Is the end of the battle tank in sight in the conflict in Ukraine?

According to open source information, more than 3 Russian and Ukrainian combat tanks have been lost on both sides since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, more than were engaged at the start of the conflict. .

Such losses have significant consequences, particularly on the course of combat and the stagnation of the line of engagement. They even led both camps to move away from the classic doctrines of using the battle tank, inherited from the Second World War, which made the latter the pillars of rupture and decision.

We can, in this context, question the future of the heavy tank, in an environment saturated with drones, mines, and missiles, depriving it of its maneuvering capabilities, and therefore, of a large part of its interest in combat. These would, however, certainly be far too hasty conclusions...

Terrifying losses for Russian and Ukrainian tank units

If we are to believe Oryx website, the Russian armies have lost, in Ukraine, around 2 combat tanks, since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, of which almost 900 are identified as destroyed, 2 captured, and the rest being abandoned or damaged.

Russian battle tank destroyed
The Russian armies have lost around 3000 battle tanks since the start of the conflict. These figures must, however, be taken with certain reservations.

At the start of the Russian offensive in February 2022, analysts estimated that Moscow had massed around 1 to 200 tanks on the borders of Ukraine, while the entire fleet of tanks in service, at within the Russian armies, was estimated at 1 to 400 armored vehicles.

Ukrainian side, the situation is not much better. Of the 1 tanks in service among active Ukrainian units as of February 300, 2022 were reported lost, including 800 identified as destroyed, 550 captured and the remainder abandoned or damaged.

The precision of these figures must, obviously, be taken with certain reservations. On the one hand, these are only armored vehicles that were photographed and then released as open sources. If the exercise could prove effective, when the lines were moving quickly, at the start of the conflict, this is much less the case today, when the lines are relatively fixed, even if the drones provide certain information in this area .

On the other hand, the analysis method applied by the Oryx site, and the means available to this small volunteer team, lends itself more to the analysis of a limited conflict, with losses of a few dozen, perhaps a few hundreds of armored vehicles, rather than for a conflict of this magnitude. Finally, we do not know the number of tanks and armored vehicles identified, destroyed, abandoned or damaged, which were recovered by the forces, to be transported to rehabilitation centers.

Despite these reservations, there is no doubt that tank fleets, both Russian and Ukrainian, have experienced quite considerable attrition rates. The analysis of the attritions identified in recent months also shows that the Russian armies almost no longer align the models that they had initially deployed around Ukraine, suggesting that indeed, the bulk of this fleet was eradicated.

Western tanks as vulnerable as Soviet or Russian models in the Ukrainian conflict

If Russian or Soviet designed tanks, such as the Russian T-72, T-80 and T-90, or the Ukrainian T-64, paid the high price in these battles, they were not the only ones to record catastrophic attrition rates.

Leopard 2A6 and M2 Bradley destroyed
Most Leopard Ukrainian 2A6 and M2 Bradley lost during this engagement at the start of the Ukrainian summer counter-offensive of 2023, were reportedly recovered and reconditioned by the Ukrainians.

So, out of the 130+ Leopard 2, all versions combined, delivered to Ukraine to date, the oryx site has identified 37 lost armored vehicles, including 16 destroyed, and 21 damaged, captured or abandoned, while these tanks were only delivered gradually, from from February 2023.

The first American M1A1 Abrams arrived in Ukraine at the end of September 2023. Of the 31 examples delivered as of April 26, 2024, four are identified as lost, including two destroyed, and two damaged and abandoned.

As for the 14 Challenger 2s delivered to Kyiv by Great Britain, only one was lost. If the excellent armor of this tank can explain this lower attrition, its cause must probably be sought more in a lesser use of this particularly heavy model, which gets bogged down easily, by the Ukrainian forces.

In other words, even if they showed themselves to be significantly more efficient and resistant, in particular with regard to the protection of crews, than the Russian and Soviet models mainly used in this conflict, the Western tanks, transferred to Ukraine, did not deviate from the significant attrition observed.

