Pricing yourself out of the battlefield


I know a field manual that described among other things how a tank should move through a landscape of open fields and woodland. The advice was to hug the edge of the woodland, as to become less visible at long ranges to anti-tank guided missile and main battle tank threats (at least in the visible spectrum).

It was a 180° wrong advice in case that RPGs are the greater threat; then the tank should strive to keep a safe distance from either left or right or if possible both woodland patches where RPG gunners may more likely hide than in foxholes on open ground from whence they could not retreat.

This is analogue to the situation of tanks in a drone threat-rich environment. Imagine autonomous killer drones capable of flying AND ground movement. Every tank would need to have at least one 360°x90° movable weapon station with 360°x90° threat detection sensors to enable a defence against drone threats that made it past friendly drones trying to kill off hostile drones, akin to how surface warships depend on a line of defence made up by fighters since 1942 (as their own anti-air defences cannot cope with many threats at a time).

Such tanks under drone threat would have too little defensive depth in closed terrain; their anti-drone defence might be effective out to 2 km, but they would be almost defenceless if a drone can attack from behind concealment at 50 m distance. A last ditch defence such as today's hard kill active defence suites might stop two or three drones even at such a distance, but hardly 10...20.

This scenario assumes extremely expensive, sophisticated, electronics- and sensors-packed tanks that would cost about € 20 million today (actual today's high end tanks cost about € 10 million). They would be limited to certain terrains and require a lot of support (drones more so than infantry and indirect fires, but also fuel, repairs, high capacity bridging and so on). That's a lot of necessary effort for assets with very restricting movement options.

What's on the upside? Tanks could still carry big, powerful armament (such as a 130 mm gun). Yes, that's about it. They could bring a big gun to the fight. Everything else is about bringing this gun into the fight without being suicidal. What can this gun do that you can't do without it? Missiles and drones could bring big explosive charges onto a target as well, also from the same (flat) angle. Missiles can mimic even a tank's Mach 5+ kinetic penetrator arrow (APFSDS munition), as the LOSAT program showed conclusively.

Missiles can be expected to be more expensive than tank gun-launched shells and penetrators because they require more stored chemical energy for propulsion and it would take a guided HE missile to substitute a dumb tank gun HE shell. So how many shots does it take till the more expensive munitions with cheaper platforms add up to the same total bill as the cheaper munitions with the more expensive competing platform (tank)? I wager it takes more than we could reasonably expect a tank to fire in wartime.

Moreover, tanks are associated with extremely high training expenses. To move fast on tracks wears out components quickly, the high density engines don't last very long and the fuel consumption is appalling as well. The very expensive electronics fail and require replacement when you carry them around for years in a tank with lots of vibrations, mechanical shocks and humidity.

In the end, there might be a way how we could continue to use tanks in a battlefield dominated by autonomous drones, but they may price themselves out of any sensible force structure. They might follow the path of the navies' destroyers and frigates; soldier on at great expense until an intense high-end war shows their unsuitability and marginal utility in any high threat environment.

Doomsayers have declared the end for the tank over and over again and it persists, but does it persist for good reason? Have we seen tanks justifying their expenses post-1967, ever? They provided some utility in some conflicts since, but this doesn't prove that we couldn't have had that utility by cheaper means as well. The mass destruction of tanks in 1973 and 1991 surely showed at least to the battle losers that their tanks weren't worth the expense. How well would the battle-winner tank forces have fared if the battle-losers had invested their resources more smartly?




  1. I was saying the exact thing in a lot of military forums too. Tanks haven't even found a suitable answer to the ATGMs. Infantry is used to screen them. Extremely ironic when you think about it. You are using light units to protect 70 ton ceramic/uranium/steel beasts from light units. And that 70 ton beast can not even engage that ATGM team because its weapons' range are too short for that. Am I the only one seeing the contradiction here?
    Tanks were revolutionary because they were untouchable against anything but artillery and airpower. In a short notice anti-tank systems emerged but tanks were able to outrange and outrun them. This kept them relevant. Then ATGMs came and started outranging the best tank guns and anti-tank guns. This eliminated the need for heavy armor and guns in tank-destroyer teams. Now, anti-tank teams were more mobile than tanks, could disable tanks easily and were immune against tanks thanks to the ranges of their weapons. The result is 70 ton beasts that are vulnerable against a 50 kilo human despite their extremely sophisticated armors that are marvels of materials science.
    At this stage they were already of limited utility. Now those 50-90 kilo humans will become 25-200 kilo aircraft. Specialized units will be needed to protect them since assault rifles won't be enough to engage flying things. At least infantry has the advantage of numbers. Tanks do not even have them thanks to their price.

