; utility and other military vehicles not meant for direct combat are not covered.
Armored fighting vehicles
TanksThe most distinctive of all armored vehicles, tanks were first developed during World War I, and today, are frontline combat vehicles.
The typical tank has a heavily armored hull, propelled by caterpillar tracks, and powered by either a gasoline or diesel engine, mounting a rotating turret with a large-caliber gun intended for direct firenote , and maybe a few machine guns or other weapons for self-defense.
Tanks seldom operate alone; they usually work with infantry and aircraft to make the most of their abilities and cover each others' weaknesses.
There are multiple types of tanks, classified by their weight, armament, and role. The most common are listed below:
Main battle tank (MBT)
The most popular class of tank today, Main Battle Tanks are designed with heavy guns, heavy armor protection, and the speed and agility for maneuver warfare. First developed toward the end of World War II, technological developments have allowed them to accomplish multiple roles without compromising their capabilities, and they have since become the predominant tank type. They are best described as general-purpose vehicles, with other roles filled by more specific vehicles.
Many different MBTs have been built, with different countries having different operational and construction philosophies. Western tanks, for instance, tend to favor high-quality, survivable vehicles, while Soviet-style tanks favor cheap-to-produce vehicles with a small crew (both literally and figuratively), long range, amphibious capability, and low weight.
MBTs can be split into a few generations, based on their service date and characteristics.
Gen 1 MBTs entered service immediately after World War II. Examples include the British Centurion, the American M47/M48 Patton, and the Soviet T-54/55.
Gen 2 MBTs, introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, have a few improvements, including NBC protection, better night combat capability, and larger guns compared to older tanks. Examples include the Soviet T-62 and later T-72, the British Chieftain, the American M60, early marks of the Israeli Merkava, and the European Leopard 1.
Gen 3 MBTs, introduced from the 1970s onward, have vastly improved fire control systems, even bigger guns, and use new composite armor. Examples include the American M1 Abrams, the British Challengers 1 and 2, the Russian T-80 and T-90, later marks of the Israeli Merkava, and the European Leopard 2.
The next-generation is currently still in its early development stage. Many are upgrades of existing Generation 3 MBTs, with a few new models. A notable new model thus far is the Russian T-14 Armata.
The super-heavy tank takes the concept of a tank Up to Eleven. They have really heavy armor, really big guns, and move about as fast as molasses.
A few examples of the concept were tested, but none saw any serious use, due to their high cost, low speed, and difficulty of transportation, which would make them vulnerable to attack.
- The German Maus was the only serious attempt at building one. Two units were built, and both were partially destroyed before the end of WWII to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. The example seen in the Kubinka Tank Museum today is a composite of the two prototypes.
Heavy tanks are tanks that pack very heavy firepower and armor, at the cost of speed, maneuverability, and price. Their primary role was as breakthrough vehicles, spearheading attacks through enemy front lines, and attacking enemy structures and fortifications.
They saw primary service during WWII, after which they were replaced by Main Battle Tanks. A handful continued to see service through the early Cold War.
- Famously, the German Tiger I and II tanks.
- The Soviet KV and JS/IS tank family.
- The American M26 Pershing.
- The few post-WWII heavy tanks include the Soviet IS-3, the American M103, and the British Conqueror. None saw service for very long.
Medium tanks can be considered the predecessor to Main Battle Tanks, representing a balance between light and heavy tanks; slower but with better armor and armament than light tanks, but faster and with lighter armor and armament than heavy tanks. They were the most produced tanks of WWII, as they were the most cost-effective of all tank models, and could handle a variety of tasks. After the war, they were, like many other tank types, replaced by Main Battle Tanks.
- The American M4 Sherman.
- The Japanese Type 97 Chi-Ha.
- The Soviet T-34, the most-produced medium tank in history.
- The German Panzer III and IV. The Panther tank falls somewhere between here and heavy tanks.
- The only true "medium" tank that remains in service today is the Argentine TAM (Tanque Argentino Mediano, literally, Argentine Medium Tank), which is based on the hull of the German Marder IFV.
Light tanks are tanks designed for fast movement. Compared to larger tanks, they have much lighter armor and armament, and because of this, generally aren't meant to fight anything bigger than other light tanks head-on. Their primary role is reconnaissance, screening, and infantry support.
Light tanks were the majority of tanks before and at the start of WWII. During the war, their deficiencies became obvious, and many were replaced by heavier vehicles.
Many have been replaced by infantry fighting vehicles today, but a number are still in service and being developed.
- The American M3/M5 Stuart and M24 Chaffee of WWII, and the M41 Walker Bulldog of the Cold War.
- The Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go.
- The Soviets made heavy use of light tanks at the start of WWII, with the T-26 and BT series bearing the brunt of early combat.
- The Soviet PT-76 amphibious light tank is a post-WWII example.
