Ukraine and the tank survivability argument


Tank forces don't quite shine in the Russo-Ukrainian War, and losses are (slowly) piling up. The Russians and to a seemingly lesser degree also the Ukrainians appear to use (mostly old) tanks for indirect fire support as an alternative to more exposing tactics.

Some people chime in from more or less far away from the battlefield; they suggest (or are strongly convinced) that the tank is in a survivability crisis. Maybe its days are soon over altogether.

That argument can be made with a look at technology, but the Russo-Ukrainian War doesn't provide decisive evidence that tanks are obsolete.

Evidently, neither Russians nor Ukrainians are competent at employing tanks the way they give best results (akin to 1940 & 1941). They also lack what it takes to employ tanks in the way they crushed hostile forces in brief and brutal battles (1967, 1973, 1991).

The Russo-Ukrainian War shows the demise of the tank no more than did the quite similar Iraqi-Iranian War of 1980-1988.*

Yes, remotely-piloted vehicles (flying drones) with cheap RPG warheads hit and destroy moving tanks, but those drones could be defeated easily by jamming. Have a look at the range and proliferation of counter-IED cell phone jammers that were deployed in response to roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those roadside bombs did not make road-bound motor vehicles obsolete, did they?

Tanks were always very vulnerable. They were no more than bulletproofed until 1937. The U.S. introduced and successfully used a light tank (M24) during the Second World War in Europe that was easily pierced and destroyed by all anti-tank guns ever built on some of its surfaces even by anti-tank rifles. Light anti-air guns (especially 37 mm calibre) were a terrible threat to it as well. A 16 year old boy could carry an anti-tank "Panzerfaust" that would defeat a M24 light tank at 60 m distance.

Tanks formations don't need near-invulnerable tanks to be successful, but they do need certain tactics of employment, and we don't see much of that in Ukraine.

  1. Blitzkrieg-style rapid advances possibly over hundreds of kilometres for encirclement, inciting chaos, overrunning forces unable to resist tanks or to seize key objectives such as an important bridge: The Russians tried this early in 2022 and failed where they faced much resistance. The terrain Northwest of Kyiv did not allow to move much off paved roads and in Northeast of Kyiv the Russians largely stuck to the main roads as well. A tank gives protected mobility with great firepower. The Russians failed in these deep penetration attacks because they did not use mobility to good effect.
  2. Liddel-Hart's indirect approach of cruiser tanks that seek to attack non-infantry and non-tank forces after breaking through a frontline: Didn't happen.
  3. Breakthrough efforts or battles with massed and overpowering forces in Israeli, American or 1943-1945 Soviet style: Didn't happen.
  4. Infantry fire support for very many infantry platoons attacking along the front: Didn't happen most of the time; such attacks have been limited to relatively small sectors.

The large and persisting area gains by the Russian armed forces in the South of Ukraine during Spring 2022 happened mostly because Ukraine had very, very few troops defending in the South. The advance stalled once the Ukrainian reserves arrived and the Russians had to withdraw to the Kherson bridgehead for months until they had to give that up, too.

- - - - -

Again; a case can be made that (autonomous!) drones render mechanised forces obsolete in a couple years, but the 'moderately competent' forces fighting in Ukraine don't prove it. We saw that kind of blundering before (Soviet Union 1941, Iraq-Iran War). Tanks do only produce great results with very competent forces.

A case can also be made that manned combat aviation is obsolete (for several reasons), but the very largely unsuccessful employment of airpower over Ukraine does not prove this, either.



*: Misnomered in English into "Iran-Iraq War" to hide the fact that the subject of American hate, Iran, was the victim of aggression rather than the aggressor.


Road march speeds in WW2


I remembered some data from road march speeds during WW2 (and the 50's) and found something curious. First, let me tell you  about the data:

The historical daytime road march speeds* varied from event to event, but the rules of thumb were


4 kph ~ 30 km/day

marching on foot, horse-drawn carts and artillery (not taking into account resting times)


60 km/day

European-style horse cavalry (10 kph for slow canter and up to 20 kph for fast canter for a brief forced march)


18...20 kph

bicyclist troops


20+ kph / minimum 200 km/day (rarely done 150+ km)

This applies to both tracked and half-track motor vehicles. Crew and passengers were exhausted by vibrations and noise. Both troops and vehicles needed many maintenance stops.