Moreover, once compared to the duration of their presence, and the number of examples delivered to the Ukrainian armies, these tanks present attrition rates quite close to those observed for the most advanced models of the Russian armies, such as the T-90M, the T-72B3M or the T-80BV.

The end of the paradigms inherited from the Second World War, for the battle tank

We understand, faced with these losses, that the Ukrainians, and to a lesser extent, the Russians, less “sensitive” to human and material losses, have evolved their doctrines for implementing heavy tanks.

M1A2 Abrams
The Western tanks engaged in Ukraine would have shown performance generally superior to that of the Soviet and Russian tanks, without however the difference in terms of survivability being particularly significant.

While the front has stabilized for a year and a half, around the Sourovikine line, these armored vehicles are now mainly used in the form of assault guns, to add a live fire component to the artillery, in support infantry, who lead or repel assaults.

In fact, the doctrine of tank employment inherited from the Second World War, based on breaking lines, exploiting breakthroughs, but also on dynamic defense, has given way to a more parsimonious and isolated implementation. , for the benefit of the infantry.

Moreover, everything seems to indicate that most of the documented destruction of tanks results from the use of mines, indirect artillery fire, and especially anti-tank missiles and rockets, as well as lurking munitions and drones. Destructions by direct fire from another tank, on the other hand, appear to be in the minority. The time when the tank was the tank's worst enemy seems to be over.

The Ukrainian operational context should not be generalized in terms of high-intensity engagement

This feedback, concerning the most important high-intensity conflict since the Korean War, could lead to the conclusion that the battle tank is destined to disappear, too exposed as it is on the battlefield, and not bringing, with its main gun, decisive firepower.

This would probably be a mistake, which, moreover, the general staffs do not make, judging by the massive increase in orders for heavy tanks in recent years, in Europe, as elsewhere. Indeed, the Ukrainian context is undoubtedly not representative of what high-intensity engagements could be in the future.

Drones in Ukraine
the proliferation of drones in Ukraine has led to numerous destructions of tanks by indirect artillery fire, or by drone strikes of the Rodeuse Munition type.

First of all, the majority of the Russian and Ukrainian armies are made up of mobilized soldiers, who do not have the training of, for example, American, British or French soldiers, in many areas.

One of the consequences of this lack of training, which cannot be compensated for by the incomparable hardening of these troops, is observed in the inability of the two armies to implement doctrines structured around combined arms units, likely to provide the added value required to unblock a frozen situation.

As such, the two armies which oppose each other are still strongly influenced by Soviet doctrines, which makes the conflict unrepresentative of an engagement, for example, which would oppose members of NATO, applying a Western doctrine, to Russia.

Finally, and above all, this conflict is characterized by the virtual absence of tactical aviation on the front line, and by the massive use of drones, without either of the armies having digitized command and information systems allowing, precisely, the implementation of combined arms capabilities.

Here again, we can anticipate that both of these aspects would be very different if they were Western forces, which make tactical aviation the key component of operational firepower, and of communication and information sharing, the pillar of systems currently being deployed, such as SCORPION in France.

A new generation of tanks, more specialized, differently protected, is being studied

All of these aspects can be enough to transform the role of the battle tank, to make it, once again, a means of rupture intended to destroy and outflank the enemy lines, to exploit the breaches created to penetrate the depths of the enemy , and thus, to make the battle tank the pillar of mobile warfare again.

MGCS
The MGCS program will not involve a single replacement of Leopard 2 and Leclerc, but on a range of specialized vehicles intended to carry heavy armored action in the decades to come. Note the missile tank on the right.

The arrival of active and passive protection systems to restore survivability to tanks

However, the arrival of new technologies, intended precisely to increase the survivability of tanks in combat, will most certainly restore them to their primary function. First, passive protection systems, such as laser aim detectors, electromagnetic jammers, infrared decoys, and obfuscation smoke bombs, which already equip the most modern tanks in the West, have the potential to significantly reduce the vulnerability of these armored vehicles, in particular against anti-tank missiles.

