It's been hard times for tank
manufacturers since the early 1990s. The end of the Cold War not only ended the
arms race between the Soviet Union and the West, it also put thousands of late
model, second hand, tanks on the market. Annual production of tanks went from
several thousand to several hundred, practically overnight. Since then, the
tank industry has made a recovery of sorts. Annual tank production has
increased to over 600 vehicles, and that seems likely to remain steady for the
next decade. Spending on tanks is expected to remain pretty steady at about $3
billion a year. That's world-wide. Annual global defense spending is now about
$1.2 trillion a year. Tanks still get a lot of respect, but they're not getting
a lot of money.
Most of the tanks being built now, and in the
immediate future, are low grade stuff. China and Pakistan continue to produce
T-72 knock-offs. Only Russia is working on high end vehicles (the T-90), and
some of the Chinese production includes vehicles that are equivalent to the
T-90, but a cut below the best Western systems (the M-1, Challenger and Leopard
The real money is in upgrades to existing tanks.
Thermal sights and computerized fire control systems are hot items, as well
they should be. As early as the 1991 Gulf War, American M-1 tanks equipped with
thermal sights proved their worth in combat. There's also a market for new
ammunition, and improvements to defenses (add-on armor and active defense
systems to stop missiles).
Tanks won't get a greater share of defense budgets
until the current stock of Cold War vehicles are all worn out, or a
breakthrough new design arrives. Both of these events are expected to take
another decade, or more, to arrive. Until then, the main-battle-tank is living
off past glories, and adding bits of new technology as it becomes available.