2023/09/30

Ukraine and the tank survivability argument

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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.

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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.


S O

defence_and_freedom@gmx.de

*: 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.
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19 comments:

  1. For me, there are 2 key arguments against tanks which have not been addressed above:
    1. Surprise is dead. Near realtime satellite reconnaissance and dense drone coverage over the battlefield means you cannot assemble a critical mass of tanks (or any vehicles) for an effective breakthrough without being seen.
    2. Upon seeing a massing of the enemy, an army can rapidly direct fires to it: long range precision artillery, drones dropping bombs, long-range brimstone-class missiles, ATGM teams on quadbikes - even good old helicopters and aviation.

    Fundamentally armies have to fight dispersed or be destroyed. Penny packets of tanks do not facilitate manoeuvre warfare.

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    1. Surprise can be had by a combination of quickness and stealth (in case of ambushes quickness = setting up early enough).

      You can still attack with theatre-level surprise even if you don't have tactical surprise. The defenders of the line may see them coming, but their reserves may arrive too late because you moved your offensive forces too quick for them to react in time.

      Drones and helicopters can be defeated at the main effort. ATGM teams would be too outnumbered. long range precision arty offers only small volume of fires, not enough to deal with rapidly-moving spearheads.
      And Brimstone is kind of a meme. Compare the expectations by the British Brimstone fanbois with the near absence of verified tank killings. Moreover, its millimetre wavelength radar can be jammed.

      As I mentioned, the Russians and Ukrainians don't have what it takes to exploit the potential of tanks.

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    2. Some addition problems for deep attack by tank forces:
      1. Rear line protection is difficult against long range fires. In historical battles, a narrow salient from armored thrust often can be expanded upon if initial attempt was unsuccessful at all objectives. In modern war interdicting fire can functionally cut supply. This was a problem in both kyiv and kherson, requiring far more forces and capabilities to maintain logistics.
      2. The relative mobility of defending forces have increased. Full motorization means full encirclement don't happen even with Coalition on Iraq tier overmatch. Reserves are also all motorized that can be thrown into the fray. The short OODA in artillery duels can also translate to greater part of communication and command structure.
      3. Mine warfare have developed faster than the reverse. New additions like scatterable mines from long range weapons, off route, top attack onto of traditional mines currently do not have solutions that maintain the tempo of the attack and is also survivable against enemy long range fires.
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      The main problem with tanks is not survivability as practical tanks were quite vulnerable, it is doctrinal/conceptual. Long range detection and improved fire controls, low cost guided munition means indirect fire is easier and more effective than ever and a vehicle in the form factor of a tank can do this just fine.

      The problem with "Tanks" is obsession with Sabot penetration and front kinetic protection. The other conceptual error is thinking sabot-warfare capability as the same as maneuver warfare capability.

      Mobility factors like fuel efficiency, speed, terrain adaptability combined with sufficient combat power is what enable maneuver. A row of MBT stuck on roads out of fuel despite strategic surprise at kyiv showed how poorly designed they are for the role. The idea of throwing a thousand horse power onto a heavy tank does not make the formation mobile at all. The memetic drift from decades of MBTs may make future "tanks" unable to conduct maneuver warfare because vehicles that actually suits maneuver warfare do not get categorizes as a tank. (for example, vehicle families of 40ton category with "assault gun"/aa/ifv/variants)

      Modern discourse about "tanks" is about arguing bayonet length right after breechloading smokeless guns is on the field: How do you mount 1 meter next gen bayonet to conduct shock attack while surviving enemy fire. (because obviously shock wins war, fires is waste of time as shown in wars 60 years ago~)

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    3. The BEF was fully motorized in 1940 and still failed to react to the decisive push.

      Interdiction by fires never worked well at long distances and I doubt it does now. There are defences to that.

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    4. Successful response to maneuver require not only vehicle mobility but fast OODA loop. Communication have improved massively since 1940 and tempo of modern artillery and air warfare demands extremely fast OODA. This does not prevent slow response time or incorrect force allocation at the operational level, but that are mainly mistakes of the defense which may or may not happen, rather than structure problems where some forces simply can not deal with due to economics.

      Interdiction by fires have improved over the years. Compare force ratios and Ukrainian interdiction of Kherson with USAF's problems with Thanh H├│a. Consider the mess that artillery scatterable mines did at Vuhledar against the follow on echelons.

