A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 20, 2022

Why Russia's Dismal Performance In Ukraine Has Not Made the Tank Obsolete

The need for armored vehicles to protect advancing troops from artillery has not disappeared. What Ukraine's success against Russia's tanks has shown is that design and use have to evolve and adapt to newer technologies (sound familiar...?). 

Much as drone swarms are changing the application of manned jets, so experience in Ukraine against portable missiles suggests that tanks will be redesigned to reduce vulnerability, in part by using swarms of unmanned robots to protect them. The Ukraine war has become a laboratory for the world's military to test, observe and learn. And they are taking seriously detailed notes. JL  

The Economist reports:

It would be wrong to write the tank’s obituary based on its performance in the war, because Russia has made such poor use of them. Russian tanks have fought in isolation from recon units flushing out anti-tank squads. Certain problems are also specific to the layout of Russian tanks: “every conflict that involved Soviet-era tanks has shown the vulnerability of these designs to attacks from above and from the sides." But vulnerability is not the same as obsolescence. (Armies will) opt for lighter and cheaper vehicles, affordable in larger numbers. And much as warplanes will become motherships for drone swarms, tanks will become hubs for autonomous ground vehicles. Tanks will not die out; they will evolve.
Armies on the attack need ways to move their troops forward. They also need to shield those soldiers as they advance. Most importantly, they need firepower to punch through defences that stand in their way, ideally causing havoc in the enemy’s rear. The tank combines these three capabilities in a single device. For that reason, every significant army makes use of them. There are more than 70,000 or so around the world.
Yet since the tank first rolled onto the battlefield, at the Somme in 1916, the vehicle’s future has been in question. At the Battle of Cambrai a year later, some 400 British tanks broke through German defences and penetrated five miles so quickly that the astonished attackers were not prepared to exploit their success. Gradually, armies learnt how to do so. In May 1940 the Wehrmacht’s massed tanks sliced through the Ardennes on their way to France, in synchrony with infantry and air power, in what would become known as blitzkrieg.
Numbers have declined sharply since the end of the cold war, however, and current scepticism about the tank’s future is particularly vehement. Critics argue that the vehicle is ponderous, expensive and fundamentally ill-suited to modern combat. America’s Marine Corps has said it will scrap all of its tanks to focus on preparing to fight China in the Pacific. Many European armies have cut their fleets to the bone since the cold war. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, declared that the old concept of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass was “over”, even as Russian forces were gathering on the Ukrainian border.
The war has turbocharged this criticism. Russia is advancing slowly in eastern Ukraine thanks to its advantage in artillery. But it is a grinding campaign rather than one of bold armoured manoeuvre. Russia has lost at least 774 tanks since invading Ukraine, according to a count by Oryx, a blog which tracks the war. Around half of those were destroyed, a third were captured by Ukraine and most of the rest were abandoned. This implies that Russia has lost around a quarter of its estimated pre-war inventory of almost 3,000 tanks. Some elite units, such as the 4th Guards Tank Division, appear to have lost an even higher proportion. Vladimir Putin envisaged his tanks rolling into Kyiv; instead they ended up bogged down on the city’s outskirts, before being forced to retreat.
The battles of the last three months have underlined two potent threats to armoured vehicles. One is the anti-tank guided missile (atgm). Its destructive potential has been clear since the Yom Kippur war of 1973, when Egypt’s Soviet-made Sagger atgms smashed Israeli tanks. A memo written by the American army after the war assessed that the Sagger, if not disrupted, had a 60% chance of achieving a “kill” against an m60 tank from as far as two miles out.
The Sagger was guided by a command wire that unspooled as the missile made its journey. Today’s missiles, including American Javelins and the short-ranged British-Swedish nlaws, are “fire and forget”. They home in on a hot engine or use magnetic and optical sensors to predict where the tank will be in a few seconds. Just as important, modern atgms strike where a tank’s armour is thinnest. In its “top-attack” mode, the Javelin arcs into the sky and plunges down; the nlaw flies a metre or so above the tank with a warhead pointing down 90 degrees.
The second threat is armed drones, which offer a cheap and simple way of attacking from the air. In recent years Turkish-made tb2s, which are slightly smaller than a Cessna light aircraft, have destroyed large amounts of armour in Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh—and now Ukraine—using laser-guided bombs. Ukraine is also using alternatives that range from the basic (quadcopters armed with Soviet-era anti-tank grenades) to the more advanced. A cutting-edge example is the American-made Switchblade, a dive-bombing drone that explodes on impact and is known as a loitering munition. Ukraine began using them in early May.
It would be wrong, however, to write the tank’s obituary based on its performance in the war, precisely because Russia has made such poor use of them. Many military experts had expected that drones would be little more than a nuisance in any conflict. But Russia’s failure to eliminate Ukrainian air defences in the first days of the war means that its warplanes cannot patrol the skies, giving tb2s more freedom to operate. Meanwhile, Russian air defences, designed to detect larger aircraft, seem to struggle with the smaller drones, though there have been improvements in recent weeks.
