Hovertanks from the Hammer's Slammers universe. Hammer's Slammers copyright David Drake. Art copyright Talis D. Merill.

Missile Hovertanks
Tech Level: 12
Laser Hovertanks
Tech Level: 14
Particle Beam Hovertanks
Tech Level: 15
Recoil Compensated Hovertanks
Tech Level: 15

Hovertanks are a mainstay of many military science fiction stories and games. They can be found in stories like the Hammer’s Slammers series, anime series like Gundam, and proliferate heavily in video games like Battletech and tabletop games like O.G.R.E. and 2300 AD.

Discussion and analysis of the real-life potential of these kind of weapon systems are very sparse online, and seem only to be discussed in connection to fictional portrayals of this technology. What follows is mostly speculation and educated guesses on the part of the author.

This article concerns air-cushioned vehicles exclusively. Armored fighting vehicles that use antigravity technology are also sometimes called hovertanks, but are a separate class of vehicle.

Though hovercraft are still seen by many as exotic, they are in truth a fairly mature technology nearly half a century old. They have been used extensively in commercial, military, sporting, and research endeavors. Military hovercraft have been deployed by the USA, the USSR/Russia, China, and other powers. They have been used mostly as armored landing craft, supplementary naval vessels, or coastal and waterway patrol vehicles.

A hovertank would be a departure from these earlier military hovercraft; instead of a support role, these air-cushioned vehicles would instead be used as offensive strike vehicles.

Some science fiction sources paint hovertanks as a futuristic replacement for wheeled or tracked armored fighting vehicles. Realistically, however, hovertanks would likely be developed as a supplement to, not as a replacement for, more conventional tank types. Ideally, commanders would use the different types of vehicles in different situations, according to their particular strengths and forms of locomotion. There would be some overlap in capability, however, depending on the situation.

Traditional tanks would work best over rough and broken terrain, and most off-road situations. Hovertanks would be at their best on shorelines, rivers, lakes, and relatively flat terrain such as grasslands. Both would also work about as equally well in cities and suburbs.

A hovercraft’s greatest asset is its ability to transition easily from land to water and back again. This is what would make hovertanks ideal for engagements along or near shorelines (on both water and land), as well as patrolling waterways such as rivers and lakes.

On land, they can handle the same steepness of slope as tracked or wheeled vehicles, and can overcome obstacles up to about a meter in height. Very large hovercraft with taller clearances under their skirts may be able to overcome larger objects. Very advanced future hovercraft may be able to perform ‘hops’ where their hoverfans are run at far greater power than normal for a few minutes, allowing the craft to lift itself up to several meters higher than usual in order to move over obstacles. However, when doing these ‘hops’, the vehicle loses the stabilizing benefit of its skirt, and may begin sliding sideways at unintended angles while completely detached from the ground.

Hovercraft will also tend to be faster than wheeled or tracked tanks on land, as they can ignore most small holes and obstructions that may slow land-bound vehicles, and in fact run nearly frictionless. It is assumed that faster, more powerful, more efficient, and more robust hovercraft systems will continue to be developed in the coming decades, meaning hovertanks would be able to sport more overall mass for their volume than modern hovercraft, or may be able to achieve speeds and maneuverability that may be difficult for the hovercraft of today to match.

In fact, their speed would be their greatest combat asset. The preferred tactic with these weapons would be to zoom in, hit the enemy with a barrage of heavy firepower at optimal range, and zoom back out without ever slowing down. Similar to an aircraft strafing, except at ground level and usually with much heavier direct-fire weapons than most low-altitude aircraft can manage. Hovertanks, when employed in strike groups and properly supported by other units, can prove to be a devastating offensive weapon system.

While they wouldn’t be able to sport as much heavy armor as a wheeled or tracked tank of the same size, their speed and agility would be considered a fair trade-off. Their lighter armor would be compensated by their being harder to target and hit due to their speed. Also because of what’s assumed to be near-constant forward motion in combat, their forward face would have to be sloped and more heavily armored than the rest of the vehicle to deflect what hits it could.

Aside from their light armor, a hovertank’s main point of vulnerability would be its intake fans. Shrapnel being sucked into its intakes could seriously damage the craft’s air cushion suspension, slowing it down or even causing it to crash. Most hovertanks would have more than one suspension fan each with their own separate intakes. Each of the intake ducts would heavily armored and protected with one or more layers of tough mesh.

One advantage of hovertanks is they likely wouldn’t set off the same kind of mines that would be activated by a wheeled or tracked tank, as their air cushion wouldn’t register enough weight on typical antitank triggers. Separate types of mines may be needed to target hovertanks exclusively.

Though hovercraft have found various military niches, the main reason they haven’t yet been used as a form of tank in the real world is their inability to mount heavy weapons capable of taking out other armored fighting vehicles. Without solid contact with the ground and the friction that provides, the recoil of common tank cannons could be almost as devastating to the hovertank as it would be to the target it hits. At least until very high tech levels, when computer-controlled, high-powered recoil compensation comes into play, hovertanks would need to rely on light-recoil weapons such as missiles and beam weapons to deal their damage.

They may also carry a number of lighter weapons for various uses. These could include machine guns and other anti-personnel weapons, and mortars and grenade launchers of indirect fire tasks if they’re carrying a direct-fire-only main gun like a laser.

Other advances in tank technology, including more sophisticated armors, sensors, ECM suites, and so on, would also be integrated into hovertanks as they became available for other tank types.

