I asked myself the simple question: "what is the purpose of tanks?", and I came up short.

It is said that a common misconception of tanks is that they are designed to destroy other tanks. That is definitely a role that tanks serve, but it does not seem to be a primary one as field guns and artillery can often do as good a job, and cost significantly less to produce.

Tanks are great at taking out fortified structures, but this seems to be a niche use of them. How often will a tank, in the course of its combat, actually encounter a pillbox or fort?

Tanks are excellent at combating infantry, but how realistic is it that tanks can make a significant impact on infantry regiments? When we talk about tanks, regardless of the threatre or time, we are talking in numbers of, at the very most, thousands. The Battle of Kursk in total only involved several thousand tanks (a record which afaik has never been surpassed), but 4.5 million men. Million. What impact can a few thousand tanks have on a couple of million soldiers?

So I ask the question: what is the purpose of tanks in warfare on a big scale? While tactically their importance is obvious, what strategic bearing do they have? Why may tanks, in particular, decide a theatre of operations?

Edit: The comments to this question haven't been great in general, by people who seem to be saying "isn't it duh obvious" without actually being able to answer the question. O.M's answer is adequate (not that this question is allowed have any more answers), but doesn't really address the issues of large scale warfare. I would delete this question if I could. When I've done enough research on the topic, at some future date, I might post a new question and answer it myself. Maybe.

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    Does this Wikipedia article or this other Wikipedia article answer your question? What doesn't satisfy you? – Spencer Jun 2 '19 at 16:06
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    To add another three links to the ones Spencer raised, also see anti-tank warfare, combined arms and (since they're both used as anti-tank vehicles and modern tank replacements) military helicopters. – Denis de Bernardy Jun 2 '19 at 16:38
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    Unless you have complete air superiority, they're essentially metal coffins on tracks. Primarily there to provide enemy pilots (and occasionally allied pilots with poor IFF skills) with opportunities for target practice. Of course, I used to be a Sapper, so I may be biased. I know several 'tankies' who disagree with me. – sempaiscuba Jun 2 '19 at 17:19
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    @LangLangC The question is explicitly about "... warfare on a big scale". – sempaiscuba Jun 2 '19 at 18:54
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    Tanks are great at taking out fortified structures, That's exactly why tanks were fist developed. To deal with the trenches and pill boxes of world WWI – Danny Jun 3 '19 at 0:38

The role of tanks changed substantially from their introduction in WWI, through WWII, the Cold War, and to the present day. Any attempt to get a single answer for something that evolved over a century is bound to fail.

  • The very first tanks were pillbox and MG nest busters. Moving not much faster than a walking infantryman across shell-holed terrain, with limited range before the first likely breakdown.
  • Theorists talked about and hoped for breakthroughs, when tanks would take the cavalry role of rolling up enemy rear areas. Germany came close to that in a few cases early in WWII.
  • Improvements in anti-tank doctrine and equipment stopped those breakthroughs and forced the tank units into combined arms teams. (I'm thinking about bazookas here, not tank destroyers.)
  • For a while it looked as if anti-tank missiles had killed the tank, but improved armor (Chobham and reactive armor) made shaped charges less effective.

Notably, read up on cruiser tanks and infantry tanks in the interwar UK, the introduction and abolition of tank destroyer battalions in the US during WWII, and the development of the medium tank into the main battle tank.

When Germany fought the Blitzkrieg, most infantry walked to battle, without even trucks. Only elite infantry units would have a full set of trucks. Only the US industrial mobilization when they entered the war allowed fully motorized infantry divisions (not to be confused with Soviet-style Motor Rifles).

The West hasn't fought a serious battle against a "peer competitor" for a long time. This distorts the role of tanks, in a hypothetical Fulda Gap scenario things would have been grimmer.

  • @TomasBy. Panzergrendadiere were named in 1942. Before there were various mechanized, motorized, or motorcycle infantry in Light or Armored divisions. – o.m. Jun 2 '19 at 18:04
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    You say walk, and trucks. I pointed out they also had half-tracks. – Tomas By Jun 2 '19 at 19:03
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    I would consider the Israeli Army part of "the West" - and they certainly got a scare in 1973 from both the Syrians on the Golan Heights and again from the Egyptians in the Sinai. Both engagements involved large quantities of armour surpassed perhaps only by Kursk. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 2 '19 at 19:46
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    @Stumbler, edited. Re rifles, consider the doctrines that went with the Baker Rifle, the Lee-Enfield, and the M16. – o.m. Jun 3 '19 at 5:17
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    @Stumbler and you'd be wrong on both counts. – jwenting Jun 3 '19 at 6:17

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