Military organizations around the world use many different ground vehicles, and distinguishing between them can be difficult. Media sources as well as casual observers often describe and categorize military vehicles incorrectly. This can confuse and mislead readers, as the role of each military vehicle is highly distinct.
By using images and basic characteristics, one can easily identify and categorize most ground vehicles. For each vehicle type, there are two images and a brief account of key facts and characteristics. If you are trying to identify a specific vehicle quickly, skim the guide from top to bottom, finding all the vehicle types whose example image looks something like the vehicle in question. Then read the descriptions of the similar looking vehicles and decide which one matches your vehicle most closely.
A few quick disclaimers:
Note that this guide lists vehicle categories that are modern and somewhat common. This means largely obsolescent groups such as tank destroyers and assault guns are omitted. Also note that some vehicles fit more than one category. For example, the HMMWV (Humvee) was originally designed to fill the role of a light truck and transport vehicle. However, the addition of armor kits has given some HMMWVs the ability to survive under fire and thus serve as armored personnel carriers. Unfortunately, distinguishing between highly similar vehicles or vehicles subsequently modified to fill another role is beyond the scope of this guide, as it is a difficult task and the methods for identifying modified vehicles vary based on the situation. A later guide may aid in making this distinction.
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Often times the term “tank” is used as a blanket term for an armored military vehicle. In reality, tanks are designed to fill a unique and specific role on the battlefield. Tanks are heavily armed and armored vehicles designed to clear out well-protected targets, destroy other vehicles, and use their off-road mobility to exploit weaknesses in the enemy’s defenses. The large size and difficulty of incapacitating tanks makes them formidable psychological weapons.
Size: Large, usually 45+ tons.
Guns: Large 100-125mm main gun, best way to identify a tank. Tank guns are large in diameter, long, and protrude beyond the front of the tank. Tanks have auxillary machine guns as well.
Missiles: Some tanks can fire missiles from their main guns, but tanks generally do not carry externally mounted missiles.
Propulsion: Tracked; tracks are large and wide.
Windows: No, except for small sensor or periscope windows.
Notes: Some tanks do not house their main guns in turrets. See exceptions section.
IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle)
IFVs are easy to mistake for tanks. The main difference between the two is role and weapon size. IFVs carry infantry into battle as well as participating in combat, whereas tanks do not transport infantry. This difference is reflected by the smaller IFV primary weapon size, which frees up space for infantry and equipment.
Size: Usually around 20-30 tons, somewhat smaller than a tank.
Guns: 20-40mm main guns are standard, some exceptions (see notes). Not as large or long as a tank gun but larger than a machine gun. Weapon size the easiest way to distinguish between a tank, an IFV and an APC. IFV guns will usually but not always be mounted in a small turret that does not span the full width of the hull. IFVs only have one primary weapon. If the vehicle has multiple autocannons, it is a SPAAG (described further down). IFVs may have smaller machine guns mounted.
Missiles: Some IFVs carry missiles since their main guns lack the punch of a tank gun.
Notes: Some Soviet IFVs (BMPs) have large guns that are similar in size to a tank gun. In this case, the smaller size of the hull and turret are the primary ways to differentiate between these IFVs and a tank. See above image for an example of an IFV with a large but not tank-sized gun.
APC (Armored Personnel Carrier)
The primary role of these vehicles is to move troops in and out of areas where they may be subjected to enemy fire. APCs vary widely, from simple up-armored SUVs to tank based vehicles that can withstand immense punishment. Because their primary mission is to transport troops, APCs are lightly armed, with at most a grenade launcher or machine gun and sometimes no armament at all.
Size: Varies, from SUV-sized to tank-sized.
Guns: A few machine guns, grenade launchers, or no armament.
Missiles: Some APCs are modified to carry missiles.
Propulsion: Tracked or wheeled.
Windows: Some have none, others have many. Depends on armor level.
Notes: Many APCs are modified perform specialized tasks, such as serving as a combat ambulance, serving as a mortar platform, etc.
MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle)
MRAPS are similar in role to APCs but are designed to be particularly survivable against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). MRAPs utilize V-shaped blast-deflecting hulls to provide underside explosion resistance superior to other APCs. However, this blast-deflecting armor adds substantial weight. As a result, MRAPs are lumbering vehicles with reduced off-road mobility compared to an APC. MRAPs are always wheeled and generally 4X4. The easiest way to distinguish them from wheeled APCs is their bulky, truck-like appearance and high center of gravity.