- The British FV101 is another post-WWII example.
The cruiser tank was a British concept. It was, in essence, a medium-sized tank which sacrificed heavy armor for speed, mobility, and range. They were to work together with infantry tanks, which sacrificed speed for heavy armor. Infantry tanks and infantry would break through the enemy's front line, while cruiser tanks would use their speed to maneuver behind enemy lines, attacking supply and communication lines. The concept would soon become obsolete later on as technology improved, and larger tanks could attain higher speeds without sacrificing protection.
- The Cruiser Mk I, II, and III.
- The Cromwell tank.
- The Centurion tank was designed to fill the role of a "heavy" cruiser tank; it would later become the first Main Battle Tank.
Infantry tanks, another British concept, were heavily-armored slow-moving tanks, designed to work in concert with infantry. Infantry tanks and infantry would break through an enemy's front line, allowing cruiser tanks to use their speed and agility to move in and intercept the enemies' communication and supply lines.
Like the cruiser tank, the infantry tank concept would become obsolete after WWII.
- The Matilda II tank.
- The Churchill tank.
A tank armed with a flamethrower. They are typically based on existing tanks, and mostly used for attacking fortifications. With the decline of flamethrowers in modern combat, flamethrower tanks have similarly fallen out of fashion.
- The British Churchill Crocodile, based on the Churchill tank.
- The American M4A3R Zippo, based on the M4 Sherman.
Tankettes were small tracked armored vehicles, about the size of a car. They were lightly armored and armed, typically with machine guns, or maybe an autocannon. Their main role was supporting infantry and scouting and reconnaissance.
Due to their vulnerability to most light weapons, they were mostly phased out early in WWII. A handful of vehicles use the concept today.
- The Polish TKS.
- The Japanese Type 92, Type 94, and Type 97.
- A modern day equivalent would be the German Wiesel, a light air-droppable armored weapons carrier.
Tank destroyers are armored fighting vehicles designed specifically for fighting other armored vehicles, including, as their name implies, tanks. In contrast, tanks are designed for more of a general-purpose role, though different roles may overlap.
Early tank destroyers were equipped with large-caliber guns (usually larger than regular tank guns), while modern examples are typically equipped with anti-tank missiles.
Tank destroyers were used heavily in WWII, particularly by the United States, whose combat doctrine focused on the tank destroyer as a primary fighter. During the war, there were two different tank destroyer designs.
- The first design mounted anti-tank guns in a tracked turretless vehicle. Early designs had open tops, while later designs encased the crew compartment in an armored superstructure. This design had a low forward profile, was easy to manufacture, and provided decent protection. The lack of a turret, however, made aiming difficult. They were best used as defensive vehicles. This concept was primarily used by the Germans and Soviets.
- The second concept focused on mobility. This tank destroyer design superficially resembled actual tanks, and were built on a tracked tank chassis, but they had light armor, and mounted their gun in an open-top rotating turret, emphasizing speed over protection. They were much faster than the casemate-style tank destroyer, but were more vulnerable to attack, particularly with the open-top turret. The Allies primarily used this concept.
Today, the concept of a tank destroyer may be filled by an anti-tank missile carrier, a specialized tank-hunting vehicle equipped with anti-tank missiles. These vehicles are typically variants of other armored vehicles, like armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles.
- The German Jagdpanzer series.
- The American M10, M18, and M36 tank destroyers, and the British 17 pounder Achilles variant.
- The Soviet ISU-122.
Self-propelled artillerySelf-propelled artillery are artillery guns with a vehicle built around them, wheeled or tracked, allowing them to move around on their own. They are advantageous over standard artillery guns by obviously being more mobile, allowing them to easily relocate and evade attack, at the cost of being more expensive and heavier and difficult to transport.
Modern self-propelled artillery guns may bear a passing resemblance to tanks (some may even be built on a tank chassis, or other armored vehicle chassis), but their armor is limited to protecting from shrapnel and small arms fire, too thin to survive in direct combat with heavier vehicles. Some models may not possess armor at all.
There are several different types of self-propelled artillery, listed below:
Assault guns are a class of self-propelled artillery intended to provide direct fire support. They come in a variety of different forms; some are simple, just a chassis with a large gun mounted on top, while others may have a fully armored superstructure, or even turrets. Assault guns are not meant to be used like tanks, nor are they meant to directly engage tanks; they were primarily built for attacking enemy strongpoints and fortifications. However, some assault guns may find use as tank destroyers and vice versa, if their features are found to be suitable.
They saw wide us in WWII, with German in particular developing many different ones. In fact, the term "assault gun" is a translation of their designation for such vehicles, "Sturmgeschutz". The Soviets were also a major user of the concept, while the Western Allies did not use any, instead choosing to use converted tanks or tank destroyers for the role.
