Soviet Tanks: disruptive technology, innovation and product in the 1930's

Sudden technological change, innovation and disruption are ideas that much discussed nowadays in terms of digital products.

Much of what is talked about is not new. Humans have been creating new technologies and tools for centuries.

This post is just to show how history can be used to provide a different perspective on change.

I’m using the development of tanks in 1930's Soviet Russia as a framing device. There is a second post on German tank development.

There are many examples you can choose to highlight issues today in light of issues in the past. This post is just to show that discussing current and future events can be informed by patterns drawn from history. Sometimes to add depth, sometimes to show ideas from another angle.

The other reason I’ve written this post is because I’ve been building plastic kits of tanks for a few months and reading about their history.

T26 Light Tank

1/100 Zvezda plastic model

Tanks were first developed in World War One by the British Army. Tanks built by the British were deployed in Russia during the post-Revolution civil war. However, for the most part, Russia needed to develop as an industrial nation in the 1920's to enable it to build its own tanks in the 1930's.

The 1920's was a period of building core competencies and capacities.

By the early 1930's, it was clear Russia could build tanks but now it needed knowledge of how.

The T26 tank was a licensed copy of a British tank made by the huge Vickers engineering company. The Russians bought physical tanks and construction plans. They used both acquisitions to understand how to build their own tank factories and their own design teams.

The tank was adapted into multiple versions.

This process was partly to understand better how to build tanks and partly to create prototypes to understand how to use tanks.

The early 1930's was a period of relative peace. Tanks were a new military technology that had many ideas of how to be used but very few actual examples of use. The trench warfare of World War One was the only real case study yet many people had ideas of new forms of mobile warfare that tanks (and aircraft) might enable.

Tanks were built on the basis of ideas of wars that might be fought. Tanks were physical prototypes built to probe possibilities and test actual performance.

T35 Heavy Tank

The T35 Heavy Tank is a very large example of this process of building new tanks on the basis of an idea of warfare.

The tank was enormous. It had five turrets and multiple types of gun. It was heavily armoured and slow. In Kano terms, tanks are on an Iron Triangle of Weapons, Armour and Mobility.

The idea behind this tank was that the speed of attack was defined by soldiers. Walking pace was enough. Armour would defend the tank and weapons would defend the troops.

This idea was popular globally. It transferred old ideas of Light and Heavy Cavalry into an modern, mechanised context. There would be fast, light tanks and slow, heavy tanks.

Fast was a problem though. Tank tracks broke too easily, tank suspensions were too inflexible.

BT5 Medium Tank

Russian designers, as they built and tested their own designs, were still open to innovation outside of their teams and beyond the international tank construction companies.

The BT5 was built to test the Christie suspension system that had been acquired from its American inventor using some subterfuge (the US built prototypes were exported to Russia as tractors).

Christie’s idea was to fix the speed problem by fitting tanks with road wheels that could be used with the unreliable tracks removed. Instead of fixing the track construction problem, seek an alternative way of using the suspension.

The BT series of tanks were used to prove the reliability of the suspension. It enabled the speedy tanks that the Fast Cavalry ideal of warfare demanded.

However, that key innovation – removing the tracks and using rubber wheels – proved to be irrelevant. Continued development of tank tracks did finally deliver the reliability required whilst the idea of removing tracks proved to be a slow process and a practical problem for tank crews.

KV1 Heavy Tank

Soviet ideas on tank design and use changed rapidly at the end of the 1930's.

The ideas changed because their tanks were used in actual warfare – in multiple battles during the Spanish Civil War and in a very large battle with Japanese forces.

The experience of actual combat with armies using their own new tanks and new tactics was shocking.

The light tanks proved too light. Their armour penetrated by machine guns, cannons and bombs. The heavy tanks were simply too unreliable.

Russian design teams were tasked with creating new tanks.

The KV1 was a new heavy tank. Smaller than the T25 but with a reliable suspension and engine.

When World War Two began, it was invulnerable to any cannon that opposing tanks were known to carry. When Germany invaded in 1941, KV1 tanks were a terrible surprise. It was however, not the best Soviet Russian tank to be developed in the late 1930's.

T34 Medium Tank

The greatest surprise to German generals was the T34 medium tank. It was developed in the late 1930's using Soviet tank combat experience and tank technological developments.

Using the Christie suspension from the BT5 tank and built for the recognised requirements of heavier armour and larger cannon that combat demanded, the T34 was a startling development.

It was highly mobile (unlike the KV1), the sloped armour enabled greater resistance to cannon fire and the cannon it carried was larger than almost any tank it encountered.

A decade of development

Technological knowledge created over the last decade, along with construction experience of building multiple types of tank, was focused by combat experience.

  • Tank technology needed ideas of what might be possible to plan what could be made and resources needed to make it.
  • Innovative ideas needed engineering skills to deliver and construct products.
  • Fully constructed tanks were still prototypes until tested in real deployment.
  • The experience of actual use needed to be fed back to design teams to learn and construct products that finally succeeded.

All of these ideas are visible in engineering and innovation today. This post is just to show how many modern problem have been experienced before in different ways and in different places.

German tank development in World War 2 suffered from a set of different problems. You can read about them here.