THE DEVELOPMENT OF ARMORED FORCES DURING THE COLD WAR
The legacy of war
A clumsy side note from World War I, developed to break the stalemate of positional warfare, the armored weapon rolled into World War II in 1939 as a relatively untested weapon type. Its implementation varied greatly among the belligerent countries, but the German blitzkrieg campaigns showed early on what concentrated armored units in conjunction with air support could achieve.
Six years later, the armored weapon had undergone monumental technological and tactical development. And at hotspots such as Hannut, Brody, El Alamein, Kursk, the Ardennes and Berlin, the tank, with its mobility and striking power, had long since cemented its tactical importance, changing the principles of land warfare and deciding the outcome of the war in Europe.
Among the nations to draw bloody lessons from this was the Soviet Union, which, after massive material and human costs, emerged from the war as the materially superior and armored tactically most experienced of the victors. And which underpinned its principles for a future settlement of land war conflicts with massive armored forces and mobilized mechanical infantry.
Armored forces as a strategic factor
However, it wasn't until the end of the war and the start of the Cold War that armored units added the crucial strategic dimension to their already recognized tactical role.
Nowhere were the lines between the military assets of the Eastern and Western Bloc more sharply drawn than in Europe. The continent became a hotbed of friction between the opposing ideologies and social models, and also housed the blocks' elongated physical borderlands.
The geography of Northern Europe made the threat of an outright land war real here, as the parties moved away from the principles of ultimate nuclear doomsday scenarios and looked back to more conventional forms of combat.
It was therefore especially in the European context, among the military planners of the Western defense and military alliance NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and later within the Warsaw Pact (WAPA), the socialist countries, that the tank and armored warfare in numerous, fast and independent mechanized units was seen as a primary threat within the escalation stage of the blocs, as well as a war-winning factor in the impending semi-conventional land war in Europe.
The armored force ratio remained a concrete military power factor in Europe and an important piece in the rhetoric between the blocs until the end of the Cold War. As a result, the weapon type became the subject of massive organization and strategic and tactical planning from both sides. In addition, there was a large-scale rehearsal of the expected battle scenarios, which, especially in the offensive plans of the WAPA countries, decisively included Denmark and Scandinavia as designated battlefields in the upcoming front sections.
The West's material focus was generally on qualitative and the Eastern Bloc's on quantitative advantages, a prioritization that stemmed directly from the military doctrines of the respective defense alliances and their available resources, and could be seen in all types of weaponry. In the decades following the World War and up until the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1991, this "quantity versus quality" remained one of the principle military balances of power in the arms race, and became as important to estimate and maintain as the political considerations and decisions it could directly influence.
Also, the conditions of warfare/combat had changed radically since the World War.
The advent and refinement of new weaponry such as helicopter and missile technology, in addition to the prevailing prospect of large-scale tactical use of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons on the battlefield, caused established armored and mechanized platforms to be revised and others often newly developed to adapt to the anticipated apocalyptic conditions that would prevail in the coming Great War.
In this context, the military technological development of the Cold War period saw the introduction of several specialized vehicles that were also seminal for our modern warfare today, but also marked the phasing out of other, well-functioning weapon types that were no longer suitable for the new conflict scenarios.
Here, too, the opposing military parties engaged in a technological race, with rapid material development and the frequent dating of weapon systems from the time of their introduction.
Armor as an instrument of state-authorized violence
The history of WAPA's armored units also includes the chapter on the function of the armored forces as a key military instrument for the socialist states' ideological targeting of their civilian citizens, as seen internally within the Eastern Bloc.
In the communist-socialist states of the Eastern Bloc, the primary driving force and power factor was the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin would go to great lengths to make the Soviet sphere of interest appear as a synchronized socialist paradise of unconditional ideological cohesion.
However, the Soviet Union's political, economic and, with the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1956, military directives were far from always popular among the other seven member states, who had to implement them in skeptical hinterlands, often with fatal consequences for their ailing home economies.
Armored and mechanized units were thus also key tools for the suppression of popular uprisings in Central and Eastern Europe. The major interstate breaches of sovereignty, such as the Soviet Union's bloody purge of the Hungarian uprising in Oct-Nov 1956, and the "brotherly" countries' intervention in Czechoslovakia, after the state had sought to break with WAPA and the Soviet course, after the Prague Spring in August 1968.
But also as state-authorized instruments of violence for internal repression of their own countrymen, during the dozens of local uprisings and strikes in the individual WAPA member states, when the safe but authoritarian framework of socialism tightened and the unfulfilled promises and increasingly difficult conditions became too much for the population.