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What is the Tank Good For?

In March 2020 the United States Marine Corps announced that it would be disbanding its tank units.  At the time the US Marines fielded three active-duty tank battalions and one reserve tank battalion.  The news was formally announced in the Force Design 2030 Report, but word of the move came out a few days prior in the press.  In August 2020, news broke the British Army was considering a similar move to scrap all of it’s 227 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.  Both announcements garnered a flurry of criticism.  

Despite this criticism, almost all of the naysayers have missed the critical point of the debate.  Removing heavy armour is not a repudiation of the value of heavy armour on the battlefield.  There is agreement that shock and mobile, protected, firepower are likely to remain valuable on future battlefields.   The key question is not “are tanks valuable on the battlefield?”  Because they are.  

Rather, we need to ask how arguments for keeping armour in the US Marine Corps or the British Army weigh the resources necessary to train, maintain and sustain armoured units against other capabilities such as uncrewed systems, cyber, and air defence which achieve similar effects.  This article explores the similarities and differences in US Marine Corps and British Army thinking regarding tanks and possible options.

A comparison

 The United Kingdom’s military, which includes the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Army, is similar in size to the active-duty United States Marine Corps.  About half of the UK’s active-duty strength is in the Army.  The UK spends significantly more on defence than the US Marine Corps spends but that makes sense when taking the Royal Navy and nuclear deterrence into account.  A key similarity is that all of the UK’s land forces are inherently expeditionary.  Likewise, the US Marine Corps is an expeditionary force not intended to fight protracted ground campaigns.  Yet, both the US Marine Corps and the British Army have used tanks effectively in combat in recent history.

Today, both forces are planning for the future and considering significant reforms.  Commentators in the Wavell Room, for example,  have noted that defence leaders in the UK should be paying attention to what is happening in the Marine Corps if they are not already.  Further highlighting the trans-Atlantic gaze, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger was recently in the UK meeting with leaders in the Royal Marines.  The US Marine Corps is anticipating “flat or stagnant budgets” in the future yet is beginning a significant transformation to meet future demands on the force.  Berger has said the Corps needs to go on a “diet” and “become expeditionary again” which means cutting out “Big, expensive things that we can’t either afford to buy or afford to maintain over the life of it.  Things that don’t fit aboard ship…”.  Clearly, the USMC feel they have moved from their primary purpose with heavy armour. 

Meanwhile in the UK, military leaders told the press that they were considering proposals to “mothball” or put into permanent storage all of the British Army’s tanks.  This move would allow the British Army to prioritise other platforms.  Like the Marine Corps’ M1A1 Abrams tank variants, roughly half of the Challenger 2 tanks in service are older models that have not been upgraded to a modern standard.  Even if they were kept in service they would need upgrades to be on par with other modern tank models meaning there is a cost to either decision. 

Another similarity is that both the US Marine Corps and the British Army expect to fight alongside other forces that have armoured forces in a conflict.  The US Army still fields thousands of tanks.  Therefore removing a few hundred Marine Corps tanks does not make much of a dent in the US military’s armoured capability.  Likewise, the British Army is not likely to fight a land war by itself meaning it can mitigate a lack of armour with a dependence on allies.  Apart from smaller interventions, the British Army can expect to fight as part of a NATO or other alliance construct similar to the 1991 and 2003 deployment of an armoured division to Iraq.  Whilst possible, unlike the USMC, however, this support cannot be guaranteed by national means. 

The end of the tank? Not so fast…

Is the age of the tank over?  

Who knows.  But its effectiveness is certainly being threatened. 

Reports from Armenia and Azerbaijan have highlighted the effectiveness of UAVs linked with artillery against armoured vehicles.  In 2014 Ukraine lost a battalion’s worth of infantry fighting vehicles to a Russian rocket strike.  In Iraq both US and British tanks were damaged and disabled by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by insurgents.  Yet, the loss of a few tanks without a major conventional warfare case study makes it difficult to discern a real trend.  

US tanks were also critical in the 2004 Battle for Fallujah.  Despite the presence of IEDs, armour played an important role on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine; a factor many ignore.  Tanks are also adaptable.  They can be fitted with explosive reactive armour (ERA) and active defence systems (ADS) upgrading their survivability. Throughout the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Russians repeatedly saw success and demonstrated how decisive modern tanks, such as the T-72B3 and T-90, can be. 

US Marine Corps Rocket Artillery. Link to original.

It must be noted, however, that these successes did not occur by tanks in isolation.  Ukraine did not have the dual tandem-warhead anti tank guided missiles necessary to defeat modern tanks.  More importantly, Russia had superior UAV, artillery, and electronic warfare capabilities all integrated with their use of armour.  So what?  There are other proven methods of both defeating armour and achieving success on the battlefield. 

