Some general tank lessons from the Ukraine War


I've seen too little info on Ukrainian tanks in action (or after action), but the Russian side sure doesn't seem to do well. In short, the technical condition of the tanks and the morale of their crews is bad, but most importantly, the Russians use de facto 1980's tanks (with some 90's thermal sensor + laser rangefinder tech on some MBTs, especially T-90s) against dominantly 1990's and early 2000's anti-tank munitions that were developed to defeat Soviet/Russian late 1980's main battle tanks.

The Soviet Union never took more than 15 years till its best tanks (then with tank units in Eastern Germany) were able to defeat the latest Western anti-tank munitions. The Russian Federation doesn't even defeat early 1990's threats that the Soviets learned about in the late 1980's. Even Javelin and NLAW could be defeated with an adaptation of early 1980's Drozd hard kill active protection system, but the Russians don't seem to use such a thing. Nor do they seem to use multispectral smoke much. I see no indication for missile approach warners (IR and UV sensors, a tech from 1990's aviation that could have trickled down to tanks / examples here and here) in use, either.

Could the Russians have upgraded their tank forces (at least MBTs) to a higher level and could they have coped with state of the art anti-tank munitions? Absolutely yes, albeit it would have been quite expensive.

Could the Russians have conducted the rapid and deep armoured spearhead thrusts for encirclements as they obviously intended? This is surprisingly unlikely.

There was little historical precedent for this extremely low ratio of land forces to area with defending nation having good morale. The current outcome appears to be that the Russians cannot protect the main roads and all kinds of non-.MBT vehicles behind the MBT+IFV spearhead get shot up by bypassed infantry. It would require time and many troops (with night vision) to sweep and secure certain roads over hundreds of km. Even a defending force with nothing but civilian 4wd car types + cheap AKM rifles + cheap RPG-18/-22/-26 light anti-tank weapons + Molotov cocktails can spell terrible trouble to invaders in such a situation. The invader is clearly at a severe disadvantage here. I'll certainly soon write some more about 10+ years old concept of mine that appear to be confirmed by the Ukraine conflict.

Another issue for the Russian encirclements is that such rapid, possibly even agile, movement of armoured forces is very demanding on force design (combined arms equipment), radio communications, logistics, training and endurance (troops start to fall asleep after four days unless there's good sleep discipline, even with "go" drugs).

The "training" requirement is the most troublesome, even for an army without endemic corruption that actually uses the training budget for training. Tracked armoured vehicles in particular make training much very expensive, likely unaffordable to the Russian army. It would be unaffordable for the Russian army (and probably any army) to keep a large share of the land forces equipped and trained for Blitzkrieg-style land warfare. Attempts to conduct such risky operations without meeting a long list of requirements leads to disaster, the Iranians already showed this early in the Gulf War.

Assault gun tactics to the rescue?

T-62 during 2nd Chechen War

The classic fallback should be to use combined arms at a lower, less demanding level; a tank platoon cooperating with a small infantry force (one to three platoons) on the attack. The Americans did this in 1944/45, Germany did this in 1942-1945 whenever it lacked the ability to conduct advanced operations, variations of the approach popped up post-WW2 repeatedly, including the fighting in the 2nd Chechen War (where a tank company was often rotating tanks between a resupply & resting area and a few overwatch firing positions).

The Russian army can fall back to this less demanding style, maybe some of the better tank crews can even be quite nimble and elusive at it; get target indicated by infantry, appear, shoot, disappear, move to other concealed position so the next appearance would be at a different place.

I wrote about assault gun tactics before, and pointed out that poor quality tanks are still suitable for such tactics. The Russians are lucky, as they have good high explosive rounds for their 125 mm tank guns. Assault gun tactics (particularly the nimble one just mentioned) can mitigate much of the anti-tank firepower of the Ukrainian land forces, both in open terrain and where there are concealment and cover. Assault guns only need to expose themselves briefly (if lines of sight are short) or can stay at a relatively safe distance (1+ km, enough to neutralise man-portable AT hardware such as NLAW). Brief exposure may be enough to survive even Javelin shots, and it surely helps much against the awfully slow-flying anti-tank missiles of Ukrainian production.

Concealment-negating loitering munitions (killer drones basically) would be the most appropriate technological counter.

The many Rosgvardia paramilitary troops who are ill-suited for combined arms conventional battle might sooner or later get certain main supply routes under control, while the army could create convoy escort units with its otherwise largely useless wheeled armoured vehicles, so convoys could be secured on other routes as well.

