By Todd Davis
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
Before the Russian intervention in Ukraine, many military historians speculated about the future role of tanks on the modern battlefield. Rising to prominence during World War Two, an army’s offensive potential was directly linked to the quality and quantity of its armored divisions.
Contemporary strategic thinking wasn’t in accord with the role of the tank. Some advocated for its continued use while others felt the tank was increasingly expensive and obsolete on the battlefield. In the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, both sides suffered significant losses to their armored forces early on, giving credence to the voices saying tanks were a technology whose time had passed. However, as the first major conventional war between large nation-states has developed, the importance of the tank is greater than ever.
Russia began its Special Military Operation attempting a Blitzkrieg-style offensive in Ukraine from four different directions. Anyone who has seen maps of World War Two offensives is familiar with the bold, colored arrows driving deep into enemy territory, encircling static formations, then racing ahead to the next objective.
Blitzkrieg, though, is not easy to pull off. Mobile warfare requires coordinating armored spearheads, establishing a Schwerpunkt (concentrated force hitting one point to create a breakthrough) then following up that penetration into the soft, undefended rear areas of the enemy. There is a reason Germany ran over Europe for three years; its generals understood how to conduct, coordinate, and supply large-scale armored operations. Men like Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel, and Erich von Manstein were aggressive, gifted commanders. It would take the Russians many hard losses and lessons before it found counterparts in Ivan Konev, Konstantin Rokossovsky, and Aleksandr Vasilevskiy who had the experience and mastery to counter German mobile warfare.
The February plan to force the rapid capitulation of Ukraine was too ambitious and too optimistic. It required generals to execute complex maneuvers with large, armored forces that can only be pulled off by men who have the necessary experience and capabilities. Russia did not have that in February 2022. So, their tank attacks floundered, stalled, and got bogged down.
This led many to believe the day of the tank was over. Russia even abandoned five of its most advanced tanks, the T-90, because of breakdowns in the supply system. Supply chains are even more important than firepower when determining the success or failure of armored offensives.
The Russians were mocked by the West because of these troubles. Military observers pointed out the Russians didn’t know how to conduct mobile warfare, conveniently omitting that no one had conducted mobile warfare on a battlefield against a major military power in eight decades.
Meanwhile, Ukraine was having its own problems. Ukraine began the war with one of the world’s largest tank forces numbering nearly 2,500 vehicles. It encountered all the problems Russia was having and more; Russia has some of the best infantry anti-tank weapons in the world. Irregular insurgents across the globe have knocked out modern Challenger 2s and Leopard 2s with Russian-made 9M133 Kornets. In the hands of Russian regulars facing the Soviet-era armor that made up the bulk of Ukraine’s tank force, countless Ukrainian tanks were destroyed.
America rushed Stinger and Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine to counter the Russian armor. The Javelin was the first “wonder weapon” touted by the media covering the war. This was the game changer that would stop the Russians. As the war progressed, we began to hear less about Javelins, primarily because they were ineffective for two reasons. The first is that Ukraine soldiers didn’t have the training to maximize their effectiveness. The second is that they’re extremely expensive.
A trained US soldier operating the Javelin would be expected to score a hit 19% of the time on a tank. Ukraine, unfamiliar and untrained on the weapon, was hitting Russian tanks at a 5% rate. A Javelin missile costs $250,000 (export cost). For every 100 shots Ukraine took, they were hitting 5 Russian tanks at a cost of $25 million dollars. By comparison, the Russian-made Kornet costs $26,000 (export cost).
Cost and ineffectiveness aren’t the only factors that drove Javelins from the headlines. Supply is a major issue. The United States had an inventory of around 20,000 Javelins. 7000 of those have been sent to Ukraine. Currently, the US purchases about 1,000 Javelins a year, although maximum production is closer to 6,500. However, this isn’t something that one can drive down to a gun show and buy in bulk. There is a 32-month manufacturing period required by Lockheed Martin to supply the Javelins. Exorbitant costs, low hit rates, and a long production time made the Javelin ineffective in the war.
A similar pattern runs throughout all the weapons America has supplied to Ukraine whether they are M-777s, HIMARS, or 155mm artillery shells. American weapons are too expensive, too few in number, take too long to make, and are having a difficult time performing in the harsh climate and terrain of Eastern Ukraine. The grab bag that NATO is funneling into Ukraine is in even worse shape since none of these nations have the economy or industrial capacity to replace weapons sent to Kiev. And virtually every weapon sent to Ukraine is captured or destroyed.
Russia has already eliminated two Ukrainian armies; the February 2022 standing army of Ukraine that NATO had been arming and training since 2014, and the reconstituted version of this army that was resupplied by the United States and NATO in the summer of 2022. The first army was destroyed by the Russians during the initial intervention and the second was lost during the Kharkov and Kherson offensives, both public relations wins but strategic failures for Ukraine. Captured equipment has been sent back to Moscow, Tehran, and probably Beijing for study and reverse engineering.
