The war in Ukraine showed how vulnerable main battle tanks are. But without them, no offensives are possible. The star spoke to British military expert Nicolas Drummond about modern land warfare and why there will be no victory without heavy tracked vehicles.
Mr. Drummond, with the war in Ukraine, many proclaimed the end of the main battle tank. You vehemently disagreed. How so?
Yes. On the contrary. The notion that main battle tanks were a “setting sun” has been thoroughly disproved by 11 months of fighting in Ukraine.
Why do you come to this conclusion? A lot of tanks were shot down, right?
Despite brave Ukrainian resistance, a huge amount of territory was lost because the Ukrainians could not hold back the mass of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers that initially attacked their positions. There is no other land warfare capability that has the shock effectiveness, resilience and off-road capability of tracked vehicles.
The Russian losses were surprisingly high, weren’t they?
The large number of Russian armored vehicles destroyed by Ukrainian forces suggests that they are obsolete. The vulnerability of Russian tanks was compounded by bad tactics and bad leadership. If they advance without infantry support or artillery they will be easy prey.
No protection at all is not the alternative
So the age of tanks is not over?
Saying that tanks are obsolete is the same as saying that armored personnel carriers and other types of armored mobility are also obsolete. But what is the alternative if you do away with all armored vehicles? What will you use instead to protect your troops? Driving around in unprotected jeeps and trucks makes them even easier to kill.
Early in the war, Ukrainian troops used lightly armored vehicles – MRAPs – very effectively to get troops where they were needed. But these vehicles had neither the mobility nor the required protection to enter the direct fire zone. Instead, they were used as “battlefield taxis” to transport infantry to the front areas, from where they operated on foot.
Got it, the low speed of dismounted foot soldiers exposes them to threats from enemy drones and artillery for a very long time. But even if there is no alternative to armored vehicles, the conditions have changed. Main battle tanks are threatened by anti-tank guided missiles that have a much longer range and are much more dangerous than the Panzerschreck of WWII. What helps against that?
Tanks are increasingly vulnerable to guided missiles – ATGM. For this reason, the integration of active protection systems (APS) capable of repelling missiles with HEAT warheads is almost mandatory. The M1A2C Abrams features the Trophy system from Israel. The Leopard 2A7 has Trophy. The Challenger 3 will get it. In reality, any vehicle entering the direct fire zone needs an APS. The point is to equip as many vehicles with APS as we can afford.
APS – Active Protection Systems try to disrupt an approaching warhead (soft kill) or shoot it down with a kind of shotgun blast (hard kill). At the moment, however, only a few copies are equipped with it. The Bundeswehr is working on equipping about 17 Leopard 2 in this way. And then the tank is safe again?
The threat from the air from drones (UAVs), top attack weapons and loitering weapons must also be considered. It is expected that light rapid-fire cannons and heavy machine guns will be mounted on main battle tanks to create a layered protective shell. Compared to ATMGs, armor thickness is less important than it used to be. However, APS protection is still unable to stop APFSDS penetrators.
APFSDS a cryptic abbreviation. It stands for Armor Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot, or armour-piercing fin-stabilized sabot rounds. This is the most modern stage of development of armored projectiles, which primarily break through the armor through the force of their impact. A projectile like the DM 53 from the German Leopard 2 can’t be deflected with the hail of fragments from an APS?
Exactly, that’s why most NATO main battle tanks still have maximum protection over the entire front arc. Shells have evolved, but the latest composite and ceramic armor is extremely effective.
Artillery was already the most dangerous tank killer in Normandy and in the battles of the Falaise Pocket. Today, their capabilities have increased even more with guided munitions and surveillance of large areas by drones. How can this be counteracted? Is it necessary to eliminate the Russian artillery before the troops go into the field?
The artillery is and was a highly effective tank killer, against which even APS cannot do much. See, it doesn’t even need a direct hit. An artillery hit that hits near a vehicle can disable all of the vehicle’s sensors, blinding the crew. MLRS missiles with anti-tank submunitions are now banned to avoid collateral damage, but have been extremely effective.
