Future light anti-tank defence (II)

I already wrote about future light (portable) anti-tank defences from the hardware-centric view, for a technical advance calls for adaption. Today I want to address the topic from the tactics angle. Warning; this is a looong blog post (and still cut short).

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As mentioned before, blowing up tanks or killing their entire crew isn't necessary. Often times missions can be accomplished through mobility kills or firepower kills.

One of the fairly easy tasks would be to defeat one or two tanks which support hostile infantry in an urban environment or on a forestry road. This would be easy because the tanks would be so few. One would need to limit one's exposure to them till their protective infantry was defeated, and then multiple hits scored on the tanks (preferably in salvos) would force their withdrawal or defeat them right away.
The real, hardly resistible strength of armoured forces can be found in their massed use. Dozens of tanks (or even only one company) together have such a concentration of firepower coupled with sensors, mobility and protection that an infantry platoon or even company would hardly be able to resist unless the terrain is very advantageous.

A possible approach in face of such opposition would be to avoid the armoured fist and strike at the soft underbelly of the beast: The dismounted force could hide till the tanks have advanced out of sight and then strike at the less hardened, less combat-capable supporting vehicles (including armoured personnel carriers) that follow. This was also one of the most successful anti-tank tactics of WW2. The tanks often passed through, but the following trucks were engaged. Tanks without supporting infantry, with little or no munition and fuel resupply will be defeated sooner or later. Deep penetrations by armoured spearheads require adequate security for the rather soft supporting forces.
But this requires thinking about AT defences on the larger tactical if not operational level. The platoons in contact would not experience how their effort eventually defeats the tank force. They would not consider their effort an anti-tank effort, though brigade and higher HQs would think of it this way.
Another possible approach is to attack when the opposing force isn't combat ready; tank companies need to spend much time on refuelling, maintenance and simply sleeping. They would risk artillery strikes if they did so very visible to hostile observers on open terrain, so there may be the option of attacking them through terrain with short lines of sight in their state of much-reduced readiness at their bivouac. It's difficult to provide security in such terrains without much personnel on picket and patrol duty, and exactly the right personnel for this (infantry and scouts) would hardly be available in a sufficient quantity. And if it was available and used like that it still couldn't rest, thus reducing the formation's abilities through exhaustion over time.
Again, a substantial security effort would be required to protect against this, just as regarding the soft underbelly approach.

Let's stay at the formation level (battalion and higher) for a while; a favourite of mine are area-specific mission tactics. To appoint a force to a defined area (with some overlap and arranged communication with  neighbour forces) and doctrine-defined levels of ambition would suffice as an order. The level of ambition would use steps ranging from a mere 'stay and survive in the area!' up to 'destroy all hostile elements in the area at any cost!'.
An infantry force with an order from the lower levels of ambition would -by this order- understand that it doesn't need to engage tanks unless the conditions are very advantageous. Such forces would -  if arrayed at sufficient depth (similar to certain 1970's and 1980's concepts like "Raumverteidigung")
wear down a tank force and its supporting elements and yield enough to stay relevant in the area. Armoured spearheads could penetrate such defended areas by paying an attrition toll and thus advance to their objective, but they would rather not eliminate the opposition. The infantry forces on such a mission wouldn't be brittle, but flexible under stress. A tank force going into bivouac in such a web of light forces would be very susceptible to swarming and attack pulses during its rest, particularly at night.

Another aspect of light AT defences is that when your firepower is limited you may want to focus it on the highest value targets. A tank column advancing through a bottleneck might see only its lead vehicles engaged, blocking the route (physically or by fear) temporarily. An armour battlegroup might see only is mineclearing tanks engaged prior to running into AT mine defences. Command, air defence, electronic warfare, forward artillery observer and recovery AFVs are rare, important and usually identifiable as well. Again, the forces in early contacts would not necessarily see the superior hostile tank force (or even only a single MBT) defeated, but they might lay the groundwork for its eventual defeat.

AT tactics have historically often been particularly successful when they followed one of two patterns (aside from employing extremely superior equipment or crews):
  1. Ambush situations
  2. Deception, confusion and surprise
About (1); an 1980's approach for this was to rapidly lay an AT minefield (scatterable mines ejected from an AFV or lorry), let the tank force run into it and then when after the first few minehits it was forced to stop hit them with artillery.** They might move to escape the artillery kill zone, but that would only lead to additional mine hits. MLRS/MARS was and is even able to scatter AT mines with rockets, so a tank force could have a minefield dropped onto itself or onto its escape routes.

Line of sight crossfire ambushes are utterly standard procedures for both tanks and ATGM units simply because fires from two directions (minimum 70° apart) allows at least some fires to become effective from outside the most protected forward 60° of main battle tanks. Ideally the two axis of attack would be 90-180° apart.
It is somewhat questionable whether such fires would be satisfactory at long ranges because this requires guided missiles, and guidances might be defeated by countermeasures. Short range AT munitions on the other hand (such as Panzerfaust 3-IT 600, which scores well at up to 600 m against stationary targets) would rarely be in position in the quantity desirable for effective salvoes. This is an arithmetic problem. A frontage of 3 km could be defended by ten ATGM launchers in two groups; they would be able of a ten round crossfire salvo. 10 Panzerfaust launchers (sights) on the other hand would suffice only for a frontage of about 400-600 m against moving targets. You would need many more of them than ten to cover 3 km frontage with a good salvo capability. It gets even much worse if the typical line of sight (or field of fire) in the area is as short as 50-100 m (a city, for example). Terrains with short lines of sight but many possible routes would thus rarely allow ambushes with large crossfire salvoes unless the opposing force has plenty infantry. This is nothing new and independent from what new MBT types enter service, but it's particularly troublesome if your portable AT hardware is weak and thus crossfire salvoes are especially important to you.
Every soldier hopes to be the ambusher instead of being ambushed or even only in a fair fight, but geography and arithmetic are sometimes harbingers of bad news.

