by Austin Bay
October 19, 2023
Like Mark Twain's death, the demise of the tank has been "greatly exaggerated."
That line began a column I wrote in 2005, as sensationalist media simultaneously declared high-tech weapons had made the tank a death trap on the battlefield and -- get this -- that U.S. troops patrolling Iraq didn't have enough armor on their vehicles to protect them from ambush and mines.
The latter charge had merit. As an expedient to combat enemy mines and explosive devices, the Pentagon put light armor on various wheeled vehicles that weren't built to carry the added weight.
As for the death of the tank, I'd heard that before. An Army buddy told me about a could-be political appointee he escorted through Department of Defense briefings in the late 1970s. The pipe-smoking pontificator kept saying, "The tank's dead." My infantry pal finally turned to him and said: "Yes sir, the tank's a dinosaur, but it's the baddest dinosaur on the battlefield. You face one."
It's 2023. The tank, in the form of Main Battle Tanks (MBT) like the U.S. Army's M1A2 Abrams or Israeli Merkava 5, is far from dead. Despite media obituaries referencing Russia's disastrous 2022 tank operations in Ukraine, the 2023 MBT as built by NATO nations and allies like South Korea and Israel remains potent on the battlefield.
That is, if the 2023 tank crews manning the MBTs, and their accompanying infantry in armored infantry vehicles (mechanized infantry), and their operational commanders know how to fight a combined arms war.
That's an important point. A recent article in The Economist basically affirms my last sentence, albeit obliquely.
The Economist: "Israel's generals have been watching the battles in Ukraine over the past year and a half closely and taking notes... We saw how the Russians fought in Ukraine and the mistakes they made," said Brigadier General Hisham Ibrahim, senior Israeli Defense Forces Armored Corps commander. The Russians "fought there in a single-corps fashion, instead of using combined arms tactics."
Translation of "single-corps": tanks going into battle alone, without accompanying armored infantry and combat engineers and without coordinated artillery, air defense weapons and air support - the components of modern combined arms warfare.
The Economist mentions -- without naming -- a disastrous Israeli "single corps" experience, the 1973 Yom Kippur War's Battle of the Chinese Farm. Fought in the Sinai just east of the Suez Canal, Israeli tanks charged Egyptian positions, attacking with minimal mechanized infantry support. Egyptian surface to air missile defenses along the Canal blunted Israeli airpower. The Israelis didn't fight a combined arms battle. The charging tanks drove into a trap. Egyptian infantry armed with rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and Sagger anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) waited in foxholes then popped up and fired on the Israeli tanks.
Everyone took notes. The "cheap" RPG and ATGM high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warheads destroyed scores of Israeli tanks.
NATO-type MBTs now have "composite ceramic vehicle armor" that is almost invulnerable to cheap HEAT warheads. In the 1980s Israel began developing other special protection kits for tanks fighting in "closed terrain" like an urban area. Gaza is certainly closed terrain.
One of the most advanced is the combat-proven Trophy ADS (active defense system) which is capable of defeating RPGs and ATGMs. Trophy is something like a miniature strategic missile defense system -- Strategic Defense Initiative writ small. Sensors on the tank pick up an incoming ATGM then fire small projectiles which intercept and destroy the incoming threat. The sensors also determine the ATGM's launch point so the tank crew can destroy the shooter.
Israel's front-line tanks and heavy Namer-type armored personnel carriers have Trophy. The U.S. is buying Trophy for its tanks. Abrams tanks also sport TUSK -- tank urban survival kits.
Ukrainian drones often attack the thinner top armor of Russian tanks. The Economist reports Israeli tanks have "slatted metal" barriers over their turrets to defend against small drone bombs. That's an expedient passive defense. Trust a Trophy-type sensor-interceptor system to thwart overhead attack is in the works. MBTs have the power and space to add other active defense measures.
The Economist article says the tank is "the only platform on the battlefield combining mobility, protection and serious firepower." I agree. My 2005 column on tanks in Iraq concluded "'staying power' on deadly streets requires heavy firepower and heavy armor protection."
Hamas is about to learn firepower is an antidote for fanaticism.
And the tank remains the baddest dinosaur on the battlefield.