- - - - -

The fallback option of using assault gun tactics should be noted by Western land forces as well, for our budgets are also excessively strained by training tracked armoured forces in the field to the level of competence required for Blitzkrieg-style operations. We clearly fail at maintaining the highly advisable combined arms mix; the Russian army has by far the best range of battlefield air defences in use, whereas the German Bundeswehr has almost negligible battlefield air defences, for example*.

An affordable land force design for Poland or Romania could include

  • few regular army brigades with 3:1 infantry/tank platoon mix, ShoRAD/VShoRAD air defences, 8x8 self-propelled 155 mm guns, no IFVs, no fashionable 8x8 AFVs
  • much more numerous active army+army reserves; infantry battalions for a limited repertoire of (sweep, security, defensive reconnaissance and anti-tank) missions
  • militia infantry battalions limited to the national territory, drawing trained NCOs and officers from the army reserves

This is a bit less optimistic and demanding than my prescription for reforming the Polish Land Forces  in 2016, but with similar themes.**

Such an approach could even serve as inspiration for well-funded land forces far from any NATO frontier, such as the British Army that's too small to maintain a satisfactory light/medium/heavy forces mix: Motorised (bulletproof wheeled vehicles) Battalion Battlegroups (built on an infantry battalion, 8...10 8x8 155 mm SPGs and CAMM+20 mm RCWS air defences mostly) could receive reinforcements by each one assault gun tactics-trained Challenger 2 tank company once those could be deployed and sustained.




https://news.usni.org/2021/02/10/early-experiments-are-proving-out-tank-free-marine-corps-concept (an attempt to make do without tanks, substituting for them with other expensive but more mobile means)



*: The German Heer basically has just 1980's tech 1990's production Stingers and normal calibre machineguns with very simple anti-air sights, now complemented by the 30 mm gun of the new Puma IFV, which helps against helicopters

**: Who would have become convinced if I had proposed to get rid of ambitious mechanised brigades altogether? Poland was economically on the rise then, and ambitious modernisation seemed to fit.


  1. The lack of protective systems, whether Drozd, Shtora or Arena is odd given that a number of years ago Russia was (according to the 2015 Karber report) using T-90 with a protective system (probably Arena) that was rendering Ukrainian AT-5 impotent. Yet, this time around, no protective system, although a bizarre and likely pointless birdcage over some turrets.

    Should this war grind to a stalemate and Russia switch to a defensive posture to secure its gains, I can see your assault gun concept being useful. But at this point, I don't see Russia having the logistics capabilities to push a new weapon system to the front and sustain it in offensive operations. Nor do I see them having the doctrinal flexibility to rapidly incorporate a new concept in their advance. But from static positions - they might be able to make that work.

    1. I've seen Shtora-equipped tanks on 2022 Ukraine War footage. Shtora works against old SACLOS ATGMs that had a simple flare to tell the launcher where the ATGM is. ATGMs after about 1993 had tail lights that switched on and off in a coded sequence. This was meant to counter Shtora, and very likely it did.

      In the end, a hard kill APS with 200°x360° coverage against incoming ammunitions up to 900 m/s (includes tank gun HEAT shells) is what may counter every approach in that speed range. Increase to 1700 m/s and everything incoming other than rapid fire would be affected. Then STANAG 4569 level 6 may be enough passive protection.

      The birdcage a.k.a. "cope armour" may mess with RPG-7/-16/18/-22/-26/-27 threats fired from higher positions (buildings in street fighting). ERA blocks on the roof may handle what modest calibre HEAT warheads pass from lower angles (ERA is better at certain angles).

      I doubt the Russians are stupid enough to think this would matter against Javelin.

  2. What do you think about the usefulness of the medium-range surface-to-air systems comparative to short or long range anti-air systems?

    1. I like the Sosna's concept, but you need some longer-ranged missiles to keep hostile air power from loitering over your heads or flying without risk over the battlefield at high altitude.

      My preference is for most air defences being rather affordable (V)ShoRAD, and every brigade should have some longer-ranged missiles. The longer-ranged ones would be rather deterring than very important for attrition. Likewise, some really long range missiles (think: SM-6) should be in the theatre to push hostile ESM and long range radar aircraft to distances where they would be of little use.

      In the end the optimum mix depends on budget and scenario. For NATO defence against Russians I suppose we mostly need some air defences of the quality of Sosna to buy some time until NATO air power intervenes in force.

      Taiwan has completely different needs.

    2. So you don't think that medium range AA is really necessary.

    3. Right now the countries work with domestic hardware or allied hardware mostly.
      France can make good use of SAMP/T and lacks an affordable air defence at battalion battlegroup level unless one thinks Mistral is fine (MICA VL is too expensive).
      The Brits can use CAMM and later add some CAMM-ER to CAMM-equipped batteries. Their battalion battlegroups definitely lack some aid defence, Starstreak is too specialised against large silhouette targets.