(2) Deception, confusion and surprise
German forces used very elaborate, very mobile and often quite desperate tactics to defeat very hard-to-kill French tanks in 1940 and very hard-to-kill T-34 and KV tanks in 1941/1942. This often included feigned attacks (often only the sound and dust clouds of moving tanks of the weakest types), use of smoke, quick surprise attacks - anything but brute force. They had a superior ability in this (and actually scored much better kill ratios than the spec sheets of the tanks used would suggest) because of their superior radio communication and thus much quicker commands and much quicker reactions. Russian tank companies that were attacked from a flank or the rear often didn't react as a unit simply because the few tank commanders that noticed the attack at all (and maybe even its origin) had no means to communicate this other than maybe movement and fire (especially with tracer bullets).

Today's tanks all have radios, but it's still possible to recreate this situation by radio jamming. Both hand-emplaced expendable radio jammers (example: HEXJAM) in ambush situations and artillery-delivered radio jammer shells (example: VRS-546) can be used to make radio communication very hard in a fairly small area (few hundred metres radius). Drones might work as well, small rotorcraft drones could self-emplace themselves in a pattern just minutes before the tanks arrive and be activated remotely, then withdraw (for reuse) on autopilot with their remaining battery power.

The hostile tank force might use the confusion caused by radio jamming, smoke walls and noises to its own advantage because forces of both sides might be affected, of course. They would still be at a disadvantage if they are surprised by these means while their opponents are prepared and expecting, even calling for or deploying additional IR-obscuring smoke. Furthermore, any aggressive reaction drill by the surprised force might lead it straight into another ambush or mined areas.
Such troublesome and difficult tactics aren't new (as was mentioned before), but they greatly gain in importance if you have great difficulties penetrating hostile tanks (as did the German Heer often have from 1940 till 1942).
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Portable short range AT weapons will face an additional difficulty that's been rather uncommon in the past: All-round 360° digital vision of the tank. An early 360° surveillance sensor was the Vectop system on late Merkava tanks.

This was still a rather manual system as far as I know, with crews looking at monitors only. Future tanks (including upgraded 1970's tanks) could make use of daylight and thermal cameras with 360° coverage with automatic and passive detection of muzzle fires, patterns (men, helmets etc.), missiles, unguided warheads in flight and so on. This could be used to avoid radiating with an active protection system radar at all times. The automatic surveillance could be much more able to detect threats and make a tank crew actually more aware of its surroundings than an infantry squad*** (classically it's very much the other way around). Acoustic sensors could detect rifle fire and even detect and classify shouted commands after filtering out the tank's own and other tanks' noises. An electronic support system could notice hostile radio usage in the vicinity, especially low output power intra-squad radios that cannot be detected and triangulates by dedicated electronic warfare vehicles at several kilometres distance. A LIDAR system could detect optics by their reflection characteristics (though with a certain false alarm problem) and double as fire control sensor for a hard kill active defence system that shoots down incoming warheads.

Such a possible reversal of situational awareness superiority would force much caution on any dismounted force in contact with hostile tanks. This might become more troublesome in itself than a poor chance of scoring a penetrating hit.
It's one more reason to favour pop-up salvo fires whenever possible. The dismounted squads may wait behind concealment with but one minimal signature (periscope) observer each, pop up, be detected simultaneously, shoot and disappear before the tank crew could react. An active protection system may be able to react in milliseconds, but the crew couldn't. The more time you give the tank crew to make use of its tools the worse for you. This was always true, but the more capable the tank crew's tools, the more important this becomes because the tolerance for sloppiness shrinks.

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I cut this off at this point. Maybe I'll muster the energy for a part III with more musings about future dismounted AT tactics later.


**: Detection algorithms would still be stupid. They wouldn't as easily as humans notice suspicious details, such as open windows and doors, removed roof tiles, objects out of place et cetera.


  1. Defending against formation is either very labour or resource intensive. Manually laid minefields obviously take time and scatmines are scarce schwerpunkt weapons. Attacking armoured column is best stopped every so often with ambushes targeting individual tanks or at best platoons. Ambushes should be also aimed against clearence tanks so minefields ahead will stay effective.

    Large elaborate platoon-company sized ambushes take time to train and set up. They are also very effective because of concentration of forces and achieving good enough ratio. Platoons ambushing kilometer apart with artillery strikes in between with Bonus/Smart will decimate a company or two with little losses if executed properly.

  2. >>>Deception, confusion and surprise German forces used very elaborate, very mobile and often quite desperate tactics to defeat very hard-to-kill French tanks in 1940 and very hard-to-kill T-34 and KV tanks in 1941/1942.

    Few disagree. Complaints Wehrmacht in mass were associated with. In reality, the armor of the T-34 penetrated "beater" in the weakened zone even in the forehead. Apparently has played a psychological contrast with absolute lack of protection BT and T-26 and self-glorification.
    Thanks for the interesting blog.