For the past four months or so the world has watched as events have evolved in Ukraine.
In particular, Russia’s immense losses in main battle tanks (MBTs) and armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) at the hands of small, determined groups of defenders aided by arms supplied by the west has led to many questioning the value of such vehicles in modern, conventional warfare. At the time of writing, Ukraine’s claimed losses it has inflicted on Russia’s MBTs and AFVs stand at 1,200 and 2,750 respectively.
Whilst such claims have to be approached with some caution, there is little doubt that their Russian enemy has suffered grievously. Ukraine’s own losses are harder to determine but are likely to be significant also.
There are many lessons to be garnered for the UK and other western countries from the progress of the war so far. Declarations that the age of the tank could be premature and misguided, but there is little doubt that many NATO countries need to address the changes in armoured warfare we have witnessed if we are to have any hope of prevailing in a future conflict of this nature and intensity.
The numbers game
First and foremost amongst these lessons is the need for numbers. It’s no accident that victory usually goes to the big battalions, and of course the old adage that quantity has a quality all of its own still applies. If you look at the level of MBT and AFV losses incurred by both sides in the Ukraine to date, you do have to wonder how long many NATO countries current tank fleets might last at this level of conflict. If say, 150 or so tanks were committed at the same time they might last a week at best before becoming combat ineffective.
The problem is that many countries have no immediately available replacement tanks to refurbish and re-equip so they can go again. This will make many armoured forces a “use once only” force, because in anything approaching a peer-on-peer conflict they will be expended quickly.
The quick-fix solution? Buy from abroad, and do so quickly. The obvious options are either the US M1A1 series or Germany’s Leopard 2. Apparently the USA may have as many as 3,000 + of the M1/M1A1 Abrams in storage, and who knows how many Leopard 2s might be in hangars and warehouses across Europe.
MBT and AFV protection
Next, we need to look at MBT and AFV protection against attack. Most are now familiar with the American Javelin and the UK/Swedish NLAW (Next generation light anti tank weapon) which have been, together with guided artillery shells, knocking lumps off Russian tanks and AFVs in Ukraine. Javelin and NLAW use a top attack mode which targets an MBT’s thinner top armour. While we have marvelled at the vulnerabilities of Russian vehicles to these weapons systems, there is nothing to suggest that western tanks would fare any better. In fact, the treatment meted out to the Turkish Leopard 2s in Syria in 2016 may have been partly due to such attack modes.
What is to be done? There are countermeasures available to defeat the top attack threats from anti-tank missiles, drones, and loitering and “suicide” munitions, both passive and active. At the same time, remote weapons systems (RWS) – as seen in action in some footage from Ukraine against ground targets – can be optimised to counter the threats from above. The problem is that many MBTs and AFVs don’t field any of these, not yet anyway, There is a need to move rapidly to equipping the whole tank fleet.
Then there is the combined arms aspect. Successful combat operations demand practiced all-arms cooperation between tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, etc, but above all air defence. While much has been made of the success in Ukraine of the British Starstreak and Martlet surface-to-air missiles, and rightly so, sufficient numbers are a problem, which again needs to be rectified. Add cannon-based anti-air capability while you’re at it too. Plus, infantry equipped properly to accompany tanks in close country and urban environments can prevent the enemy having the opportunity to engage with short range anti-armour weapons by flushing them out in advance. But the infantry need to have a modern infantry fighting vehicle to accomplish this.
Air power and logistics
Briefly touching upon air power and logistics. I terms of the former, it is clearly a prerequisite for successful ground operations that air superiority is achieved, even it is limited by time and geography to specific actions. Can NATO guarantee this for their ground forces – in the face of a peer or near-peer foe? And secondly, the Ukraine war has highlighted once again the vast quantities of materiel that modern high-tempo conventional operations consume. Do we have the wherewithal to sustain such combat operations? I suspect we do not.
The current war in eastern Europe has been a bit of a wake up call for militaries around the globe. For the UK, and to a lesser extent the rest of NATO, it has also illustrated how the last twenty years of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq has been no preparation in equipment, training, or tactics for the real thing. Most NATO armies are underfunded, under-manned, and poorly equipped to take on such an enterprise now or in the near future.
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