Russia has lost almost 500 tanks in its invasion of Ukraine, according to independent battlefield researchers at the open source intelligence group Oryx. According to Ukraine, the number is closer to 700.
Both numbers are startling and it begs the question: are tanks obsolete? Felled by mud, terrible logistics, and Ukranians with anti-tank weapons, Russia’s tanks, which now appear on social media and news reports mostly as burnt out wreckage, would seem to indicate the answer is yes. It’s tempting to believe that nimble and determined Ukranians, armed with sophisticated Javelins, have changed everything we knew about tanks since WWI, but the truth is more complicated. The death of the tank as the pre-eminent mode of modern war has been predicted for almost a century. It never takes.
Russia attempted a Blitzkrieg-style invasion of Ukraine, deploying an incredible number of troops and armor in the hopes of securing the major cities quickly. As the battles played out and Russian casualties mounted, observers—both of the serious and armchair variety—began to blame tanks.
It’s an assertion that’s almost as old as tanks themselves. It’s bizarre given that Ukraine itself is asking for tanks from its allies. It’s also wrong, completely misunderstands modern war, and fails to recognize what is really screwing over Russian tanks in Ukraine: poor planning and logistics.
“Every now and then people like to suggest that tanks are obsolete. There’s some kind of new conflict, a few tanks get whacked and people start asking that question,” Nicholas Drummond, a former British Army officer, defense industry analyst, and U.K advisor to the German defense company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, told Motherboard.
It’s almost a cliche to say that tanks are obsolete. At the end of World War I, people wrote that mechanized armor would probably never be used again on a battlefield. Tank combat, of course, dominated World War II. In 1960, a British historian wrote, “Time after time during the past 40 years the highest defense authorities have announced that the tank is dead or dying. Each time it has risen from the grave to which they had consigned it—and they have been caught napping.”
For Drummond and others, the tank plays an important part in war. “Everybody says war in the future is going to be fought only with drones, aircraft, missiles, submarines, satellites, and so on,” he said. “But none of them can physically seize and hold ground.”
In order for Russia to achieve its territorial objectives in Ukraine, it has to pull Ukrainian soldiers out of their positions and control the ground Ukraine once occupied. “That ability to seize and hold ground is fundamentally vital,” Drummond said. “And you just can't do that with a lot of these other modern bits of technology that people like to rant about. What I'm saying was true, Waterloo, Gettysburg, during the First World War, in the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But it's true today. And we're seeing these guys on the ground, physically holding territory against Russian attack and inflicting damage.”
Armor is still one of the best ways to protect infantry as it moves into position to capture and hold ground. “Artillery is the queen of the battlefield and it’s such an omnipresent threat that the only way you can move is under armor,” Drummond said. “What role do tanks play? Well, tanks basically support infantry in the assault and they take out other tanks.”
Russia needed tanks if it was going to conquer Ukraine. According to Drummond, it screwed up its logistics and planning. “When they went into Ukraine, they completely misunderstood the Ukrainian attitude towards absorption by Russia,” he said. “They didn't get it. So there was this procession of tanks. And the Ukrainians were not having that. And they spotted them. So it was already a fundamentally bad strategy, bad tactics, poor leadership, appalling logistics, and very slow to change that approach when they realized it was going wrong.”
The Russian military lost more tanks in the first three weeks of the war than the British army has in total. “That just shows you the scale of incompetence, that has accompanied how they’ve conducted the campaign,” Drummond said.
Staff Sergeant Jameson Mead, an active duty U.S. Marine, agreed. Mead is a Master Gunner, a job that gives him intimate knowledge of various weapons systems including tanks and anti-tank weapons..Mead said his views are his own and do not represent the U.S. Marine Corps. “They overextended themselves,” Mead said of the Russians. “Things like tanks, APCs, or anything that’s vehicle centric, requires a large amount of logistics and support to go with it.”
The other half of the story of tanks in Ukraine is the Ukrainian military’s use of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) like the Javelin. According to Mead, training someone on a Javelin takes a few days and the weapon itself costs around $100,000. Training someone on a tank requires considerable more time, effort, and money.
“How do I train drivers that are proficient and have gunners that are proficient? What about vehicle commanders that understand the deployment?” Mead said. “More often than not we’re seeing that Russian doctrine hasn’t kept current with today. Armored formations are still close. It’s quite easy for us to use things like [electronic warfare] or [drones] to then spot these formations and get accurate indirect fire with loitering munitions to devastate these formations.”
Drummond also flagged the economic instability of losing so many tanks. “When you see a $10 million asset being wiped out by a $100,000 asset, it's very sobering,” he said. “And I think one of the issues is that tanks have gotten so big, so sophisticated, and so expensive that we can barely afford a critical mass of them”
“Tanks cannot go on and get bigger, heavier and more expensive,’ he said. “Because the other thing about them is warfare has become very, very rapid. And with UAVs, you've got eyes in the sky everywhere. That makes you very vulnerable if you can't move fast.”
Both Mead and Drummond said that tanks will have to get cheaper and more agile to adapt to a modern battlefield. “Tanks are still relevant, but you just can’t have the next generation of tanks that would have a price tag of $14 million each. That’s just not sustainable,” Drummond said. “Really, what you want is a vehicle that costs $1 or $2 million. You can have lots of those and it doesn’t matter if you lose one.”
Drummond and Mead both also noted that attacking and defending are two very different activities in war. “They’re defending population hubs,” Mead said. “They’re setting up complex ambushes close to where they are. They’re not pushing forward. So if you’re a defensive force and you have your logistics right there and you don’t need to move, then yes, everyone can carry an ATGM.”
It gets harder for everyone to use heavy anti-tank missiles when you’re the one on the offensive. The war has moved east towards the Donbas and things could change very rapidly. Ukraine is mobilizing its own tank brigades, including reserves, and fighting in the Donbas is expected to be bloody and long. There will probably be a lot of tanks fighting tanks. The suburbs, forests, and roadways of Kyiv and its surroundings weren’t made for tank combat. The vast open fields of the Donbas will be a different story.
“The tank will always have some sort of role in the modern battlespace. The tank offers a massive amount of direct firepower. A tank is a force multiplier,” Mead said. “The tank used to have godlike status on the battlefield…you can’t replace the role of having a 120MM cannon and a coax machine gun with a rocket that is self propelled, able to travel rapidly, and influence the battlespace around you.”
Countries from around the world are sending weapons and armor to Ukraine. Tanks included. Germany is offering 50 refurbished Leopard 2s and America is helping organize an effort to send in Soviet-era armor.
The era of the tank is far from over.