Eleven Big Lessons for the Employment of Tanks in Future Battlespace: The Russia – Ukraine Conflict

General

The first casualty in war is always truth. This is increasingly relevant in the war of narratives which dominates the contemporary social media battlespace1. One such aspect that is far from the truth is the obituary of the tank being signed. Such leading statements show a deficit in understanding of tank and tank warfare.

It may be premature to draw lessons from an ongoing war, yet a few facts that have been distorted need to be put in the right perspective less the larger picture gets painted with illusions and false messaging. Given the open-source narratives, it seems that the Russians fought a 21st Century War with 19th Century tank tactics2. The Ukrainian conflict has certainly brought forth shortcomings in the Russian doctrinal construct, training, and tactical employment of tanks. Yet the fact is their success could never have been achieved in the absence of tanks3.

The Eleven Big Tank Lessons

Conventional Wars are here to Stay and Tanks will play a Critical Role in Future Wars. The myth that war is not an option often professed by politicians and some defence analysts stands shattered. Hard power counts and this requires time-critical investment in terms of matching budgetary support and optimisation of indigenous capabilities. Further, the aim of war is to impose one’s will on the adversary and the art of war is to achieve victory at the least cost and in minimum time. It is this important factor in which tanks as mobile protected firepower enjoy a unique and indomitable position on the battlefield.

Boots and Tracks on Ground Matter. As long as nations have inimical adversaries and turbulent borders, boots and tracks on the ground will matter. They are the symbol of hard power and the signature of offensive intent. Their employment must increasingly be seen from the physical denial and domination perspective of deterrence and warfighting. The impasse in Ladakh Sector against the Chinese has once again proven the role of boots and tracks on the ground4.

Distance Punishment Versus Adaptive Manoeuvre. The modern battlespace demands the military to cope with increasing information overload, battlespace transparency, precision munition lethality, terrain restrictions, and logistical vulnerabilities. In such a battlespace it has been proven that distance punishment unexploited by the physical domination of the ground is a wasted effect. The need is to complement 2D terrain mechanised manoeuvre with 3D air enabled manoeuvre from fixed-wing and attack helicopters.

Tank is a Symbol of Military Power in the Information Wars of the 21st Century. The war of narratives scripts the notion of victory in the cognitive domain5. The question of identifying victor and vanquished in these contemporary wars is complex and ambiguous. There will no more be absolute victory or absolute defeat. In this script tanks, ships and aircraft make impactful visuals and their employment adds to the plausibility of the narrative. Nations will need to invest in this dimension of perception management of information warfare. Thus, tanks will dominate the time, space, force, and cognitive domain of warfare.

Tank is as Good as the Tankman. In a 21st-century war, traditional tank versus tank battles are increasingly exceptional, yet tanks as mobile protected firepower platforms will find a predominant place across the entire spectrum of conflict including in the nuclear environment. Their optimisation will be a factor in understanding their deployability, employability, and capability. It is here that we require a mix of medium and light tanks6. Tanks are as good as the tankman and the tankman is as good as the operational doctrine, technology enablement, and tactical skills7. Adhoc and insufficient skills through conscripts have their limits and the proposed concept of “Tour on Duty” needs greater deliberation in the light of the Russian tankman’s poor performance. Additionally, unit training cycles and field exercises must not be curtailed. Further, high technology combat simulation systems and simulators must add to the training continuum.

New Generation Anti-Tank Platforms are a Potent Threat, Yet Surmountable. Anti-tank platforms will continue to evolve and hunt the tank. Tanks will continue to prevail with counter technologies and adaptive tactics. Balanced survivability is a concept that entails technologies and tactics entailing not to be seen, if seen not to be hit and if hit not to be destroyed. Tank dominates as an offensive platform. Anti-tank as the name suggests is a defensive reaction to stop this onslaught. Thus, the pendulum of tank versus anti-tank technology will continue to sway making neither obsolete. Modern technology, innovative tactics, superior training, and bold leadership will prevail over such challenges as in the past, present, and future. The question is not whether tanks will survive in the future but how they will they continue to adapt to meet future challenges. The question is not whether armies should have tanks in the future but what should they look like and adapt to future threats.

Tank Design Needs to Evolve in Keeping with Contemporary Threats. Tank design has evolved from firepower, mobility, and protection to lethality, agility, survivability, reliability, and adaptability. The agility of a tank differentiates it from a static pill pox and should never be compromised as it adds to its survivability. The lethality of guns aided by state-of-the-art technology and superior situational awareness further destroys threats. The threat spectrum to has expanded from the traditional 180 degrees frontal arc to 360 degrees all around. Smart technologies like active protection systems both soft and hard kill means, signature management, and electronic countermeasures are adding to its survivability. Balanced Survivability is an all-encompassing multi-layered and multi-tiered concept that needs holistic understanding and greater investment. The pressing need is for greater investment in R&D in these areas to have technology ownership. Greater ‘atmanirbharta’ investment in a complex system of systems like tanks through the Make or Strategic Partnership model needs focus.

