There are very few motorized creations on earth that rival the main battle tank for sheer power. Arriving on the scene in World War I, tanks have turned the tide of ground warfare ever since. What began as a method of maneuvering a large gun into a more battle-ready position has evolved into a less capable enemy’s worst nightmare. While the original tanks were slow, noisy and cumbersome, their modern-day counterparts are fearsome, technological wonders.
When tanks made their debut, you could expect to have maneuverability, speed or sheer power but all three in one tank was a pipe dream. As technology advanced, the ability to combine all three characteristics did as well. When the United States Army hit the ground in the middle east during Operation Desert Storm, the entire world was given an advertisement for just what tanks were capable of doing on the battlefield. While the modern attack helicopter stole the show, tanks were no longer viewed as lumbering, moving targets. The world quickly understood that battle tanks were fast, agile and- other than their vulnerability to ground planted explosive devices, more fearsome than ever.
Over the past few decades, tanks have continued to evolve becoming faster, more maneuverable and packed with technology from enemy positional imaging to computer-controlled targeting systems. While World War II proved that those who control the air control the battle, those with the best tanks will continue to control the ground for quite some time.
15 Stridsvagn 103
When the Swedish military got into the tank building world in the late 1950s, they did what they often do and created something that could easily be described as unorthodox: a tank that drives in reverse nearly as fast as it goes forward. The Stridsvagn 103 tops out at around 37 mph and can almost match that backing up. While I’m sure this had led to no end of jokes about Swedish forces retreating or backing out of a fight, the operational benefits of being able to maneuver at top speed in either direction is really impressive.
When designing the Stridsvagns, Swedish engineers studied the damaged inflicted on tanks during World War II and the Korean War. They quickly came to realize the turret protruding from the top of the tank was often the most hit and damage to that upper section caused the most damage. By designing the Stridsvagns with a lower profile, no obvious turret, and an adjustable suspension they could lower by over five inches when preparing to fire, the Swedish engineers created a smaller target profile thus increasing the effectiveness of the tank.
By 1997, the 103 was replaced by the Stridsvagn 122 that top-ended around 42 mph.
14 Infanterikanonvagn 91
In the 1970s, the Swedish military brought fourth a complimentary piece to the Stridsvagns known as the Infanterikanonvagn 91. This new entry into the world of Swedish warfare was a light tank meant to be able to deploy and evacuate in a rapid manner. Tipping the scales at just over 16 tons, with a top speed of just over 40mph, the Infanterikanonvagn 91 can bring the heat.
Unlike its brother tanks, the 91 had a functional turret, although it has a significantly lower profile than the average tank turret.
The 90mm main gun fires a high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round – essentially a shaped charge designed to pierce tank armor. Additionally, the Infanterikanonvagn sports a laser rangefinder, high-tech night vision and a computerized fire-control system to increase the odds of it nailing the target on the first shot. If the Swedish military was able to clad this beast in stealth armor, it would make nightlife extremely difficult for opposing forces. Unfortunately, the warheads out there will never get to see that as the Infanterikanonvagn 91 was removed from service at the turn of the century. But, you have to admit the idea of a stealth armored, quick, nimble tank about to track down opponents under the cover of darkness would make for some remarkable movie footage.
13 Cromwell Mk VIII
To say tank technology took a major leap forward during and soon after World War II would be a heavy-duty understatement. During this time, the British military understood that resources were scant and reliability was of the utmost importance. Unlike the Challenger series that would come later, the Cromwell line was considered highly reliable.
Warfare History Network had this to say about the Cromwell line, “Of equal importance to the success of the Cromwell in combat, was its mechanical reliability. Although not quite up to that of the Sherman, the Cromwell tank was easy to maintain which meant it could remain in operation for long periods of time before having to be pulled out of the line for routine maintenance and repairs. This allowed it to exploit breakthroughs even better than the Sherman.
For example, the 7th Armored Division advanced an average of 70 miles a day after the breakout from Normandy. Further, its speed, reliability, and range made it an especially good tank for conducting long distance reconnaissance missions.
About 3,066 Cromwells of all models were produced during the war. In 1945 it was retired from active service and replaced by the Centurion tank which was introduced in that year. However, the Cromwell saw in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, as well as with the British in the Korean War two years later.”