Tech Level: 12

Some older scifi sources, such as the tabletop games O.G.R.E and G.E.V., often saw this type of hovertank. These are the most readily available heavy weapons that would have the light recoil needed for a hovertank. They were usually envisioned as carrying one or more large, multiple rocket pods that could fire a dozen or more missiles all at once. The missiles could be guided or unguided, according to what the mission required.

The problem with these is a hovertank’s most useful feature is its ability to sprint in close to the enemy to deliver its damage in a strafing attack. Practical experience with missiles has shown that a single precision-guided missile fired from a distance is often more effective than a dozen rockets fired from (relatively) up close. And tactical missile ranges have dramatically increased over the years, it seems much more practical to have the missile platform keep as much distance from enemy lines as practical. Then why need a hovercraft at all?

So a missile hovertank may be of only dubious practicality on a modern battlefield. But they are much cheaper to produce than hovertanks mounting more sophisticated weapons. If a faction is strapped for cash or is otherwise hurting for resources, missile hovertanks could be a viable option.

Tech Level: 14

It is only with the advent of practical tactical beam weapons would hovertanks likely come fully into their own as a battlefield technology. Lasers have no recoil whatsoever, and at this Tech Level and beyond they are expected to more or less match the power of more conventional main tank guns.

Hovertanks would likely use static/solid state or free electron lasers as their main tank gun, to eliminate the need to carry the heavy, potentially toxic chemical fuels needed for chemical lasers.

In order to save on space and mass, the hovertank’s main gun may draw its power from the vehicle’s main engine. This may mean that the vehicle would be necessity have to slow down when firing. However, as its favorite tactic would be to zoom in and out at top speed, it may just ‘coast’ during its actual attack, relying on its already built-up momentum to keep it going as it unleashes its barrage. As its air cushion suspension creates little friction with the ground, it could probably coast on diminished engine power for quite a ways like this as needed.

Alternately, a hovertank may also use explosive power generator shells to run its main weapon. These would be used similarly to conventional artillery shells, but would likely be more compact and can create the momentary huge spikes of current needed to power a tactical laser. These shells would likely take up extra space and add weight to the chassis, but would have the bonus of not having the vehicle slow down when it needed to fire its main gun.

Very advanced hovertanks may use very high tech power plant options, such as superconductor coils or compact fusion generators. These would be able to supply ample energy to both engine and main weapon without degrading the performance of either.

Highly sophisticated computer targeting would be a necessity. As it makes its attack run, the tank is expected to target and fire as many time as possible while its within optimal range of enemy targets. This means it may need to fire dozens of times in a handful of seconds or less, and it would need a targeting and acquisition system up to such a task.

Optimal range for a tactical laser could mean many kilometers, so laser hovertanks may not have to get nose-to-nose to carry out their task. However, given much more sophisticated weapon systems, sensors, and satellite tracking expected at higher Tech Levels, even a few kilometers may be too close for comfort in a future battlefield. So the main hovertank strategy of zipping in, strafing the enemy as it passes, then zipping out would remain intact, just spread out over a much larger potential range.

Laser hovertanks would have a different visual character than modern main battle tanks. Not just in their air cushion suspension, but in the way their main gun and turret would look. Lasers have no need of long gun barrels, and would resemble a large spotlight much more than a conventional cannon. This ‘spotlight’ would be its focusing mirror or lens, and may be up to more than a meter or two across, depending on the exact range expected out of the weapon system.

It may also be best not to have this mirror exposed, and to cover over the main turret with a tough plastic bubble that would protect it from wind, dust, and shrapnel. This bubble would likely be opaque to all frequencies of light except that of its main laser.

Tech Level: 15

Particle beams have very little recoil, and would be ideal for hovertanks. As the particle beams travel at near light speed, have high power requirements, and have ranges of kilometers, many of the tactics and power options discussed for Laser Hovertanks above would also apply to the Particle Beam versions.

Particle beam hovertanks would resemble conventional main battle tanks much more closely than Laser Hovertanks, as their linear accelerators would dictate the need for long, thick, barrels. The particles could actually be accelerated in a ring accelerator in the main tank body, and redirected along the barrel, where they would be ‘focused’ into dense concentration for the beam. The longer the barrel is in this case, the more focused and controlled the beam can be. Whereas laser Hovertanks would look like they sport a spotlight or a black bubble for a turret, a particle beam would look like it sported a more conventional gun except with an unusually long and thick barrel.

Tech Level: 15

These are hovertanks with very sophisticated and powerful anti-recoil systems, allowing them to carry more conventional main tank guns like autocannons, and high-recoil futuristic systems like plasma guns. Because of the nature of the vehicles, these compensators can’t just dampen some of the intensity of the recoil like most systems, they have to nearly zero it out.

This might be possible through a combination of shifting counterweights, redirecting the waste gasses of chemical or explosive power cartridges, outgassing from dedicated air compression tanks, strategically redirecting the suspension and thruster fans at very high outputs, and other techniques. These could also all be used in combination. The recoil compensation system would have to be computer controlled, to allow for optimal counterforces applied along the right axes.

Once these systems are developed, hovertanks would be able to mount almost any weapon system wheeled or tracked tanks could.

Real World Hovercraft





Science Fiction Hovertanks



Tactical Laser Weapons


Particle Beam Weapons


Explosive Power Generators


Article added 3/27/11