      Germany could buy NASAMS on the quick, equip it with IRIS-T and AMRAAM (afaik the C-7 version was affordable, D is too expensive, and Meteor is not really suitable for surface-to-air).

      Russia could make do with Buk M3 as corps asset, SOSNA-R protecting battalion tactical groups and S-400 protected by old Buk M1 for "strategic" targets.

      A frigate could do well with the old 8-shot NATO Sea Sparrow launcher and some AMRAAM AIM-120C7 in it + SeaRAM, but ESSM is in fashion and ESSM Blk 2 will become the fashion despite it's going to be really expensive.

  3. I would hold off from making *any* statements or analyses with the information available in the Western media environment at the moment.

    You'll ruin your reputation faster than you can say "Ukrainian-Polish fake" - 90% of the information in the West, including video and photo information regarding the conflict is false and/or manipulated - often brazenly so (e.g. photo-shopped Z's on 2014/15 pics, attributing Ukr losses as Russian, cases of use of videogame footage (drone *strikes* lol). Situation is particularly confusing because of Western complicity with Ukrainian regime and hence interest in spreading fakes and because both sides of the conflict speak the same language - thus making audio-backed fakes very easy. That's without taking into consideration the often complete lack of context assigned to the images - are the tractors in Ukraine towing away captured Russian vehicles or recovering them post-op for repair? Who controls the battlefield? So far the Western propaganda claims of Ukrainian logistic ambushes, lack of fuel and low morale on part of the Russians appear to be just as BS as the "Snake Island Martyrs" and "Ghost of Kiev" nonsense. Looks like Western wishful thinking for a number of reasons - among them the fanciful assessment of Ukrainian morale or the effectiveness of such tactics on an army used to fighting irregulars in much more hostile terrain - Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria.

    More and more details including videos are starting to be shared from Russian MoD. I would suggest waiting a month or two until this data can be sifted through, including the post-war statements on damaged and lost equipment. Personally, I'd be surprised if the Russians lost much more than 50 tanks destroyed in combat before the end of the operation (though quite a few more knocked out, then repaired - mostly by artillery, Soviet and domestic Ukr ATGMs). So about 1% of active inventory (assessed) and without factoring for rotation around 5% of those deployed.

    As regards armoured technology - looks like Soviet base armour and Russian ERA were assessed (and largely turn out to be) good enough. No reliable report of a single tank kill due to Javelin as of now.

    In sum, wait and see. Among dubious Ukrainian claims being spread by and in the West which should be remembered and fact-checked in the future are the deaths of 3 named Russian Generals and the identity of various "captured Russian PoWs" being paraded in front of cameras.

    1. I agree that Ukrainian reports must be scrutinized and analyzed. And I also agree that Western reports are never as straightforward as they appear. I also agree that there are lots of fake videos or photos around. But to expect reliable information from the Russian MoD is laughable. They are as reliable as Bush's reports of WMD's back in 2001. They will always refuse to acknowledge the real magnitude of anything, casualties and material losses. Unless we get more access to uncensored Russian files, we may never know, beyond independent survey of the battlefields after this is over...

    2. It is forbidden by law in Russia to hide military deaths - the fallen in war are *entitled* to a funeral with military honours. Last modified in 2017 so post 2014/15 during which about 100 soldiers died but not formally in Ukraine. Even back then their families still received the payout from insurance from having fallen in combat i.e. hiding losses fully was illegal/impossible.
      As regards the claims of the Russian MoD - they have so far been remarkable in publishing very restrained figures and statements, even admitting to having fucked up and sent some conscripts accidentally to Ukraine (rear services). on balance, they are far more credible than their Ukrainian counterparts which have published verified fake after verified fake. The statements of the purported "martyrs" of Snake Island about their own "deaths" are damning.

    3. Look, this here
      is the lower bound of the possible. Individual destroyed vehicles attributed to either side and confirmed by photos.
      The real losses are certainly much greater.
      The Russian army went beyond 50 MBT losses weeks ago.

      The Russian Federation is being ruled by a corrupt cabal. A law means jack shit to them.

    4. Citing these paid-for trolls at oryxspioenkop is not convincing. They produced a mountain of BS about Syria, Karabakh etc. Their job is to play games with OS information. As I said, photos in the era of digital manipulation are almost worthless - context is king. Moreover, because both Russia and Ukraine operate many similar or even the same military vehicles and both can speak Russian - fakes and misattributions abound. It is very hard to tell apart different upgrades and sub-models to the same Soviet base equipment, accounting for who operates what etc - thus games are played.

      I stick by 50 - destroyed - figure. Knocked out much, higher, sure, but T-72Bs are tough SOBs (very low wounds per armour penetration stats). Crew losses will be low.

