The 5 Best Main Battle Tanks on Planet Earth Now

Ukraine War Tanks

The 5 Best Main Battle Tanks on Planet Earth Now

While the U.S. has the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank - widely considered the best on Earth - tanks like the K2 Black Panther and T-14 Armata from Russia are quite powerful as well. 

Any round-up of the “best” military hardware is going to come with a fair share of controversy—as it is hard to define what makes something “better” than another platform. This is certainly true when it comes to compiling the list of best tanks; for how can we fairly compare the British MkV tanks from World War I with a Panther from World War II or an M1 Abrams? Even comparing an original M1A1 to the current M1A2 SEPv3 seems hardly fair.

M1 Abrams Tank

Perhaps Wargaming’s online multiplayer simulation World of Tanks or Gaijin Entertainment’s free-to-play War Thunder could help settle arguments on what is the very best—but it should be remembered that gamers keep leaking classified details about certain platforms on the latter game’s forums to make their case. If that doesn’t prove that we can never agree on what is the best tank, nothing certainly will.

For the record, I take the view that the French-made Renault FT is the absolute best tank ever built. It might be more than a century old, but it was highly innovative for its day and took future development in a new direction. In other words, would we really even be having this discussion were it not for that light tank?

Yet, today five tanks do stand out as the very best “modern” main battle tanks (MBTs) in service.

Israel’s Merkava V

The Merkava series of tanks have been in service with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) since the late 1970s, and it has been steadily upgraded and improved. The latest version, which entered service last year, was recently deployed to Gaza.

Designed by General Israel Tal following the armored clashes of the Yom Kippur War and after the failure to purchase Chieftain tanks from the United Kingdom, the Merkava—which means “Chariot” in biblical Hebrew—ensured that the Middle Eastern nation wouldn’t need to be dependent on foreign armored vehicles. The goal of the domestic tank program was to further create a platform that could take on Soviet tanks that were in service with many of Israel’s Arab rivals.

Merkava Tank

The platform has been steadily upgraded—and the newest version is the Merkava Mark V, also known by the Hebrew “Barak,” which translates to “lightning” in English. In development for five years, the Israel Defense Ministry has described it as the “fifth generation Merkava battle tanks,” and it was only delivered to the 52nd Armored Battalion of the 401st Brigade last year.

The Barak was developed jointly by the Defense Ministry’s Armored Vehicles Directorate and the IDF’s Ground Forces and Armored Corps and includes systems developed by several Israeli defense firms, including Elbit Systems, Rafael, and the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Elta subsidiary, among other companies, The Times of Israel reported.

The Mk V is equipped with day/night cameras providing a 360-degree view around the hull, along with the Trophy Active Protection System (APS), which was designed to counter the most advanced anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), anti-tank rockets, and high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds. TROPHY creates a neutralization bubble around the vehicle. It rapidly detects, classifies, and engages all known chemical energy (CE) threats—including recoilless rifles, ATGMs, AT rockets, HEAT tank rounds, and RPGs.

Russia’s T-14 “Armata”

No list of best modern tanks would be complete without the T-14 “Armata,” even if the Kremlin apparently has so little confidence in the MBT that it is entirely absent in the fighting in Ukraine.

The T-14, which was developed by Uralvagonzavod, was first demonstrated at the May 9, 2015, Victory Day parade in Moscow. Among its heavily touted features was its unmanned turret, which included a remotely controlled 125mm 2A82-1M smoothbore main gun with a fully automated loader. In addition, the driver, gunner, and tank commander were housed in a crew compartment located in an armored capsule at the front portion of the hull, isolated from the automatic loader, as well as the ammunition storage in the center of the tank. The Armata further offered a low-silhouette that was meant to reduce exposure to enemy fire, enhancing the safety and survivability of the three-man crew.

T-14 Armata

It should be seen as an innovative design, yet, the Russian Army initially had plans to acquire as many as 2,300 of the T-14s between 2015 and 2020, yet to date, fewer than 50 have been produced. Cost remains an issue, and Russia simply doesn’t have the funds to purchase the MBT in significant numbers.

Russia’s T-90M

It would also be hard not to include the T-90M Proryv MBT on this list, as it received high praise in February 2024 from Russian president Vladimir Putin when he visited Uralvagonzavod.