Hard kill systems, such as the now famous Israeli Trophy, will make it possible to extend this protection capacity against anti-tank rockets, while strengthening anti-missile defense. The most modern systems, such as Rheinmetall's ADS, will also protect tanks against diving threats, such as certain anti-tank missiles, as well as against lurking munitions.

By significantly reducing the vulnerability of tanks to these threats, these systems should help to increase their survivability, sufficiently to restore them to the role that was theirs, to prevent, precisely, a conflict from getting bogged down, as is the case. the case in Ukraine.

It is therefore not surprising that the design of future tanks studies these findings, whether they are of intermediate generation, such as the K2, the M1E3 or the Leopard 2A8, and especially that of the tanks of the coming generation, of which the MGCS program is today the main representative.

Lighter, more mobile and with specialized weaponry, new generation tanks will regain their predominance on the battlefield.

So, all these tanks will be equipped with these active and passive protection systems. They will, moreover, be lighter than current tanks, most aiming for a combat mass of around 50 tonnes, to preserve their mobility, even in difficult terrain. This development is, moreover, made possible by the arrival of these same Active Protection Systems, Soft or Hard-kill.

AbramsX
The AbramsX demonstrator probably foreshadows what the future American M1E3 will be, a lighter, more digitalized tank, and relying its protection largely on its APS.

Paradoxically, the arrival of these APS will, finally, tend to put the main armament of the tank, its heavy gun, back at the heart of the system. Indeed, if APS prove effective against rockets and missiles, they are much less effective against an arrow shell traveling at 1 m/s.

However, we observe in the MGCS program that a specialized tank, no longer using a heavy gun, but a battery of missiles, is also under study. Indeed, beyond the anti-tank capabilities of the gun, the tank must also be equipped, to be effective, with longer range fire capabilities, including indirect fire, for which the missile has the advantage over the shell. .

Conclusion

As we can see, it is probably very premature, as is often the case, to announce the end of the battle tank, on the basis of the losses recorded by the Ukrainian and Russian armies since February 2022. Even the changes in doctrines applied by these two armies, resulting from the losses recorded, are more linked to specific elements of this conflict, than to a profound evolution of high-intensity warfare.

However, all lessons coming from Ukraine should not be ignored, based solely on the specifics of this conflict. We see, thus, that manufacturers, particularly in Europe and the United States, are inspired to preserve the operational potential of the tank, and thus, prevent a conflict from getting bogged down, as is the case , in Ukraine.

KF-51 Panther Rheinmetall
With APS StrikeShield and TOPS, the KF-51 Panther from Rheinmentall is certainly, today, the best protected tank model of the moment, as well as the best armed, even if it only exists in demonstrator form.

In this respect, we can wonder whether it would not be relevant, precisely, to equip all or part of the new Western heavy tanks which will be transferred to Ukraine in the months to come, with some of these developments, such as the hard kill and soft kill systems, likely to give them back this survivability essential to the maneuver, to validate their potential?

If this imposes additional delays and initial costs to equip them, this initiative could prove much more economical and effective, in the long term, than the transfer of conventional tanks, knowing their vulnerabilities.

Like the French Caesars, which apparently consume ten times less shells than the Soviet systems, and which have considerably higher survivability, such a calculation can prove decisive, in a war which is intended, today, to be structured around comparative attrition, of materials as well as men.

Article from April 25 in full version until June 1, 2024

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4 Comments

  1. There remains the subjects of mines, which ruin everyone's lives and artillery for which systems like the trophy do not bring any real added value.
    Breaching systems, ok. For artillery… there is nothing

  2. Just one remark: the attrition rate of Western tanks including those of the Leopards 2 is certainly high but the survival rate of the crews has nothing to do with that of tanks of Soviet and even Russian origin up to and including the T90.

  3. We must also not forget the bonuses promised by the oligarchs to Russian soldiers who destroy a Western tank, some returning from leave as soon as the presence of one of them is announced: in this context these tanks become prey and therefore must also face the greed of men. This would not be the case in an HI confrontation with NATO

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