Ukraine war: Is it the end of the road for tanks in modern warfare?

The days of tanks have not ended but possibly paused till they are modified with better armour and counter-measures, as also their tactics are redesigned for evasive measures

Maj Gen Harsha Kakar September 21, 2022 09:47:31 IST
Ukraine war: Is it the end of the road for tanks in modern warfare?

Ukrainian soldiers man a tank on the outskirts of Izyum, Kharkiv Region, eastern Ukraine. AFP

The Moscow Times, in an article of 6 September, stated that Russia has thus far lost over 1,000 tanks in its Ukraine operations. Over 50 per cent of armour casualties were in the first seven to eight weeks of the war when Russia attempted to seize Kiev in a short and swift operation, which failed. It was overconfident in its strategy of capturing Kiev that resulted in it moving its armoured columns on roads in a single file, making them sitting ducks once leading elements were targeted and destroyed. There were also reports of mechanised groups outrunning their logistic trains resulting in tanks being abandoned for lack of fuel, as also of them being bogged down in mud.

Tanks were targeted by a collection of anti-tank weapons held by Ukrainian troops in organised ambushes as also employing airpower, as Russia initially failed to attain air supremacy nor provided their mechanised columns with dedicated air support. Subsequently, effective employment of suicidal drones added to Russian concerns. Rarely in history has armour been moved as causally and non-tactically as in the initial stages of the Ukraine conflict as the Russians did. It projects a sad state of operational planning by a nation which considers itself a superior military power in Eurasia. Russia was compelled to alter its tactics post which reduced its losses.

A similar scenario emerged in the 44-day Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in 2020. Armenia claimed to have destroyed 137 Azerbaijani tanks while Azerbaijan announced the degradation of over 130 armoured vehicles of Armenia. These figures cannot be verified, though inputs confirm that there was immense loss of mechanised vehicles on both sides. Most casualties on the Armenian side were due to UAVs employed by Azerbaijan.

Large casualties of mechanised vehicles in both recent conflicts have reignited the debate of whether the age of tanks has come to an end. This discussion has been a regular feature since the emergence of the ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) which enables challenging tanks at longer ranges. A $100,000 UAV, suicidal drone, the US Javelin, Ukrainian Stugna-P or other ATGMs destroying a far costlier armoured vehicle implies victory for the anti-tank weapon, mainly because of the price factor.

The first major challenger on the battlefield against the tank, after the recoilless gun or artillery in direct firing role, was the ATGM. To counter it, nations like Israel mounted mortars on tanks while others employed smoke canisters. With the induction of top attack ammunition, the armour content began undergoing a change aimed at strengthening vulnerable portions of the tank. Post the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the development of anti-drone weapons gained importance. Thus was born a plethora of mobile cannon systems. Simultaneously research on enhancing electronic warfare capabilities to counter drones and UAVs commenced.

Integrating air power with mechanised forces operations is paramount as it can be effectively employed to suppress ATGMs or anti-tank missile launchers. A fallout of the arrival of UAVs was creation of integrated battlegroups comprising armoured vehicles, infantry combat vehicles, artillery, engineers, electronic warfare equipment and air defence, all with matching mobility supporting each other and capable of countering emerging threats.

This is where the Russians were initially lacking, which the Ukrainians skilfully exploited. Though the Russian army fought in a battlegroup concept, it ignored its basic tenets and suffered heavy losses. Training of the crew was another important factor which the Russians ignored. Russian conscript soldiers with low morale and limited training were more a liability than an asset. With a terrain conducive for employment of armour, Russia could have planned better.

The ground reality remains that tanks are essential for success in operations, especially if the terrain is armour conducive. Apart from firepower and the ability to break through prepared defences while creating panic, they also shield the infantry as it advances. Currently, no country in the world is considering reducing its armoured vehicles, despite lessons from Ukraine and Armenia-Azerbaijan, but on the contrary, increasing numbers is also redesigning them. The US Marine Corps has decided to bank on US Army tanks rather than maintain their own. Even Ukraine has demanded tanks from the US and European allies, aware that their employment could be a game-changer.

Redesigning of tanks implies enhancing capabilities including segregating crew from stored ammunition, remote sensing and active protection systems amongst others. However, a major challenge involving modifying the tank is not impacting its weight, which influences manoeuvrability, carrying capacity and speed. The lighter the tank the more effective it would be in the battlefield.

In modern warfare every effective weapon system results in an adversary developing a counter leading to modifications within the system to enable it to beat the challenge. Swarm drones and loitering ammunition are the latest cheap alternatives to costly armoured vehicles. Currently, there is no 100 per cent effective counter to loitering munitions and swarm drones other than electronic warfare equipment. While currently there are ad hoc solutions to defeating these weapon systems, a permanent solution may soon be on the cards.

The day of integrated battle groups, with the right element of all arms and services, with matching mobility, trained and equipped to meet future challenges on the battlefield is the need of the hour. India is moving towards integrated battlegroups. Their composition, structure and training must enhance their capability to fight seamlessly in all terrains and against all nature of threats.

Simultaneously, lessons learnt from conflicts are implemented in tactics, organisation structures and drills to enhance the staying power of the equipment. Hence, the days of tanks have not ended but possibly paused till they are modified with better armour and counter-measures, as also their tactics are redesigned for evasive measures.

A nation’s banking on employment of armour for national security cannot sign its death certificate. Any counter developed to beat the latest challenge will result in a new threat leading to additional study and research. This cat and mouse game of tanks versus anti-tank weapon systems will remain.

The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.

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