The small Stingray light tank originally came into existence in the 1980s, thanks to a U.S. Army initiative that aimed to equip airborne units with quickly-deployable armored platforms that could augment soldier’s firepower in expeditionary situations. The program, known as the Armored Gun System, sought to replace the M551 Sheridan light tank.
Though quite lightweight and nimble, especially wet and mushy off-road conditions, the Sheridan was very lightly armored. It was particularly vulnerable to anti-tank mines and rocket-propelled grenades that larger armored vehicles could more easily resist.
In order to fulfill both of these objectives, Cadillac Gage (now known as Textron Marine & Land Systems) designed a tank that, despite its traditional four-man tanker crew, was very small and therefore much more easily air transportable than other, larger main battle tanks. At about 22.5 tons, the Stingray was considerably lighter than the M1 Abrams main battle tank—weighing only a third of what the M1 did.
Shaving off that amount of weight came at a cost however: the Stingray is very lightly protected. While the turret is resistant to 14.5mm rounds, the hull is resistant only to 7.62 rounds, leaving the platform decidedly vulnerable to anything other than small arms fire.
Their Stingray attempted to blend the best of light tanks and main battle tanks: by mounting the same main guns as the M1 Abrams, a 105mm main gun, the Stingray could fire a variety of powerful NATO-standard ammunition. And, in order to simplify manufacturing and to keep costs down, Cadillac Gage used the same turret and main gun that their V600 fire support vehicle used.
Winners and Losers
Ultimately the Stingray lost the Armored Gun System competition to a prototype built by United Defense. That setback did not matter as much though, as the AGS program was eventually cancelled. Moreover, all was not lost.
Though unsuccessful in the United States, the Stingray found favor overseas, in Thailand. In the late 1980s, the Thai Army purchased about 100 of Cadillac Gage’s Stingrays, favoring the tank for its low weight and maneuverability. It remains in Thai service.
Less heavily armed and more lightly protected, light tanks have fallen out of favor with most countries. Though mobile, they often just can’t compete with the firepower provided by main battle tanks. Though they may be making a comeback.
Two light tank prototypes, one developed by BAE Systems, the other by General Dynamics Land Systems, are currently under review. BAE’s bid actually builds on an earlier prototype put forward for the Armored Gun System, and is a fairly lightweight platform, whereas General Dynamics’ entry uses a modified M1 Abrams turret, and is the heavier of the two.
Light tanks are making a comeback it seems.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.