  2. Would a lighter and cheaper version of a tank retain utility in such an environment? For example a remote controlled device operated by someone walking nearby and outside of it?

  3. This is a very good article imo, and i can completly agree, that the main battle tank in the todays configuration and its evolutionary spirale of heavier armour, bigger gun and bigger motor is an dead end. That does not mean imo that the tank will become obsolete, one must only stopp thinking in the todays way of more armour, greater caliber, more horsepower.

    The main problem for tanks in a drone threat enviroment is, that the main armarment cannot be used against the drones. So the cannon is useless and every tank needs as mentioned in the text additional weapon stations.

    But if you replace the main cannon with an weapon system (middle caliber machine canon) which can be used against drones this does not only make the weapon station unnecessary, it would also enable the tank to fight against many other threads much more better, especially against enemy infantry and targets high above the tank.

    Moreover such an weapon system is much lighter than the todays canons and therefore the turret can become much lighter and smaller too. The smaller size which then can be achieved also solves the problem of the weight. The smaller the vehicle becomes, the lighter it will become with the same level of protection or even with an greater level of passive armour.

    But what about other tanks then? Despite the fact that MBT are not the best weapon system against other MBT, with such an middle caliber machine cannon you easily achieve an mission kill or cou can even penetrate the armour on the side or on the back (depending on caliber). And you can finish the enemy tank then with missiles (ATGM) which can be positioned easily on the tank. This would also enable to change this missiles periodically against other newer better missiles. The high cadence of the middle caliber would also solve the problem how to overcome hardkill systems. You simple destroy them with one salvo and immediatly after that the ATGM kills the tank.

    Such tanks would look more like an BMPT-T, which is imo the concept for MBT in the future. They would be much more versatile in any scenario in comparsion to todays conventional MBT and could also be at the same time their own air defence.

    Like BK i wrote about this concept of mine since many years now in different forums and everythere most users claim, that only the todays MBT concept is the only truth and nothing else can replace it. And that for decades this MBT concept of today will rule every battlefield.

    1. I think like you too. Tanks should replace their 120-130 mm main gun with a weapon system that can:
      - Engage infantry and their armored vehicles
      - Engage drones especially kamikaze ones
      - Engage high-rise buildings in an urban setting.
      - Enables a good magazine depth that is needed for infantry support and anti-drone work.

      When you think about it the second requirement is what defines the minimum for such a system. You need a mid-caliber fast shooting auto cannon or a smallish missile. The fourth requirement means it will be the former one. So we need to have vehicle with a 45-60 mm autocannon.

      Armorwise, it is foolhardy to try armoring the vehicle against ATGMs or air dropped munitions. It still needs armor against artillery fragments and heavy machine guns though. It may have a modular armor against IEDs and IFVs too. I am not sure it is worth to armor this vehicle against 35 mm shaped charges dropped by cluster munitions. It may enable less disoersion but is of limited utility. Reactive armor can handle that easily though.

      Sensors should be advanced. Rising mast radar and high-def thermal would be a must. Signature reduction and soft kill methods would increase the survivability drastically. There can also be a double purpose grenade launcher that may act as the active defense and normal grenade launcher.
      If there is still enough space and budget, ATGMs or SHORAD missiles can be added to the turret.

      I think such a vehicle should be capable of almost every challenge.
      - It will be able to engage and outrange infantry everywhere, including in urban settings.
      - It will outrange tanks with its ATGMs and enemy infantry wont't be able to stop it with machine guns or IFVs.
      - It will be able to engage and prevail against anti-armor teams without protection from infantry thanks to its ATGMs and anti-munition capable autocannon. Something tanks can not dream of without gun-launched missiles.
      - It will have a limited capability to operate under unfriendly skies. Its anti-munition capability will drastically reduce the effectiveness of aircraft against it by forcing them to conduct saturation attacks.

