Defense Media Network

U.S. Armor Developments: World War II and After

Part 1 of U.S. armor developments

A 1949 government advisory panel on armor found the U.S. Army not only had no tanks in production, but none in development capable of defeating the Soviet platforms, which the USSR had provided to its allies around the globe. Calling the situation critical, the panel warned the United States had to immediately ramp up both development and production of new tanks or face the possibility of spending the first two and one-half years of any major future war without enough tanks to support its ground forces.

The crew of a M24 Chaffee tank along the Naktong River front during the Korean War, Aug. 17, 1950. The Chaffee was not intended for tank-to-tank fighting and struggled against North Korean T-34s. DoD photo

The crew of an M24 Chaffee tank along the Naktong River front during the Korean War, Aug. 17, 1950. The Chaffee was not intended for tank-to-tank fighting and struggled against North Korean T-34s. DoD photo

“We went into conflict with the North Koreans with the same tank mix we had at the end of World War II,” Cameron continued. “The enemy invasion of the south was spearheaded by a mix of Soviet-built tanks – primarily the T34/85 – and infantry. The M24 Chaffee light tank was the basic tank the U.S. had in Korea – and it was not intended for tank-to-tank fighting. In the course of that first year, there was a focused effort to get more and heavier tanks into Korea – Shermans and Pershings. Gradually, the balance began to swing in favor of the U.S. and its UN allies.”

Realizing it would be difficult to match the Soviet threat tank-for-tank, the U.S. turned to the technological multiplier in the mid-1950s.

Because the United States saw Korea as a microcosm of what could happen in Europe, the government scrambled to overcome the perceived “tank gap” that heavily favored the USSR and Warsaw Pact.

Much military strategy at the time incorporated a series of equations developed by English mathematician and engineer Frederick Lanchester at the height of World War I regarding the power relationships between opposing forces. Lanchester’s Square Law for long-range modern combat contended that, all other factors being equal, the power of a single combat unit relative to the combat power of an enemy of a given size is the square of the number of members of that unit; that is:

One tank has the combat power of one tank – 1² = 1

Two tanks have four times the relative combat power of a single tank – 2² = 4

M46 Patton

An M46 Patton fires on enemy positions during the Korean War, Jan. 10, 1952. The lack of an enemy armored threat by that stage of the war meant that armored units were deployed mainly in support of the infantry. DoD photo

Lanchester’s formula did not apply to technological force, however, only numerical. Thus it could take up to five Sherman tanks to knock out a single German Tiger. Realizing it would be difficult to match the Soviet threat tank-for-tank, the U.S. turned to the technological multiplier in the mid-1950s.

In Korea, the North’s tank force had been nearly destroyed by 1950 and America’s growing – and increasingly heavy – armor took on the role of infantry support, casualty evacuation and even logistics carrier. In heavier, often spread out, fighting against the Chinese, they were used as strong points around which infantry could rally if in danger of being overrun.

“It was quite a different employment of armor than what folks had thought of coming out of World War II,” Cameron said. “There also was an accelerated pace to get new tanks into the field, not just because of Korea, but due to a fear of an outbreak of conflict in Central Europe. So the M48 Patton underwent a rapid development and fielding pace, going from raw engineering concept to fielding in less than three years. It never saw service in Korea, but was shipped straight to Central Europe.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...