TEAM YANKEE A Novel of World War III By Harold Coyle Presidio. 313 pp. $17.95

THERE ARE plenty of worthy war novels about ships and airplanes, plenty more about infantry. Offhand I can't think of any fiction about tanks, which is odd given the central role of armor in modern land combat.

So Harold Coyle's Team Yankee appears as something of a curiosity, being the story of a U.S. Army tank unit in West Germany during the opening days of a hypothetical third world war fought with conventional weapons. It arrives with some fanfare, carrying praise on its dust jacket from Tom Clancy, General Sir John Hackett, Charles MacDonald and W.E.B. Griffin.

The hero of Team Yankee, insofar as there is a hero, is a quietly competent Army captain named Sean Bannon. He commands a reinforced company, or team of about 80 men, that includes two tank platoons and a mechanized infantry platoon augmented by antitank vehicles.

In the novel's opening pages Bannon and his men are put on alert after a clash in the Persian Gulf between U.S. and Soviet warships. Hostilities begin -- or as Coyle puts it, "The balloon goes up" -- when the Russians strike across the border of the divided Germanies. Bannon's wife and three children are evacuated back to the United States amid harrowing scenes of danger and confusion.

In the next few days Team Yankee repulses attacks by two Soviet battalions, advances by night to seize a forward position from its Soviet defenders, successfully defends the position against fierce counterattacks, rests briefly in reserve, and plunges deep into enemy territory fighting off an air raid and an ambush along the way. In a slam-bang finale it defeats and destroys a Soviet tank regiment. The Russians, defeated elsewhere as well, call for a ceasefire and the war ends.

Team Yankee, evidently, is a crack outfit. After the last victory, Bannon quotes the Duke of Wellington to his colonel, "They came in the same old way, and you know, we beat them, in the same old way."

This elegant touch aside, Team Yankee is a down-to-earth, no-frills account of small-unit combat. As a realistic story of tanks and tankers in battle, it is very good indeed. The mingled odor of diesel fuel, vegetation, cordite and body sweat seems to rise from its pages. Not surprisingly, the author knows whereof he writes: he is a major on active duty at Fort Hood, Texas.

The characters in Team Yankee don't, however, stand out. This is because they are dominated by their principal item of equipment, the main battle tank of the U.S. Army, the M-1 Abrams, a 63-ton behemoth with a 1,500-horsepower gas turbine engine, and capable of traveling 45 mph. It carries a 105mm main cannon and two machine guns and has a fire-control system that incorporates thermal-imaging gun sights and a laser rangefinder with a digital, solid-state computer -- it is, in short, a tank that its designers believe is the acme of firepower, protection and mobility. (In real life, the U.S. Army wants 7,500 of them.)

The reader perforce learns about armor-piercing "sabot" shells and the like, which after all is probably why he reads this kind of book. I was particularly fascinated by one device, the M-1's smoke grenade dischargers that fire a volley of six grenades to hide a tank in battle.

BUT Team Yankee is not a mishmash of high-tech weapons terms. When Coyle writes of a squadron of tanks advancing across open country, he might be talking about horse cavalry.

"The scene was more like a medieval battle between knights than a clash between the most advanced tanks in the world. Like the knights of Middle Ages, the two groups of tanks charged at each other with lowered lances. Team Yankee had the advantage of surprise and numbers, nine against five. The element of surprise allowed the Team to fire first. The volley from Team Yankee stopped three of the T-72s, two of them blowing up and the third only crippled. The return fire from the Soviets claimed a 3rd Platoon tank.

"By the time they were ready to fire again, the Team was right on top of the surviving Soviet tanks. Two of 3rd Platoon's tanks drove past the one Soviet tank still running. The turrets of the U.S. tanks stayed locked on the T-72 as they went by. When the two tanks fired on the Soviet at point-blank range, both rounds penetrated, causing the T-72 to stagger to a halt as internal explosions and sheets of flames blew open its hatches."

Better than this noisy stuff, though, is Coyle's quiet exposition of the details of life in an armored unit -- things like tactics, the way tanks are positioned in a woods, the minutiae of maintenance, the way radio nets work, how the crews get fresh laundry. So give Major Coyle high marks. Only one thing is bothersome. In Coyle's war scenario, two nuclear weapons are fired -- one on Birmingham, England, and one on Minsk. In a real shooting war between the superpowers, it is hard to believe events would be limited to such a dainty exchange of nuclear blows. And if nuclear triggers were pulled in any big way, there wouldn't be much left of Team Yankee's vaunted tanks except a few pieces of charred scrap.

Reid Beddow is an assistant editor of Book World.