After the war, they mostly fell out of fashion and were replaced by Main Battle Tanks or other vehicles, though some may still be used by troops requiring mobility.
- Germany used many of them during WWII, like the Sturmgeschutz (StuG) III (the most-produced German AFV of the war), the Sturmtiger, and the Brummbar.
- The Soviet Union also used many of them, including the SU/ISU-152, which featured a massive 152mm howitzer.
- A modern-day example that kind of meets the definition would be the B1 Centauro, an Italian wheeled armored vehicle mounting a 105mm cannon in a top-mounted turret.
The most common type of self-propelled artillery, basically a howitzer or artillery gun mounted on a motorized chassis. Their main role is providing indirect fire, similar to regular artillery guns, but more mobile.
Most modern examples follow the same basic layout: a tracked chassis, with a large square-shaped turret carrying the gun and some ammunition. Wheeled versions also exist, and some early models may not have turrets.
- The American M7 Priest.
- The British Sexton.
- The German Wespe.
- The American M109.
- The German PZH 2000.
- The British AS-90.
- The Russian 2S19 Msta.
- The French tracked GCT, and the wheeled CAESAR.
- The South African wheeled G6 howitzer.
Self-propelled rocket launchers
Some self-propelled artillery, instead of guns, launch rockets instead. Rocket artillery fire their payload faster, but are less accurate, and take longer to reload. They are typically fired in large quantities simultaneously, hence the term multiple rocket launcher.
Rocket artillery is typically unguided, though newer guided rockets have been developed.
First used widely in WWII, a number of systems exist today.
- The Soviet Katyusha and its successor, the BM-21 Grad, are the most well-known examples. Newer examples include the BM-30 Smerch, the tracked TOS-1, and the BM-27 Uragan.
- The American M270 MLRS.
As the name implies, these vehicles carry mortars as their primary weapon. Simple mortar carriers may just be a small truck or jeep with a mortar carried in the back, while more-complex ones have the mortar integrated into the vehicle itself. Most mortar carriers are converted from or variants of other armored vehicles.
Self-propelled anti-aircraft gun
These vehicles are used for air defense. They are equipped with autocannons, machine guns, large anti-aircraft guns, missiles, or a combination. Some models also pack their own search and fire control radars.
- The German Flakpanzer series, including the Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwind.
- The Soviet ZSU-57-2, ZSU-23-4, and 2K22 Tunguska.
- The American M42 Duster and AN/TWQ-1 Avenger.
- The West German Flakpanzer Gepard.
Infantry Fighting Vehicles
Infantry fighting vehicles are armored vehicles intended to transport infantry and provide support fire for them in a combined-arms attack. They are typically armed with an autocannon or light cannon and possibly anti-tank missiles. Armor protection is primarily against small arms and shrapnel, and is lighter than that of tanks. They may be wheeled or tracked, favoring mobility and speed, and some feature amphibious capability.
The concept entered wide service in the 1960s, with many armed forces introducing them. Today, they continue to see major service.
- The Soviet/Russian BMP series, the first Infantry Fighting Vehicles, which set their definition. Their BMD series is designed to be airdropped for paratroopers.
- The American M2/M3 Bradley IFV.
- The German Marder.
- The Swedish CV90.
- The first wheeled IFV was the South African Ratel.
Armored personnel carriers
Armored personnel carriers are used specifically to transport infantry and equipment. They are typically lightly armed, usually with machine guns and automatic grenade launchers and maybe autocannons, but these weapons are primarily defensive; they are not meant to engage enemies directly. They may be tracked or wheeled, and some may have amphibious capability. Armor varies depending on the model, but most are only armored against small arms and shrapnel.
Due to their nature, APCs are vulnerable to attack, and rely on other vehicles or troops for protection. The IFV concept supplemented and sometimes replaced a number of APCs, but many APCs remain in service today, as they are better at transporting troops than IFVs.
The British first tested the concept during WWI, using some converted tanks. During WWII, both sides used half-tracks, armored cars, and even repurposed tanks for carrying infantry. Dedicated APCs entered service after the war. Throughout the Cold War, numerous APC models were built.
- WWII-era half-track examples include the American M3 half-track and the German Sdkfz.251. The Canadians used "Kangaroos", which were converted from tanks.
- The American M113, the most-produced APC in history, with many still in service.
- The American AAV (Assault Amphibious Vehicle), an amphibious APC used primarily by the US Marines.
- The Soviet BTR-60/70/80 series of wheeled APCs, and the MT-LB tracked APC.
- The Israeli Achzarit and Namer are modern-day examples of the "Kangaroo"; they're based on tanks (the T-55 and Merkava, respectively), and are thus heavier armored.