    2. https://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2010/04/medium-calibre-allround-option.html

      Use HE and APFSDS (not necessarily the old school full calibre munition I mentioned there), add 4...8 bulletproofed rocket launcher tubes for CKEM and alternatively a spin-stabilised HESH rocket that's fine for shots at vehicles out to minimum effective range of CKEM against MBT front.
      Add a .338 machinegun in RCWS.

      The problem is that this concept will very likely still be little more than a target for drone swarms by 2035. A 130 mm cannon MBT seems primitive and specialised by comparison, though.

    3. Massed small drone problem definitely needs specialized units and maybe even new technologies. Though this vehicle would do fairly good against Harop style larger Kamikazes or MALE launched glide munitions like the MAM-L/MAM-C. These threats usually appear in low numbers. It would do a nice job against Spike NLOS style missiles or loitering missiles like the Delilah. The LSSC (Low, Slow, Small, Cheap) threat is a whole another beast. I think it is unfeasible to counter them with missiles because they are very cheap. Larger caliber AAA with AHEAD ammo and EW seem like the best solutions until lasers, high-power microwave and non-nuclear EMP become widespread.

    4. S.O.

      >>>The problem is that this concept will very likely still be little more than a target for drone swarms by 2035.>>>

      I think that one should also not overestimate such drone swarms. With a tank concept like mine you could shoot down realy many drones in very short time, so the drone swarm have to be very big. That means you need many vehicles, soldiers etc to bring such an drone swarm into the area. It needs then time to build it up and get it started. This forming up area will have an signature, can fall prey to artillery etc.

      By the way, i think one could compare such an drone swarm with an artillery strike. With specialised anti-armour artillery munition a tank bataillon will be annhiliated exactly the same (or easier) like with an drone swarm. So counter artillery will be a theme here.

      But even the tanks alone can defend themselve if they have a fitting main weapon instead of the 120mm ++ cannons. Rheinmetall demonstrated recently a machine cannon for air defence which was able to shoot down around 10 drones within 1 sekond.

      Lets assume a tank bataillon of 50 such tanks with the concept i have described here. Lets further assume that every tank will shoot down only have the number of drones (under the assumption that future drones will be much better than the ones today). Then the tank bataillon would shoot down 500 drones in 1 sekond. So to overcome the firepower of the tanks for themselve you need a number of drones in the thousands to be sure. That means many many vehicles to carry them and to start them etc, it is like an mass artillery strike.

      And as you have mentioned anti-drone drones are becoming available now. This anti-drone drones can also be used for recon and for attack against infantry etc, so the tanks will then have an drone swarm for themselves. One example from turkey, but there are quite similiar systems developed in france today:


      To overcome tanks with the concept i described and with an drone swarm for themselve would need at least several thousands or even tenthousands of drones for every tank bataillon.

      And then the question will come up if such an giant drone swarm is superior to artillery fire or if it is inferior to artillery fire. I think the overestimation of drones (which are more an evolutionary thing than an revolution in warfare) can even be dangerous at it will inherent the danger that one began to underestimate other weapon systems (like artillery). So i think the drone hype is also an question of our current social culture.

      That does not mean that i would not recommend highly such drone swarms, to the opposite, we need them as fast as possible. But i think war is like paper rock scissor and to exploit assymetrcial advantages one have to put the right systems against each other. So the answer to drone swarms is not to skip the Tank as a concept but to develope new kind of tanks. Because you need them anyway in warfare, and a new kind of tank could even be the solution against drone swarms which otherwise would kill down the infantry and other light troops like any such artillery like attack.

      Todays MBT 120mm++ fanclub is imo like cavalry short before the first world war. For example i have writte about my tank concept many years ago in an german defence forum and was instantly banned from the forum. And after i asked why and protested the put every article of mine under admin preview and release, only because i have written that the mbt of today is dead.

      As long as active officers and soldiers stall any discussion and not allow any other thought it will not be possible to adapt to modern warfare. That does not mean that my tank concept is right or that my opinion is right. But today the discussion culture is realy bad and that is a problem for our security and for the developement of our military.