Further, the quality of the Ukrainian army has degraded over the past year. The AFU took around 200,000 casualties during the first year of the war, leaving most of its high-quality Western-trained brigades a skeleton of their former selves. Most of the AFU is now conscripted men, increasingly under 21 or over 50 years of age who have received minimal training. Even when they are given NATO weapons, they don’t have the training to use them.
Still, the West must do something. They have all pledged to support Ukraine no matter what it takes. NATO is no longer making rational strategic decisions when it comes to Ukraine. The only logical move now is to make peace with Russia. Instead, NATO is making decisions based on anger and emotion.
They are angry that economic sanctions haven’t worked. They are angry that Ukraine can’t defeat the Russians and so they are making emotional choices that have no sound military basis. The latest example is the drive to send Western tanks into the battle zone.
Once considered a red line that NATO didn’t want to cross, as it would be rightly viewed by the world that if NATO supplied main battle tanks to Ukraine, it would be directly involved in the conflict. But there was a massive push this month for countries in the alliance to raid their inventories and send German-made Leopard 2 tanks into Ukraine.
Russia, after months of grinding down the AFU, has begun advancing and taking key cities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Russian mobilized reserves have been fully incorporated into the Federation forces and Russia long ago incorporated its civilian and defense industry to streamline the delivery of tanks, planes, shells, and artillery to the frontlines. Russian industry has been on a semi-mobilized war production level since the 2008 conflict with Georgia. Production has increased significantly since the war in Ukraine. In 2022, Russia produced 200 high-end T-90 tanks and modernized another 800 prior-generation tanks. There is not a single country in NATO that has the infrastructure in place to produce tanks on the level of Russia currently. That includes the United States.
The immense build-up of Russian men and equipment has put Ukraine at a strategic disadvantage. The war hasn’t been fought with tank armies but with artillery. Russia has consistently held an 8:1 advantage over Ukraine in the number of artillery pieces it can bring to bear. Infantry cannot advance into the face of artillery without tanks and armored fighting vehicles. Flagging support for Ukraine among the West can only be shored up by conjuring Ukrainian victories. Ukraine has to have tanks to maintain the appearance of victory
NATO nations then played their familiar game; the Baltic states and Poland demanded everything be sent, everyone talked in circles, hesitating, double-talking, and procrastinating. This was mainly because all their military advisors said sending Western tanks to Ukraine wouldn’t stop Russia from winning. More so, depleting national stores of hard-to-replace tanks was dangerous. Western tanks have complex supply chains, are too heavy, and aren’t suited to the rugged terrain of Russia. They also require long training times. Frankly, the image of German-made tanks once again driving off into the Russian steppe is bad optics, too.
Germany tried to stall, stating it would send Leopards if the United States would send M1 Abrams, the jewel of the American ground forces. No one in the Pentagon wants Abrams to be captured and destroyed in the Donbas. But America, always clever, bordering on devious when it comes to coercing its allies in this war, finally pledged that it would send 31 Abrams to Ukraine. This opened the door for Germany to grudgingly promise 14 Leopards. The headlines flooded out, Western tanks to Ukraine, Ukraine was going to win!
Reality is rarely what we see and even less what we read. The United States isn’t sending Abrams to Ukraine, it is putting in a production order for Abrams. That will take months to years to fill. By the time those tanks receive their final coat of paint, it’s unlikely Ukraine, in its current form, will still exist.
German Leopards need refitting and won’t arrive until late spring or early summer. Even if everything is tabulated, all eight tanks from Norway, two from Canada, 10 from Spain, and so on are collected together, that’s a fraction of the size that Russia has already destroyed twice. And the Russians are producing tanks at wartime levels. Hundreds are being moved into the war zone.
Russia has a vast supply of weapons capable of destroying NATO tanks, too. The new Vikhr-1 missile produced by Kalashnikov has a range of 10 kilometers and can penetrate the armor of an Abrams tank.
“It can do so due to two warheads installed into one missile. The rocket explodes twice – the first warhead destroys the active upper layers of armor, while the other warhead explodes a millisecond after the first and burns through the metal inside of the machine,” explains Alexey Ramm, a military analyst at Izvestia newspaper. Vikhr-1s can be delivered by both drones and Ka-52 and Mi-28 series helicopters.
Eventually, we are going to see NATO tanks fight the Russians, a prospect that was conceivable only in a Tom Clancy novel or a wargame prior to this deepening crisis. NATO tanks are too few in number, can’t be replaced, and won’t stop the Russians. And so, the next round of escalation will start. Ukraine is already asking for F-16s. Eventually, it will get them. After Russian Migs are fighting NATO planes and Russia is still winning, where do we escalate next?
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