12 German Wiesel
Sometimes, smaller is better, especially when you’re trying to evade main battle tanks operating in your area. Offering a middle ground between the mobility of infantry and the armor of a tank, the Wiesel certainly seemed like the future of warfare. Tank Encyclopedia described it this way “The Wiesel (“Weasel”) was named for its small size, speed, and agility on the battlefield. It was a difficult target to spot visually and was light enough to be carried, four at a time in the cargo bay of a C130 Hercules or C160 Transall, and a Sea Stallion CH53 heavy helicopter can airlift two of them. Air-droppings were tested but abandoned after four failed tests. The deliveries took place in the late 1980s but the Bundeswehr eventually canceled the project due to budgetary restrictions, after 148 were delivered. Porsche continued the development however for the export market but so far none has been ordered abroad, although the United States bought seven Wiesel 1 of the unmanned version for evaluation.
The Wiesel I is built in light steel armor which can resist small arms fire. The front section comprised the small transverse-mounted 64 kW Audi 2.1-litre 5 in line, turbodiesel engine which delivered 86 hp. Suspensions are made of torsion arms and shock absorbers, with four roadwheels on each side (one is the rear track tensioner).”
The reigning American point of view is that the Soviet Union back engineered a wide variety of their military might from America designs. While the opposite view may be in Russia and other former Soviet states. The former view is held by the folks at Tank Encyclopedia as they detail the Soviet BT-7: “ The BT-7 (Bystrochodnij Tankov or 'Fast Tank' type 7) was derived from the 1930 American-built Christie tank, which had been perfected and modified into the BT-2 and BT-5 series. These were pure cavalry tanks, designed for speed, with good armament but weak armor.
First designed in 1935, the BT-7 prototypes had a characteristic canted-ellipse shaped turret, were of all-electric welded construction, with new Saslavsky brakes, new main clutch, and slightly thicker armor.
This final evolution, sometimes called BT-7 model 1940, was born from the four experimental BT-8s. These were equipped with a new V12 diesel engine produced at the Voroshilovets factory and derived from the Hispano-Suiza 12Y aircraft engine. The BT-7M eventually showed a much higher endurance and overall range, and replaced the BT-7-2 on the production lines. They would become the ancestor of the T-34 family and were produced from 1939 to mid-1941, when the factory plants were dismantled to be relocated further east. Around 790 BT-7Ms were produced.”
10 FV101 Scorpion
The UK’s FV101 Scorpion is another entry in the 45 mph plus club. The 190 hp Cummins 5.9L diesel engine (that should sound familiar to all the Ram truck drivers out there) replaced the Jaguar gas engine, but the FV101 was actually faster with its original engine.
Let’s check out what Tank Encyclopedia says about this one: “The engine was at first the Jaguar J60 4.2-litre petrol engine but a diesel was chosen later during production to increase range. The final one was the Cummins BTA 5.9-litre capable of 190 hp, or a Perkins equivalent. Trials showed that top speed was 50 mph (80 km/h), and it was up to accelerations from one to 30 mph (49 km/h) in just 16 sec. In water, this was reduced to 3.6 mph (5.8 km/h). The engine was served by a David Brown TN15 transmission. The armament comprised the main ROF (Royal Ordnance Factory) 76mm L23A1 gun, tailored for the Scorpion in 1973, which could be fed with various ammunition, ranging from HE to various AP rounds.
Other equipment included a wireless radio, image intensification sights for the gunner and driver and IF vision. Internal commodities comprised a commander’s commode under his seat, a water tank and a boiling vessel.”
9 M1 Abrams
When you think of the word “tank” most likely either the WWII era Sherman or the more modern M1 Abrams comes to mind. While the Sherman was the standard of the era of tanks, the M1 Abrams is the standard of modern ground warfare.
A quick check with military.com gives us a quick peek under the hood: “Manufacturer: General Dynamics Land Systems Service: US Army, USMC Engine: 1500 HP Gas Turbine Engine Armament: 120mm XM256 Smooth Bore Cannon; 7.62 M240 coaxial Machine gun; .50 cal M2 Machine gun Maximum Speed: 42 mph Range: 265 mi Crew: 4.
Approved for production in 1990, the M1A2 represents the U.S. Army’s technological improvement of the basic M1A1 design and the most modern battle tank in the world. Outwardly similar in appearance to the M1A1, the most notable exterior changes on the M1A2 are the redesigned Commander's Weapon Station (CWS) and the addition of a Commander's Independent Thermal Viewer) on the left side of the turret forward of the loader's hatch. Internally, however, the M1A2 has been radically redesigned to take advantage of newer technology.”
