Two years of fighting in Ukraine have destroyed the Russian tank force. This was unexpected, as was the Russian inability to replace their tank losses. Ukraine’s success against Russian tanks and armored vehicles revived predictions that tanks were obsolete. Tanks are still relevant, and the Russian losses were the result of poor employment of armored units as well as design features of Russian tanks that make them much more vulnerable than 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. As a result, thousands of Russian vehicles were destroyed in the first month, most of them armored, including some of the most modern Russian tanks plus some ancient models taken from storage facilities for obsolete tanks that might be useful in an emergency. The Ukraine War proved to be that emergency.
Most of the Ukrainian anti-tank weapons were portable and carried into combat by teams of soldiers of whom many were recent volunteers with no military experience at all and only a few days of training, rather like most Russian soldiers since the war started. The few days training they received usually began with carrying ammo, including anti-tank missiles and projectiles, plus instruction in how to obey instructions, take cover, etc. Sometimes volunteers were selected for combat duty because they knew the area where their anti-tank team would be operating. These hastily trained anti-tank teams suffered far fewer casualties than the Russians, even after the Russians became aware of the ambush risk, because the Russians had little if any training against attack by man-carried anti-tank weapons, let alone the ability to actually do it. Additionally most of the Ukrainians’ Western-provided portable anti-tank weapons could accurately hit moving vehicles 300 or more meters away. The Javelin and NLAW guided missiles were fire and forget. That meant once the operator had accurately aimed at a target and launched the missile, the guidance system in the missile would follow the target until the missile hit.
NLAWs have a max range of 600 meters and Javelins are 2,500 meters. The Ukrainians were creative with their ambush tactics and the Russians who survived them noted that the Ukrainian were 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 far from the combat zone.
Russian armored vehicles had some unique vulnerabilities not found on their NATO counterparts. One was the use of an autoloader for the main tank gun, usually a 125mm. The autoloader required there to be a magazine of shells in the crew compartment, which was the turret, where there were also additional shells used by the crew to refill the autoloader magazine. If any anti-tank weapon penetrated into the crew compartment, 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 the turret would literally be blown off the tank and the entire crew killed. Javelin and NLAW were also 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. And the primary Russian infantry armored vehicle was the BMP, which was poorly protected against any anti-tank weapon.
Trucks carrying supplies, especially fuel, ammo or personnel were even more vulnerable. Machine-gun fire or a hand grenade would destroy or disable a truck. Ukrainian forces concentrated on Russian supply trucks and that meant Russian forces were chronically short of essential supplies.
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 had lots of armored vehicles, most of them Russian models improved by the Ukrainians. Tank tactics used by Ukrainians were more practical and more likely to overcome defenders, plus Ukrainian civilians were everywhere and generally eager to let their troops know what was going on in the area.
After the 2014 initial Russian attack, Ukraine realized they needed new and improved armored 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 had lots of from the defunct Red Army. 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-64BV 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 with 55 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 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 the time Russia invaded in 2022, Ukraine was ready.
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 supporting armored vehicles for use by the infantry. Ukrainian troops were trained to avoid the mistakes the Russians made and instead rely on escorting infantry and supporting fire power to use the tanks as fire support vehicles, not targets.
Meanwhile, Russia is trying to rebuild its tank forces. That will take a long time because Russian production facilities, even when operating round-the-clock, cannot obtain sufficient supplies of components to produce more than a few hundred tanks a year.