Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
From the day that the concept of a tank was introduced there has been debate about the utility of these vehicles. Hard to build, difficult to man and drive, and ultimately vulnerable once deployed, tanks have never been the perfect package that they externally represent. The late Professor Ogorkiewicz wrote in his 2016 book Tanks, of how Lieutenant Colonel J. F. C. Fuller came to realise the limits of tanks during the 1917 Ypres offensive.1 And, following that war, only Britain and France continued to see utility in the tank for close to a decade, before the Soviet Union began to enter the field.2
The contemporary discussion around the abiding value of the tank is not therefore new, however the context and the nature of the modern battlefield has changed considerably since 1916, and this in turn warrants a different discussion around the value of the tank. To be clear, this article is intended to initiate discussion, it is a reflection of those issues that must be considered when balancing forces. There is value to any asset deployed to the battlefield, from an entrenching shovel to aircraft carriers, providing that they are used properly and adequately supported.
We have chosen three select areas, which all influence the utility of tanks; the Totality of the Battlefield (TotB), the totality of technology, and the totality of society. Much of this discussion should be regarded as a “Red Team Exercise”, a deliberate attempt to pull apart entrenched thinking. And, while it is framed against the current climate that prevails within the British Army, it should be understood that these considerations will apply in some measure to every single force in the world.
Part 1: The Totality of the battlefield
The modern battlespace has much in common with those of the Second World War; if tanks are caught in the open by aerial or artillery assets, they are unlikely to survive as the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division found during the 1944 Allied Operation ‘Charnwood’ to capture Caen.3 This point has been proven time and again; the Iran-Iraq War, Operation ‘Desert Storm’, Grozny, Zelenopillya, and now Idlib, have all demonstrated that the tank has its limits.
Russian tactics in Ukraine involved the integration of Orlan-10 UAVs into a reconnaissance-fire complex, whereby the UAVs were paired with Soviet-era 2S1 Gvozdika howitzers.4 In a very short space of time this complex was able to inflict massive damage on Ukrainian forces, including the destruction of four AN/TPQ-48 radars, 37 vehicles, a munitions depot and 310 Ukrainian personnel.5 Turkish forces inflicted heavy losses on the Syrian Army during fighting around Idlib in February 2020 using missiles fired from the Baryaktar TB2 UAV, and coordinated artillery strikes.6 Turkey’s Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar, claimed that Operation ‘Spring Shield’, had accounted for the deaths of 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks, six air defence systems and 72 howitzers, according to a 1 March report in the Washington Post.7
The key to tactical success in both conflicts was not any specific piece of equipment, it certainly was not a tank; it was the speed and organization of a complete force, coming together at the right moment with the right information to influence the battlefield.
In Ukraine, during the 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, the Russian forces were numerically outnumbered, but used speed and surprise to effectively defeat the Ukrainian forces guarding the peninsula, according to the 2017 paper from the RAND Corporation titled Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.8 The authors of that paper note that “Russia’s military demonstrated it could put national leadership decisions into effect almost immediately, implementing operational planning quickly and without major errors.”9 These examples serve to illustrate that a conflict can be decided at a strategic level through rapid and aggressive action. There is certainly a place for the tank within this scenario, however the most important element of all operations was the organization of the forces involved, and the speed with which they acted.
What does this mean for the British Army and its tanks? Put very simply, a discussion around the enduring value of the tank for the British Army in any scenario neglects, or refuses, to address the fact that success in a conflict is the result of the totality of the battlefield. This means that the British Army, and the armed forces as a whole, must work together to ensure that they are able to present a cohesive and organized force that can influence the outcome. A myopic focus on the tank seems to ignore inconvenient truths, and usually rests rather heavily on the tiresome adage that begins “a tank is like a dinner jacket…”
For example, had the Ukrainian forces on Crimea had clear information about Russian intentions, and the supporting political will to act, it is unlikely that the Russians would have achieved such an easy success. Or, if the Syrian forces in Idlib were properly supported by air defence assets, and had different TTPs, the Baryaktar TB2 may have had less of an effect. The presence of tanks in both conflicts had no more bearing on the outcome than the temperature at the time. It follows that first and foremost, every asset that an army puts into the field should be prepared to work together, and the political will should exist to allow them to do so.