This speed probably also applied to motor-towed artillery, as artillery ordnance had poor suspensions and was thus often speed-limited, such as up to 30 kph except in emergencies. Even today most towed artillery is limited to 60 kph.


40+ kph / minimum 300 km/day

wheeled motor vehicles (likely 50...60 kph on good paved roads)

Wheeled motor vehicles had a substantial road march speed advantage (likely more pronounced compared to tracked vehicles than just 3:2*). Yet there was no substantial use of all-wheeled motorized formations as quick reaction reserves. They weren't even undisputedly dominant among armoured reconnaissance in Europe.

The disadvantage of a-wheeled armoured fighting vehicles goes beyond just inferior soft soil mobility compared to tracked and most half-tracked vehicles. The first tanks became shell-proofed instead of just bulletproofed by 1937, a move that wheeled armoured vehicles never matched. They have a too large armoured area compared to the more compact same-weight tracked designs (same problem as with half-tracks unless you reduce the wheeled front to an unprotected skeletonised structure). Armouring wheeled vehicles up to 60+ mm steel would make their ground pressure unacceptable on soft soil (true to this day, despite much better tires and CTIS).

So the wheeled armoured vehicles were not able to prevail in the gargantuan military experiment of the Second World War, despite attempts and already-understood hard soil/road mobility advantages. Even the ability of 4x4 motor vehicles to tow anti-tank guns and the ability to move even divisional field artillery portée (carried for march, set up like towed guns for firing) or as self-propelled guns on wheeled motor vehicles did not lead to such quick formations.

This begs the question why exactly they became such a fashion in 1999...2003 and later (post-2003 rather 4x4 and 6x6 MRAPs than 8x8 APCs). The Kosovo and Pristina deployment embarrassments and armies panicking about "relevance" cannot be the full explanation. Buying all those vehicles was really expensive, so I doubt the advantage in operating costs over tracked vehicles was a strong real argument, either.

The introduction of central tyre inflation systems, wider tyres and improved self-locking differentials did reduce the disadvantage of wheeled vehicles on soft soils, but their rise in weight more than countered this.)




*: I mostly remembered these, but checked Middeldorf/Handbuch der Taktik just to be safe. The minimum 200 km and minimum 300 km figures stem from it, I think both downplay the wheeled motor vehicle mobility of the time. A ratio of 200:450 seems much more plausible during that period. The cruise speed was double and the need for maintenance breaks was lesser with wheeled vehicles. Both tracked vehicles at 200 km an wheeled vehicles at 400+ km would have required one refuelling break, but refuelling was possible by decentralised use of jerry cans and fuel drums.



SEAD, Russian style


I don't know much about how the Soviets intended to attack Western air defence radars. I know they had a couple radar jamming helicopters that were highly effective against IHAWK and they had a MiG-25 version that would fly at very high altitude at very high speed and launch some big anti-radar missile before running away.

The French had a less spectacular approach. They used their own anti-radar missiles for use by ordinary Mirages and Jaguars and had Elint suite to support their employment. They had no dedicated anti-air defences aircraft.

The Americans developed their sophisticated and expensive SEAD/DEAD (suppression enemy air defences / destruction ...) over North Vietnam. It included dedicated wings with specialised antenna-laden two-seat aircraft and two different anti-radar missiles (one of which was terribly expensive and the other had a variety of seekers against different radars). Standoff Elint and jammer aircraft supported all this. The dedicated anti-radar aircraft would find and engage radars, but the actual destruction would often be left to accompanying fighter-bombers that went close in and bombed the air defences similar to how American fighters of WW2 strafed and bombed Japanese air defences to reduce the threat tot he following bombers. This American approach was developed further and they now have a versatile anti-radar missile, satellites help with finding radars and they mess with the radio communications of an integrated air defence. The American approach excelled over Iraq in 1991, but it failed to destroy most of the old Yugoslavian air defences in 1999.