  4. The solution is more tanks in my opinion. Lighter and cheaper. Not running around with rifles and atgms in our backs. Infantry is extremely slow and weak. Only with tanks one can achive a good combination of mobility, firepower and protection necessary to disperse and mass accordingly wich is the most basic and effective military tactic.Dispersed infantry is extremely vulnerable to mass attack and bunched up is vulnerable to arty or just bypassed and ignored.
    In ww2, specially during the first years tanks were even more vulnerable then today, yet they were vital. There were AT rifles and AT guns everywhere.
    Tanks won't go away for the same reason airplanes won't. They do things that AT and AA can't, these last two are purely defensive tools.You can't win wars with stand off weapons, you have to do the close combat, only tanks and infantry can do this.
    Gold plated, heavy, complex and expensive tanks are the problem, and like the battleships of ww2,they promote casualty aversion, less risk taking and inaction.In ww2 the humble stug III helped the germans much more then tigers.Just like the m4 sherman and t34 did for the allies.Even if just for throwing HE shells at the enemy wich is 80% of the war effort anyway. Man portable guns or missiles can't compete with a tank main gun in this area too. Anyway, just my opinion.

  5. I don't consider lighter+cheap AFVs to be the solution for the tank mission.

    The issue remains that soon autonomous missiles/drones will attack with benefit of thermal vision, great reach, loitering and bird's view against tanks or tank successors that cost a manifold.

    Maybe some fire support tasks can be delegated to small infantry accompanying weapons carrier vehicles to give dismounted firepower more effect.

    I expect that mechanised forces can become integrated like air force strike packages, and similarly inefficient and expensive. This is a high risk approach with many potential points of failure, it would be limited to some terrains and it might take 15+ years to develop and introduce in quantity all the required components. It's a doubtful approach, and even the most lavishly-funded armies appear to fail at completing the strike package in this decade.

    Then again, no army ever faces state of the art and sciences opposing forces. It's disconcerting that the German army would have been hapless against some of the Azerbaijani military's drones, though. Bayraktar would have been shot down by Typhoons, but the Harpys might have made it through our EW defences.

    1. The discussion turned towards systems that can defend against munitions, for themselves and surrounding units. These systems either carry themselves some ammunition with other capabilities or protect units that have other capabilities. Armour would be replaced with a capability to shoot down incoming missiles and trade it for more limited protection against heavy guns.
      It would be akin to the development in warships which have more limited armour and systems to shoot down incoming missiles. Such a "warship on land" would be distributed over several vehicles that carry different capabilities. Some have the guns for intercepting ammunition and fighting infantry to lightly armoured targets and some carry missiles that give them a longer ranged heavy punch and a few might have a big gun like a tank or self-propelled artillery.

      What I don't get, is, why you don't think of this as a natural progression pioneered in naval warfare, that is now also coming to land warfare, similar to the original introduction of the tank as a warship on land?

    2. The problem is that the surface warship that defends itself against guided munitions was never proved to be fit for high intensity battle. The defences seem more well-suited against minor attacks and against what leaks through different defences (fighters).

      I wrote years ago about how technologies often arrive first on warships (bulk, weight and high cost acceptable) and aircraft (high cost acceptable), later tanks and finally infantry. I see those patterns. But not all innovations are good innovations, and the military realm is (gladly) very much lacking reality checks by actual high end warfare. It can be expected to have many bad innovations in use. That's tolerable with cheap items, not so much when things got really pricey.

    3. Makes sense that shooting down incoming missiles has only limited effectiveness and other layers of defence shoulder the bulk of the protective work. You mentioned drones that kill drones. Could such a system replace the defence layer by fighters?
      In addition, drones can also provide fake targets for other drones, which resembles the use of helicopters in the Falklands War to protect ships against anti-ship missiles. Such a defence via fake targets seems to be the main layer on ships and aircrafts that both already face almost exclusively guided munitions, which you assume to happen in land warfare. So most of a saturation attack would be misguided by these measures and only a small fraction remains for hardkill measures, which for a ship would still be more incoming missiles on target than against a group of vehicles. Theoretically, land vehicles could utilize a light weight energy inefficient high power technology to more quickly change location when being targeted, something akin to jumping, which in combination with softkill and observation of ballistic trajectories could increase survival rates.
      Would an investment into softkill, observation of ballistic trajectories and rapid location change increase the survival rate akin to the presence of armour?