Furthermore, any conflict whereby the British Army faces a developed opponent like Russia will likely include the prodigious use of precision guided munitions during the opening stages of the conflict, as discussed by Michael Kofman in a 2019 War on the Rocks article.10 Russia, he avers, is aware of the technological disadvantages between its forces and NATO’s, and has no intention of fighting a war where those disadvantages can be brought to the fore. The goal, he states, is either functional defeat of an opponent as a military system, or physical annihilation.11 In real terms this means the destruction of critical infrastructure and the upper echelons of NATO’s command and control system. In effect, if the British Army is to plan for war with Russia, it needs to ensure that it is well-protected from the top down, and that robust systems are in place to ensure its forces can operate at speed, and possibly without the vital information that they have traditionally relied upon.
In a broader sense, the success of any sub-peer conflicts will likely hinge on the UK’s ability to organise and deploy an effective fighting force at short notice. Fighting in Mosul has shown that an insurgent force can maul and disrupt an organised opponent if given the space and time to prepare.12 Tanks do have an inherent value in such conflicts, providing they can reach the battlespace in a timely manner.
If this reasoning holds, a debate needs to be had about whether or not the British armed forces as a whole, have the required capabilities to meet the challenges that might be demanded of them, before any debate around the value of tanks can ensue.
Part 2: The Totality of technology
Beyond the totality of the battlefield aspect, there are technological limitations that suggest the tank is no longer the apex predator. In addition, significant shortcomings reduce many of its former strengths to a point where its utility could be questioned in contrast with competing capabilities.
The purpose of a tank is to utilise its unique technologically enabled strengths of protection, firepower and mobility to deliver aggressive, mobile, shock action to exploit the enemy’s loss of initiative in response to the tank’s effects. Of these strengths, firepower has continued to improve and may see the adoption of 130 mm guns and integrated ATGMs, however mobility and protection are falling behind, leaving the tank vulnerable.
It is widely agreed that the future character of warfare will be dominated by complex terrain, especially urban environments.13 These environments, more so than any other, result in AFVs being subjected to 360 degree, all elevation attacks rather than the classical frontal arc attacks of anticipated engagements in the 20th century.
As such, tanks need all-aspect protection to ensure survival, however, contemporary technologies are approaching the limits of what is possible in physically protecting platforms. Disruptive breakthrough solutions are either unable to assure full spectrum protection or not yet mature enough to field. The result is that the tank is by no means an apex predator, able to take at least a single hit from any relevant threat and keep fighting to ensure delivery of accompanying infantry onto the objective and support them there.
Even with increased armour packages, tanks will become more vulnerable to the near horizon threat landscape, which includes larger 130+ mm guns and new ATGMs with more than 1,500 mm of penetration.14 Complex situational awareness and communication systems, also an essential element of survivability, remain vulnerable to blast/fragmentation damage, and contemporary ATGMs and long rod APFSDS penetrators exceed protection capabilities outside the frontal arc and in some cases within it. ATGMs, and other projectiles utilising a shaped charge effect to defeat armour, can also be directed into a top attack profile, striking the MBT at its weakest point with no practical means of defence.
Active Protection Systems (APS) have been hailed as a partial solution to this problem – they offer a credible and operationally proven hard counter to missiles and rockets, defeating them away from the vehicle and creating the option to either reduce the volume of armour or repurpose it to specifically face the threat of APFSDS projectiles.
However no user has made the bold step to reduce protection in order to rely on an APS to exclusively defend the platform against specific threat types, instead fitting them as additional assets. This is in large part because APS remains unable to defeat several threats including APFSDS penetrators and top attack missiles.15 Political considerations also render the decision to deliberately remove physical protection from a vehicle unpalatable, owing to the risk of culpability if a vehicle is destroyed that might not have been, had the legacy armour remained.
Novel armour technologies such as electric reactive armour, or active camouflage in the visual, near visual and infrared spectrums could change the paradigm.16 In both cases, solutions have been developed and posed but remain impractical and, as with APS, have been viewed as additional capabilities at further weight and size cost, rather than alternatives to enable reduced weights.
