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  • Why do tanks burn?

    Gentlemen:

    A very basic question, and I would particularly appreciate replies from anyone who served in armor.

    Why do tanks, when they are hit, burn?

    Obviously, certain weapons (phosphorous, etc) are incendiary, and certain materials in tanks (fuel, ammunition, etc) are flammable, but what is it that puts a large metal box so at risk of fire?

    Any comments about the difficulties of bailing out of a burning tank, how fast fire catches, which areas in the fighting compartment and/or drivers compartment are most at risk, etc, would be appreciated. Likewise, any links or articles on how tank crews (I am interested in 1950s era tanks, specifically Centurions) are trained to escape this scenario.

    TIA and best regards -
    Andrew Salmon
    Seoul
    (82) 11-792-6315
    A massive attack...a brigade against an army...three nights of battle...an unforgettable tragedy.
    Sixty years later, the full story is told at last:
    http://tothelastround.wordpress.com/

  • #2
    Well naturally the fuel and ammo would go off and those would then ignite the interior of the tank, all the wires, plastic panels, chairs.. everything.

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    • #3
      The most simple answer is that the fuel, oils, fluids ignite and rapidly heat everything that isn't metal till it melts or burns too. Then if the ammo cooks off any unspent propellent will burn as well. The key to remember is that anything will burn/melt if heated to a high enough temperature. For example, the Israeli's lost a fair number of M-60s because the hydralic fluids in the turrets were flamable.

      Look at this T-55 and you'll see it got so hot the rubber on the roadwheels have burned off.

      Eagles may fly; but weasels aren't sucked into jet engines!

      "I'm not expendable; I'm not stupid and I'm not going." - Kerr Avon, Blake's 7

      What didn't kill us; didn't make us smarter.

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      • #4
        Sometimes tanks pretty much explode on impact and sometimes they will be holed end to end but won't burn. A tank that has been penetrated but not burned is repairable. This is why in WWII the Germans continued firing at abandoned US tanks again and again until they finally burned. The Germans knew the US recovery system was the best in the world and there were maintenance crews with their towing vehicles waiting just out of sight to grab the tank and recover it for repairs.

        When a tank is penetrated by a sabot round a shower of sparks fills the fighting compartment. If the fuel or ammunition are not hit there are cables and other non-metal components that will catch fire if hit by the sparks. That's why cables are run inside protective metal tubes. Another fire protection system is some kind of neutral gas system that can completely fill the inside with the gas if a lever is pulled by the crew before they bail out.

        The main problem with fire in a tank is the damage to internal components which will be melted. Also, armored plate, once heated to certain temperature, will loose its armored properties and become milder steel. Such steel is worthless and the tank has to be scrapped.
        Last edited by MonsterZero; 26 Nov 07, 15:00.

        "Artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be a ugly brawl."
        --Frederick II, King of Prussia

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        • #5
          Thanks for these replies - all valuable.

          Andrew Salmon
          Seoul
          (82) 11-792-6315
          A massive attack...a brigade against an army...three nights of battle...an unforgettable tragedy.
          Sixty years later, the full story is told at last:
          http://tothelastround.wordpress.com/

          Comment


          • #6
            Monster Zero got most of it . . .,

            I'll just add a couple of points.
            - Only one correction; change "sparks" to "white hot chunks of metal". If they hit anything that can burn it probably will.
            - Tanks have a lot of moving parts and many of them have to be lubricated with petrolium products.
            - If anything except the ammo catches fire any unwounded crew might be able to bail out. Some US tanks [M-60 series] had a bottom escape hatch for the driver. Not a sure thing but it gave him a better chance if the gun were over his normal hatch when the tank got hit.
            - If the propellant in any round or the warhead in an HE/HEAT round starts to burn it could rapidly progress to a detonation and you get what we refer to as a cataclysmic kill at which point you lose everyone.
            Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by RichardS View Post
              The most simple answer is that the fuel, oils, fluids ignite and rapidly heat everything that isn't metal till it melts or burns too. Then if the ammo cooks off any unspent propellent will burn as well.
              Ammunition is a bigger danger as far as the crew is concerned. Modern western designs have the ammunition compartmentalized for this reason, but western tanks before the latest generation had ammo stowed essentially all over. Russian tanks--even those with the carousel-style autoloader--still do. Even the M1 Abrams, lauded for its crew protection, kept three 105 mm rounds on the turret floor (in spall-resistant containers, but still outside the main blast doors). This was eliminated with the move to the 120 mm gun.

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              • #8
                Coyote has some very interesting facts with whom I agree

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by GCoyote View Post
                  I'll just add a couple of points.
                  - Only one correction; change "sparks" to "white hot chunks of metal". If they hit anything that can burn it probably will.
                  Let me clarify this point a bit.

                  When the armor is not penetrated it can spall (as in spallation) which means that the force of the impact breaks off pieces of metal on the inside of the armor and sends them sailing about the compartment. While this can be dangerous to the crew since it is essentially shrapnel, it is not really a fire hazard.

                  If the armor is penetrated by a HEAT round, or a modern day kinetic penetrator round like the discarding sabot on the M1A2, the penetration is caused by a jet of plasma. Plasma is what you get when you heat a material to the point where the atoms in the gas start to shed electrons.
                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_(physics)
                  Your average lighter produces a flame which is also a plasma, but that plasma is at a much lower temperature and more importantly, energy density then the plasma generated by an armor piercing round.

                  The plasma in a HEAT or AP round will reach 1000s of degrees (pick a unit, C, K or F). Also, since the atoms lack electrons they are extremely chemically active (think BURN). The energy density in this penetrating plasma is so great that it can burn through many inches of armor. Since the tank armor is about the least reactive chemically, and strongest piece materially, in/on the tank, everything else "melts like butter". That includes the poor crew.

                  So, let me summarize. Round hits tank armor, creates jet of plasma, plasma cooks through armor in a microsecond, fire hose blast of plasma enters tank at high temperature and density, anything plasma touches burns/melts/ignites or just vaporizes into more plasma at a lower temperature and energy density which repeats the process until the plasma has dispersed all of it's energy on the inside of the tank.

                  Bottom line, anything hot enough to "burn" through steel plates can burn anything else even more easily....
                  Battles are dangerous affairs... Wang Hsi

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                  • #10
                    Actually, HEAT rounds don't burn through armor, and the penetrator is not a plasma. HEAT penetrators punch their way through armor the same way kinetic energy penetrators do--essentially pushing the armor out of the way. The HEAT penetrator remains solid, but acts as a liquid due to the forces imparted on it. The tip of the HEAT penetrator travels on the order of 8,000 m/s, and this is what penetrates the armor. The "slug" (the rest of the warhead liner) follows the tip at a speed of ~2000 m/s. The tip needs some space to achieve its best velocity, and since the tip is traveling so much faster than the slug, the penetrator will eventually tear itself apart. This is why spacing is so important for HEAT rounds.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by DogDodger View Post
                      Actually, HEAT rounds don't burn through armor, and the penetrator is not a plasma. HEAT penetrators punch their way through armor the same way kinetic energy penetrators do--essentially pushing the armor out of the way. The HEAT penetrator remains solid, but acts as a liquid due to the forces imparted on it. The tip of the HEAT penetrator travels on the order of 8,000 m/s, and this is what penetrates the armor. The "slug" (the rest of the warhead liner) follows the tip at a speed of ~2000 m/s. The tip needs some space to achieve its best velocity, and since the tip is traveling so much faster than the slug, the penetrator will eventually tear itself apart. This is why spacing is so important for HEAT rounds.
                      What you're speaking of here is the EFP, explosively formed penetrator. HEAT and EFP are two different things afaik.

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                      • #12
                        In WW2 in particular a common start for fires is also hydraulic fluids. Penetrations that didn't hit fuel or ammo, in particular those through the turret, often rupture some of the gazillion of hydraulic lines that go through the tank, and if there's enough energy in the shot the fluid burns right away. If not a second penetration can easily set it off.

                        This is one reason why fire suppression systems are so important. They couldn't put out an ammunitions fire. And obviously there is no fuel in the cabin. But the hydraulic fluids can be controlled, they don't burn too violent and there's not that much of them.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by String View Post
                          What you're speaking of here is the EFP, explosively formed penetrator. HEAT and EFP are two different things afaik.
                          EFP and HEAT are different, however it's a common misconception that a HEAT penetrator is a fluid or "burns" through armor. The forces acting upon the HEAT warhead liner cause it to collapse inwards, forming a long, thin solid penetrator. The tip of the penetrator is projected at a much higher velocity than the remainder, and eventually the penetrator will break up (hence the need for spacing). The penetrator acts like a fluid, but it is still a solid chunk of metal.

                          EFPs, on the other hand, are not "squirted" into the target in the same way. An EFP is blown out of the front of the warhead as a coherent lump, and travels much slower than the tip of a HEAT penetrator.

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Pirate-Drakk View Post
                            Also, since the atoms lack electrons they are extremely chemically active (think BURN).
                            I didn't know this in the context of armor penetration but I remember the overall concept from chemistry classes. Such atoms will raise incredible hell and cause tremendous damage in the environment as they attack other atoms trying to rob them of their electrons; kind of like a starving guy who beats you up to steal your bread. Very interesting.

                            "Artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be a ugly brawl."
                            --Frederick II, King of Prussia

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                            • #15
                              Bottom line don't serve in tanks and pick infantry instead.

                              "Artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be a ugly brawl."
                              --Frederick II, King of Prussia

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