      "The Russian Federation is being ruled by a corrupt cabal. A law means jack shit to them."

      Actually it's governed by a reasonably popular and not terribly corrupt government. The corrupt cabal elements with sympathy for the West are being softly purged or weakened at an impressive rate. As regards the rule of law, Putin's "rule" means the dictatorship of the law. Now, the Western corrupt cabal is about to presently experience some existential difficulties, yes, and for them the value of both domestic and international law both sank below that of toilet paper, check. Fascist Draghistan has such open contempt of the Italian constitution it can be openly compared to fascist Italy. The propaganda situation in Europe is absolutely crazy, but I think reality will start piercing that armour of self-pitying BS soon enough.

  4. Btw what is generally overlooked by all the Western cheerleaders of the "Ukrainian logistics raids" and "tank ambushes" is the impressively quick and brutal suppression of very large and capable Ukrainian air defence system with practically no losses on the Russian side and relatively small expenditure of ammunition. This should be quite terrifying. Knocking out non-export Soviet S-300s and mobile medium range SAMs is by no means an easy task - last time NATO tried in 1999 with a much larger force vs much less capable and older equipment it failed to suppress and destroy the Serb air defence network, despite spending much more time on it.

    1. WTF are you talking about? The Russian air force keeps losing aircraft to Ukrainian air defences and it's widely accepted that the Ukrainians are about as skilled as the Serbs at keeping their air defences alive. Only the stationary systems were taken out.

      ErGalimba, you're consuming too much Russian propaganda bullshit. Russians may pretend to have negligible losses, but the Ukrainians come up with imagery of wrecks that cannot be found on the internet before this war. Often times they can even identify the exact aircraft identity.

      The Russian pilots keep flying low out of fear of the longer-ranged air defences that are still active.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. I deleted his last (lengthy) comment after detecting that the first line was a brazen lie already. I didn't bother to read the rest.
      He's in Kremlin propaganda parroting mode, and that doesn't work here, period.

    4. That's your interpretation as well as your prerogative as your blog. Just don't forget about your reputation.

    5. "Just don't forget about your reputation. "

      That is a sad joke. More goods blogs die because they are flooded with BS like yours.

      To remove it actually improves the reputation even if guys like you do not understand this.

  5. "Btw what is generally overlooked by all the Western cheerleaders of the "Ukrainian logistics raids" and "tank ambushes" is the impressively quick and brutal suppression of very large and capable Ukrainian air defence system "

    And? The point is that without logistics ground forces cannot occupy territory. Air power does not change this basic fact.

    The convoy destruction approach is actually more impressive than air attacks by Russian forces which do not change the situation on ground.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Deleted for lying/delusional bullshit right in the first two lines

    2. Deleted another one. There's no reason to expect that a repeated lie would be treated any more lenient than the original lie.

      Kyiv is not encircled, period. There's practically no movement of the frontline in that area, the Russian forces aren't even close to complete an encirclement. As of now they don't appear to fight in the open fields west of the city , but rather outside the wide Northwestern green belt next to Kyiv.

      I don't appreciate Kremlin propaganda parroting.

      I understand that people who dare to look beyond the box and try to find paths outside of established paths are prone to fall for the dangers that lurk outside the established paths. As a rule of thumb, keep in mind that Kremlin talking points are as dubious as American military talking points, daesh talking points, PR Chinese talking points and Erdogan's monetary theories. Kremlin talking points have already repeatedly proved untrue, both in terms or territory captured and in terms of losses suffered.

  7. If you think of local units that are supposed to defend a certain region, the soldiers in such a unit could also sleep and eat at home. In addition, of course, they can spend a lot of time outside, bivouacking, etc., but a kind of regional militia (similar to the National Guard) could simply operate from home instead of being barracked.

    And yes, with good pay, an end to all the wasting of time and hanging around and a concentrated and dense education, you could get many young people to decide for such a service or even raise it again as a possible form of compulsory service .

    But what military value would these units have? The real practical benefit would be quite small in relation to the effort. We are not a "frontline state", but other, allied states will first be the target of enemy forces. In this context, such regional formations make just as little sense as an excess of light units.

    What we need is the provision of specific military capabilities in order to be able to optimally support our allies in the areas that they lack (for whatever reason, mostly due to cost or financial reasons).

    The young people would therefore be better off with civil defense and other such uses, even if conscription was introduced, instead of wasting them on mere light infantry.

    It makes no sense militarily to have such large numbers of troops. What are 170,000 conscripts supposed to do militarily in the context of the alliance, especially as light infantry? What we need are professional soldiers in a true professional army, providing essential key military capabilities.