Created on:
February 8, 2023

The Importance of Tanks

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt

Dr. J. Paul de B. Taillon

This article was originally published Feb 2, 2023, in Frontline Defence 2023 – The Battle for Ukraine

Since February 2022, the world has stood in awe at the resolve and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people and their valiant armed forces to check Vladimir Putin’s persistent physical aggression commencing with the occupation of Crimea and the Donbass. It has been readily apparent that Putin is bent on the destruction of Ukrainian culture and appending it once again to a greater Russia. However, it’s more than that – it is the struggle of a democratically elected and Western-aspiring government that is confronting a tyrannical Russian leader bent on conducting genocidal warfare. Putin blatantly wants to restore Russian prestige as well as the political and territorial domination reminiscent of the former Soviet Union or, for that matter, the Czarist period.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian nation are fighting to save themselves – and in doing so they are fighting for all nations that believe in freedom, democracy and the rule of law. In successfully combating Putin’s authoritarian regime, Zelenskyy has, concomitantly, forced China’s Xi Jinping to reassess the potential costs of an invasion of Taiwan, and possibly realize the probability of an extended and costly fight should he decide to invade the island.

To stymie Putin’s territorial designs on Ukraine, NATO has unified, as never before, to provide the vital moral, financial and military support required for the Ukrainian people in their struggle against Putin. Under Western leadership, NATO has provided the Ukrainian military a wide spectrum of modern war fighting equipment and materials. These, married to the steadfast fighting skills of the increasingly battle-wise Ukrainian forces, have proven successful in staunching Russian ground operations. Meanwhile, according to Norwegian Defence Minister Eirik Kristoffersen, inflicting casualties estimated of up to 180,000 Russian dead and wounded. With a few deadly exceptions such as the city of Bakhmut, this winter has witnessed a “winter pause” or reduction in the tempo of military operations.

As winter inevitably turns into spring, Russian forces could possibly be reinforced by upwards of 500,000 conscripts, which may herald a series of new offensives, according to Ukrainian intelligence. Should this be the case, the spring and early summer of 2023 may be a critical time in this conflict, as there are indications that Russian formations are regrouping for what would likely be a multi-pronged offensive from the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

These Russian operations would conceivably be aimed at locating, identifying, isolating and destroying in situ Ukrainian forces whilst severing their lines of communication. This period may also witness a repeat performance of Russia’s failed attack to seize the capital of Kyiv. Such an endeavour may once again witness the employment of some of their elite VDV-Airborne formations, supported by recently trained and regrouped ground formations.

In the interim, this winter has witnessed a continuous bombardment of Russian missile and drone attacks that target Ukraine’s power grid – leaving millions suffering in the cold and dark. The primary purpose was the destruction of the infrastructure but, in tandem, this was also a psychological ploy. Putin’s intent was to break the will of the Ukrainian citizenry. However, the ploy has not met his intent. Interestingly, the scenario is reminiscent of the German Luftwaffe’s failed bid to erode and destroy Great Britain’s will to fight and persevere during the aerial blitz of 1940. Therefore, we must anticipate a continued fight into the immediate future and conceivably longer.

It is important for the West and NATO to assure our Ukrainian allies of full-spectrum materiel support so they may continue their struggle to fully expunge the Russians from Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

As we have all witnessed during these months of conflict, modern warfare requires effective, well-integrated and well-led infantry, armour and artillery. This also includes full-spectrum intelligence capabilities, secure communications, C4ISR, and aerial capability in the form of aircraft of all types, helicopters and drones, plus a spectrum of aerial sensors and electronic warfare. That said, the latest challenge for the West is the timely procurement and allocation of tanks in substantial numbers to prepare and equip Ukrainian forces for a likely renewed Russian offensive(s).

The Ukrainian military has argued for 300-400 modern tanks, although 800 to 1,000 would be more realistic, considering the rates of tank/armour losses to date. Reports have stated there are currently about 2,000 Leopard 2s in various states of readiness in 19 mostly-European countries. It is from this “local” wellspring that NATO should draw its tank reinforcements given the geographical proximity to train Ukrainian crews and maintenance personnel, as well as ease of access to spare parts and likely tank replacements and repairs.