    4. https://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2021/03/drone-art-of-war.html

      See, what's the point of the tank if drones of many kinds are doing the fighting?

      The story for frigates and destroyers at sea is that they escort a carrier or amphibious battlegroup. There's no such thing in the land warfare equivalent. Combined arms drone swarms would fight to defend & clear terrain, not to secure tanks. They will be able to do everything that tanks can do, and more.

    5. I don't disagree that the train of thought leads to drones fighting drones, but there remains within such a system some utility for direct fire with a tank's gun, albeit less so for a tank's armour.

    6. There's a use for being able to have a blast at or inside a building from a distance, or to penetrate some hard target with behind-wall effect. Tanks haven't had a monopoly on either, ever.

      Especially the thermobaric munitions have helped infantry to substitute for tank main gun HE.
      (Recoilless rifles, bazookas, Panzerfaust, RPG have typically rather weak HE warheads. 75 mm was considered minimum for good HE in WW2, and that was a 6.4 kg warhead - twice what Carl Gustav projects, and even a M40A2 only projects about that at 105 mm calibre). The weight efficiency of thermobaric munitions (little or no oxidizer included) and the ability to crush walls (thus no penetration for explosion inside required) help a lot for dismounted use.

    7. Thank you for clarifying that. So the use of high energy direct fire can be replaced with other means for a number of uses.

    8. 1) machinegun; other machineguns can do the same job, even a 14.5 mm has little more utility than a .338 machinegun for dismounted use

      2) HE shots; essentially a couple kilos of explosive, fuse and preformed fragments. This can be brought into action by many different means, including drones and indirect fire missiles.
      HEP/HESH/MP is similar, mostly devoid of mass for fragmentation effect and relying more on blast. Most MBTs have no HEP/HESH because that munition doesn't work well with smoothbore guns.

      3) Armour-penetrating shot; numerous alternatives exist, even APFSDS can be closely mimicked by hypervelocity missiles (LOSAT, CKEM, equivalent 1990's projects in Germany by BGT).

      4) Sensoric abilities (especially thermal over long distances) can be mimicked by drones fairly easily.

      5) Obstacle-breaking abilities can be mimicked by HE.

      The rest of a tank is about bringing such capabilities into battle, communication and protection against most threats.

      The morale effect (tank terror) can very likely be mimicked by drones as well, if you design them accordingly. They might very well even be much better at scaring troops.

  6. The traditional maneuver role of the tank is pretty dead, as the tank is outranged and dominated by various other threats in field battle. The role that remains for the tank is assisting infantry assault in built up terrain. While RPG is a serious threat, modern armor does make reliable AT weapons unwieldy with significant minimum range that makes it hard to use while fighting off infantry at the same time. The abundance of cover and fast engagement cycle of the tank means they could use pinhole and shoot and scoot tactics to reduce exposure. The success of VBIED in urban fights have shown how hard it is to use AT weapon in a hurry. The structure of urban terrain means a lot of it is inaccessible to indirect and aerial fires, and fast responding, high power, accurate and low cost weapon are all very good useful qualities in a urban fight where on may have to reduce a lot of structures. Of course the MBT is not optimal for this, with gun optimized for armor penetration, insufficient gun elevation, and so on, but it is generally close enough. Until robotic infantry replacement gets developed this role will probably remain, and tanks are not so expensive as to be unaffordable to be maintained for niche roles as long as one doesn't gold plate it for ineffective roles.

    As for the autocannon wielding vehicle with some AA capability, they would likely stay behind to guard the logistics, drone launchers and rocket artillery until the long range fires fight, at edge of effective range of the kill-chain, until one side wins. The AA capability is useful for dealing with leakers and other weak enemy forces, as drones is unlikely to run perfect CAP interception in a well matched fight, until the clean up phase, where this vehicle can advance help dig out scattered and hiding opponent forces.