Infantry Mobility Vehicle
Infantry Mobility Vehicles are wheeled APCs designed to compensate for the weaknesses of standard armored cars and armored personnel carriers in modern warfare. They have much heavier armor, designed specifically to protect from mines, IEDs (Improved Explosive Devices), and ambushes. In the US military, they are known as MRAPs (Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected).
They are primarily used for transporting troops, escort, reconnaissance, and security rather than direct combat.
- South Africa has built a number of these, due to the low-intensity nature of warfare it has faced. Many have been adopted by other countries. Examples include the Casspir and RG-31.
- The German ATF Dingo.
- American MRAPs include the M-ATV and L-ATV.
Armored carsThis category covers wheeled armored vehicles. They are mostly used for reconnaissance, screening, escort, internal security, and transporting troops (in which case, they are also APCs).
Armament varies; most carry machine guns, autocannons, and automatic grenade launchers. Others, however, may pack larger guns and even anti-tank missiles, allowing them to function in the fire support role if needed.
Armored cars favor speed and mobility, so their armor is relatively light, only really effective against shrapnel and small arms. In the modern age, they have proven to be vulnerable to booby traps and mines, which has led to the development of more advanced and better-protected variants.
- WWII-era examples include the American M8 Greyhound, the German Sdkfz.222, and the British Dingo.
- Cold War-era examples include the British Ferret and American Cadillac Gage Commando, and the Russian BTR series.
- The French in particular prefer to equip their armored cars with high-caliber guns (usually around 90mm), giving them better ability to fight back.
- Up-armored variants of the HMMWV, or Humvee (the original Humvee was a utility vehicle not meant to engage in combat).
Some subtypes are listed below. And note a few of these may fall into previously-listed categories.
An armored car designed primarily for passive reconnaissance. Any armament is primarily for self defense, and engaging in combat is discouraged unless unavoidable.
- The American WWII-era M3 Scout Car.
- The British Daimler Dingo.
- The Soviet BA-64 and BRDM.
Internal security vehicle
These armored cars are often used for law enforcement and riot control operations. They may be equipped with less-lethal weapons like water cannons and gas guns instead of machine guns.
Half-tracks are vehicles with wheels at the front, and tracks at the rear. The wheels in front make steering easier than a fully-tracked vehicle, while the tracks allow for better cross-country mobility.
Half-tracks were popular during WWII, used as armored personnel carriers, cargo carries, or utility vehicles. They see little service today.
- The American M2/M3/M5 half-track series.
- The German Sdkfz.251.
A truck equipped with crew-served weapons. These vehicles were mostly improvised from cargo trucks (thus, they could also count as technicals) fitted with armor and weapon mountings, and were primarily used for defending convoys in irregular conflicts.
Technicals are improvised fighting vehicles, usually a pickup truck or other civilian vehicle fitted with heavy weapons, like machine guns, autocannons, or rocket launchers/heavy guns. Some may be armored, but most or not. They are mostly used by irregular armies (especially in Africa and the Middle East), or special forces units, who favor high mobility.
Many gun trucks mentioned above are also technicals, due to their improvised construction.
What would an armored fighting vehicle be without protection? This section describes types of vehicle armor and defensive systems.
Armor protects a vehicle's occupants from direct hits, shrapnel, and explosions. Materials vary, from conventional steel, Kevlar, and composite materials, each with varying effectiveness and weight depending on the amount used and/or composition.
Different armor materials have different properties and effectiveness:
Soft fabric-based armors, including aramids like Kevlar. These materials are usually used for spall liners inside vehicles, which are used to protect the crew from shrapnel caused by spalling (bits of the vehicle's interior breaking off on impact and flying around).
The most common type. Cheap and easy to make, but doesn't provide much protection against modern anti-tank weapons. Most steel armor today is of the rolled homogeneous type (RHA), which is used as a standard for measuring armor penetration.
Aluminum is lighter than steel, which is in turn makes for lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles. It tends to be flammable, however.
The high density of depleted uranium makes it effective as armor, especially when combined with other materials to make composite armor. It is mildly radioactive, however, and quite heavy.
Composite armor combines different materials, like metal, plastics, ceramics, and empty space. Composite armor is generally lighter than all-metal armor, but occupies a larger volume for the same resistance to penetration, and is a bit more expensive, so it is usually reserved for protecting vital sections of a vehicle. Many vehicles today, particularly tanks, use
A vehicle's heaviest armor is typically at the front, which makes sense, since it's usually the direction that should be facing the enemy, and most likely to be hit. Side and top armor is typically thinner, which many forces and weapons are happy to exploit.
Common armor types and materials:
A projectile hitting a sloped plate at a non-perpendicular angle has to move through a greater thickness of armor compared to hitting the same plate at a right-angle. Sloped or curved armor exploits this simple rule to reduce penetration or even deflect rounds.
Nowadays, sloped armor as a primary defense is less-common, as newer rounds are difficult to deflect.
This section describes common vehicle armaments.