Tanks But No Tanks: Did The Ukrainian War Put An End to the Armored Tank?

This armored prototype is electrically powered and remote-controlled. Is it still a TANK?

The battle protection (armor) and destruction (arms) is as old as time. At first, hiding behind a tree, a big rock, or (much later) a wall was good enough. But hiding sacrificed mobility. When armies came out from behind walls, they needed armor. Layers of padding and leather, and bits of metal helped. Later, helmets and shields were added. But weapons also improved. After thousands of years, the fully armored “Knight in Shining Armor” became the apex of protection.

But good armor is heavy armor, and once again we’ve lost mobility. Horses could become the battle platform a Knight needed. With a Knight firmly seated on his saddle and stirrups, he could effectively fight (and stay) on horseback. That worked for a while, but guns had arrived and were rapidly evolving. Traditional armor became ineffective. We kept our metal helmets, but the rest shrank away and disappeared.

At the start of WWI, armor was out of fashion. Yet the lethality of the battlefield (accurate snipers, machine guns, modern artillery, grenades, and landmines) grew so quickly that the territory between opposing armies was soon called “No Mans’ Land”. When either side made a charge against the other side, thousands of soldiers could be killed within hours. The war was bogged down in “Trench Warfare”. The soldiers on both sides build long trenches that they lived in for months at a time. Just popping your head up over the trench to see if anything was happening could get you killed.

In WWI nearly 6 million horses were deployed. But the battlefield was just as deadly to horses as it was to humans. They died of wounds, starvation, and disease, or they froze on the Eastern Front. Motorized vehicles were a new technology, but they had promise. They were faster, stronger, and more durable than horses. Civilian cars were soon armored, and all nations tried adding cannons and machine guns. But the added weight would blow out the flimsy tires of the day, and these heady vehicles were often bogged down on muddy roads. After replacing wheels with tractor treads, the modern tank was born. On September of 1916, the “Tank” entered the battlefield and the race between arms and armor was on once again.

Development may have started in WWI, but the modern tank as we know it truly developed during WWII. Within a few years, almost every developed nation was working on its own tanks or was ready to buy them from other nations. Of course, if you were a small nation, tanks were expensive. Rather than investing in tanks, smaller nations could invest in “tank killers”.

WW II introduced “hand-held” devices like the “bazooka”, as well as land mines. A single soldier could carry a weapon that could stop a tank. But you needed to plant a land mine where a tank would pass over it, and a bazooka had a limited range and was less than accurate. By the 1970s, improved shoulder-launched missiles had greater range and more powerful warheads. And they could track a tank by its heat signature. Today, anti-tank drones with sophisticated artificial intelligence can “loiter” in the sky for 30 or 40 minutes and hunt down tanks and other targets.

Modern tanks have defenses against these weapons, yet Russian tanks failed against even outdated tank killers. How can the second most powerful military in the world, fail so badly? Let’s take a look and see…

Playing Defense: Young Russian recruits were told for months that there would be no invasion. Then, 100,000 Russian soldiers were told to fight a foreign soil, in towns where their grandmother lives. Imagine passing destroyed Russian tanks and dead crews. Why are you here? What are you fighting for? If you run out of gas or something broke, would you fight to the death to defend your tank? Rumors of recruits deserting their tank may be true. Alternatively, Ukrainians were told for months that the Russians were coming. The dead in the streets are people you know. Ukrainians are far more motivated to lay down their lives. Local defenders are almost always more effective than invading military leaders expect.

Financial Crisis: The Russian military has been chronically short of funding. For decades, the Russian navy has scrapped old ships, without replacements. Russia was supposed to replace tanks with their new Armata T-14 between 2015 to 2020. The upgrade did not happen. Only a few prototypes were built. GPS systems have been on US (and most other nations) tanks since the 1990s. Russian tanks were ASSUMED to use GPS, but no GPS systems were found on wrecked Russian tanks.

Design vs. Delivered: Russia has very capable weapon designers and engineers. However, Russian factories are notorious for supply shortages and substandard manufacturing. Historically, Russia’s military strategy favors quantity over quality. For example, the Russian T-34 was one most influential tanks of all time, but not because it was a great tank. Instead, it was because Russian factories could build them in great numbers. It was the tidal wave of T-34s that won WW II for Russia.