Something similar was first used by the Soviets from airplanes during World War II. With resounding success.
The same effect could be achieved by drones or flying swarms of ammunition used to attack armored formations. Larger battlefield missiles and warheads capable of destroying large areas are also effective. The threat of drone-based artillery has turned modern warfare into an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. You must locate and neutralize enemy artillery before you can advance. So while artillery remains the most dangerous threat on the battlefield, protected mobility is absolutely necessary to move on the battlefield at all.
As you said, armored vehicles don’t offer absolute protection either, but their protection is far better than on foot or in an unarmored truck. Artillery makes movement risky, but only movement in the field leads to victory.
Lighter vehicles are cheaper than heavier ones. This explains the recent move away from traditional heavy armor and towards 8×8 medium vehicles. Armies used to be more focused on tracked main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers. Wheeled vehicles offer an expeditionary capability and responsiveness essential for the first battle. This is an aspect that the Bundeswehr takes into account when expanding its Boxer fleet.
Basically, modern warfare can be divided into two phases. Phase 1 is a defensive phase where the armies fight the deep battle or the first battle. The aim is to quickly set up a forward defense to hold the terrain before the enemy can take it.
You mean a defensive line that stops the enemy in front of the actual main battle line?
To do this, you need vehicles like the Boxer 8×8, which have greater operational mobility than tanks. Such vehicles employ both tank destroyer squads performing mobile defense and dug-in units performing static defense. This mobile vanguard is tasked with supplying targets to its own artillery batteries using drones and other sensors.
How important is speed?
Ukraine shows how important mobility is. If artillery surprises you, the quicker you can get out of the target area, the better. Mobility is an essential part of survivability. If you deploy first, your opponent will need a 3 to 1 numerical advantage to push you back. If you’re late, you’ll need the 3 to 1 advantage to dislodge the enemy. American Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest is famous for saying, “The commander who gets to the destination first with the most troops wins.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest is known to most only as the ancestor of the film and novel character “Forrest Gump”, but he really did exist. He was a bold commander and also a founding father of the Klu Klux Klan. Back to the scenario: only in the best and unlikely In this case you will be able to stop the opponent on the front line.
It is likely that you will have to cede territory. Even if you succeed in the decisive battle and inflict significant casualties on the attackers, you still have to beat the melee battle or the second battle. In order to do this successfully and recapture lost territories, one must, in this case Kyiv, master modern blitzkrieg, which NATO calls Combined Arms Maneuver. For this reason, main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers are still important. They are essential for an attacking force to gain and hold ground. The Russians could only successfully take Ukrainian territory when they used tanks and infantry together, moving forward under the protection of artillery.
Artillery is the god of war again
Artillery is always underestimated by the public, but proves once again that it can dominate the battlefield.
Yes. How can tanks protect themselves against artillery fire? It is indeed very difficult. Even with increased protection, no tank is invulnerable. And extra protection comes with extra weight, which compromises mobility. Also, tanks will become more expensive if we make them too complicated or exotic. This reduces the number of vehicles we can afford. Without a critical mass of vehicles, any attack will be repelled. As Stalin said, quantity over quality.
The idea of an indestructible tank is a popular myth. Whenever opponents of roughly equal value met in wars, there were also losses. For example in the Battle of Kursk, in Normandy or in Sinai. During the Cold War, preparations were made for large armies of tanks to collide. It was assumed that there would be enormous losses in a short time.
There is no such thing as absolute protection. Armies must make a compromise between absolute numbers and absolute capabilities. Finally, avoiding artillery fire is very difficult. You are being targeted. You will suffer losses. But if you don’t have armored vehicles or some degree of protected mobility, you certainly won’t survive.
First part of the interview – Part II “The Leopard 2 will finish Putin” will follow soon
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