One of America’s most successful early postwar tanks, the M48 distinguished itself as the workhorse U.S. tank of the Vietnam War.
In the years following the Second World War, the U.S. military was left with three main tanks: the M26 heavy tank, M4 Sherman medium tank, and M24 light tank. These models were very much products of their time; the M26, for instance, was designed to counter Germany’s Tiger and Panther tanks. The categories “heavy,” “medium,” and “light” were themselves becoming increasingly dated on the heels of a changing modern battlefield. The U.S. military clung on to the World War II-era classification table throughout the late 1940s, but changed course by the turn of the decade. The concept of the “main battle tank” (MBT), distinguished by others of its kind not by its weight but by the caliber of its main guns, was born. One of the early design efforts in this new direction was the M47 Patton, but a slew of technical shortcomings and performance issues kept it from widespread adoption.
The “T48” project was conceived in the early 1950s as a further development of the M47. Research and Development efforts on a new tank were sped up with the onset of the Korean War; by 1952, the baseline M48 Patton design was finalized and the first M48’s began rolling out.
In its final, mass-produced incarnation, the M48 was a significant departure from its M47 predecessor. The hull was more compact, boasting a lower turret ring and reduced overall height. The armor plating was revised to account for parallel advancements in anti-tank firepower. One of the tank’s major innovations, the M48’s low hemispheric turret was a marked improvement over the M47 design. The main gun was the 90 mm M41, a lightweight weapon that nonetheless offered similar performance to the heavy M36 90mm main gun of its M47 counterpart. The tank’s mechanical fire control system was incorporated with long-range accuracy in mind. The baseline M48 was powered by an improved gasoline engine featuring greater fuel-efficiency, though operational range was an issue—the baseline M48 was held back by its anemic range of roughly 110 km.
The Army almost immediately began commissioning variants of the M48, with the initial revision—dubbed the M48A1—focused on marginal engine improvements. It was the prolific M48A3, which entered service in the late 1950s, that made the much-needed jump to a diesel engine with a much beefier range of 450 km. The mid 1970s M48A5 was the technical culmination of the M48 platform, offering a new 105mm gun, a modern protection system, and a slew of subtle hull improvements.
The M48 is best remembered for its service as the main U.S. tank in the Vietnam War. As many as six hundred M48’s were deployed in Vietnam, mainly filling infantry support roles. They were one of the few pieces of U.S. armor in Vietnam that offered adequate protection against mines. M48’s performed particularly well in urban warfare scenarios, frequently playing key roles in the large-scale search-and-destroy operations that became increasingly more commonplace in the latter stages of the war. The M67, a flame thrower-equipped M48 variant, proved to be a potent tool of jungle warfare.
Between all of its variants, as many as 12,000 M48’s were produced. The M48 was gradually replaced from the 1960s onwards by its even more capable successor, the M60; the last M48 models were retired in the late 1980s. Nonetheless, the M48 lives on as an export product. Turkey operates over 750 specialized M48A5T2’s, while over 450 custom CM-11 models serve in Taiwan’s Armed Forces.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest