Anti-tank warfare are any measures, taken on the battlefield or its direct support areas, that prevent the effective operation of tanks, which are a subset of armored fighting vehicles (AFV). Attacking a tank factory, or a refinery that makes fuel for tanks, is not part of the scope of these terms.
Anti-tank warfare can be kinetic (i.e., producing physical damage) or nonkinetic (i.e., restricts the use of the tank). Nonkinetic measures can interfere with the systems of the vehicle, such as sensors, or prevent essential direct support from reaching it (e.g., fuel and ammunition).
Anti-tank warfare can be direct, causing an immediate kinetic or nonkinetic effect, or indirect, not directly affecting the AFV but limiting its operation. Indirect attacks can threaten kinetic attack (e.g., a minefield in the path of the tanks), or fall into a wide range of countermobility measures (e.g., destroying the only bridge that can support the weight of a tank).
Indirect attacks may either present a threat of damage or destruction, or prevent the vehicle from using desired positions or transportation routes, interfere with its electronic or other nonlethal systems, or interfere with direct support to the AFVs. To clarify the last, destroying a refueling truck is indirect and kinetic. Destroying the refinery that produces the fuel to fill that truck, however, is outside the scope of anti-tank warfare.
Especially in urban guerrilla warfare, improvised methods, not requiring purpose-built equipment, has been known to immobilize or destroy tanks. In the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, for example, one of the simplest measures was to spread brown dinner plates on a street, plates that looked, from a distance, like a Soviet antitank mine. The tank driver turned away, into an ambush.
During the same fight, one tank was put out of service when a high-voltage electrical line was dropped onto it. Another tank was immobilized, again by predicting its probable route, when a depression in a sloping road was filled with liquid soap.
Tanks have been destroyed by luring them onto weakened bridges over water, or even over covered pits or faulty roadway. Daring Hungarians would jump onto a Soviet tank, put a Hungarian flag on its antenna, and then either shoot crewmen trying to remove it, or wait for other Soviets to turn heavy fire on what they believed to a tank captured by the rebels.
Incendiary attack is classic if one can get close enough to throw a gasoline-filled bottle with a fuse, usually called a "Molotov cocktail" after the early WWII use. The bottle must break on an air intake to the crew compartment, in the engine compartment, or other location. Modern tanks are much less vulnerable to such attacks, given that they have fire-extinguishing systems and, as part of protection against chemical, biological and nuclear attack, air filtration systems.
Direct attacks employ anti-tank weapons that penetrate armor, start fires, or otherwise destroy systems.
Local methods not using precision-guided munitions
The most basic methods, still a threat in urban and other areas where a tank cannot maintain a zone of control around itself, involve using explosives that may be hand-attached to the AFV, or fired from a short-range weapon such as an antitank grenade launcher or unguided rocket with a shaped charge warhead.
Some of the first purpose-built antitank weapons were high-velocity cannon used in direct fire. While light calibers, such as 37mm, were of use against light tanks at the beginning of the Second World War, increasingly heavy tank armor required a corresponding increase in antitank gun caliber. One of the most successful designs was the German 88mm, which, like other direct-fire cannon, remained of some use as an antiaircraft gun after it became obsolete in mobile warfare. Towed cannon simply could not move fast enough to keep up with mechanized fighting. While they maintained some use when fighting from defensive positions, indirect fire artillery, as well as attack aircraft, could engage and destroy them from outside their maximum range.
For a time slightly before WWII, a compromise called the tank destroyer was thought promising. It was a mobile direct-fire vehicle, but without the protection of a tank, and was only marginally more survivable than towed cannon. There was also a period when lighter recoilless rifles, able to be mounted on more nimble vehicles, had potential, but were surpassed by intelligent munitions.
Until the advent of anti-tank missiles, the only effective ground-based heavy antitank weapons were other tanks. Even today, most modern tanks are optimized to fight tanks, with a secondary role of supporting infantry and attacking fortifications.
A special case, intermediate between individual and crew-served weapons, are infantry-portable unguided rocket launchers with antitank warheads. They were of two general types, the rocket fired through a tube, with a warhead as the same diameter as the rocket body, and designs that used an oversize warhead protruding beyond the muzzle of the launcher. The most familiar of the pure tube types was the U.S. "bazooka", the WWII version using a 2.36" Munroe effect rocket. Oversize types were represented by the German Panzerfaust.
As with direct-fire cannon, there began an arms race between tank armor and antitank rocket size. While the 2.36" bazooka was effective against lighter German armor of WWII, its warheads bounced off the WWII T-34 (tank) when U.S. forces first met them in the Korean War. A 3.5" "super-bazooka" was more successful. In general, however, light antitank weapons, which could be handled by one or two soldiers, were obsolete against modern tanks by the late 1950s. They retain value against fortifications, against light armored vehicles used in reconnaissance and as infantry carriers, and in some situations when they can attack the thinner top or side armor of a tank.
Electronic warfare against the communications or sensing systems of a tank are a modern version of what began with covering a vision slit or periscope with mud.
Placing an anti-tank minefield in the direction of movement of tanks is a form of kinetic but indirect antitank warfare. Destroying the only bridge that can support a tank is a form of anti-tank warfare, but it is not kinetic, but rather countermobility.
Interfering with the sensors of a tank, even with a means as basic as covering its periscopes with mud or paint, is a direct, nonkinetic attack.