Size: From large SUV to truck.
Guns: Small machine guns or grenade launchers.
Missiles: Not usually.
Combat Engineering Vehicle
Combat engineering vehicles are designed to alter the physical characteristics of the battlefield. This may include mine clearance, trench building, barrier destruction, building demolition, etc. The difference between these vehicles and simple construction vehicles is that combat engineering vehicles are built to perform these tasks under fire. Thus, they are armored in a way that allows them to withstand at least small arms fire. Some combat engineering vehicles are based on tanks and thus are extremely robust. Combat engineering vehicles are generally identified by their construction implements and lack of significant armament.
Size: Varies greatly based on chassis and role.
Guns: Some have mounted machine guns.
Missiles: No, except some specialized rockets used for mine clearing or demolition.
Propulsion: Wheeled or tracked depending on chassis.
Reconnaissance vehicles are highly mobile vehicles designed to move around the battlefield rapidly, gathering information and probing enemy defenses while engaging any ill-protected contacts. When these vehicles encounter other better protected adversaries, their best course of action is to communicate the situation to their command and then retreat as quickly as possible. The chassis layout, level of protection and armament of these vehicles varies widely, as many different chassis designs can be modified to fit the recon role. A common reconnaissance vehicle layout is a small, lightly armored 4×4 with a relatively large autocannon or machine gun mounted in a turret. Almost all modern light tanks are built as reconnaissance vehicles. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to tell based on appearance when a vehicle (for example an IFV) has been modified from its original design to a reconnaissance layout; many IFVs and APCs are changed to reconnaissance vehicles by simply adding improved optics.
Size: Large SUV to small tank.
Guns: Often one low-velocity cannon, autocannon, or machine gun in a small turret.
Missiles: Some are armed with missiles.
Propulsion: Wheeled or tracked.
A technical is an improvised fighting vehicle produced by mounting a weapon on a vehicle not intended for combat. Technical are easy to spot as a result of their lack of protection and refinement, as well as the fact they are based on consumer grade vehicles. A typical technical consists of a 4X4 pickup truck with a machine gun or anti-aircraft gun mounted in the bed. While technicals have abysmal survivability, they are cheap to produce and the relatively heavy armament they carry is sufficient against infantry and other ill-protected vehicles. Technicals are also faster and more mobile than their armored military-grade counterparts, allowing them to strike quickly and escape. Technicals are a common sight in Africa and the Middle East, where combatants either cannot afford to or are not allowed to purchase purpose-built armored vehicles.
Size: Vehicles of any size can be modified into a technical.
Guns: Generally one rear-mounted gun. Mounting is often crude and usually offers minimal protection to the operator.
Missiles: Some technicals have small missile tubes instead of a gun.
Propulsion: Usually wheeled, but some bulldozers are modified into technicals.
SPAAG (Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun)
Generally lightly armored and built from IFV or APC chassis. Armed with anti-aircraft guns and sometimes missiles. Despite being built for anti-aircraft combat, the powerful autocannons of a SPAAG are suited to ground combat as well. SPAAGs have radar sets with which to obtain firing solutions on aircraft. Often times, the radar antennae will be mounted externally and thus visible.
Size: Generally smaller than a tank; tracked APC or IFV sized.
Guns: Either multiple autocannons (20-40mm in diameter) or a rotary cannon (gatling gun). May also have machine guns mounted.
Missiles: Some carry short range anti-air missiles; these will generally be small and turret mounted.
Exceptions: A vehicle that carries anti-air missiles but does not have autocannons is not a SPAAG, hence “gun” in the acronym.
SPG (Self-Propelled Gun)
An SPG is essentially a large howitzer mounted on an armored chassis with treads for mobility. This arrangement makes the SPG able to maneuver quickly compared to towed artillery, which needs to be set up prior to firing and packed up prior to moving. While a SPG looks similar to a tank, there are some distinctions which allow one to distinguish between the two. First, the weapon of an SPG is often much larger than the weapon of a tank. Unlike tanks, an SPG howitzer will often have a large muzzle brake. SPGs also have a system to protect and fasten their weapons in place during movement. Second, the turret of an SPG is much taller relative to the rest of the chassis than the turret of a tank. While the SPGs may appear to have tank-like armor, their armor is actually quite thin.
