Some general tank lessons from the Ukraine War



I’ve seen too little info on Ukrainian tanks in action (or after action), but the Russian side sure doesn’t seem to do well. In short, the technical condition of the tanks and the morale of their crews is bad, but most importantly, the Russians use de facto 1980’s tanks (with some 90’s thermal sensor + laser rangefinder tech on some MBTs, especially T-90s) against dominantly 1990’s and early 2000’s anti-tank munitions that were developed to defeat Soviet/Russian late 1980’s main battle tanks.

The Soviet Union never took more than 15 years till its best tanks (then with tank units in Eastern Germany) were able to defeat the latest Western anti-tank munitions. The Russian Federation doesn’t even defeat early 1990’s threats that the Soviets learned about in the late 1980’s. Even Javelin and NLAW could be defeated with an adaptation of early 1980’s Drozd hard kill active protection system, but the Russians don’t seem to use such a thing. Nor do they seem to use multispectral smoke much. I see no indication for missile approach warners (IR and UV sensors, a tech from 1990’s aviation that could have trickled down to tanks / examples here and here) in use, either.

Could the Russians have upgraded their tank forces (at least MBTs) to a higher level and could they have coped with state of the art anti-tank munitions? Absolutely yes, albeit it would have been quite expensive.

Could the Russians have conducted the rapid and deep armoured spearhead thrusts for encirclements as they obviously intended? This is surprisingly unlikely.

There was little historical precedent for this extremely low ratio of land forces to area with defending nation having good morale. The current outcome appears to be that the Russians cannot protect the main roads and all kinds of non-.MBT vehicles behind the MBT+IFV spearhead get shot up by bypassed infantry. It would require time and many troops (with night vision) to sweep and secure certain roads over hundreds of km. Even a defending force with nothing but civilian 4wd car types + cheap AKM rifles + cheap RPG-18/-22/-26 light anti-tank weapons + Molotov cocktails can spell terrible trouble to invaders in such a situation. The invader is clearly at a severe disadvantage here. I’ll certainly soon write some more about 10+ years old concept of mine that appear to be confirmed by the Ukraine conflict.

Another issue for the Russian encirclements is that such rapid, possibly even agile, movement of armoured forces is very demanding on force design (combined arms equipment), radio communications, logistics, training and endurance (troops start to fall asleep after four days unless there’s good sleep discipline, even with “go” drugs).

The “training” requirement is the most troublesome, even for an army without endemic corruption that actually uses the training budget for training. Tracked armoured vehicles in particular make training much very expensive, likely unaffordable to the Russian army. It would be unaffordable for the Russian army (and probably any army) to keep a large share of the land forces equipped and trained for Blitzkrieg-style land warfare. Attempts to conduct such risky operations without meeting a long list of requirements leads to disaster, the Iranians already showed this early in the Gulf War.

Assault gun tactics to the rescue?

T-62 during 2nd Chechen War

The classic fallback should be to use combined arms at a lower, less demanding level; a tank platoon cooperating with a small infantry force (one to three platoons) on the attack. The Americans did this in 1944/45, Germany did this in 1942-1945 whenever it lacked the ability to conduct advanced operations, variations of the approach popped up post-WW2 repeatedly, including the fighting in the 2nd Chechen War (where a tank company was often rotating tanks between a resupply & resting area and a few overwatch firing positions).

The Russian army can fall back to this less demanding style, maybe some of the better tank crews can even be quite nimble and elusive at it; get target indicated by infantry, appear, shoot, disappear, move to other concealed position so the next appearance would be at a different place.

I wrote about assault gun tactics before, and pointed out that poor quality tanks are still suitable for such tactics. The Russians are lucky, as they have good high explosive rounds for their 125 mm tank guns. Assault gun tactics (particularly the nimble one just mentioned) can mitigate much of the anti-tank firepower of the Ukrainian land forces, both in open terrain and where there are concealment and cover. Assault guns only need to expose themselves briefly (if lines of sight are short) or can stay at a relatively safe distance (1+ km, enough to neutralise man-portable AT hardware such as NLAW). Brief exposure may be enough to survive even Javelin shots, and it surely helps much against the awfully slow-flying anti-tank missiles of Ukrainian production.

Concealment-negating loitering munitions (killer drones basically) would be the most appropriate technological counter.

The many Rosgvardia paramilitary troops who are ill-suited for combined arms conventional battle might sooner or later get certain main supply routes under control, while the army could create convoy escort units with its otherwise largely useless wheeled armoured vehicles, so convoys could be secured on other routes as well.

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The fallback option of using assault gun tactics should be noted by Western land forces as well, for our budgets are also excessively strained by training tracked armoured forces in the field to the level of competence required for Blitzkrieg-style operations. We clearly fail at maintaining the highly advisable combined arms mix; the Russian army has by far the best range of battlefield air defences in use, whereas the German Bundeswehr has almost negligible battlefield air defences, for example*.

An affordable land force design for Poland or Romania could include

  • few regular army brigades with 3:1 infantry/tank platoon mix, ShoRAD/VShoRAD air defences, 8×8 self-propelled 155 mm guns, no IFVs, no fashionable 8×8 AFVs
  • much more numerous active army+army reserves; infantry battalions for a limited repertoire of (sweep, security, defensive reconnaissance and anti-tank) missions
  • militia infantry battalions limited to the national territory, drawing trained NCOs and officers from the army reserves

This is a bit less optimistic and demanding than my prescription for reforming the Polish Land ForcesĀ  in 2016, but with similar themes.**

Such an approach could even serve as inspiration for well-funded land forces far from any NATO frontier, such as the British Army that’s too small to maintain a satisfactory light/medium/heavy forces mix: Motorised (bulletproof wheeled vehicles) Battalion Battlegroups (built on an infantry battalion, 8…10 8×8 155 mm SPGs and CAMM+20 mm RCWS air defences mostly) could receive reinforcements by each one assault gun tactics-trained Challenger 2 tank company once those could be deployed and sustained.

related: (an attempt to make do without tanks, substituting for them with other expensive but more mobile means)


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*: The German Heer basically
has just 1980’s tech 1990’s production Stingers and normal calibre
machineguns with very simple anti-air sights, now complemented by the 30
mm gun of the new Puma IFV, which helps against helicopters

**: Who would have become convinced if I had proposed to get rid of ambitious mechanised brigades altogether? Poland was economically on the rise then, and ambitious modernisation seemed to fit.

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