From Premature Obituary to Eulogy – the Tank Has Not Lost Its Effectiveness

Sub Title :

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2023

Author : Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh,Vsm (retd)

Page No. : 62

Category : Military Affairs

: February 6, 2023

A discerning observer will realise that the number of western tanks being supplied to Ukraine is symbolic and will not make a major difference in the outcome. The challenges of varied composition of equipment and that too in insufficient numbers is complex. Yet the battle tanks are being sought as they make a huge psychological impact in addition to the proven combat capability.

As you enter Ahmed Nagar, the mecca of tankmen there is a sign that sums up a tank “Deterrence in Peace and Destruction in War”. This all-encompassing description of this metaled monster probably led to General Heinz Guderian’s famous saying; “If the tanks succeed, then victory follows”. Used effectively, they provide mobile firepower, protection, shock and surprise. Concentrated in numbers, they can dislocate an enemy’s defences.

However, since the beginning of the Ukraine War, most analysts have been talking about the ‘demise’ of the tank, and questioning their centrality in light of the proclaimed success of the drones, Javelins, NLAWs and other anti-tank weapons. This even led Pope Francis to say that Russians are discovering that their “tanks are useless.”  Ironically, we now see a clamour by Ukraine to obtain the latest tanks, with the aim that victory will follow. The onset of the winter has now provided the NATO a narrow window to arm Ukraine to repel an anticipated Russian springtime offensive. There is a sense of urgency over sending more powerful weapons which reflects the grim standoff on the battlefield in Eastern Ukraine. Over the last few weeks, one barrier after another has fallen, starting with an agreement by the United States in late December to send the Patriot Air Defence System. That was followed by a German commitment to provide a Patriot Missile Battery, and then, France, Germany and the United States each promised to armoured fighting vehicles mainly the Bradley’s to the front line for the first time.

Now the spotlight is on the induction of modern Western tanks with its protection and rapid offensive capabilities. Until now, Ukraine has relied primarily on the Soviet-era T-72 tanks with a 125mm smooth bore gun. These also included T-72 tanks given by NATO countries that were members of the Warsaw Pact.  Under the so-called “Ringtausch,” a swap scheme Eastern NATO partners supplied the Ukrainian Army with Soviet-era tanks like the T-72 in exchange for the Leopard 2 from Germany. However, most of Ukraine’s tank fleet has been destroyed and has suffered  wear and tear due to the prolonged conflict, and they are  running low on ammunition, which is incompatible with Western ammunition.

The impasse over tanks now seems to be ending with the UK first announcing that it would be sending 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, making it the first country to send Western-made battle tanks to Kyiv. Countries like Poland, Finland and the Baltic states have openly endorsed re-exporting Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine from their own stocks. Probably this decision was aimed at pushing both the US and Germany to provide tanks which they have in far greater number and in much better shape than the Challengers held by the UK. While Ukraine has been requesting sophisticated tanks since the start of the war, the push to satisfy those pleas gained speed as the British and Polish governments publicly urged a change in the Western alliance’s stance. The increased pressure was aimed at persuading Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz to authorize the export to Ukraine of German-made Leopard 2 tanks held by other NATO allies or provide the tanks. However, it was felt that Chancellor Scholz and his party wanted “to keep a relationship with Russia and with Putin for the future, but pressure from allies is becoming too strong.” German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall (which makes the main gun for the Leopard 2) tried to manage mounting expectations of a decision on tanks, with the chief executive of the firm telling a German newspaper that Leopard 2s from Germany’s industrial reserves would not be ready for any kind of delivery before 2024.

In Ukraine, officials say that Armoured Fighting Vehicles will play a key role in battles for control of the fiercely contested towns and cities in the Eastern provinces. Ukraine’s, General Valery Zaluzhny, said ‘it needs some 300 Western tanks and about 600 Western Armoured Fighting Vehicles to make a difference’. There is no doubt that the tank gives a sense of invincibility on the battlefield.

Challenges and Issues

Logistics. The greatest challenge for Ukraine will be logistics – maintaining the flow of fuel, ammunition and spare parts not only for their existing Soviet-era tanks but also having to worry about an increasingly complex inventory of Western supplied weapons. The logistics for each type of tank varies not only as per the type of ammunition fired but also the fuel. For example the Leopard 2 has a 120 mm smoothbore main gun which is slightly longer than the 120mm smoothbore main gun of the M1A2 Abrams while the Challenger2 has a 120mm rifled main gun which fires different ammunition. Logistic sustenance thus plays a critical role in their employment. Then there is also the issue of maintenance and repairs both of which requires a huge inventory. There is not only a high cost involved in maintaining these complex platforms but even a higher degree of skillsets required to man and operate a tank to optimise its effectiveness.  A handful of Challenger 2s, taken from the UK’s existing fleet of 227, would not in itself make much difference on the battlefield. Also the Challengers have maintenance issues, and is no longer in production hence the UK would be hard-pressed to replenish its stocks.

Design Philosophy. Battle tanks designed by NATO countries such as those Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 would provide Ukrainian forces with better protection, and firepower. But here is a difference in philosophy in tank design between the Western countries and Russia. The former has far heavier tanks with greater emphasis on protection and firepower whereas the Russians went in for a comparatively lighter tank at approximately 45 tons with a lower silhouette. Most analysts will therefore be waiting to see how these two weapon platforms confront each other.

Training. Induction of Western tanks would not provide an instantaneous boost in terms of combat capability because the Ukrainian forces would need to be trained to use the tanks supplied, a process that is likely to take several weeks, if not longer. Conversion is a long-drawn-out process focused at individual level, graduating to crew integration, sub unit training and thereafter integrated and joint training. Possessing the tanks is one issue but employing them effectively as part of an all arms team in an offensive operation has immense challenges. The problem of training the crews to man this equipment their logistic sustenance and integration are all extremely complicated.

In conclusion

While there have been narratives regarding the future of war based on the emergence of high technology weapon systems and futuristic visions of battles contested in cyberspace and by other non-kinetic means, it is unlikely that an outcome of a conflict can be controlled without the use of force. There is no denying the fact that the premature obituary of the tanks was due to the manner in which the Russians used them in the initial phases of the operation. Having occupied centre-stage of land warfare since its induction over a 100 years ago, the demand for tanks has proven that its era is still not over. Violence still dominates a conflict and with its long rod penetrator heading at over 1600 meters per second the Battle Tank continues to remains the tip of the spear.