While this entry has the top speed at 42mph, other sources have the M1 clocked closer to 50mph. Chances are the US Army isn’t exactly forthcoming on the top performance this military monster can deliver, but you can rest assured the M1 set the bar.
8 Challenger Series
The British military certainly wasn’t about to be left out of the need for heavily armored speed after WWII and developed the Challenger Series, their own quick-footed battle tank. By 1983 the British military introduced the first in the new Challenger line of nimble main battle tanks. Remaining in service until 2001, the Challenger One saw combat during the Persian Gulf war, but questions of their reliability plagued the Challenger series from beginning to end. While this may not be a surprise to any gearhead who’s ever owned a British car Triumph TR7, breaking down on the motorway has far less life-threatening implications than breaking down on the battlefield.
Introduced in 1998, The Challenger Two main battle tank replaced the Challenger One in 2001, then saw its first warfare deployment in the Iraqi War in 2003. With a top speed just one mile faster than the Challenger One’s 36 mph, the Challenger Two was able to provide nimble support for the American M1 Abrams.
Driven by a four-stroke direct-injected, twin turbocharged diesel engine, the Challenger Two has 1200 available horsepower. Couple that with 32-bit processors that operate the digital targeting system and a 55-caliber long gun and it’s easy to see this tank is well named.
7 Merkava Mk 4M
When King Solomon sat on the throne of Israel, his military force was the envy of the world. At its heart, Solomon’s military employed quick, agile chariots known as Merkava. When modern Israel had to figure out how to defend themselves quickly after the nation was reestablished in 1948, they borrowed the name and the Merkava tank fleet was born. According to MilitaryToday.com “Currently the Merkava Mk.4 is among 10 best main battle tanks in the world.”
They went on to detail “The Merkava Mk.4 Main Battle Tank (MBT) entered service with Israel Defense Forces in 2004. It is a further development of the Merkava Mk.3. A total of 360 of these tanks have already been built and another 300 have been ordered by Israeli Defense Forces. For a long time, these tanks were not available for export, though some of the tank's systems and components were offered for the export customers. However, in 2014 it was reported, that Israel will export a number of these tanks to an undisclosed customer, possibly Columbia.”
With a top speed of 40 mph delivered from a 1,500 hp diesel engine, there’s no doubt the Merkava can outgun and outrun the chariots of King Solomon’s day.
6 T-14 Armata
The latest and greatest tank to hit the scene is Russia’s T-14 Armata. With a litany of cutting-edge tech and a top end of 56 mph, the Armata has military minds talking a lot about the implications this mechanized marvel has on the future of ground warfare.
Popular Mechanics took a look at the Armata from a gearhead point of view and here’s what they had to say “Russia's next-generation main battle tank can fire an anti-tank missile at targets more than seven miles away. That gives the T-14 Armata tank, set to begin testing with the Russian Army in 2019, nearly twice the range of America's latest version of the venerable Abrams, the M1A2 SEP V3.
The T-14 is a formidable-looking beast. Armed with a new 125-millimeter main gun, an unmanned turret, modular armor, and an active protection system designed to shoot down incoming missiles.
For years, Russia has armed its tanks with laser-guided missiles that can be fired from the main gun. The first generation missile, the 9M112 Kobra, was installed on the Cold War-era T-80 tank. Kobra had a range of 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, and could penetrate up to 700 millimeters of armor. The current missile, the 9M119 Reflecks, has a range of 3.1 miles and can penetrate up to 900 millimeters of armor.
5 Type 99
With China’s emergence onto the scene as a would-be superpower, it’s no wonder the Chinese military also has a fast tank. The Type 99 has a reported top speed of 50mph – which is insane considering the tank weighs 58 tons (that’s 116,000 lbs. for those keeping score at home).
Military Today states “This main battle tank is fitted with unique active laser protection system, which uses a high-powered laser to disrupt missiles laser or infrared guidance signal, disable enemy observation optics and damage eyesight of enemy gunner. This active laser protection system can also be used against helicopters.
The tank is fitted with new computerized fire control system. It incorporates laser rangefinder and automatic target tracker. This MBT can engage moving targets accurately, while on the move. It has a high first round hit probability against stationary and moving targets, while the tank is firing on the move. The tank is fitted with advanced thermal imaging and panoramic sights and has a hunter-killer capability. Fire control system of this tank is clearly superior to those, used by the Soviet T-72 series tanks. It might even be superior to that, used by the Russian T-90 MBT.”
