Military organizations around the world use many different ground vehicles, and distinguishing between them can be difficult. Media sources and casual observers often compound the issue by describing military vehicles incorrectly, which can confuse and mislead. This article will explore the features unique to each class of military vehicle as an aid to proper identification. For each vehicle type, there are two images and a brief list of key characteristics plus some tips to aid in differentiation.
A few quick disclaimers:
Note that this guide lists vehicle categories that are modern and relatively common. This means largely obsolescent types such as tank destroyers and assault guns are omitted. Some vehicles also 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, identifying vehicles subsequently modified to fill another role is beyond the scope of this guide.
Oftentimes the term “tank” is used as a blanket word for any armored military vehicle, but this is erroneous. Tanks are heavily armed and armored vehicles designed to clear out well-protected targets, engage other vehicles (especially other tanks), and use their off-road mobility to exploit weaknesses in the enemy’s defenses. Due to their size and firepower, tanks are also formidable psychological weapons. However, they can be vulnerable in built-up environments.
Size: Large — usually 45+ tons.
Guns: Large 100-125 mm main gun This is the best way to identify a tank. Tank guns are long and protrude beyond the front of the tank. Tanks have auxiliary 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: Tanks are easy to confuse with self-propelled artillery. See the corresponding section for tips on differentiating the two.
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: 20-40 mm main guns are standard, with some exceptions (such as the BMP-3 above). IFV guns are not as large or long as a tank gun. IFV guns will usually but not always be mounted in a small turret that does not span the full width of the hull. IFVs almost always have one primary weapon. If the vehicle has multiple large guns mounted to a single turret, it is probably a SPAAG (described further down). IFVs may have smaller machine guns as secondary weapons.
Missiles: Some IFVs carry missiles since their main guns lack the punch of a tank gun.
Windows: No, except small periscope and sensor openings.
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 in configuration 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 or IFV-sized.
Guns: A few machine guns, grenade launchers, or no armament. Does not have a turret-mounted autocannon.
Missiles: Some APCs are modified to carry missiles, but this is not common.
Propulsion: Tracked or wheeled.
Windows: Some have none, others have armored windows similar to a truck or SUV. Depends on armor level and chassis used.
Notes: Many APCs are modified to perform specialized tasks, such as serving as a combat ambulance, serving as a mortar platform, etc. In this case the base vehicle is still an APC but the role is no longer troop transport.
MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle)
MRAPS are a type of APC designed to be particularly survivable against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). MRAPs utilize V-shaped blast-deflecting hulls to provide underside explosion resistance superior to normal APCs. However, this blast-deflecting armor adds considerable weight and may require increased ground clearance. As a result, many MRAPs are lumbering vehicles with reduced off-road mobility compared to an APC. MRAPs are always wheeled and generally 4X4, although some may have more wheels. 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.
Note: As IED resistance becomes more standard, the line between an MRAP and a “normal” APC can be somewhat blurry, as the two serve very similar roles. In many cases, the distinction may not be of critical importance.
Combat Engineering Vehicle
Combat engineering vehicles are designed to alter the physical characteristics of the battlefield. Their jobs include mine clearance, trench building, barrier destruction, building demolition, etc. Some combat engineering vehicles are merely up-armored variants of standard construction equipment, while others are based on dedicated military platforms. Armor quality is similarly variable, with some combat engineering vehicles being merely hardened against small arms fire while others have tank-level protection. Combat engineering vehicles are generally identified by their construction implements and lack of large armaments.
Size: Varies greatly based on chassis and role.
Guns: Some have machine guns, but nothing larger.
Missiles: No, except some specialized rockets used for mine clearing or demolition.
Propulsion: Wheeled or tracked depending on chassis.
Windows: Varies depending on chassis used.
Reconnaissance vehicles are high mobility vehicles designed to move around the battlefield rapidly, gathering information and probing enemy defenses while engaging any ill-protected contacts. 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 adding improved optics and communications equipment.
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. A typical technical consists of a 4X4 pickup truck with a machine gun or anti-aircraft gun mounted in the bed. While technicals have poor survivability against a proper armored vehicle, 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 conventional combat vehicles.
Size: Vehicles of any size can be modified into a technical. Some are small pickups while others are based on large flatbed trucks or even buses.
Guns: Generally one gun mounted on a bed or the vehicle’s roof. Some of the more ambitious examples use anti-aircraft guns such as the ZU-23-2 or even small artillery pieces. A gun shield may or may not be included.
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)
SPAAGs are designed to engage low-flying aircraft with autocannons and missiles. They are generally lightly armored and are built from an IFV or APC chassis. Despite being built for anti-aircraft combat, the powerful autocannons of a SPAAG are suited to ground combat as well, and many SPAAGs (such as the ZSU-23-4) are employed against infantry. Most SPAAGs have radar sets which may be used for fire control or merely for initial detection.
Size: Generally smaller than a tank; tracked APC or IFV sized.
Guns: Either multiple autocannons (usually 20-40 mm) or a rotary cannon (Gatling gun). May also have machine guns as secondary weapons.
Missiles: Some carry short-range anti-air missiles; these will generally be small and turret mounted.
Propulsion: Usually tracked.
Exceptions: A vehicle that carries anti-air missiles but does not have autocannons is not a SPAAG.
SPG (Self-Propelled Gun)
An SPG is essentially a large howitzer mounted on an armored chassis with treads for mobility. This arrangement allows the SPG to maneuver faster than 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. Many SPGs also have systems to 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.
Size: Large. Ranges from somewhat smaller than a typical tank to somewhat larger than a typical tank. Some SPGs are based on wheeled military trucks instead of tracked vehicles.
Guns: Large howitzer, small machineguns for self defense.
Propulsion: Tracked or wheeled.
Windows: Yes if wheeled, probably not if tracked.
Rocket Artillery TEL (Transporter-Erector-Launcher)
A Transported-Erector-Launcher (TEL) is a vehicle designed to transport and launch missiles or rockets. As the name implies, a TEL carries the missile and elevates it into launching position. TELs often travel with support vehicles used for fire control, reloading, ammunition carriage, communications, etc.
Size: From small to very large.
Guns: No, except possibly some small arms for self-defense.
Missiles: Can range from a multitude of small rockets (in the case of BM-21 Grad-type rocket artillery) to a singular nuclear-capable ballistic missile.
Propulsion: Wheeled or tracked.
Windows: Most likely if wheeled, possibly if 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, but others are based on tracked platforms. SAM TELs generally have a few (4-8) 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 antenna. However, distinguishing with certainty between a rocket artillery TEL and a SAM launching vehicle generally requires knowledge of the particular system.
Size: Varies greatly.
Guns: No, except possibly some small arms for self-defense.
Missiles: Yes. Usually moderate in size and carried in enclosed canisters.
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 prime movers of any ground force. Military operations consume vast amounts of fuel, ammunition, and food. Trucks offer a 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, generator platforms, troop transports, 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 or SPG.
Missiles: Not usually, unless modified into a missile TEL.
A few notable exceptions:
Some vehicles are so unusual as to not match any of the aforementioned descriptions. This section is a work-in-progress and doesn’t represent the numerous other vehicles which defy conventional classifications.
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 requires the tank to face its target at all times and fire from a stationary position. This vehicle is no longer in active duty and the principle, while interesting, has not been adopted since.
This vehicle consists of a large 105 mm autoloading 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 airlifted and moved to remote battlefields. 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 also been sold to other nations.