Armor: The Tank Builders Blues

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March 21, 2007: 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 2).

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.

 

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