Recent conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and, more tellingly, the current war in Ukraine have brought a renewed focus on the role of the main battle tank (MBT) in modern, conventional military operations.
Unfortunately, the abiding images in the public view are of heavily armed and armoured, not to say highly expensive, armoured fighting vehicles being destroyed and neutralised wither by plucky individuals with hand-held anti-tank weapons or by cheap – relatively speaking – armed drones and the so-called “loitering” or “kamikaze” munitions. What has been widely portrayed in the popular media has led, once again, to predictions that “the age of the tank is over”.
I have heard this cry numerous times before over the past forty years and it has yet to come to pass. And it won’t come to pass this time either, not yet anyway, for reasons I shall now explain.
First, the history of the tank in warfare since its first introduction by the British in 1916 during the Great War has been one of a see-saw battle between its protection levels and the potency of weapons designed to defeat that protection. When first deployed on the Somme the tank was proof against German machine guns (although not against artillery rounds). The enemy quickly devised and deployed ant-tank rifles which fired a bigger, heavier round to penetrate the tanks’ armour.
This competition has continued ever since. Bigger guns versus thicker armour. Then spaced or composite armour designed to defeat attack by high explosive shaped-charge warheads designed to penetrate steel plate using molten, focused metal jets. Then explosive reactive armour, placed on the outside of conventional protection, which detonates to disrupt the incoming attack. And finally active armour, which senses the incoming round or missile and intercepts it before it even reaches the MBT.
So tank protection can now be considered in the categories of passive (armour plate or composite), reactive (exploding bolt on boxes), or active (interceptor missiles, disruptive munitions, or jamming), sometimes categorised into soft-kill and hard-kill systems. The key to defeating loitering munitions and kamikaze drones lies in the latter, usually referred to as active protection systems (APS). Best known of these is perhaps the Israeli Trophy system which has saved many a tank or armoured vehicle of theirs for a good few years now, and which I understand is being procured by the British Royal Armoured Corps for Challenger 3, of which more later.
It was, however, the Soviets/Russians who developed the first active protection system between 1977 and 1982, named Drozd. This system was designed as an addition to passive or reactive armour against anti-tank weapons using shaped-charge technology. The current Russian APS is called Arena, a hard-kill system like Drozd, designed to destroy and incoming missile’s warhead through the use of munitions before it reaches the vehicle being protected.
So it would appear that Russia has the technology to defeat many of the anti-tank weapons (Javelin, NLAW etc) which have been used so effectively in Ukraine against its MBTs and armoured fighting vehicles. Which begs the question why haven’t they done so? The Russians must have known that their vehicles would be attacked in this manner. It happened during the Battle of Grozny during the First Chechen War, where they lost over 200 vehicles to Chechen rebels armed with hand-held anti-tank weapons, so it’s not that they have no experience of this. Has the kit been fitted to their tanks and proven unreliable or have the Ukrainians managed to disable it in some way? I don’t know the answer here.
We also need to consider tactics. I think most people now accept that the likeliest Russian strategy adopted by them at the start of the war was to drive down the motorway to Kyiv meeting little if any resistance and replace the Ukrainian government with one of their own choosing. Hence the advanced recce groups in lightly armoured vehicles which were given a good shoeing by the courageous and competent resistance shown by the Ukrainian army and militia groups which confronted them. That must have come as a complete surprise.
The corollary of this aim was that the Russian follow-on forces, the second echelon if you like, were committed in peacetime like columns of vehicles expecting just to breeze in and intimidate and establish control over the locals. But they got stuck because the initial advances by light forces were repulsed, and they ended up stranded in long columns on roads which they were unable to leave because of the muddy conditions, in the north of the country at least.
They also outran their logistic support and, perhaps more importantly, their air defence cover. At the same time, the Russians had not been able to suppress the Ukrainian air defences nor had they been able to establish air superiority, a prerequisite of nearly every successful land operation since the Second World War. And so, stranded in long convoys on roads they could not leave and without sufficient air cover, the Russians have suffered heavy casualties.
Even those whose sum experience of la vie militaire is buying some gear from their local army surplus store would know that this is likely to lead to a hiding to nothing, and so it has proved. The lack or professionalism and competence appears to be staggering, and yet this is – at time of writing – where we find ourselves. Now, their presumed initial strategy stymied at every turn, the Russians appear to be replenishing, regrouping, and digging in for the long haul, plus focussing efforts in the south.
Back on track (no pun intended), Russians losses in tanks and armoured fighting vehicles are pretty enormous. No wonder that less well informed commentators, looking at the destruction of the invading columns by lightly armed defending infantrymen and women, are forecasting the end of the era of the MBT. But I think they’re being a bit presumptuous.
Technological innovation does not stand still, after all, and after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict everyone was looking at how best to counter the armed drones used so effectively in that confrontation. And, lo and behold, there were a variety of counter systems already available on the market, it was just that non-one up to that point had taken the threat seriously. Now, knocking down cheap drones with expensive anti-aircraft missiles can be effective but economically counterintuitive, but there is a plethora of mobile cannon systems which are up to the task.
The key is, of course, to fight in carefully coordinated combined arms groups, incorporating MBTs, infantry in IFVs, recce vehicles, engineers, artillery and, most importantly, air defence. On paper the Russians seem to have embraced this principle in the organisation and equipping of their battalion tactical groups (BTGs), but in practice appear to have been unable to put the whole thing together. They have performed rather like a large orchestra without a conductor, where brass, strings, and percussion are all following different parts of the score.
However, we need to come back to the inability of the Russians to achieve air superiority before launching their ground attack to understand why they have ground to a halt and, in some places around Kyiv, been forced to retreat. Whilst vastly outnumbered and having suffered their own losses, the Ukrainians have proved to be remarkably adept at conserving their aircraft and using them at the right place at the right time. They also appear to have dispersed their assets before the Russian assault. I suspect they are getting their intelligence from elsewhere, which may or may not explain the large numbers of NATO SIGINT aircraft buzzing around on the Ukraine borders.
Nonetheless, it appears that tactics, not technology, has defeated the Russians so far; their military is not completely stupid, and in many areas they have led military thinking over the decades. But they appear not to have applied their doctrine to the task in hand and have suffered accordingly. Plus the Ukrainian defenders have proved to be courageous and competent.
So, what now for the MBT? In terms of available technology, there seems to be no reason to presume that the MBT cannot protect itself against the new threat spectrums, including that from above. At the moment it seems that the pendulum has swung in favour of the new anti-tank weapons, but just as surely the pendulum will swing back again. We will all have noticed, I suspect, that the number of Russian MBTs that have suffered catastrophic destruction appears to be large, and ammunition stowage practices will no doubt have to be hastily reviewed. But those predicting the end of the MBT are being a bit previous, as they might say on East Enders.
General Haig reputedly said that “there will always be a place for the well-bred horse on the battlefield” and was proven wrong. I am not going paraphrase him and say likewise about the MBT. But its place on the modern battlefield is not over, not yet anyway.
(First published in the UK Defence Journal in March 2022)