Modern armed forces prize the idea of combined-arms warfare, in which the various elements of a military formation compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Tanks can clear the way for infantry, but only infantry can go into a warren of tunnels to weed out enemy squads armed with anti-tank weapons. Warplanes can provide cover for advancing tanks and infantry, but need air defences on the ground to keep enemy planes away. Ben Barry, a former commander of a British armoured infantry battalion, now at the iiss, a think-tank, has called it “a lethal version of scissors, paper, stone”.
In the chaotic opening month of the campaign, some Russian units wandered the battlefield without air defence. Russian tanks have fought in isolation from reconnaissance units sweeping the path ahead or dismounted infantry flushing out anti-tank squads in woodland or urban areas. Such protective tactics “have existed since the time the Egyptians first hit the Israelis”, says B.S. Dhanoa, a retired major-general who once commanded an Indian armoured brigade. Only recently have Russians begun to use artillery methodically to pound Ukrainian positions ahead of a ground assault.
Dave Johnson of rand, an American think-tank, has observed that in the American and Israeli armies, it became common practice after the Yom Kippur war to aim artillery at locations where soldiers with atgms might be hiding. That forced the enemy to hunker down, making it harder for them to keep tanks in their sights. Tanks are also fitted with mortars, which launch small shells, and smoke canisters, to obscure their movement. “One of the major lessons is that you cannot have armour bumbling along without fire support, or its own eyes and ears well ahead through a reconnaissance screen,” concludes General Dhanoa.
An example of what happens when that lesson is not heeded comes from Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv. Drone footage from mid-March shows a densely-packed Russian armoured column driving into an ambush. The commanders on the ground were not solely to blame. One reason for the initial failure of the Russian advance on Kyiv was that artillery support was stuck to the rear of congested columns—a function of poor planning. As Wilf Owen, editor of Military Strategy Magazine and an expert on armoured warfare, puts it, “If the Russian army had done any competent training at all, you would not have seen anything like this level of losses.”
Certain problems are also specific to the layout of Russian tanks, as the model above demonstrates. The Soviet decision to use an autoloader was a defensible design choice at the time, but it has created “eggshells with hammers”, says Lieutenant-General Sean MacFarland, a former commander of America’s 1st Armoured Division, echoing a criticism originally applied to warships that had big guns but were themselves ill-protected against attacks. These trade-offs were known long before the war in Ukraine. “Almost every conflict that has involved Soviet-era tanks from the t-64 onwards has shown the vulnerability of these designs to attacks from above and from the sides,” write Sam Cranny-Evans and Sidharth Kaushal, analysts at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London.
Newer Russian tanks are designed differently. The t-14 Armata, the latest model, keeps an autoloader but sensibly encloses the crew in an armoured compartment. The Armata also has another advantage: an active protection system (aps) which uses radar to detect incoming rounds and fires projectiles to stop them. That would all be good news for Russia’s unfortunate tank crews, were it not for the fact that the Armata is still being tested and is nowhere to be seen on the battlefield. Nor will the Armata be procured in large numbers; at Russia’s Victory Day parade in Moscow in May, just two were shown off.
In the long race between the tank and its foes, anti-tank forces appear to have the upper hand. But vulnerability is not the same as obsolescence. Armies need something that can move quickly, break through enemy lines, lead the way for infantry and destroy the other side’s armoured vehicles. If the tank does not do these jobs, something else must. That alternative will, in turn, become prey to the same technologies and tactics. “If people want to say the tank is dead, then every armoured fighting vehicle is dead for the same reasons,” says Mr Owen. “Because if tanks aren't there to kill with an atgm, you will use atgms to kill whatever vehicle is there.”
But tanks are increasingly expensive. They are beginning to approach the heady sums spent on modern fighter jets. A high-end one can cost as much as $20m, says Mr Owen. An f-35a, a cutting-edge warplane, is around $80m, though estimates vary. One reason for this inflation is the growing expense of tacking on ever more armour to protect the tank. aps will compound that problem. On top of that, operating a heavy-tracked vehicle can cost up to $500 a kilometre, Mr Owen notes. A large fleet requires lots of dedicated support, from bridging equipment to fuel trucks.
Some countries will keep piling on armour, resulting in more ponderous but tougher tanks capable of absorbing bigger blows. But many more are likely to opt for lighter and cheaper vehicles—more vulnerable to Javelins and Switchblades, perhaps, but affordable in larger numbers. And much as sixth-generation warplanes are likely to become motherships for drone swarms, tanks might become hubs for autonomous ground vehicles that can scout ahead and perform other tasks. Tanks will not die out; they will evolve instead


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