Tank war in Ukraine: an unspoken reality that must be addressed.

Germany’s government declared on January 25, 2023, that they would give Ukraine 14 Leopard 2 main battle tanks and would allow other NATO members to do the same. 

After months of disagreement, as was announced today, NATO nations finally agreed to send advanced main battle tanks to Ukraine.

That same day, as part of a $400 million emergency aid package, the Biden administration said it would ship 31 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine. The Biden administration said that “hundreds” of MBTs would be sent to Ukraine. There were no follow-up explanations at the time.

Additionally, the British government offered Ukraine 14 Challenger 2 tanks in January of 2023.

Canada delivered eight Leopard 2A4 tanks to Poland on April 14 for eventual transfer to Ukraine, according to a statement released by the country’s Minister of National Defence.

Since these statements, all eyes in the defense community have been on the technological superiority of the Leopard 2, M1 Abrams, and Challenger 2 over their Russian counterparts.

 Experts in defense and quarterbacks who make this mistake fail to recognize the crucial role proper training and tactics play in the success of modern armored combat.

There is no denying the superiority of the Abrams, Challenger 2, and Leopard 2 over their Russian counterparts in terms of technology.

Ukraine will have six Leopard tank battalions.

The United States military spent the entirety of the 1980s agonizing over the possibility that the M1 Abrams wouldn’t do well against Soviet main battle tanks in a direct engagement.

 T-64s, T-72s, and T-80s (a gas turbine-powered evolution of the T-64) were the backbone of the Soviet Union’s tank force at the time. When it comes to fighting power and survivability, the T-64, T-80, and T-72 are all on par with one another.

In 1991, after just 100 hours of ground combat in Iraq, it was shown that the M1A1 Abrams could survive, and the Iraqi T-72s were no match for the Abrams and British Challenger.

 During Operation Desert Storm, the Abrams and Challenger could engage and destroy T-72s beyond the range of the T-72’s 125mm 2A64M main gun, allowing US tank crews and the British to shoot down the T-72 with impunity at long range. In fact, an FV4034 Challenger managed to shoot down more than 5,100 meters, the longest distance achieved by a tank against another in history.

The T-72 was just as ineffective in close-quarters battles. Before the Iraqi tanks could retaliate, the Abrams and Challenger crews had engaged, outmaneuvered, and defeated the T-72s. The US Army’s 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, backed by around 36 M1A1 Abrams tanks, decisively beat two Iraqi armored brigades during the Battle of 73 Easting on February 26, 1991. 

No Abrams tanks or M2 Bradley combat vehicles were destroyed by enemy fire during the battle for the 2nd ACR. The Iraqi military lost a total of 80 tracked vehicles, 12 artillery pieces, 160 tanks, and 180 troop transport vehicles.

Taking on an American Abrams or a British Challenger in a Russian-made T-72 was much better than bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Three decades later…

The Tank forces of the Russian Army invaded Ukraine mainly consisted of T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks. The T-90 is essentially a state-of-the-art main battle tank. The T-90 is essentially a late model of the T-72 hull and turret, integrating the new V-84 MS diesel engine and advanced turret components from the latest T-80U. 

Open-source reports indicate that tank losses in Ukraine are forcing the Russian military to re-equip even older T-62 tanks for combat duty. Russian tank crews in Ukraine may be more disadvantaged now that the Ukrainian Army has adopted the Challenger 2, Leopard 1, Leopard 2, and M1A1 Abrams.

But technology alone is not the key to modern armored warfare. How these tanks are used tactically is, and always will be, the key factor. So we must look beyond technology and focus on tactical doctrine, training, and employment.

In terms of tactical doctrine and training, the Russian and Ukrainian armies are branches of the same tree, heirs to the same heritage as the Soviet Red Army. As such, their common doctrine for tank warfare was shaped by the pioneering tactics of Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov. Zhukov’s doctrine employed tank forces as a monolithic swinging mallet. Crush everything that gets in your way. Russian tank design reflects this tactical philosophy.

On the other hand, the tactical doctrine of Western tanks is based on the philosophy of cavalry: Move fast, attack hard. Don’t give the enemy a chance to react effectively.  While the Russians are inspired by Zhukov, the Western armies are inspired by Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel and the greatest horseman of all, George S. Patton. 

The design of the Western tanks reflects this tactical philosophy, with its emphasis on speed and maneuverability of the platform, combined with situational awareness and tactical initiative by the crew.

However, technology is not the only factor in success in today’s armored conflicts. The primary consideration must always be the strategy behind employing these tanks in battle. This means we can’t just concentrate on technological advancements but also on tactical theory, training, and application.

The Russian and Ukrainian militaries are direct descendants of the Soviet Red Army in terms of tactical doctrine and training. Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov’s innovative strategies informed their prevailing theory for tank combat. Zhukov’s theory used tank power as a single massive hammer. Get rid of any obstacles you encounter. This strategic outlook may be seen in the design of Russian tanks.

Technology does not win battles. Well-trained soldiers win battles. To ignore this permanent reality is to invite disaster and defeat.

Forecast International