The Twilight of the Tank

Today I’m here to share some good news (albeit with more charts than most good news you probably get). It often seems as though the world is headed in a more uncertain, unstable, and violent direction. But because of changing military doctrine and Cold War politics, at least one major metric is heading in a comforting direction. The global number of tanks is the lowest it has been in eighty years.

To understand why, we have to look at tank production in the same way that demographers examine a population’s birth and death rates. During the early to mid Cold War, the USA, USSR, and PRC all built huge numbers of tanks in preparation for the apocalyptic Götterdämmerung that many leaders believed was inevitable. Many of these tanks found their way abroad, and enabled numerous proxy wars between the major powers.

However, starting in the 1980s, the major players started building far fewer tanks. The table below shows the total production number of several important Russian, Chinese, and American tank models. Note how the production numbers drop for the later models.

Domestic Production YearsApproximate Domestic Production
T-721969 – 199120,000
T-901992 – present1,000
Type 591958 – 198510,000
Type 981996 – present2,500
M601959 – 198315,000
M1 Abrams1980 – present10,000

Today, tank production has “tanked” to its lowest level since before World War Two. Once-mighy Russia can produce little more than twenty new tanks per month, even as it loses thousands of tanks in its invasion of Ukraine. The United States is producing 30-40 tanks per YEAR, and every year the army tells Congress that even this number is excessive.

An ancient T-54, the most produced tank in world history. Despite its age, many countries still use the T-54. Most recently, the Russians have pulled old T-54s out of storage to fight in Ukraine.

Both the USA and Russia have put a lot of effort into upgrading and modernizing their old tanks, but these retrofits can only delay the inevitable. The world’s tanks are getting much older, and new production is a tiny fraction of historical levels. It’s no wonder hat most countries have seen huge shrinkage in tank numbers.

1991 Tank Fleet (including reserves)2022 Tank Fleet (including reserves)
Soviet Union/All Post-Soviet States62,50015,000
East and West Germany/Germany8,000300
Turkey 3,8004,400
From the International Institute of Strategic Studies. All numbers rounded to the nearest hundred.

Of course, not every trend continues indefinitely. But it does not seem as though many countries have an appetite to renew the Cold War’s tank mania. Take China, perhaps the most important rising military power. China’s defense spending has grown rapidly in recent years. However, even as budgets increase, China’s tank fleet has shrunk. It dropped from 10,000 in 1991 to fewer than 8,000 in 2016. Today, it has only about 5,400. The reason? China’s been scrapping its hordes of obsolete Type 59 Tanks, and production of new tanks hasn’t kept up. 

One reason for the change is that tanks have grown massively more expensive. The initial run of the American M60 cost about $4.8 million per unit (adjusted for inflation), while the modern M1 Abrams is about $11.3 million. Between the 1960s and the present day, Soviet tanks also more than doubled in unit price.

Doctrine changes are also behind the shift. More so than ever before, world military culture has shifted towards quality and against quantity. Measured by number of personnel, Russia’s army, for example, is the smallest it’s been since the 1800s. And as I discussed in this post, the peacetime 21st-century French military is less than half the size of the peacetime 19th-century French military. Mass tank assaults are out. Precision strikes, advanced fighter jets, and mind-bogglingly expensive infantry equipment are in. Tanks haven’t been the only older system to get the axe in the last thirty years. Global numbers of Kalashnikovs, artillery shells, or even nuclear weapons are also at a low.

The contemporary style has its merits, but as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine have all demonstrated, small, technologically advanced forces are not very good at occupying and controlling large countries. It’s telling that while the Russian attack on Ukraine began with T-90s, Su-57s, and the latest self-propelled artillery, it has devolved to T-54s, cheap suicide drones, and mass towed artillery.

The small, sophisticated modern army is probably also a good thing for civilians. To put it bluntly, 50,000 men and 50 tanks walking through your land are likely to leave a lot less destruction behind them than 200,000 men and 400 tanks, no matter how much each of those tanks cost. Also, let’s remember than tanks are primarily an offensive weapon, far more useful for invading other countries than for defense, while many cutting edge technologies, such as drones or lasers, are just as useful for defenders as for attackers.

In short, the twilight of the Cold War’s tanks can only be a good thing for global peace and stability.

Of course, looking at the news, the world might not look exactly like a pacifist paradise. Maybe the real lesson is that instead of our current era being particularly peaceful or stable, the Cold War was just really really terrifying. But even in our uncertain time, it would take a huge amount of industrial and political effort to reverse the decline of the tank. The tank still has a future, but this iconic and feared offensive weapon is likely past its glory days.

It’s nice to have one less thing to worry about.

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