The rise and demise of tank hunter aircraft
When tanks were first unleashed on the battlefields of World War I, their impact (literally and figuratively) was devastating on the enemy. Even though the first tanks were unreliable and hard to move, it was clear that the technology had a lot of potential.
By the time of the Second World War, tanks had grown in size and power, solidifying their place in many armies worldwide. Tanks had come of age, from the mighty German Panzer to the British Churchill.
But they were not invulnerable to attack from the ground or, more importantly, from the air.
Early tank killer aircraft soon earned their stripes during the conflict, with aircraft like the British Hawker Typhoon or American P-47 Thunderbolt becoming legends in very short order. Post-war developments in jet engines and rocketry quickly influenced tank defenses and aircraft offensive capabilities in a classic arms race that led to the development of the famed Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II ”Warthog” and Boeing AH 64 “Apache” helicopter.
The former, an instantly recognizable, cantilever low-wing monoplane with rear-mounted engines and an unparalleled capacity to carry a variety of munitions, put the fear of God into any tank commander unlucky enough to be in its sights. Beloved by their pilots, these aircraft are highly effective and mean machines, especially when decked out with their famous shark mouth decals on the nose.
The latter was first introduced in the 1980s and can kill tanks using tactics “Warthog” pilots could only dream of.
Both legends in their own right, these tank-busting aircraft would cement their places in history as the bane of many tanks. But, after decades of faithful service, recent advances in anti-aircraft systems and drone technology could mean the end of these well-known engineering marvels that can break through tanks.
These technologies have advanced to such a degree that continued use of such aircraft would likely yield an unacceptable and irreplaceable loss of units and pilots in the future. This has led many military strategists in America to consider a new method of knocking out tanks from the air.
This is where drones will likely become more important in the future.
Even the most advanced Russian tanks were no match for drones in Ukraine. This suggests that drones should be used instead of manned aircraft to fight tanks.
Drones like the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 have shown that they can do a great job of taking the place of the A-10 and Apache, which may be taken out of service soon. Drones like the TB2 can hang around for a long period and be outfitted with the most advanced anti-tank weapons.
They are also easy to move around, not too expensive, and can be used more aggressively than piloted planes since they are relatively disposable.
But, for the time being, legends like the “Warthog” and “Apache” are to be consigned to the graveyard of battle machines.