A result of this armour induced weight increase has been a loss of trafficability and tactical mobility. Most contemporary MBTs have gained 10-20 tonnes17 over their service lives without commensurate engine and running gear upgrades, which has led to reductions in their comparative mobility over challenging terrain.18 The physics of terramechanics are finite, and with the same power and surface contact area but increased weight, surface pressure is increased, power-to-weight ratio is reduced and overall tractive performance is lowered. A loss of mobility in this way means a reduction in terrain access, making a force’s movements easier to predict, and reducing its agility in combat.19
More broadly, heavier vehicles experience increased maintenance requirements and mechanical failures, thus requiring larger logistical footprints to project and support.20 Deploying such a force becomes slower and harder with limited strategic enabling resources, as well as being easier to predict and plan against. The consequence of this has been borne out in recent analytical wargames, where movements of major combat elements that were readily predicted saw entire formations destroyed by peer/peer+ fires before they could make forming up points. It was assessed that had those forces been lighter and possessed greater terrain access, this would not have been the case.
All of this is not to say that the tank is technologically defunct, it is to say that the totality of tank technology does not possess the overmatch of protection and mobility it once held. Without breakthrough technologies, the tank’s utility becomes more uncertain in contrast with compelling alternatives in lighter weight classes that are no more or less overmatched but offer greater mobility and reduced logistical tails. Establishing ways to increase protection at reduced weight, whether physical or with disruptive technologies in the outer layers of the survivability onion, are critical to returning the tank to the apex position in the battlefield. Without them, questions will continue to remain over its tactical utility.
Part 3: The totality of society
The key problem is not just that the battlefield has changed, but society and economies have changed also. The UK no longer commands a globe-spanning empire enabling an expensive technologically advanced standing army, instead it spends around 2% of a gradually shrinking GDP on defence. On top of this there is a greater reliance on foreign designs and expertise, while large portions of the UK’s defence industrial base have ossified or decayed during the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is coupled with increasing platform complexity, which has driven up costs.
Politically, there is little public appetite for increasing defence spending. Polling varies depending on the particular conflict,21 but generally speaking a growing portion of the British public opposes kinetic interventions 2223 preferring humanitarian responses instead. There is also a strong public demand for improving social services in the wake of a decade of austerity, the economic shocks of COVID-19, and the UK’s exit from the EU. As such, increases to defence spending are less popular with the public than competing priorities such as schools, hospitals, and policing. In recent YouGov polling, defence ranked second after foreign aid in answer to the question “What sector is the UK government spending too much on?”24
This raises the question of priorities, and which assets will serve the British Army best going forwards. In the latter portion of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the UK primarily fought in relatively low-intensity conflicts against inferior opposing forces, and was usually backed by its allies. With the partial exception of the first Gulf War, tanks have not been a prominent component of these conflicts, and their retention has come with an opportunity cost, as the money saved by scrapping the tanks could have been put toward more mission-flexible and generally useful platforms such as a modern IFV.
The UK’s tank design philosophy has focused on survivability, which has also increased the cost and weight of the vehicles. This is exemplified with the Challenger 2 Theatre Entry Standard TELIC (TEST), weighing 74.8 tonnes25, notably heavier than any NATO ally MBT. However, modern ATGMs such as Kornet have provided an increase in lethality which passive armour has been unable to match.26 This results in a low cost-effectiveness for vehicles such as Challenger 2, which remain vulnerable to modern ATGMs in spite of their weight. Equipping the vehicles with hard-kill active protection systems is a partial solution to modern ATGMs, but this further increases the cost and complexity of the vehicles. Any cost increases make the tank more expensive to field in meaningful quantities, and adds to the already considerable logistics train required to deploy them, further straining the UK’s limited defence budget.
Lastly, falling recruitment in the UK means that the Army must heavily prioritise sending new recruits to maintain the capabilities which are the most useful within the likely conflict scenarios.27 In most African or Middle Eastern conflict scenarios, tanks cannot be deployed quickly enough to influence the outcome, as Operation ‘Serval’ and the Russian intervention in Syria have shown. In the scenario of conflict with Russia, it is unlikely that the success or failure of the endeavour will hinge on the performance of 200 British tanks. Therefore, maintaining a tank fleet that is larger than required amid low recruitment also creates an opportunity cost in personnel. Manning armoured regiments means that other regiments, that are better suited to likely conflict scenarios, may become under-manned.