The present dual challenge surrounds how fast NATO can transition Ukrainian crews to operate these state-of-the-art tanks effectively while ensuring their maintainers are technically capable of keeping these high-tech beasts operational and ready for the fight. Donating nations and their respective tanks will push NATO logistics and support facilities, as these will be pressed to prepare the tanks and a host of other combat/support vehicles for combat.

Arguably, NATO will have to operate on an emergency schedule to ensure Ukrainian military personnel are properly transitioned and equipped. Moreover, they must be tactically and technically prepared to successfully challenge any Putin offensive. This latter issue is conveniently brushed aside by many analysts as a simple administrative or logistical issue. This deserves a drilling down.

The Ukraine army is scheduled to receive a wide assortment of tank/personnel carriers (of many types) and support vehicles. Such an assortment will inevitably become problematic in terms of training, ammunition and maintentance: the United Kingdom has promised the Challenger 2 tanks, as well as the Mastiff armoured patrol vehicle; Germany intends to send 40 Marder mechanized infantry fighting vehicles and now Leopard 2s; Poland is sending 14 Leopard 2s and upward to 240 T-72s tanks; the United States reportedly will be sending Stryker and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, as well as the MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected vehicle), and now 31 of their combat proven M1 Abrams tanks (though the latter won’t be arriving in Ukraine anytime soon).

Meanwhile, Canada will reportedly send armoured combat support platforms including 200 Senator multi-purpose wheeled armoured vehicles, 36 armoured combat support vehicles, 4 Leopard 2 tanks, plus numerous instructors to Poland to aid transition training. Like Poland, the Czech Republic will be providing T-72 tanks, and France has promised the AMX-10 wheeled armoured fighting vehicle, and possibly some Leclerc tanks.

This alphabet soup of vehicles poses a great challenge to the logisticians who must support the array of diverse armour and equipment. This is not to ignore those high value maintainers who must accompany these vehicles in the near rear to ensure they remain operational. Having a common fighting platform facilitates combat effectiveness, speed of maintenance and resupply, particularly for vehicles, such as tanks that may demand 3-4 hours of maintenance for every hour driving.

The Tank Advantage

Since 1945, the utility of tanks has been a subject of some continuing controversy. In the wake of nuclear weapons, tanks and ground forces writ large, were deemed to be of no further importance, essentially eclipsed by the nuclear-armed long-range bombers. Not until 1950, when the Korean War commenced, did the utility of the tank and the integrated combined arms team resurface, like the phoenix, and did not go “the way of the dodo bird,” as some ‘expert’ commentators and airmen expected.

In 1973, in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war, tanks once again became a subject of hot debate as to their survivability – predicated on the surprising effectiveness of Egyptian manned antitank guided weapons (ATGW) and their crews.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Western nations quickly sought to access a peace dividend, and began to re-evaluate the requirements of tanks and the integrated combined arms team of mechanized infantry and mobile artillery. The 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resurrected the question of tank survivability on the contemporary battlefield due to reconnaissance and tank-killer drones. Since 2022, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has once again spurred the discussion of the tank advantage and survivability equation, predicated upon the impressive success of Ukrainian drones against Russian armour.

The evolution of technology and tactics continues to enable and reinforce the importance of effective combat teams and battle groups able to undertake all phases of wartime operations while adapting new and innovative tactics and countermeasures to address drones etc.

At this moment, the conflict in Ukraine remains relatively static, with the Russians and the Ukrainians dug in for the winter. Nevertheless, serious fighting around Soledar/Bakhmut has been reported with Russian forces garnering territorial gains at great cost in casualties and equipment.

The Ukrainian commanders fully appreciate that tanks, mechanized infantry combat support vehicles, integrated air support and mobile artillery enable them to manoeuvre effectively in large areas. Reconnaissance capabilities permits them to seek out and ascertain weaknesses in Russia’s defences, permitting Ukraine forces to conduct concentrated offensive operations – the veritable schwerpunkt – (the point of most effort). Once successful, these combined arms penetrations may then expeditiously exploit their advantages of surprise, manoeuvre and firepower. The objective being to neutralize their defensive positions, whilst severing Russian forces from their rear echelon/logistical support and concomitantly preventing any reinforcements into the area of operations.