“T-90 is the best tank in the world without any exaggeration. Our tankmen and the adversary recognize it as the best in the world,” the Russian leader proclaimed.

The T-90M Proryv is the latest modernization variant of the Russian MBT that first entered into service in 1994. The upgraded T-90 tank has been vastly improved in terms of protection, mobility, and firepower. According to multiple sources, the MBT has been upgraded with a fundamentally new turret differing from the serial-produced combat module and a more powerful 1,130 horsepower engine. However, the configuration of the Proryv is similar to the previous T-90 models, with a driver compartment at the front, a turret at the center of the hull, and a power plant located at the rear. It is propelled by a 1000mm 12-cylinder engine, allowing it to reach speeds of 60 kilometers per hour on roads and 50 off-road.

T-14 Armata

The Proryv variant is armed with a 125mm 2A46M-4 smoothbore gun that is capable of firing standard ammunition as well as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) Refleks NATO Code AT-11 Sniper-B rounds. Secondary armament includes a remotely operated weapon station armed with an NSVT 12.7mm heavy machine gun and a 7.62mm PTKM coaxial machine gun.

According to reports from the Russian media, the tank’s new multichannel sight enables the crew to employ its armaments at any time of the day or night. In addition, the option of exchanging data with other combat vehicles in real-time has been one of the upgraded tank’s major advantages.

The upgraded MBT is believed to have been equipped with the new Relikt ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) armor fitted at the front and on each side of the turret. The T-90M was first tested during the Zapad-2017 military exercise in September 2017.

The U.S. Army’s M1A2 Abrams SEPv3

When the M1 Abrams first entered service, Dallas was the must-see TV show, and Roland Reagan was only running for president. The MBT was actually developed in the days of disco and bell-bottoms, and before most of the U.S. Army’s tank current tank crews were even born.

On paper, it would seem that the Abrams is middle-aged and could be collecting social security fairly soon. To further push the point, we need to remember that the Renault FT was developed only sixty-two years earlier and was seen as entirely antiquated long before 1980! So how is it that a tank built when Watergate was fresh in many minds, the Soviet Union was still going strong, and we wouldn’t know who shot JR for several more months?

M1 Abrams

Upgrades!

The more than 2,500 Abrams now in service with the U.S. military aren’t the same vehicles that rolled off the assembly line nearly forty-five years ago.

As Stavros Atlamazoglou wrote for The National Interest, “Manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems, the M1A2 Abrams is one of the most advanced main battle tanks in the world. It is the third production variant of the main battle tank after the M1 Abrams and M1A1 Abrams.”

The current M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 MBT is armed with the 120mm XM256 Smooth Bore Cannon that can reliably and accurately hit targets more than 3,000 meters away; for secondary weaponry, the tank has a 7.62 M240 coaxial machine gun and a 50 caliber M2 Browing heavy machine gun. It is powered by a gas turbine engine that can produce 1,500 horsepower—and that engine can run on practically anything that burns—allowing it to reach speeds of 42 miles per hour. It has an effective operational range of approximately 270 miles.

The SEPv3 upgrade also featured increased power generation and distribution, better communications and networking, new Vehicle Health Management System (VHMS) and Line Replaceable Modules (LRMs) for improved maintenance, an Ammunition DataLink (ADL) to use airburst rounds, and improved counter-IED armor package. It further was equipped with a Next Generation Armor Package (NGAP), and an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) under armor to run electronics while stationary instead of the engine, visually distinguishing the version by a small exhaust at the left rear. Increased passive ballistic protection was added to the turret faces, along with new Explosive Reactive Armor mountings (Abrams Reactive Armor Tile), while Trophy Active Protection systems were added to the turret sides.

It has vastly increased the tank’s weight, which has been seen as an issue, but the crew’s survivability has also been improved.

The U.S. Army has since canceled a planned SEPv4 upgrade, and will instead direct its efforts towards the M1E3 upgrade, taking the best features of the v4 while introducing a modular open-systems architecture standard to allow for faster and more efficient technology upgrades of the MBT. Until those new versions arrive, the SEPv3 models continue to be produced.