A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 22, 2023

The Reason Ukraine Is Advancing, But Not With Tanks

Time to face reality: the "Russia just sucks at using tanks" argument was plausible for a while, but more than a month into the counteroffensive, it can no longer be supported. 

It turns out that man held anti-tank missile and $400 drones are as devastating to Ukrainian tanks as they are to the Russians'. The contemporary battlefield is exceedingly hostile to these mammoth weapons - until someone comes up with a new invention to protect them. For now, infantry and artillery are going to have to do the job. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

The proliferation of shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles means it is difficult for armor to advance against defensive positions without facing a swarm of incoming missiles. (And), drones have supplanted aircraft in threatening armor from the air. Ukraine is excellent at defending but doesn’t have the experience in offensive actions, unable to scale up to larger unit sizes. Lack of proper training meant they attacked at dawn, unable to take advantage of their Western armor’s superior night vision optics by attacking at night when Russian defenders would be blind. Ukrainian tanks are as vulnerable to Russian ATGMs and drones (as the Russians are to Ukrainians'). The modern battlefield is incredibly hostile to (tanks).

My two most controversial takes in Ukraine analysis are 1) F-16s won’t change the situation on the ground, and 2) modern battle tanks are obsolete.

I’ve been hitting the former quite a bit lately, so why not take on the latter for a change?

The long-running argument against tanks in this war is reflected in the numbers. According to the Oryx database of visually confirmed destroyed Russian equipment, Russia has lost 2,146 tanks. Ukraine claims double that destroyed: 4,133. That’s a lot of tanks for minimal territorial gains over the past year and a half of war.

The reasons are twofold: The proliferation of ATGMs, shoulder-launched anti-tank guided missiles, means it is difficult for armor to advance against prepared defensive positions without facing a swarm of incoming missiles. Meanwhile, drones have supplanted most aircraft in threatening armor from the air. Who needs expensive and exposed helicopters and ground-support aircraft like A-10 Warthogs when a $400 first-person view suicide drone can deliver explosive payload against tanks?

As a result we’ve seen countless videos like this one of a Javelin strike (and maybe two) on Russian tanks on an open field.

And their cheapness allows combatants to flood the zone with them. As I wrote recently:

Airpower is expensive. A modern F-35, the newest NATO-standard aircraft, costs around $110 million per copy, including its ground support equipment; $7 million per year in basic maintenance; and $42,000 per hour to fly.

Just that $42,000 would buy 100 kamikaze drones, able to hit far more targets than that aircraft in a one-hour sortie (plus the cost of the ordinance, which would run tens or hundreds of thousands more).

Meanwhile, the counterargument in defense of the relevancy of tanks is that Russia simply sucks and has misused its tanks, unable to do effective combined-arms warfare that would better shield those tanks from those attacks. Ukraine has supported the “tanks matter” crowd by vociferously requesting Western armor, arguing that they would more effectively operate those tanks and couldn’t liberate their lands without them. Yet the slow progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive shows that combined-arms warfare is hard, Ukrainian tanks are just as vulnerable to Russian ATGMs and drones, and the modern battlefield is just incredibly hostile to those big beasts.

The era of tank-versus-tank battles is over. No F-16s, cluster bombs, or more tanks will prevent these kinds of drones or missile attacks from dominating the battlefield. War analysts MIchael Koffman and Rob Lee, fresh off a visit to the front lines, discussed what they learned on this sobering podcast. This was the same visit that led to the analysis I recently covered on Ukraine’s challenges pushing forward. The two note that the early attacks in this counteroffensive weren’t “probing” attacks seeking Russian weak spots but a real “attempt to conduct a rapid breakthrough of Russian lines in multiple areas.”

They are clear that the counteroffensive continues and many of Ukraine’s reserves haven’t been committed, but this initial phase “was not a success.” On the plus side, the Ukrainian general staff recognized things weren’t working and quickly reassessed their tactics. But what do those new tactics look like? Lots of infantry.

As Koffman and Lee explain, it has become a battle of tree lines. Like this one:

Ukraine will clear the trenches in those tree lines and occupy positions. Russian armor and artillery will engage from several kilometers away. If those Ukrainian troops have ATGMs then they’re in better shape, but if not, they have no way of reaching out that far. And since the grounds behind them remain heavily mined, it is difficult to resupply them as it’s all done on foot.

“It’s coming down to a war of infantry mine-clearing and infantry attacks backed by artillery backed by drones,” Lee said. What’s missing from that sentence? Tanks. Russian forces aren’t as effective at deploying mines, but they have a “thick concentration of anti-tank guided missiles.” Add Russian suicide drones and limited air power (mostly helicopters), and it’s clear that any attempt to push forward with armor could suffer the same fate as Russia did with its own offensive capabilities. And just as Bakhmut was taken by infantry, with Wagner mercenaries surrendering armor in favor of suicidal infantry assaults, Ukraine is realizing the severe limits to armor. Thankfully Ukraine isn’t following Wagner’s suicidal examples.  

None of this is to say that armor is useless. Here is the 3rd Assault Brigade, formerly Azov, using tanks to soften up a trench line on a tree line.

And here they are using armor in what appears to be a decent combined arms manner to advance 2 kilometers around Bakhmut.

But the armor lost per kilometer gained is frightfully high, leading Ukraine to rely far more heavily on that combination of artillery and infantry. Cluster munitions will help a great deal to soften up defenses, not just because of their ability to scatter bomblets over a wide area but because it gives Ukrainian artillery far more shells to fire in an environment in which ammunition scarcity is a real thing.

Koffman and Lee concluded that Ukraine is excellent at defending but simply doesn’t have the experience in engaging in offensive actions, unable to scale them up to larger unit sizes. Lack of proper training meant that they attacked at dawn, unable to take advantage of their Western armor’s superior night vision optics by attacking at night when Russian defenders would be blind.

Even in the video above it’s a handful of tanks and infantry, not the kinds of massed power that might actually punch through well-defended lines. And they’re attacking during the day. Night operations are infinitely harder.

The small numbers of armor involved in each engagement means that as it did when Ukraine faced the same type of movement by Russia last year, it’s easier for defenders to hold their ground and pick off a handful of armored vehicles than it would be if faced with dozens of vehicles bearing down on their position, signaling imminent death.

Ultimately this means that hopes of a massive Ukrainian breakthrough and collapse of the Russian lines won’t happen and that gains will have to be ground out, mostly by infantry. That doesn’t make any gains less exciting, it just means it’ll take longer to accomplish what we all hoped—unrealistically in hindsight—would be quick work.

As for tanks, the United States realizes the challenges. Its new tank concept goes heavy on anti-drone and anti-ATGM defenses.

The AbramsX also includes more protection from the growing threat of aerial drones. Reese said the design features an amped-up active protection system with three radars and launchers instead of two creating a perimeter around the tank.

“So instead of the two that normally create the donut around the vehicle, we have a third one that creates a dome over the top of the vehicle, for 360 degrees,” he said. “It’s not fully developed yet, but it’s close.”

Sounds expensive for a system that—if it ever makes it to production—will be incredibly complicated and can likely be defeated by a swarm of 20 or so simple drones at a cost of $8,000. The future of warfare will look very different.


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