Updated: Aug 18, 2022
A few weeks ago, media commentators on modern warfare and combat arms widely shared this video, which allegedly shows a Russian tank regiment unit in combat in Ukraine, north of Kyiv. The video added fuel to the already-raging debate of the tank’s place on the modern battlefield, a place seemingly filled with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and drones. While the battlefield specifics change, this argument is hardly new, appearing any time belligerents employ modern anti-tank weapons and combined arms against massed armored formations. We heard “the tank is dead” following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which saw the Azeris decimate Armenian tanks with cheap, expendable unmanned aircraft systems; before that, we heard it with Israel's challenges against Hezbollah armed with Soviet ATGMs in the 2006 Second Lebanon War; and before that, it was noted by US Army officers sent as observers to Israel following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where armor struggled to achieve the decisive effects expected by either adversary…or so said the initial reports. In all of these conflicts, tanks, and the combined arms team they form with infantry and artillery, ultimately proved decisive in seizing and retaining terrain. The aforementioned video from Ukraine, while depicting a tactical failure by a Russian armored formation, actually dispels common misconceptions related to tank vulnerability, difficulty of tank employment, and armor's effectiveness on the modern battlefield. Bear with me as I adjust my armchair and address the tactical engagement, followed by some broader observations on the state of armor in the current conflict.
"Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in Lugansk region (Image: AFP via Getty Images)"
Based on the video, three things warrant commentary:
The initial failure of the Russian formation to execute tactical maneuver. The Russian vehicles advanced in column (albeit with decent initial spacing) despite receiving some indirect fire. Once they arrived in the town, their spacing disappeared and twenty-plus vehicles halted at-almost parking lot distances. Presented with an artilleryman’s dream, the Ukrainian defenders struck the Russians with accurate, but low-volume, artillery fire.The close proximity between vehicles meant every accurate round (at least those shown in the video clip) landed on or near a vehicle. SO WHAT – This halt and the lack of dispersion is just indiscipline, not some defect of armored formations. Going back eighty years (and probably earlier) American doctrine highlights the need to maintain at least fifty yards of spacing between armored vehicles to reduce the threat of indirect fire or aerial bombing. Russian training and, especially, NCO leadership seems a significant problem in Ukraine, but bad tactics are specific failings, not universal truths. (Note: According to the translation of the alleged radio traffic in the video, the Russian commander was killed at some point – given the Russian reliance on senior leaders to make decisions, this likely contributed greatly to the confusion.)
The relative absence of major damage caused by artillery and (alleged, not apparent) direct fire. Despite crummy tactics, lack of appropriate spacing, and apparent indecision on the part of the Russian element, accurate indirect fire only destroyed two BTRs and one tank (though the tank appeared disabled, not destroyed). Granted, I am making an assumption based on the video of the engagement and the aftermath. I expect that, if the Ukrainians destroyed more vehicles in this engagement, they’d have emphasized it in the video or its aftermath. SO WHAT – Tanks are still harder to kill than anything else on the battlefield – even 40-50 year-old Russian tanks. The low number of destroyed vehicles reinforces the argument that the Russian unit withdrew due to poor leadership and/or discipline, not due to the specific threat of the artillery to the tank formation. It also demonstrates that sporadic artillery fire using ordnance not specifically designed to kill tanks simply won’t kill them, even when presented with a near best-case target: a stationary unit lacking dispersion.
The Russian demonstration of cross-country maneuverability even as they withdrew. Despite an apparent loss of leadership, accurate indirect fire, and the morale impact of the decision to withdraw – someone still made the right call and either directed the unit to withdraw cross-country or took initiative and led the unit off the road. The fields are passable, and once the vehicles began moving across them, they spread out and further reduced their risk of indirect fire. SO WHAT – The decision to travel in column on the road and halt in the town itself was a choice. There are clearly other options. The Russian formation, if they didn’t realize it before, knows this now. This wasn’t a rout and is unlikely to be repeated – at least by the tank unit in question.
On the tank and the Russian-Ukraine War more broadly:
While our social media feeds are filled with videos and accounts of Russian equipment destroyed, Russian soldiers surrendering, and horrible Russian logistics, some perspective is in order. Russia is currently a month into one of the largest conventional operations by numbers and distance since WWII. The last time Russia fought through this area took it nine months (August 1943 to May 1944) and cost over 1,000,000 casualties (rough, Wikipedia-assisted math). To be sure, the manpower scale has decreased dramatically since WWII, but this is much closer to a peer-on-peer conflict than more recent examples such as a US versus Iraq or Israel versus Syria/Egypt. The fact remains: Russia has been able to advance on four fronts to considerable depth despite their logistics and leadership issues, and in the face of indisputable tenacity and capability of the Ukrainian defenders. This advance is not due to their airborne forces seizing key terrain (that failed) nor their overwhelming artillery firepower (the Ukrainians seem to have improved at dispersing), but because of the tactical and operational mobility of their armor – even when poorly led, trained, and supplied. From the Ukrainian perspective, where the Ukrainians have successfully counterattacked and retaken lost ground, they’ve relied on–you guessed it–their mechanized and tank forces.
Are tanks vulnerable to modern anti-tank systems? Yes.
Can good tactics mitigate some of this vulnerability? Also, yes.
Are tanks logistically demanding to support? Yes.
Are the effects tanks achieve worth the cost of supplying and replacing them? The
Russians currently seem to think so. I (with acknowledged bias) agree.
While acknowledging that Russia has taken considerable losses in tanks and armored vehicles, I wonder if we have a good perspective on what armor losses should look like in modern conventional combat. Going back to WWII, the data seems bleak, at least for some battalions. But maybe not so bleak when you balance the loss rates against the impact and success of the units sustaining significant losses. What might need to change is our valuation of how much to spend on the survivability of particular platforms compared to crew safety and other areas of tactical performance. In a high-end fight against a capable adversary, we're going to lose tanks. Maybe a lot of tanks. But if those platforms, their crews, and the way we use them have a decisive impact, then the tank continues to trade favorably.
Please share your thoughts.
"Russian soldiers on an armoured vehicle move towards mainland Ukraine on a raod near Armiansk, Crimea, on Friday [EPA-EFE]"
1) For more on the seemingly eternal “The Tank is Dead, Long Live the Tank,” debate, see The Tank Debate by John Stone
2) For a warning on drawing conclusions about tanks from Ukrainian war footage, see this video.
Author’s Bio: Christopher Telle is a captain in the U.S. Army’s Armor Branch. He currently serves as a Cavalry Troop Observer-Coach/Trainer at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany. He previously served as a headquarters company commander and tank company commander.