Do Walking Tanks Make Sense?

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I can recall back in the day when I watched “The Empire Strikes Back” in the theater. To this day, my favorite scene in the movie was the AT-ATs. I’d never before imagined a giant walking tank. My mouth fell open, my jaw held together by my delighted, smile muscles. I loved it. Still in my late teens at this point, I had already been studying military weaponry for many years. Somewhere between the appearance of that thrilling scene and the time I made it home, I began to ask questions. One in particular stuck there. “Would a walking tank that big really work?”

Hollywood, and many other media sources, apparently never asked such questions. Next thing you know, giant walking tanks appear in other movies, in books, and manga. Other folks seemed to think they were cool too. And why not? Visually, I still think they are impressive. Show me a trailer for a movie with giant anthropomorphic tanks, or just giant walking tanks and you can be certain I will watch it. I mean if you haven’t seen the Transformers movies while stuffing popcorn in your face, then you’ve seriously missed out.

Modern Tank Design

So, will we see such giant walking tanks in the future. Most emphatically, no. Cinematically, they’re great, but from a military standpoint, they’re a terrible idea. Look at tanks from WW2 until now. They gotten heavier, faster, better armored, more destructive, and more survivable, but they’ve scarcely increased in height. Why? Because one of the best ways to survive a tank battle, is to not be seen, or at least present a small target. As the allies of WW2 battled their way through France and later Germany, they fought one of the greatest tank designs of the war, the Tiger tank. Did this armored behemoth charge out into the open, expecting to win the day through sheer intimidation? Sometimes, but not usually. Tiger crews found a nice little spot with lots of cover, trying very hard to not be seen. No tank yet has been impregnable, so crews knew they would most likely survive if they weren’t discovered until too late, and this worked very well for Tiger crews.

Another way to not be seen is by using revetments. These are trenches that a tank can drive into and back out of easily. It allows the tank to present its turret and main gun, but not the rest of the hull. This places the tank in an effective “hull down” position. It becomes a very difficult target to hit, if you even see it. So, as you can see it doesn’t matter at all if a tank carries huge swaths of armor. No matter how much you have, if can be seen, you can be killed. A huge walking tank stepping out into the open is an  invitation to get it explosively dismantled by scores of tank-killing missiles.

No Walking Tanks?

Big Dog: Boston Robotics

Not so fast. If you think your sixty-foot tall main battle tank will survive the even faster, even deadlier environments we can expect in the future, you’re kidding yourself. A low profile is the smartest move for tank design. Another problem is even the Star Wars AT-ATs kept getting tripped up. Try doing that with an M1A2 Abrams or a T-90. Not. But, if you built roughly man-sized walking tanks whose purpose was to be like a pack mule, now you have something interesting. Boston Robotics’s Big Dog is such an idea and I do believe that could work some day. Future designs intended for combat are also viable, so long as they are small, fast, and able to crouch and hide. Note, we come back to that ability to hide thing. It’s very important. A tank that isn’t seen is a tank that won’t get hit.

This is my take on walking tanks. What’s yours? Let me know in the comments.

About EagleAye

I like looking at the serious subjects in the news and seeking the lighter side of the issue. I love satire and spoofs. I see the ridiculous side of things all the time, and my goal is to share that light-hearted view.
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3 Responses to Do Walking Tanks Make Sense?

  1. I still remember the first time I saw the scene from ‘Empire Strikes Back’ where Luke defeated the AT-AT’s by tangling up their legs with a cable. Was blown away by it. Superb cinema but, of course, militarily silly. As you say, concealment is the best defence and there are good reasons why tanks went with low profile and sloped armour. The Swedish S-tank maybe took it too far, but I guess in the defensive war they envisaged fighting it would have worked pretty well.

    I definitely like the idea of walking robot helpers in the field, though, especially for casualty evacuation. A lot of the work I’ve done on WW1 underscored the issues associated with casualty recovery – including the risks taken by those doing it. Of the three double-VC winners in British and Commonwealth history, two of them were WW1 doctors who went out to tend the wounded. Woah! One of the more striking moments of that war came in November 1917 during the Third Battle for Ypres, when New Zealand lost over 900 killed or wounded in a single brief advance – a crushing blow for a nation that then stood at less than a million souls. The wounded littered the battlefield, but when the stretcher parties went out to get them, the Germans never fired. The tacit cease-fire was palpable; the Germans understood the bravery and sacrifice they had seen and honoured the moment. It took four to six men to haul out each wounded soldier through the quagmire.

    I mention this because if they’d had robot walking stretchers it would have been a much easier task (steampunk style, of course – this was 1917 after all). Realistically I guess such tech will be with us in a generation. I imagine such devices could also be made to fight, but the question of autonomy, command and control enters the picture. There’s that boardroom scene in Robocop 2 with ED-209…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elee Zimmerman says:

    Personally, no. I think they’re silly. (Like you, I was in my late teens when I saw them in TESB; but I thought even then they were a bit silly. I didn’t dislike them; I just didn’t see why they were deployed on Hoth … except for Lucas’ penchant for always trying to provide something new, which I can appreciate.) Visually, they’re certainly a sight to behold. But functional? I suppose that if (as you conjecture) these were one- or two- man combat or utility vehicle, one might make the argument that they could be used in some very, very, very specific environments; still I think it’s a stretch, and I think they’d be incredibly sluggish on any battlefield. The smaller version (ATST?) is probably preferable over the big ATATs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. List of X says:

    I would argue that there is actually a niche for walking tanks. Basically, if you are fighting an enemy who you know doesn’t have tanks, artillery, or powerful anti-tank weapons, but you have to attack in a terrain where conventional tanks and APCs couldn’t pass – mountains, ravines, rivers, anti-tank ditches, and where aircraft can’t land or even fly most of the time because of the weather conditions – like, you know, crushing a small rebel base on a frozen uncivilized planet – then these machines could work great.
    They’d also add a shock and awe component to the battle, and walking tanks are going to be almost impossible to take down with hand grenades or Molotov cocktails, because it would be pretty hard to throw them 60 feet up in the air, and maybe even have some sort of active anti-missile defense, since the height means some minimum distance from the enemy and distance means there’s some time to react. And I’m pretty sure a rope wouldn’t be able to tie down the legs like in the movie.
    The big downside of these walking tanks that it takes a lot more power to move a giant steel leg than to rotate a wheel, but I’m sure it’s a solvable problem for a civilization that mastered interstellar travel.
    And remember, those walking tanks did win the battle on Hoth.

    Liked by 1 person

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