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Why Are NATO Tanks Bigger Than Russian and Chinese Tanks?

A Challenger 2 speeds down a green grassy hill in an exercise. The Challenger has sloped frontal armour on a massive boxy turret.
Photo by Steve Dock, via Wikimedia Commons

This question circulates a lot, and there are many doctrines and circumstances to consider. However, at the heart of the problem, Russian and Chinese both built their cold war tanks with the intention of using bridges which can typically hold a freighter truck at 40 tonnes. NATO, on the other hand, went bigger in the hopes that they could bring and build their own bridges. Yet these decisions have many consequences.

The Leopard 2 weighs 62 tonnes, the Abrams weighs 55 tonnes, and the Challenger 2 weighs 64 tonnes. By comparison, the T 90 weighs 46 tonnes, and the Chinese Type 88 weighs 39 tons.

In Iraq, the Americans were forced to rethink their decision. Many US tank commanders feel they made an error. After all, building bridges in combat is tough—even with air superiority and fire support. The newest concepts for US tanks see them going lighter, yet the newest tank from Germany, the Panther KF51, still comes in at 59 tonnes.

One of the main reasons NATO said screw it on weight restrictions has to do with precision weaponry and its ability to cripple bridges.

Every general hates a river when attacking but loves it for defending. So naturally, when defending, you want to make a crossing as difficult as possible for the enemy. Hence bridges being prime targets for defender's air forces and artillery.

Even before these bridge blasting capabilities, the Swiss had every single bridge and crossing along its borders wired with explosives to deter any aggression. And today, we see the Ukrainians blasting every bridge the Russians even look at.

Let’s face it, the tank is a force multiplier, and naturally, you want to deprive your enemy of as many of them as you can.

So if most bridges are blasted in the early hours of combat, how much sense does it make to limit your tank's capabilities via weight? Especially when you consider NATO and Russia ideally bring their armour in on trains or ships in order to conserve fuel. Rail bridges are designed to handle much more weight than motor bridges.

Well, there’s always the faint possibility that you’ve denied your enemy’s ability to destroy a bridge. Which means you can now capitalize and outmaneuver them. And this is what armoured warfare is all about.

The fact is, there are inherent advantages to both strategies. More armour ammo and fuel mean the NATO variants can stay in the thick of it just a bit longer. They can assist their infantry brethren much better and exploit breakthroughs longer.

To understand the different concepts, we must look at the doctrines these nations favour. NATO, for instance, prefers combined arms tactics. In Desert Storm, they bombarded Iraqi positions until the enemy was no more than 50 percent strength. For a hundred days, the coalition airforce showered Iraqi positions. This left the Iraqi army demoralized, disabled, or dead. When the NATO armour finally made its move, they were fighting a battered Iraqi army that was scared to enter their own vehicles.

Could NATO use such tactics against China or Russia? That’s up for debate, but after seeing Russian organization and abilities in Ukraine, one could say NATO could open up air corridors and wither away Russian heavy opposition, especially with stealth weaponry like the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon.

Now let’s talk about Russian tactics. They have battle groups organized into combined arms-like formations, yet they have repeatedly failed to carry out combined arms operations in Ukraine. Instead, we see the Russians obliterate an area using an absurd amount of ordinance and later probe with armour and infantry. Only at the outbreak of the war could they use the bridges to bring armoured battle groups alongside infantry.

Which, to be honest, would almost suggest they made the right decision. Because the less organized your army is, the less likely they will be able to defend bridge-building engineers on the frontline. So having the ability to use a bridge, if possible, could be a massive advantage to the Russian Army.

That brings us to Germany and its heavy main battle tanks. Germany is now a peaceful nation, relatively comfortable with their lot in life. The days of blitzing through Europe are seemingly over. However, they know that deterrence is the best way to secure peace. Their tanks are designed to defend and support infantry, so they care little for river crossings and cross-country excursions.

In the event of an attack, the Bundeswehr would use combined arms to disrupt, slow, and destroy anything that fiddled around its soil. The Leopard 2 and the Panther are both integral parts of their defensive strategy being used to outflank and destroy enemy aggressors.

It should also be noted again that they can put them on a train or boat and get them to hot points where they are needed. It should also be noted that Canada and many other countries saw the Leopard 2 as the best fit for their needs as well.

Now let's talk about China. China has many T-88s but is building more and more T-99s to replace them. What's interesting about this is the T-99 weighs 55 tonnes. Well over the weight limit for freight bridges. So it would seem China has less hope their bridges will be standing and operable during a modern conventional hyper-war and would rather have more ammo and protection.

A Chinese T-99 looking very similar in design to the leopard 2 and Abrams.
By Tyg728 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, wikicommons

Considering everything, the weight of the tank should match a doctrine's goals. Some could say the Russians are delusional if they assume bridges will be standing when they get there, but the same could be said about the United States and Britain's hopes in building and maintaining bridges in combat. Yet both have happened.

The fact of the matter is water is still a thorn in warfare's side even 22,000 years after the first organized armies wandered Summaria. Just like the powerful siege engines and force multipliers of that day, tanks are particularly difficult to get across water.

Despite water's impetuous nature, the average weight for a modern main battle tank is 55 tonnes. This allows you to carry roughly 40 of the common 120-125mm tank rounds, reasonable armour, and a good power pack to propel your beast into the thick of it. Vastly larger or smaller could be beneficial under certain circumstances, but you risk unbalancing the holy trinity of tank design which is armour, maneuverability, and firepower.


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