Russian tanks have taken heavy losses in Ukraine. Countless images of decapitated turrets and burnt-out wrecks have made headlines around the world with some proclaiming the death of the tank altogether. They argue that the threat of artillery, drones, and man portable anti-tank missiles makes them extra vulnerable on the modern battlefield and an unsustainable risk to their crews. But is that really true? It turns out that, rather than the tank itself, Russia's tactics may be to blame for these losses.
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Tanks or tactics?
This is the T-72 you may recognize it as one of the tanks which has suffered so heavily during the war in Ukraine. Countless images of decapitated turrets and burnt out wrecks have made headlines around the world with some proclaiming the death of the tank altogether. They argue that the threat of artillery, drones, and manportable anti-tank missiles make them extra vulnerable on the modern battlefield and an unsustainable risk to their crews. But is that really true? Well to find out we first need to take a closer look at the T-72.
First entering service in the early 1970s it's one of the most widely used main battle tanks in the world and for good reason. Weighing just over 40 tons it's quick and maneuverable. It also has an extremely low profile achieved by reducing the crew to just three. The gun is very powerful 125 millimeters, much larger than its contemporary NATO tanks. However it struggles with accuracy when fired on the move. Most importantly though the T-72 is cheap. This is a tank designed for a conscript army. It's rugged, reliable, and easy to produce.
Our tank here at IWM Duxford is a T-72M, an export version with thinner armour. But most of the T-72s in Russian service in Ukraine are modern T-72B3s featuring improved thermal imaging and sights, an upgraded gun, and explosive reactive armour. But if they've had such major upgrades why are they taking such heavy losses?
Samir Puri - Author - Russia's Road to War with Ukraine: I think there are a few things to note about the T-72, one of which is its increasing vulnerability in the face of much more modern weapon systems that have been used to defend against it. Some of the man portable anti-armour weapons such as the Javelin and the NLAW will actually arc from a higher angle down to strike the top of the tank where it's least armoured. Alongside these anti-tank guided missiles which are infantry carried there's also been extensive use by Ukraine of drones. These unmanned aerial vehicles have proved very effective especially against slow-moving Russian armoured convoys.
These new weapons have exacerbated one of the T-72's major design flaws, its ammunition storage. While western tanks have tended to store their ammunition in the back of the turret, away from the crew. The ammunition in the T-72 sits directly beneath the turret and the crew. If the storage compartment gets hit it can cause a chain reaction, blowing the turret clean off. For the Soviets this was a question of priority. Storing the ammunition here kept the vehicle smaller lighter and cheaper. That's helpful for a Cold War conscript army, but it does leave modern Russian crews very vulnerable.
Samir Puri: Given how much Russian armoured forces have suffered attrition in the invasion of Ukraine questions are of course being asked as to whether the tank is now dead and the answer is most certainly no. Had the Russians used their tanks in a more coherent combined arms operation to begin with then perhaps we wouldn't be saying the tank is dead. We may actually be seeing Russian tanks in the center of Kiev, not the carcasses of T-72s being paraded as a triumph by the Urainians of having vanquished the Russian assault on Kiev and having defended their capital instead.
Rather than the tank itself, the problem is the way the Russians have employed their armour. At the core of modern offensive warfare is an approach known as combined arms. It was first developed by the Allies during the First World War who successfully deployed infantry, tanks, artillery, and aircraft together in concert to break the trench deadlock in 1918. Before becoming standard practice during the Second World War in German blitzkrieg and Soviet deep battle doctrines. The main battle tank was designed to be used in this way, working together with other units to overpower the enemy. But in Ukraine combined arms warfare has been largely absent.
Samir Puri:We don't really see this kind of tight combined arms operations being mounted by the Russians they really struggled to do this. Instead what we saw were quite disconnected Russian elements and that meant that often the Russians were moving into positions it was still very well defended that hadn't been softened. Which is why as the war has moved on sixth, seventh, eighth month the Russians have changed tack very much to I guess quite brutal in discriminate bombardment of the cities that they want to take. To basically reduce them to ashes before Russian forces roll in to pick off those defenders that remain.
There are no massed tank battles for which the Cold War T-72 was designed. In fact engagements in Ukraine are on a much smaller scale with platoons and companies clashing together rather than divisions and corps. There has also been an absence of close air support, a crucial tool for supporting tanks as part of combined arms operations.
Samir Puri: There was a lot of aerial activity, there was a lot of dog fighting as well, early on in the in the invasion. But the aerial defense systems that both sides have gotten and can deploy to cover their their more fixed positions are effective enough that the attrition rate amongst combat aircraft has risen. And the Russians interestingly appear to be husbanding the resource of of their air force. We haven't really seen close air support for either side in the last seven or eight months.
The final part of Russia's combined arms failure is their severe crisis of Manpower. In the early months of the war Russia had little infantry with which to protect its tanks particularly in urban settings. That that allowed small groups of Ukrainians to mount what almost seemed like guerrilla operations. Getting in close to Russian armour and taking them out with anti-tank guided missiles before they knew what was happening. Russia has now launched a much larger mobilization of manpower to try and fix this problem, but with many of its best troops and equipment already expended there are questions about the quality, supply, and morale of these new soldiers.
Samir Puri: So whereas the Russians are stealing Ukrainian land, the Ukrainians are stealing Russian military equipment. The fact that the Ukrainians are actually able to capture intact or largely intact T-72s is a testament to the Russian logistics. Meaning that you find in captured Russian equipment low supplies, some Russian PWOs complaining of a lack of lack of proper support from their headquarters and have simply given up or run away.
Even as Russia has moved on to the defensive tanks are still a crucial part of the fighting, though the threats they face are very different. New long-range artillery donated to the Ukrainians have made Russian armour setting ducks even miles behind the front line.
Samir Puri: Of course the main battle tank is well known as well as for its offensive properties for its use as a defensive weapon. That old-fashioned infantry technique of the trench, parking a tank so its turret is perhaps the only visible part. The downside of doing that in modern warfare is the aerial sensory apparatus is so much more advanced, that drone Warfare has moved forward so much that I think a simple trench which the Russians perhaps are relying on won't be much protection against a more sophisticated combined arms operation.
And this brings us to the most powerful evidence that the tank is not obsolete. That Ukrainian forces are using main battle tanks like their T-64s to great effect as they recapture territory in both the south and east of the country.
Samir Puri: It just goes to remind you that it's not the necessarily the piece of equipment, it's how it's being employed. And perhaps not only the strategy, but also the wider political context within which weapons of war are being used. And I think the main battle tank from Ukraine's perspective is actually quite a useful tool in that regard. Because you can imagine as you take new territory, what better way to anchor that new territory than with armoured forces that are able to dig in and to show that the flag has been raised again over Ukrainian soil. And that Ukraine possesses the ability to defend it against Russia's attempts perhaps to push back against Ukrainian gains.