Armor: Tanks As Weapons Not Targets

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April 19, 2022: Ukraine’s success against Russian tanks and armored vehicles again revived predictions that tanks are obsolete. Tanks are still relevant and the Russian losses were the result of poor deployment of armored units as well as design differences in Russian tanks that make them much more vulnerable that Western tanks like the American M1, German Leopard or Israeli Merkava. Most Russian armored vehicles were lost while they were on the move, or stationery without adequate infantry support. The first Russian armored units going into Ukraine were told the population would be friendly or neutral. The reality was that the Ukrainians were well armed, hostile and using tactics the Russians were unaware of and unprepared to deal with. Thousands of Russian vehicles were destroyed in the first month, most of them armored, including some of the most modern Russian tanks plus a few that may have been taken from museums. Most of the Ukrainian anti-tank weapons were portable and carried into combat by teams of soldiers, many of them recent volunteers. Many volunteers had no military experience at all. The few days training they received was also an evaluation of their suitability for combat duty. This usually began carrying ammo, including anti-tank missiles and projectiles, These volunteers demonstrated an ability to follow instructions and take cover or resume movement when ordered. Sometimes volunteers were selected for combat duty because knew the area where their ant-tank team would be operating. The anti-tank teams suffered far fewer casualties than the Russians, even after the Russians became aware of the ambush risk. Ukrainians were still able to attack. For one thing most of the portable anti-tank could accurately hit moving vehicles 300 or more meters away. The guided missiles (Javelin and NLAW) were fire and forget. The NLAW had a max range of 600 meters and Javelin 2,500 meters. The Ukrainians were creative with their ambush tactics and the Russians who survived them noted that the Ukrainian always better prepared and one or more steps ahead of Russian commanders. The Russians were losing six dead for every Ukrainian fighter and that included soldiers killed by rocket and ballistic missile attacks away from the combat zone.

Russian armored vehicles had some unique vulnerabilities not found on their NATO counterparts. The Russian tanks used an auto-loader for the main (usually 125mm) gun and that meant there was a magazine of shells in the crew compartment (turret and body of than tank beneath i.) as well as spare shells for the crew to refill the autoloader magazine. If any anti-tank weapon penetrated into the crew compartments, especially the turret, one or more of the 125mm shells were exposed and likely to explode. If one shell went, all those near the autoloader did as well. This usually meant turret would literally be blown off the tank and the entire crew killed. Javelin and NLAW were designed to attack the less protected top of the turret or body of the tank, which at the very least destroyed the engine or wounded some of the three-man crew. The primary Russian infantry armored vehicle was the BMP which was poorly protected against anti-tank weapons, especially the ones the Ukrainians were using. You did need a top-attack ATGM to destroy a BMP.

Trucks carrying supplies (specially fuel and ammo), equipment or personnel were even more vulnerable.

Even when the Russians knew they were facing well-armed defenders their infantry was not well trained in how to scout for and protect their armored vehicles from ambush. NATO tank units train using infantry who know what to look for and are able to call in heavy fire from the armored vehicles they are escorting. NATO forces also have more small UAVs to do some of the scouting. The Russians had few such UAVs and those that were available were poorly used and often shot down by the Ukrainians.

Ukrainian forces have lots of armored vehicles, most of them improved (by the Ukrainians) Russian designs. Ukrainian tank tactics are more practical and more likely to overcome defenders, plus Ukrainian civilians are everywhere and generally eager to let their troops know what’s going on in the area.

After the 2014 initial Russian attack, Ukraine realized they needed new and improved armor vehicles in case the Russian came again in larger numbers. Since 2014 Ukraine has been refurbishing existing equipment with Ukrainian resources. Emphasis is on armored vehicles, which Ukraine has lots of. Most are elderly but were little used in the past and still effective. Initially Ukraine had 250 T-64BMs and 350 T-64BVs. Ukraine also has 1,000 older T-64B tanks in storage. Only the T-64BM and T-64BM are operational and in use with the Ukrainian Army. Since 2007 Ukraine has been upgrading about one of the older T-64Bs to the T-64BM each month. This costs about $600,000 per T-64B. Ukrainian arms factories were also building the T-84 Oplot-M tank and 55 were in service by the end of 2015 and 120 more in 2016 at a cost of $3.7 million each. All this is possible because Ukraine contained many Soviet era armored vehicle plants and inherited them when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Ukraine also began upgrading about 300 T-72B tanks held in reserve. These were modified to become similar to the Polish PT-91. The official reason for this is that Ukraine wants the T-72Bs to meet NATO requirements but the upgraded tanks would also improve the defensive capabilities of the Ukrainian Army forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. The upgrade idea came as a result of Ukrainian military officials being given an opportunity to test some PT-91s.

Such cooperation between Poland and Ukraine is nothing new because since 2011 defense firms in the two countries have worked together to develop guided 155mm artillery and 120mm mortar shells. Another cooperative effort enabled a Polish firm to develop a less expensive alternative to the Israeli SPIKE ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) that was based on the Ukrainian RK-3 Corsair ATGM. Ukraine, like Russia, has little choice but to refurbish older vehicles and hope for the best.

By 2022 Ukraine had over a thousand upgraded tanks and even more other armored vehicles. In addition, East European NATO nations are sending more T-72 tanks from their reserve stocks and even non-NATO nations are sending infantry and supporting armored vehicles. Ukrainian troops were trained to avoid the mistakes the Russians made and rely on escorting infantry and supporting fire power to use the tanks as fire support, not targets.

 


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