The tank platoon is the basic unit of armored organization. How you structure it will shape tactics and has a direct bearing on costs. One might think that tank tactics are an extension of infantry tactics. And that a tank platoon should have subelements that the platoon leader can use to perform fire and maneuver organically, i.e. without attached elements, just like an infantry platoon does. To facilitate this, the traditional tank platoon consists of five tanks: two maneuver elements of two tanks and one tank for the leader. This formation works. It was the standard formation for both the US Army and the Wehrmacht Heer in World War 2. If it’s good enough for Heinz Guderian and George Patton, it’s good enough for me.
Only kidding. That would make for a very short post. Almost invariably, the girly-men in accounting start objecting as tanks get pricey, and cut the leader-tank, reducing the platoon to four. It happened to the German heavy tank platoons near the end of the Second World War, which only had four tigers instead of five. When the US Army moved from the old M60 to the big, expensive M1, it too lost the leader-tank. And for once the bean counters appear to be right. There doesn’t appear to be much lost effectiveness in the four tank platoon. Certainly it wasn’t an impediment for the tiger platoons, and the US Army doesn’t appear to complain overmuch. Fine. So, four tanks per platoon. The platoon is cheaper that way. Don’t tell the bean counters that I agree with them though. They’ll just demand more cuts.
The clever reader will no doubt note that I haven’t mentioned the Russians yet. They have a three-tank platoon, and have used it since the Great Patriotic War. Three is a natural alternative to four, and was easier for novice Russian tankers to command, especially as they lacked radios. Of course, our tanks have radios. In the air, the finger four formation has proven superior to the three-plane vic formation. But the Russians haven’t complained, despite spending an awful lot of time fighting the Germans with the four- and five-tank platoon. The Russians do use a finger-four type formation in the air presently. Of course, tanks are not fighter planes, and we should beware too many comparisons without adequate backing.
Interestingly, the army with the most post-World War II tank combat experience, the Israeli Defense Force, has moved from the old Western standard five-tank platoon to the Russian standard three-tank platoon, and are quite happy with the change. The Americans, British, and Germans have all studied the three-tank platoon, and the British and Germans have both taken steps toward adopting it. Generals Balck and von Mellenthin, formerly of the Wehrmacht and with extensive experience on the Eastern front, were also big fans of the three-tank platoon for being easier to command. They have written somewhat extensively on the subject, and have used it to good effect in NATO war games. This is a trend, and the trend is your friend, as several of my old professors used to say.
One might ask “Why?” More is usually better, not worse. Why should tank platoons follow the example of taxes and not money? Fascinatingly, the US Army may have the answer, even though they presently stick with the four-tank platoon. In simulated combat studies in both the late seventies and early 2000s, the three tank platoon is as good as or better than the four or five tank platoon in any reasonable metric you care to name, and these benefits seem to derive from the fact that it is easier to maneuver and direct the fire of a three-tank platoon. It’s about as survivable and is generally able to more effectively kill enemy armor. The exception comes in urban areas, when the effectiveness is not statistically different. As a bonus, it appeases the bean counters. And it is easier for a young lieutenant to command, even if that lieutenant has modern radios.
Thus there shall be three tanks in a platoon, and the number of tanks in a tank platoon shall be three. Four is right out.