Say You’re a Rebel and Capture a Tank. How Hard Is It To Drive?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 2 2012 4:16 PM

How Hard Is It To Drive a Tank?

Harder than a car but easier than a plane.

Syrian rebel fighters celebrate on top of a tank captured
Syrian rebel fighters celebrate on top of a tank captured from the Syrian government forces at a checkpoint near Aleppo on Monday after a 10-hour battle.

Photo by Junot Diaz/AFP/Getty Images.

Syrian rebels seized a government tank on Thursday and turned its gun against President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Can an untrained person operate a tank?

It’s difficult but possible. Fortunately for the Free Syrian Army, some of its soldiers received training before defecting from the government forces, because learning to drive a tank without instruction requires some patience and a little lucky guessing. The control panel features hundreds of switches, dials, and levers that operate the engines, guns, communications, electronics, fire suppressants, and gyroscopes, to name just a few of the machine’s complex systems. Most of them have abbreviated labels that would mean nothing to a layperson, making it difficult to locate even the switch that turns the engines on and the stick that puts it into gear. (Some older tanks also need to warm up for a few minutes before driving.) Releasing the brake can be tricky, as many models require the driver to depress the pedal and pull a lever simultaneously.

Once the user has accomplished all of those threshold tasks, driving the tank is relatively intuitive. The brake pedal and the accelerator work the same as in a car. The newest tanks have airplane-style yokes for steering, while older models have two levers. Pulling back on the right lever slows the right track, which swings the tank to the right, while the left lever does the same for the left track. Newer tanks have automatic transmission, but older models—like the Soviet-era tank that the Syrian rebels swiped on Thursday—require shifting, and some have three clutch pedals and stall out rather easily.

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Beginners usually learn to drive with their heads sticking out of the hatch. In a combat situation, however, you have to orient yourself using the “vision blocks,” or periscopes, which would be challenging for a new driver.

On a flat surface, a modern tank can top 60 mph, but it’s safer to cruise at 10 to 15 mph on rough terrain. You don’t need to be too careful with a tank, of course, since it can drive over almost anything. (Tank-driving schools, which are more common in the United Kingdom than in the United States, allow students to crush cars down to a 1-foot thickness.) Deep mud requires extra caution. If the tank body contacts the ground while its tracks spin ineffectually—a condition known as “bottoming out”—it’s stuck. Another tank is usually required to tow the stranded vehicle, or you can position a tree trunk beneath the front of the tracks and move the tank one body length at a time until it’s out of the mud.

Operating the gun presents a layperson with many of the same problems as driving. There are many switches to rotate the turret and control electronics, and it’s not obvious which button actually fires the weapon. The vision blocks used by a gunner have heavy magnification, making it even more difficult for the gunner to see than the driver.

Untrained drivers have managed to get a tank rolling a few times in history. In 2006, for example, Hungarian protesters hijacked a World War II-era T-34 and drove about 100 meters before the retired beast ran out of gas in front of a line of riot police. (The tank got barely over 1 mpg of diesel fuel.)

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Frank Coles, author of How to Drive a Tank and Other Everyday Tips for the Modern Gentleman, and Alastair Scott of Tank School.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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