The armored bridgelayer, also known as the armored vehicle-launched bridge, is a key component of any credible mechanized fighting force. These bizarre looking tanks forego the usual weaponry for massive unfoldable bridge modules that can get other tanks and vehicles across craters, blown bridges, anti-tank ditches, canals, rivers and other treacherous obstacles.
These incredible transforming marvels of modern combat can trace their roots back to the dawn of mechanized warfare. Early generations of British tanks were incredibly effective even though they had a slew of drawbacks and design issues. The hellacious terrain of World War One, with its spiderweb of trenches and man-made obstacles, made navigating the battlefield in these early tanks treacherous.
After many early tank missions got stuck along their route or had to turn back due to obstacles in their path, these WWI tanks began crossing the battle-lines with fascines (large bundles of wood and sticks) to fill trenches and ditches so that the tank could ride over it. Later in the war, these tanks began carry coiled steel rails atop their hulls to create impromptu minimalists bridges. These were the first crude armored bridgelayers.
The armored bridgelaying concept continued to evolve over the decades. During World War II, the first series production dedicated tank-based bridelayer was the Nazi Brückenleger IV, which was based on the Panzer IV battle tank. The allies would follow with their own bridgelayers based on popular tank models, such as the Churchill and the Sherman. The use of a production heavy main battle tank hull and chassis, with the turret omitted and extending bridge modules on top, would become the basic configuration for armored bridgelaying vehicles going forward.
In modern times, armored bridgelayers are still most often based on the heaviest and most advanced tank chassis in a land force's inventory. This is due to main battle tanks being able to bear the massive weight of the modular bridge components they carry and because these key engineering vehicles must keep up with the leading edge of an armored assault. Having the speed, commonality and interoperability with a force's front-line main battle tank force makes forward deploying with that force much easier.
Today, the US Army has the mighty M104 Wolverine. This 70 ton behemoth is another adaptation of the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, and its bridge module can support 70 ton vehicles moving over it at 10mph while at full span. Only 44 M104 Wolverines exist due to budget issues and changing combat doctrine.
The US Marine Corps on the other hand never procured the state-of-the-art Wolverine and are still using the tried and true M60 based Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge:
There are many other types of armored bridglaying vehicles in service with various nations around the world, but almost all heavy versions of the concept conform to a similar configuration. The Russian MTU-72, based on the highly successful T-72 battle tank, takes a different approach to the bridge module itself. Instead of relying on the usual bi or tri folding bridge sections like so many other armored bridgelayers, the MTU-72 uses a segmented, three-part, single bridge component that is massive in proportions:
The successful MTU-72 was supposed to be displaced by the modern MTU-90, which is based on the T-90 main battle tank and uses a more common tri-folding bridge element, but it went for a decade and a half without any orders. Now, Russia and Azerbaijan are reported to have ordered limited quantities of an updated version of the MTU-90, with deliveries occurring now.
With mechanized combat doctrine turning toward lighter, faster and more easily deployable vehicles in recent years, such as the US Army's Stryker, there have been some lighter, wheeled armored bridgelayers emerging to support these emerging capabilities. The US Army uses the Rapidly Emplaced Bridge System (REBS) carried by the M1977 CBT common bridge transporter to provide bridging duties for its Stryker and light armored units. Other militaries around the globe have similar systems, such as the Leguan 26m Vehicle.
These massive modern marvels, with their strange and transformative profiles, and the brave combat engineers who operate them, have a lineage that goes back to the beginning of tank warfare. Yet with all the technological progress over the last 75 years since the first dedicated production armored bridgelayers started to appear, they really have not changed much at all in their configuration nor has the fact that they remain intimidating as hell to looking at.
When the hardest charging, most advanced mechanized units in the world are stopped in their tracks (literally) by a ditch or hole blow in the span of a bridge, armored bridgelayers keep them moving forward into the fight.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com