The Israelis used quantity low level strikes to roll up the Egyptian air defences in 1973 and later introduced ground-launched anti-radar drones and ground-launched anti-radar missiles to their DEAD mix.

All this is public knowledge. So what do the Russians do over Ukraine?

  • They sometimes targeted air defence high value targets with a precisions trike by ballistic PGM  Iskander.
  • They provoke air defences with cruise missiles and drones. 
  • They sometimes use remotely piloted vehicles (Lancet drones) to attack air defence high value targets close to the front
  • Some of their fighter patrols and strike fighters carry a (rather big) anti-radar missile, ready to shoot at targets of opportunity and presumably hoping that this capability also protects the aircraft itself.
  • They fail to overcome Ukraine's Soviet-era air defence systems even though they know them to 100% detail and had 30+ years time to train against them.
  • No published information (AFAIK) about effective airborne jamming of Ukrainian air defence radars
  • No published information (AFAIK) about effective airborne jamming of Ukrainian air defence communications
  • No published information (AFAIK) about effective use of satellites (presumably because the Ukrainians change positions briefly after certain Russian reconnaissance satellites passed them)

Even the German air force might be more effective than that in DEAD (using its few Tornado ECR, a couple radar satellites, commercial photo/IR satellites, GUMLRS PGMs, Taurus and a small stock of old HARM missiles)!

I could draw up a fantasy force with an extremely resilient yet still affordable air defence. It would be necessary to deny the Americans effective use of bomb runs, even against their strike package tactics. Yet it's entirely unnecessary against the Russian armed forces, which are so crappy that they fall well short of meeting expectations based on a 1991 air campaign that lasted a few weeks. They had one and a half years. 

We need not look further than the 40 years old Buk-M1 system if we want to see what an effective counter to Russian combat aviation looks like. You'd at most need some gun-based system to keep them from being effective at terrain-following flight (less than 200 ft altitude).

Meanwhile, the Western military-industrial complexes focus on gold-plated cutting edge air defences. This makes sense to some degree (you need lock on after launch missiles to engage targets at very low altitudes and modern datalinks and processors sure make sense), but it's also very expensive. I'm guilty of this as well, but in my defence; at least I saw the need for some cheap missiles to defeat munitions (cruise missiles, smart glide bombs) in the mix.








The direct/indirect fires armour battalion - tactics


I realised that I didn't describe the tactics for the armour battalion for the exploitation brigade properly.

That battalion has four companies of tanks that are very good at shooting with high explosive rounds in indirect fire (up to 42° maximum elevation, with sufficient accuracy out to 15 km).

The idea is this:

The companies tend to manoeuvre as such (platoons maybe spread over 3x2 km). A pair of companies is close at all times, so there are two pairs manoeuvring around.

Now one company gets into contact with dangerous hostiles. The nearby other company of the pair moves into flanking position. They might also act as a leapfrogging couple in a delaying mission or during advance.

The other pair can do the very same, and whenever a pair is ion contact the other pair (about 4x3=12 tanks per company) would be available and be at a good distance for giving indirect fire support with good effect (this would be difficult at short distances in many terrain forms).

This is part of the reason why it makes sense to have four tank companies in that battalion, not three. With three you'd have either two companies giving such indirect fire support or one indirect and one direct fires (line of sight) support. That's A LOT less and would not suffice, as the brigade was designed to not require a separate artillery battalion (there are a few mortars in the concept, though).





Exotic ancient weapons: (X) The sasumata


I did consider to continue the series with the sasumata or the (not terribly exotic or ancient) boar sword, but did put this off for a long time because the sasumata seemed too impractical, too weird to me. I saw a lot of weird weapons from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines, but the sasumata seemed too weird.

Yet I saw it's actually still in use. That blew my mind. It's one of those things that are truly alien in some other part of the world.






It's even worse; this to me totally alien concept of a weapon/police tool was actually also a thing in Europe: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_catcher

It would (in a non-thorny version) probably be useful in the UK, where many suspects are armed with a knife.