A self-propelled anti-tank gun, or tank destroyer, is a type of armored fighting vehicle designed specifically to engage enemy armored vehicles. Many have been produced as a tank-like vehicle, but with light armor and capable of higher speed, with a gun or missile launcher. Many lack turrets. Aiming in the horizontal plane is achieved partially by maneuvering the entire vehicle in the turretless models, with final fine adjustments possible using a limited-traverse gun mount.
Tank destroyers are used primarily to provide anti-tank support in combat operations, but do not fit all the criteria of a tank. They frequently mount a high-velocity anti-tank gun but have an open turret, no turret at all, or run on wheels instead of tracks. Vehicles which carry an anti-tank guided missile launcher are also referred to as ATGM carriers.
Gun-armed tank destroyers have been largely replaced by the more general-purpose main battle tanks since World War II, but lightly-armored ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) carriers are used for supplementary long-range anti-tank capabilities. Modern tank destroyers primarily rely on missiles instead of guns to destroy tanks. However the needs of expeditionary warfare in the past decade has seen the recreation of lightweight gun armed, sometimes called protected gun systems, tank destroyers.
Strengths and weaknesses
The use of a fixed or casemate superstructure in place of the rotating turret found on normal tanks (except for almost all American WW II designs) confers both strengths and weaknesses upon the tank destroyer. Dispensing with the turret makes tank destroyers significantly cheaper, faster and easier to manufacture than tanks. Tank destroyers can also be fitted with larger superstructures, allowing accommodation of a bigger cannon than could be mounted in a turreted tank on the same chassis, and increasing the vehicle's internal volume, allowing for increased ammunition stowage and crew comfort. Eliminating the turret also allows the vehicle to carry thicker armor than would otherwise be the case.
But tank destroyers cannot fulfill the many roles of tanks; they are much less flexible, and their guns are often optimised for defeating armour at the expense of anti-personnel capability. A common feature of a tank destroyer is the absence of a turret, and in some designs, stronger frontal armor. Use of open-topped hulls was problematic since it afforded the tank destroyer crew less protection, both from high explosive weapons and nuclear, biological, and chemical threats. Turretless tank destroyers are most often used in concealed ambush positions where they can wait for a target to enter their line of fire. They are thus better suited to tactical defense rather than offensive usage.
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