At present, the UK has a tank fleet that is too expensive to buy or maintain in sufficient quantities to make a difference against a peer/peer+ opponent such as Russia, is difficult to deploy anywhere quickly, and still fairly vulnerable to modern anti-tank weapons. Furthermore, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the cost-efficiency of the tank within the UK’s limited budget, recruitment figures, and range of realistic or likely combat missions.
Some tanks are deader than others
Is the tank dead? No. It remains a credible platform with strong application in many scenarios and for many users. For Russia in particular, the tank is far from dead. In many likely conflict scenarios Russia’s tanks will not have to deploy very far from its borders, and in cases where they do such as Syria, the lighter weight of Russian Tanks, makes these deployments less of a logistical burden. Countries close to Russia such as Poland, may need tanks because they are a viable means of defeating other tanks, and in the most likely threat scenarios the Russians will come to them, so deploying over distance is unnecessary.
It could be argued that modern IFVs are a credible alternative to the MBT for the UK. Many modern examples such as the CV90 Mk IV, and the Kurgants-25 with Epokha turret demonstrate a good balance of firepower and have utility in more scenarios than MBTs.28 The typical armament of modern IFVs including a cannon, machine guns and ATGMs enables the engagement of most targets that the vehicle is likely to encounter, including armour, and the vehicle is equally suited to dealing with infantry. The IFV’s lighter weight makes it less of a logistical burden and enables more rapid deployment to developing conflicts, and the attendant infantry dismounts offer a greater range of tactical possibilities than a tank’s heavy weaponry. In sum, the above is intended to indicate some of the factors that decide whether or not the tank is useful. It shows that the debate is not, and cannot be binary, nor is it limited to comparing gun and armour values and deciding a winner. There are many questions to be considered and answered that range from analysis of whether or not tanks are generally suitable in their current form, to whether or not they are the best value option for the UK in its present and future financial positions.
- Professor Richard Ogorkiewicz, Tanks, 100 years of evolution, Osprey, 2016, p. 46
- Ibid, p. 102
- See attached presentation titled; On creation of a reconnaissance and fire-fighting complex with the “Orlan-10” UAV to perform particularly important tasks, The Special Technology Centre, Mikhailovsky Military Artillery Academy.
- Samuel Cranny-Evans, Eyes in the Sky Part 1: How the Orlan-10 UAV is shaping Russian artillery ops, International Defence Review, March 2020.
- Samuel Cranny-Evans, Eyes in the Sky Part 2: Idlib and the Baryaktar TB2 UAV, International Defence Review, April 2020.
- Michael Kofman, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, Jenny Oberholtzer Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, RAND Corporation, 2017, p. 22
- Ibid., p. 23
- https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/its-time-to-talk-about-a2-ad-rethinking-the-russian-military-challenge/ [Accessed 10/09/2020]
- https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/its-time-to-talk-about-a2-ad-rethinking-the-russian-military-challenge/ [Accessed 10/09/2020]
- CCW 2020, Research Priorities: The Changing Character of Warfare, University of Oxford, accessed 10 September 2020, <http://www.ccw.ox.ac.uk/work-3>.
- Avner White (2020) ‘Active Protection Systems Operational impressions and lessons learned’ [PowerPoint presentation]. IAV 2020.
- Paul J. Hazell, Armour Materials, Theory, and Design, CRC Press, 2019, p. 283.
- Dan Hankin (2020) ‘Survivability in the Land Domain’ [PowerPoint presentation]. IAV 2020.
- Sam Cranny-Evans and Jon Hawkes, Wheels vs tracks: Reviewing AFV trends, Janes International Defence Review, 2019.
- Jon Hawkes (2019) ‘Trends in AFV design evolution’ [PowerPoint presentation].
- J. Y. Wong, Theory of Ground Vehicles Third Edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, p. 295.
- M. Neil et al, Using Bayesian belief networks to predict the reliability of military vehicles, Computer & Control Engineering Journal Volume 12, Issue 1, 2001, p. 11-20.