While it’s highly unlikely the Type 99 and the T-14 Armata would ever clash. If they did it could easily be labeled the Clash of the Tank Titans.
4 M18 Hellcat
If you’re big on cars and car history, you probably know the name Harley Earl. You can thank Earl for such automotive industry mainstays as the tailfin, the concept car, clay modeling for design purposes and the Chevrolet Corvette. Oh, and you can thank Earl for America’s advances in camouflage during World War II while he was spearheading the design of the United States biggest ground combat innovation of the war: The M18 Hellcat.
Since Earl’s imagination is where the Corvette was birthed, it is safe to assume when the man made a tank, it could get up and go. And that assumption would be correct.
The M18 can top end at 60 mph, which may not sound like much when you’re placing it in context with a hopped up Civic Type R, Nismo GTR or brand-new Camaro ZL1. However, when you take into account the Hell Cat weighs 39,000 lbs. (for comparison purposes the new Dodge Challenger Hellcat only weighs 4,400 lbs.) and carries a 76mm main gun complimented by a 50mm secondary gun, that’s downright freaky. While it’s doubtful Harley Earl ever imagined strapping machine guns to the hood of a Corvette ala Spectre of Twisted Metal fame, the man certainly proved he could bring the Corvette spirit to the battlefield.
3 Spähpanzer SP I.C.
After World War II, the new German regime had taken notice of what Harley Earl’s Hellcat had done to the Nazi tank brigades and you can bet they weren’t very happy about the outcome. Knowing they needed to keep up, literally, the German engineers set about making a faster, more nimble tank to race around the battlefield. Originally designed for recon and battlefield assessment that included the ability to take out enemy tanks, the Spähpanzer SP I.C. never made it past the prototype phase. One was actually built and tested, but ultimately the project was scrapped by powers-that-be. The real one is on display in the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung Koblenz (a German defense technology museum for those who don’t speak German).
While we’ll never know what the Spähpanzer SP I.C. can do on the battlefield, you can operate a modified variation, the Spähpanzer Ru 251, in the game World of Tanks. The SP I.C. prototype could achieve speeds near 36 mph, the game virtual variant in World of Tanks tops out closer to 45mph. Either of which is pretty darn fast for an eight-ton mass of steel, armor, and weaponry meant to inflict maximum damage on opposing armored cavalry.
Few can argue with the impact the former Soviet Union had on the evolution of tank warfare. The T-34 tank was a mainstay of tank warfare for several decades including during WWII. But, the T-34 was an offspring of several prior incarnations, including the evolutionary A-20.
From Tank Encyclopedia: “During the course of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) it became painfully obvious that the armor of the Soviet vehicles was simply not sufficient to protect the crew from the anti-tank weapons of the time. After a review of current losses, it was decided to issue a design order for a new vehicle.
Koshkin led the design team to build a new prototype which eventually became A-20. Just like the BT-IS prototypes, A-20 had three pairs of driving wheels (albeit with only the 1st steerable pair). The tracks were now 400 mm wide (much wider than the 263 mm of the BT-7), improving mobility.
The first and only prototype was built in May of 1939… and eventually the A-20 was dropped.
In late 1941, as the German army approached Moscow, the A-20 prototype was fielded defending the city. Records show it being damaged and sent for repairs twice. Unfortunately, there are no records of it after December 1941 and what happened to it is unknown.
1 M24 Chaffee
According to the experts at Tank Encyclopedia, “The M24 Chaffee, the replacement for the M3/M5 Stuarts, was a leap forward in light tank design, improving the concept in all directions. It had modern torsion bar suspensions, completely revised welded steel armor, improved protection and, more importantly, a much more potent lightweight 75 mm (2.95 in) main gun. Although late in the game (just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, winter 1944), the Chaffee was so successful, being efficient, simple, reliable and rugged, that that it was largely exported after the war and stayed in service with many armies until the 1980s and beyond, encompassing most of the Cold War.”
Although the M24 Chaffee is one of the slowest tanks on our list, having a tank top out at 35mph during World War II was still pretty impressive. The Chaffee coaxed all that speed out of twin Cadillac engines producing 220-hp each. Getting that sort of speed from a 40,000lbs vehicle with WWII technology really makes it even more impressive. When the 220-HP muscle cars of the late 1970s were topping out at 120mph but weighed about 1/10thof what the Chaffee did, it’s a wonder Cadillac didn’t put out a speedster prior to the CTS-V.
Sources: Tanks Encyclopedia, Popular Mechanics, Military Today