Guns: Large howitzer, small machine guns for self defense.
Rocket Artillery TEL (Transporter-Erector-Launcher)
A Transported-Erector-Launcher (TEL) is a vehicle designed to transport and launch missiles. A rocket artillery TEL is a missile carrying vehicle (usually based on a medium or heavy truck) designed to strike surface targets. Rocket artillery is generally identifiable by the fact it utilizes either multiple smaller launch tubes to bombard an area or one very large missile for long range attacks, as opposed to surface-to-air missile systems, which generally have a handful of large and complex rockets. However, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between the two based on visual characteristics alone.
Size: From small to very large.
Guns: No, except possibly some small arms for self defense.
Missiles: Yes. Can range from a multitude of small missiles to a singular nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Propulsion: Wheeled or tracked.
Surface-to-Air Missile System TEL (Transporter-Erector-Launcher)
Surface-to-air missile (SAM) TELs are vehicles which carry and launch surface-to-air missiles. Often times they are built from the chassis of a heavy truck. SAM TELs generally have a number of large tubes in which the missiles are housed. It can be difficult to distinguish between a SAM TEL and a rocket artillery TEL. The surest way to differentiate between the two is the fact that a SAM TEL will generally have a radar platform nearby or will itself mount a radar antennae.
Size: Varies greatly.
Guns: No, except possibly some small arms for self defense.
Missiles: Yes. Fires guided surface-to-air missiles.
Propulsion: Wheeled or tracked.
Light Truck/Utility Vehicle
Light trucks perform a multitude of roles on the battlefield. They are unarmored, all-terrain vehicles that are similar to a large SUV or pickup. Light trucks can carry troops, tow trailers, haul provisions, and traverse difficult terrain. Many are modified to perform a specific role. For example, a HMMWV may be modified with armor, turning it into an APC, or it may have communications equipment added, allowing it to function as a command center. Light trucks are some of the smallest vehicles in regular military use.
Size: Similar to a large pickup or SUV.
Guns: Some have weapons mounted, especially when modified or performing troop transport.
Missiles: Not usually, unless modified.
Medium and heavy trucks are the bulk movers of the ground forces. Military operations consume vast amounts of fuel, ammunition, and food. Trucks offer a much cheaper alternative to airlifting supplies, and can reach remote areas where landing a plane or rotorcraft is not feasible. Military trucks usually have off-road capabilities superior to their civilian counterparts because roads near a conflict zone are often shoddy or destroyed. Like light trucks, many heavy trucks are modified into command centers, communications equipment platforms, etc.
Size: Similar to a civilian medium or heavy truck. Can be non-articulated or tractor-trailer.
Guns: Not usually, unless modified into a technical.
Missiles: Not usually, unless modified into a missile TEL.
Some vehicles are so unusual as to not match any of the aforementioned descriptions. This section will attempt to cover some of the most commonly seen vehicles that don’t resemble any of the descriptions above. This section is a work-in-progress.
This Swedish tank lacks a staple tank feature: the turret. In order to decrease cost and lower the profile of the tank, an ingenious suspension system was devised that aimed the gun by pointing the vehicle at the target. Of course, this eliminates the ability of the tank to fire at targets that are not directly in front of it. This vehicle is no longer in active duty, and the principle has not been used subsequently.
This vehicle consists of a large 105mm autoloaded cannon mounted on the chassis of a Stryker APC. It was conceived of as a way to offer tank-like firepower on a platform that could easily be moved around and airlifted. Despite its appearance, the vehicle is not designed to fight against tanks or other well protected vehicles, as it lacks the necessary protection. Generally described as an “assault gun.”
This fearsome looking Russian vehicle is built from the chassis of a T-72 and mounts a battery of thermobaric missiles. This setup makes it unique in being a rocket system able to withstand significant punishment. Most rocket systems are designed to operate safely behind the front lines. The thermobaric warheads mounted on each missile are uniquely devastating, as they consume vast amounts of oxygen to produce a large explosion. Other nations also use such warheads, although not in this configuration. These rocket launchers have been spotted in conflict zones where Russia is a player; some have been sold other nations.