MBT-70: the army’s plan for a super tank to fight Russia


During the Cold War, the United States and NATO feared Russian armor and anti-tank weapons. The MBT-70 was designed to change all that: The United States and West Germany realized that their armor was good, but would soon be overtaken by Soviet anti-tank technology. They needed some kind of revolution in tank design and got it with the jointly developed MBT-70. However, this amazing new tank was only ever a prototype, here’s why.

Cracks in the armor

The West German Leopard I and the American M60 tank were among the best of the best in the early 1960s. Although of different designs, they had good mobility, firepower and adequate armor against the armor of the Soviet Union.

Observers of the 1973 Yom Kippur War noted that while Israeli M60s performed well against Arab armor, especially former Soviet T-54s and T-55s, Soviet anti-tank missiles were effective and deadly. The Leopard I would probably fare just as well against older Soviet tanks, but had similar armor vulnerabilities. The point was that anti-armour technology had developed faster than armor technology.

In light of this new information, it was decided that West Germany and the United States would jointly develop a new main battle tank with the aim that it would become standard for both the western Bundeswehr- German and US Army and Marine Corps: the MBT-70.

A tank is born

The MBT-70 was a design from scratch. Rather than a gradual improvement on existing West German or American designs, the designers started out totally fresh.

Like today’s South Korean K2 Black Panther, the MTB-70 had hydropneumatic suspension that allowed the tank to kneel forward or lean back. This gave the main gun a higher elevation range for distant targets and a lower depression angle for hull-down fortified positions in which the tank would fire behind cover.

It also gave the tank better maneuverability – on roads the tank would stay low to the ground and the MBT-70 could pump its suspension.

The main gun was also impressive: a 152 millimeter gun replaced the then standard 105 millimeter main gun. The big gun was intended to give the MBT-70 a huge range advantage when used with new anti-tank missiles in addition to firing conventional high-explosive shells.

The MBT-70 also had excellent mobility. It had a higher top speed than the Leopard I, M60, and all Warsaw Pact armor. It had better acceleration and, thanks to its advanced suspension, it was easier and more comfortable for the crew to handle at high speeds than earlier tanks at lower speeds.

Armor protection was also good. A specially designed blend of steel was used in the MBT-70 armor which was designed to defeat 105 millimeter shells at close range. The armor also had a layer of polyethylene plastic that could shield against radiation. Additionally, MBT-70 could filter radioactive particles and chemical agents from the air entering the tank.

Although the MBT-70 is incredibly capable on paper, a few of the more advanced design features were either hated by tankers or unreliable and unready due to still immature technology.

The problems mount

From the start, development was hampered by units of measurement. The West Germans wanted to use the metric system, the Americans wanted to use their measurement system. Although the metric was ultimately chosen, it caused costly project delays, increasing development costs at a time when the West Germans had limited defense funds to invest in a radical new tank project.

Although the 152 millimeter gun was theoretically an advantage, the ammunition it fired was not. Rather than using a brass or metal case, the MBT-70 fired a new type of caseless ammunition.

The walls of the case were combustible apparently to save weight. Unfortunately, if the casing didn’t burn out completely, smoldering embers would remain lit in the barrel, causing a few premature firings in testing. The new cartridges were also vulnerable to moisture and could swell and not fit in the pistol’s breech if soaked enough.

The MBT-70 was also heavy – much heavier than originally expected. This was especially a problem for the West Germans. Their national rail transport infrastructure was not equipped to move such heavy loads and could be damaged in the process. Additionally, a good number of bridges in East and West Germany could not be safely crossed by super-heavy tanks.

The stubby turret, although a defensive advantage, was not appreciated by tanker testers. The driver sat in a rotating capsule that always faced forward, rather than turning in the direction of the main gun. Tank drivers found this disorienting.


Ultimately, the MBT-70 was killed by cost overruns and technological complexity. Rather than developing certain design features and then incorporating them into the MBT-70 design, such as careless ammunition, the technology was installed and then extensively tested.

Other projected bloat costs also ended the whole business. If the MBT-70 ever reached mass production, it would have cost five times more than initial estimates – money that could be better reinvested elsewhere.

West Germany continued to develop the Leopard II and the United States the Abrams M1, both of which are still in service. Perhaps it was for the best that the MBT-70 never got beyond the prototype stage.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a master’s degree in public policy and covers US and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.


Comments are closed.