The opinion du jour underlines the reality that Western tanks, combined with experienced Ukrainian tank crews, would vastly overmatch the Russians. That said, weather and ground conditions have a direct impact upon the technical and tactical capabilities of wheeled, as well as tracked armour, specifically tanks. In Ukraine during the winter, the ground is frozen and does not compromise manoeuvrability. The inevitable spring “rasputitsa” will seriously impact the ability to effectively manoeuvre in force. One need only recall October 1941, when invading German forces soon discovered, to their chagrin, that the fall, as well as spring rains, turned roads and fields into mud and mire, vitiating any speed of manœuvre as well as effective sustainment.

Ukrainian roads are not hard tracks, and wheeled, as well as heavy armoured vehicles, will quickly transform roads and fields into knee-deep mud that historically has challenged invading armies – as both Napoleon and Hitler found out, to their dismay.

Ukrainian tank crews have been trained on Soviet-era tanks, and Ukrainian commanders and their leadership are now well experienced in tank warfare. While Western tanks have been designed for ease of use and maintenance, it will be important to undertake some refresher training to focus upon combat team and battle group operations with the features of Western tanks, mechanized infantry and mobile artillery as well as other integral assets to garner experience in the Western approach to the combined arms battle.

To break this stalemate, Ukraine will be given the tools it needs to effectively challenge any Russian offensive in the field. That said, NATO must also ensure that Ukraine is capable of effectively conducting combined arms operations employing Western armour, equipment and the accompanying array of technology.

Predicated on the fact that there are more Leopard 2s available in Europe within the geographical proximity of Ukraine, Germany and other NATO countries have fully committed to support Ukraine’s request for a modern and effective tank. Germany’s lauded Leopard 2 meets a spectrum of requirements in operational and logistical terms. In both time and distance for delivery geographical issues are important and Germany is closer to Ukraine. The supplying of Leopards was deemed to be problematic in geopolitical terms for the German government. This situation has now thankfully been turned around as Berlin advised they will provide 14 Leopard 2A6s from the German Army stocks and have further approved that other European countries are now enabled to supply tanks from their respective stocks.

An Important Training Issue

To date, it would appear that the Ukrainian Army has no past ‘culture’ nor has demonstrated the required skills and experience in operating at battle group, brigade/divisional level in conducting massed offensive combined arms operations in the battle space. This raises the question of what type of fight does the Ukrainian Army envisage. Should the initial stages require a defensive fight, a ‘dug in’ tank like the T-72 with prepared, pre-sited, and dug in secondary and alternate positions would be useful. That is if the Ukrainian Army’s operational objective is to inflict maximum pain to attrit the Russian offensive.

Strategically, this could possibly press Putin to the negotiating table or domestically garner sufficient public or bureaucratic disenchantment to force his demise or replacement. Should that be the case, the Leopard 2s and the M1 Abrams are well designed and equipped to execute mobile tactics, particularly if employed within a well trained and exercised combined arms team prepared to attrit enemy forces.

Utilizing speed, ground and firepower to maximum advantage, the aim is to trade space for the greatest tactical advantage. Meanwhile, commanders would orchestrate timely and well-considered counter attacks aimed at keeping the Russians forces off balance, and in a constant state of flux, thus causing psychological dislocation among its troops and formations.

The question is, are Ukrainians capable of conducting this complex level of combined arms operations commensurate with the tools they are being provided? We shall see.

Last Word

The latest provisioning of a spectrum of tanks and other assets will undoubtedly confirm to Putin and his government that he is in a proxy war with NATO and Western democracies. That said, we are justified in supporting Ukraine and its right under international law to defend its citizens and territory against a tyrannical Russian invader. If the West does not stop Putin’s aggression, and deny his aspirations in the Ukraine and elsewhere, the future may see Russian forces attempting to destabilize other European friends and allies.

In the end, NATO and the West have a moral obligation to provide the tools and support to Volodymyr Zelenskyy to defend Ukraine’s citizenry and territorial integrity – whilst foiling Putin’s political and imperial ambitions.

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