Corruption: When the Soviet Union became the Russian Republic, Putin’s and his generation of Soviet leaders raided the economy and took over every valuable business and asset. It was a gold rush for the new Russian mob. However, having career criminals run the economy led to a decline in all economic sectors. With only friends of Putin receiving government contracts, stories of broken and non-existent products seem credible.

Propaganda?: Stories of Russian incompetence are so staggering it’s hard to believe, even with evidence. In images of wrecked Russian tanks, shoebox-sized boxes are attached near the turret or lying on the ground. These are “reactive armor”. When missiles and shells approach, reactive armor explodes, knocking incoming projectiles off course. When examined, the boxes are empty. No explosives, fuses, or sensors. Bullet-proof proof vests retrieved from Russian soldiers should have steel or ceramic plates; instead, sheets of cardboard have been found. Perhaps this is a rare case, or the reports are exaggerated. But no functional military can operate when equipment is systematically stolen.

Replacement: In theory, Russia started the war with warehouses filled with spare parts. Many of these warehouses appear to be empty. Tanks and trucks are often stored for years at a time, and require regular maintenance. Without maintenance, parts will rust or rot away. Abandoned tanks in Ukraine may have simply broken down and were later discovered and destroyed by Ukrainians. Can Russia fix these supply problems? Probably not. Sanctions have made Russian mobsters government leaders cash hungry. If the government can find the money for supplies and maintenance, that money will “get lost” long before any new supplies reach Russian forces.

Conclusions: Is the tank dead? Probably not. However, the abysmal performance in Russia will kill the Russian Military Industry. Russian tanks, armor, missiles, and warships generated $25 billion in revenue in 2020. New sales will fall sharply in 2023. On the other hand, weapons from Ukraine, the UK, Germany, and the US will probably rise. And the Russian Invasion has caused a LOT of nations (not just Finland and Sweden) to think about big military buildups.

While Putin never intended to make NATO the “cool kids club”, nor start a new arms race, it is what Putin accomplished. Russia’s strategy focused on tanks and cold war strategy. Ukrainians showed the power of technology, mobility, and flexible low-cost weapons. Finland and Sweden may eventually become nato nations. A new NATO needs to think about a new strategy and a new generation of armored vehicles.

The tank has become a beast of a machine because it needs to protect the soft and vulnerable humans that it carries into battle. Just as drones are becoming the next generation of air support, it makes sense to have self-driving electric tanks. If you remove the people, you can drop a lot of the size, weight, and cost of a tank. An electric engine has 5 or 10 parts, while a diesel or gasoline engine has around 1,000 parts. Tanks often run out of gas, but a tank can tap into the local power grid, or wait for a slower recharge from solar power.

If we break away from old tank designs, we could have big battle tanks and little support tanks. The big tank might have a big (or at least big-ish) gun. But it would also carry drones like the switchblade, which has killed Russian tanks, helicopters, and soldiers. Interestingly, one switchblade drone cost about as much as one shell for most US/European tanks. The next generation of battle tanks could trade a lot of armor for stealth. Modern fighter jets have been doing this for the last decade They are slower and less heavily armed than in the 90s, but these planes are virtually invisible to detection. Not getting shot at is even better than armor. Electric motors would produce a small fraction of the heat used by today’s tanks, and it is this heat signature that is used to track and kill tanks.

What about those little tanks. Imagine a small (1,000 lbs. or so?) electric tank with a small cannon or a large machine gun, carrying a LOT of ammo. It might also carry supplies for troops. It could even carry a wounded soldier back to camp. Over time, these little tanks will become more capable, independently patrolling some of the most inhospitable deserts and mountaintops. Eventually, the little tank could reduce the number of live soldiers needed in a military engagement. A typical squad of 7 to 14 human soldiers might be replaced by a Sargent and 2 or 3 soldiers, with specialized drones tanking on the remaining responsibilities.

If you examine how technology has progressed, machines tend to displace human labor in the most dangerous jobs. You can’t get more dangerous than a war! The newest air drones look a lot like the next generation of fighter planes. It is inevitable that tanks will go through a similar transition. After all, if commercial trucks and consumer cars will eventually be self-driving, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine self-driving tanks. Who knows, maybe Elon Musk has some ideas about how to build a 21st Century tank!

What do you think? Will the development of tanks be driven by cold-war thinking, or will the drive to expand NATO lead to new strategies and new tank designs? Let us know!

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1 Response to Tanks But No Tanks: Did The Ukrainian War Put An End to the Armored Tank?

  1. jpm says:

    Awesoome post.

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