      Sure with sufficient effort, improved interdiction threats can be dealt with but this raises the required force ratio. Alternatively, forces can adapt to minimize losses from interdiction, and part of the adaptation we've seen is even lower force density that makes breakthrough less feasible.

      At some point it simply isn't economical enough to use maneuver compared to attrition. With robotics replacing human lives, attrition is not all that expensive for the attacker and works with minimum risk. Maneuver would increasingly be chosen for political reasons when force ratios are extremely lopsided.

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    5. "Successful response to maneuver require not only vehicle mobility but fast OODA loop. Communication have improved massively since 1940 and tempo of modern artillery and air warfare demands extremely fast OODA."

      Sorry, modern wars like Gulf war are slower than the operations in 1940 and 1941. The "better" technology is obviously not able to compensate for leadership deficiencies.

      And better information also gives an attacker advantages. This at the tactical and operational level.

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    6. I don't subscribe to the OODA loop theory.
      There's hardly anything in military history to back it up.

      You can be too quick for the enemy to react well in land warfare, but that's hardly taking the shape of the OODA loop. The usual result in regiment vs. regiment combat is no loops. It's more like once too sluggish and you're defeated, run and try to reconstitute in a rear area. No repeated loops. This means "surprise" enabled by quickness and stealth/operational security is good enough to explain what's going on.

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  2. Could you define tank the way you defined maneuver? I think tanks are in the heavy cavalry role, while helicopters are light cavalry in Western warfare. Russian practice seems to differ. My point is that if we have a definition of modern heavy cavalry/tanks it's more obvious what's about to change and what stays the same.

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    1. Western tank crews do whatever is demanded of them. The design compromise of mobility/protection/firepower allows for many different jobs in many terrains, even including scouting.

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    2. Sorry, I don't understand in how far this is a definition. You mean tanks are multipurpose, okay, so was Medieval heavy cavalry. If you defined it as a system that differs in its combination of mobility, protection, and firepower from other systems, which creates unique capabilities, we would have a definition. But the Russian use of resilient helicopters with great firepower would be an alternative to approach the problem, flying tanks.

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    3. A tank is a tracked armoured vehicle with a main gun incapable of rapid fire mounted in a rotatable turret.

      Modern tanks can do so many things that you can use them in many ways. There are no more dedicated cruiser tank and infantry tank designs. A few relatively light tanks are not well-armed enough for great confidence in combat against other tanks, but they can still do all other line of sight missions well enough.

      And Russian helicopters are not and were never an AFV alternative. Russian attack helicopters are merely fast-moving Katyushas, their ATGM armament is hardly ever used (or even convincingly successful) in battle.

      The survivability of helicopters close to hostile modern conventional forces is utter crap. Fighters turkey shoot them and by now we have a wide range of non-line of sight munitions to can kill them at any altitude with ground-based means.

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    4. There have been numerous reports of Russian Ka-52s attacking Ukrainian armor at long range with ATGMs.

      https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/ukraines-armor-appears-to-have-a-russian-attack-helicopter-problem

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    5. Tanks operate in teams and not all of the vehicles have a big gun incapable of rapid fire. I think you can do better with a definition of all kinds of tanks as heavy cavalry.

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    6. You wanted a definition of a tank, I gave you a correct one. You may mistake AFVs that have a rapid fire gun as their main weapon as a "tank", but that's on you.

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    7. Smitty; Ka-52 occasionally shoot ATGMs at long distance (example the famous Leo2 encounter), but my remark stands given how many such helicopters have operated on the front for so long. They hardly ever use their ATGMs.

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    8. Ka-52 ATGM use appears to have ticked up considerably during the counter-offensive.

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  3. Hi Sven! Are heavy tanks still possible? Imagine a scaled up and modernized Object 279. Something in the 130-150 tonne range, just not to exceed payload cap of Ruslan and Galaxy planes. And a CIWS, like a scaled down Goalkeeper with XM214.

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    1. That was never practical. There are no bridges, no bridging for this. MBTs are already at maximum width for rail transport.

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    2. No bridges needed. Just go fording. But you're right about rail. Tunnels have a standard width. Maybe load the tank on its side? ­čśü

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