Armour-protected, mobile firepower is a concept rather than a specific platform.  One would argue that the debate is fixated on tanks as vehicles over concepts.  Tanks can get bigger or smaller, carry more protection, or become uncrewed.  Discussions about tanks should be rooted in trade-offs between concrete capabilities, not analysis of long-term trends.  The present often makes it difficult to discern the future.  As Jon Hawkes, Sam Cranny-Evens, and Mark Cazalet recently pointed out, no one piece of equipment or technology acts alone on the battlefield.  As such, tanks must be viewed for, and judged against,  their contribution to the totality. Threatened with an increasingly austere fiscal environment, it is necessary to focus on the relative value that tanks bring rather than their value as a stand-alone asset.

It’s about what else you can buy

Critics of armour usually ignore the reality that defence spending is often zero-sum.  That is to say, if you want to buy something new you probably have to get rid of something old.  Unless, of course,  you can make an especially good case for buying new hardware to elected leaders.  It’s also worth noting that because of maintenance and life-cycle costs equipment usually gets more expensive to maintain over time.  With a recent increase in the UK’s defence budget it appears that this case has been made, but for capabilities other than tanks.    

In addition to tanks, General Berger announced that the Marine Corps will also remove most of its cannon artillery, bridging companies, and law enforcement battalions.  These cuts to force structure will allow the Marines to increase rocket artillery, double their UAV squadrons, invest in cyber and information warfare.  This is a clear trade off of capability based on their mission analysis and appears similar to that the UK is making in the Integrated Review.  These are all capabilities that the Marine leadership thinks will be critical in the coming fight and where they believe they are under resourced.  Similarly, leaders in the UK are looking to retire what they’ve called “sunset capabilities” so that they can invest in “sunrise capabilities” like cyber and electronic warfare. 

Tanks can be upgraded and the concept changed. But is it worth it?

Giles Moon has pointed out the fallacious thinking that Britain will never again fight a peer enemy.  But the threat of fighting a peer (or even near-peer) is exactly why the UK needs to weigh the value of its tanks against other capabilities.  Ignoring the fact that the Chinese have developed their own version of the Javelin anti tank guided missile with the same effective ranges, their ZTZ-99 Main Battle Tank outranges the Javelin and most of the Challenger 2’s anti-armour munitions.  Arguably, then, the Challenger’s value is limited in conventional warfare.  Even more worrisome is that the ZTZ-99 is capable of firing Russian ammunition.  

Turning to Russian armour and anti-armour capabilities, the comparison looks even more bleak.  The Russian-built Kornet-EM missile’s range of up to 10km is double that of the Javelin and outranges every Challenger 2 munition.  Russia’s latest main gun-fired ATGM, the 3UBK21 Sprinter has a boasted effective range of 12km.  As has been pointed out on Wavell Room before, the T-14 Armata and its key innovations pose a very real and serious threat even with its numerous setbacks and limited production.

All of this points to a painful observation: both British armour and anti-armour capabilities are in drastic need of modernisation and improvement.  Considering the constrained fiscal environment the Ministry of Defence will face, will there be enough funding and resources to develop advancements in both?  And if not, which will be more effective in terms of both cost and combat? 

Divesting from armour assets allows the defence establishment or the services to reprioritise capabilities.  Tanks are expensive to buy and maintain.  They are difficult to deploy because of their size and weight.  They don’t make as much sense for an expeditionary force with logistics and sustainment limitations or a fiscally constrained force that wants to invest in emerging capabilities.  The question should be “is a swarm of UAVs or an improved ATGM going to be more valuable in a future fight than a tank?” not, “is a tank effective?” 

If you’re going to divest…

If the British Army decides to mothball its tanks they should do it quickly.  The time between when the story broke that the Marine Corps was going to get rid of tank units and when the units were folding their colours was measured in months.  This speed certainly put those communities in a lurch and tankers are still being redesignated to other specialties or in some cases moving to the Army National Guard to stay tankers.  But it happened quickly enough that there wasn’t time for serious opposition to make a case for the Marine Corps to keep tanks. 

Ultimately, divesting in tanks is not a referendum on the value of tanks, but a consideration of its relative value to other platforms.  Put simply, more tanks might mean less cyber, UAVs, and electronic warfare.  If the British Army wants to modernise it will likely have to make cuts elsewhere like the US Marine Corps. Viewed through that lens, getting rid of tanks may not be such a bad idea. 

Michael J. Rasmussen

Michael J. Rasmussen is a Captain in the United States Marine Corps currently serving as the training officer for Royal Marines Initial Officer Training at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines.

Walker D. Mills

Walker D. Mills is a Captain in the United States Marine Corps currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy in Cartagena, Colombia.

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