Combined Arms Team Concept in a Joint Operational Environment is a Critical Enabler. The Russian tank columns lined up ceremonially on roads were an eyesore irrespective of the known slushy countryside. There was no semblance of a combined arms team in a joint operational environment. The very operational manoeuvre groups the Russians professed and the Chinese learned were missing. Tanks must be employed as part of a combined arms manoeuvre8. It’s an inclusive team warfare concept wherein each arm complements and addresses the limitations and vulnerabilities of the other. This requires integration and synergized application as part of the surface to space continuum. Integrated Battle Groups (IBG)9 is the way forward and needs a thorough doctrinal understanding and integrated bold employment. They need to be empowered by dominant battlespace awareness by responsive C5ISR architecture for knowledge-based decision-oriented combined arms manoeuvres.

Larger Dimension of Understanding Mechanised Forces. Mechanised Forces must be conceptually viewed not only as armour and mechanized infantry but also as SP Arty, SP AD, attack helicopters, combat engineers, and matching mobile combat support and logistics. Increasingly infantry too needs matching mobility when operating in a combined arms team and thus should be APC / Wheeled Armoured Platform (WHAP) borne. The larger cultural issue is that we must grow beyond an exclusive arm-centric mindset to an inclusive force centric one, in an essentially joint force operating environment.

Urban Warfare Dynamics and Collateral Damage Sensitivity. The urbanisation of terrain and hybrid warfare certainly pose a challenge to tank employment in terms of restricted mobility, lack of high angle firing capability, and vulnerability to close-range handheld anti-tank ambushes. Ukraine highlighted this challenge. Additionally, irrespective of the gory of war, nations will be sensitive to the collateral damage that draws international flake. These limitations will have to be overcome by both technology enablement and innovative tactics wherein infantry screens deployed ahead clear such pockets of threat along with close fire support as part of a combined arms team. Suitable doctrines and drills will need to be evolved to overcome such challenges.

Force Sustenance and Operational Logistics. Operational logistics and force sustainment to include combat support for repair and recovery must find equal focus and be synergised with operational planning. The mention of Russian tank columns presumably devoid of matching combat support and logistics in Ukraine did not auger well for operational planning. Focused logistics must be based on a push model which is anticipatory, agile, responsive, modular, flexible, and readily deployable in support of operations. Thus, adequate redundancy, surge capability, and logistic contingencies must be dovetailed in the plans.

Conclusion

War has an enduring nature and an evolving character. So also, the tank is enduring and tank warfare evolving with changes in terrain, technology, threats, tactics, and training. Lessons from wars must be viewed with a balanced and holistic perspective and related to the present and future operational environment specific to a nation.

End Notes

  1. Stephanie Diepeveen, Olena Borodyna, Theo Tindall, “A war on many fronts: disinformation around the Russia-Ukraine war”, ODI, March 2022 (https://odi.org/en/insights/a-war-on-many-fronts-disinformation-around-the-russia-ukraine-war/)
  2. Lt Gen A B Shivane, “Russia’s 19th Century Tactics in 21st Century War , Rediff.com, Apr 2022, ( https://www.rediff.com/news/interview/lieutenant-general-a-b-shivane-russias-19th-century-tactics-in-21st-century-war/20220421.htm)
  3. DEF – TALKS by Aadi “Russia Ukraine War. Is this the end of the road for Tanks?”, Apr 2022, ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6PdqzFO3Yg)
  4. Maj Gen BS Dhanoa, “Why Ladakh needs Tanks” ORF, Jul 2020 (https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/why-ladakh-needs-tanks/)
  5. Lt Gen A B Shivane, “The Notion of Victory in 21st Century Warfare” 2021, Chapter in the Book -Battle Ready for the 21st Century, Pentagon Press LLP; and Tone Kvernbekk & Ola Bøe-Hansen “How to Win Wars: The Role of the War Narrative” May 2017, (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-56883-6_12)
  6. Why Russia’s tank war stalled in Ukraine, CBS News, Mar 2022 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-ukraine-tank-war/) ; Ukraine War: Here’s Why Russia Has Lost So Many Tanks, NDTV Apr 2022, (https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/ukraine-war-heres-why-russia-has-lost-so-many-tanks-2880939)