The announcement by the US to supply 31 Abrams tanks, Germany 14 Leopard-2 and the UK 14 Challenger-2 tanks against Zelensky’s demand of 300 tanks, reignites the debate on employment of armour in the modern battlefield. These deliveries are in addition to some Leopard-2 tanks promised by Ukraine’s other neighbours and European allies. France is also expected to despatch few of its manufactured Leclerc tanks. In all the total number of tanks being provided to Ukraine is unlikely to exceed 100. A Ukrainian tank battalion comprises of 31 tanks. Thus Ukraine could create an armoured brigade.
Ukraine has been operating Russian T 72 tanks, some of which were supplied by erstwhile USSR states, now part of NATO. The delivery of the promised tanks is expected to take time, with European tanks being made available in about 3 months. The Abrams will have to be shipped from the US. An unknown fact is whether these tanks are new or refurbished, which could impact performance and efficiency. In the meantime, Ukrainian troops will be trained to operate as also maintain these tanks, which are vastly different from the Russian variety, which Ukraine currently possesses. It will also imply establishing multiple new supply chains.
The Azerbaijan- Armenia conflict of 2020 and the initial stages of the Russo-Ukraine conflict last year had images of costly armoured vehicles being destroyed or neutralized by cheap handheld weapons or drones. This gave the impression that the era of tanks is ending as these powerful weapon systems, which dominated warfare for decades,are vulnerable on the battlefield. The battle between tanks and anti-tank weapons has been ongoing since its introduction in the first world war.
Every vulnerability of the tank led to development of weapon systems to destroy them such as a weak turret resulted in the development of the top attack ammunition. The arrival of smart drones added to their vulnerability. This led to the emergence of multiple anti-drone weapon systems which enhance staying power of tanks.It also led to change in tactics in their employment. Added has been increasing protection of vulnerable parts of the tank including ammunition storage regions. Simultaneous has been the battle to keep the weight of the tank within acceptable limits.
Wrong tactics in employment of armour, as done by Russia in the initial stages of the war, which involved moving them in columns along roads, expecting little resistance, led to them becoming sitting ducks for Ukrainian troops with limited anti-armour weaponry. Many tanks were abandoned as they had run out of fuel because supporting echelons lacked matching mobility. In brief, Russia was let down by tactics and training,not by technology or capability of weapon systems. In the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict tanks were largely in static roles hence became easy targets. There was limited employment of all arms teams comprising of mechanized infantry and air defence, all in matching mobility vehicles which provided added protection to tanks.
Tanks are offensive weapons and rarely employed for defensive operations. Their major defensive employment is in counter attacks. This implies that the decision to send tanks to Ukraine is with the intention that Ukrainian troops alongside western paid mercenaries can launch offensive operations to regain Ukrainian territory, presently under the control of Russia.
The west hopes that the loss of even one Ukrainian region,currently under Moscow,can change the course of war and push Putin onto the negotiating table. It also conveys that the West is calling the Russian nuclear threat a bluff. Simultaneously, tanks need immense maintenance and logistics support, which would imply setting up supply lines upto the battlefield. This may be a challenge as also time consuming especially as the west cannot deploy own troops in the region as it could project direct NATO involvement in the conflict. With different varieties of tanks, supply chains will also be diverse.
Western tanks may be superior to their Russian cousins however are heavier and unless employed tactically with an all arms concept, they may not be effective. Air superiority remains with the Russians, and any wrongful exposure could prove fatal. Ukraine cannot afford major armour losses as replenishments may be hard to come by. Further, western tanks are heavier and may get bogged down in Ukraine’s wet mud if employed in bad terrain conditions.
The arrival of NATO tanks in Ukraine will pitch western armour against Russian, for possibly the first time, with trained Ukrainian soldiers acting as proxies.In case western tanks are destroyed on the battlefield, it would have an impact on their reputation and capabilities. It could end up with donor states blaming Ukrainian soldiers for their inability to operate these weapon systems. The converse could be true in the advent of increased Russian armour casualties.
The western intent was made evident when Rishi Sunak, the British PM tweeted, ‘together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace.’ The NATO Secretary General Jens Stolten bergadded, ‘If we want Ukraine to be able to retake territory, we need to give them more armour, more heavy and modern weapons. We need that to assure that President Putin doesn’t win this war.’
Russia warned the west on its actions claiming it as an aggression. The Russian statement also mentioned that it would only bring ‘more suffering to Ukraine’ and ‘more tensions to the continent.’ This implies Russian aerial strikes would only increase. Fresh Russian offensives are expected in the spring for which the Ukrainians are being prepared with additional weaponry.
This arming of Ukraine only pushes hopes for peace away. The west believes that any Ukrainian victory will force Russia to the bargaining table but that is unlikely. Putin will never be willing to negotiate from a position of weakness. For Zelensky, with the west funding and arming Ukraine, talks is the last option. The provision of armour may not enable Zelensky to recapture lost territory, however will enhance the conflict, impacting Russian military power and economy. Finally, whether western or Russian tanks are more effective will become clear in due course.
India, having examined the Russian tank’s performance in the ongoing conflict is now moving towards creating a hybrid tank by using the main body of the T 72 with the turret of the T 90 Bishma.
The author is Major General (Retd)