Streetwise Professor

January 28, 2023

Tanks Anyways

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:55 pm

After much hemming and hawing, too-ing and fro-ing, Germany has finally relented and agreed to the provision of German-built Leopard II tanks to Ukraine. Apparently the deal clincher was an American agreement to supply 30-odd M1A2 Abrams MBTs. These will join a modest number of Challenger IIs to be provided by the UK.

This is an important development, but not an earth shattering one as some on each side are saying. Some pro-Ukrainian western observers assert this will allow Ukraine to recapture all its lost territory-including Crimea-from Russia. On the other side, which includes the Russians and many right wing populists in the United States, this is the next step to Armageddon. As Trump put it: “today tanks, tomorrow nukes.”

Settle down, everybody. (A big ask, I know.)

Yes, these MBTs are far superior to anything Ukraine currently operates, and to anything in the Russian armory. On every crucial dimension, the western-supplied tanks are superior: firepower, protection (including protection of ammunition), cross country performance, gun accuracy, optics and fire control systems. Optics and fire control systems are especially important because it has been long known that in armored battles, he who shoots first almost always wins. Iraqi tankers found this out to their dismay (if they were lucky enough to be able to find out anything) in 1991 when their tanks began exploding from hits from M1s that they couldn’t even see. Although both the western and Russian tanks have improved in the decades since, the already yawning gap in performance demonstrated in 1991 has only increased over the years.

But quantity has a quality all its own, as Stalin was wont to say. And the fact is that the quantity of tanks being supplied Ukraine is modest. Given the inevitable attrition due to combat and breakdown, the approximately 300 tanks is about enough for one armored division for one big battle.

Consider the use of this type of force on the defense and offense.

On the defense, an armored force of this size and quality could stop Russian armored advances and launch devastating counterattacks–if they are located where the Russians choose to attack, or can get there in relatively short order.

Given the record of the last 11 plus months, moreover, it’s not clear that Ukraine needs this force to defeat a putative Putin armored attack. In February-March of last year, Russia proved singularly incapable of utilizing armor effectively in the offensive, and its tanks proved easy pickings for anti-tank guided missiles. This was in part to (as I wrote at the time) Russia’s incompetence at combined arms tactics: tanks without infantry are extremely vulnerable. Given the dross with which Russian formations are being reinforced with, and the lack of training they have received, their capabilities are almost certainly worse rather than better than a year ago.

Logistical failings also helped doom the Russians in early-2022. If anything, massive attrition in vehicles and the effect of HIMARS has worsened their logistics woes: due to HIMARS, the Russians are being forced to locate their supply dumps well to the rear, increasing the duration of vehicle trips (effectively reducing supply capacity) and increasing the vulnerability of supply convoys to attack by drones, air attack, artillery attack, infiltrators, partisans, what have you.

So although an impending Russian spring offensive is anticipated, there is no reason to believe it would fare any better than the last one, and considerable reason to believe it would fare worse, tanks or no tanks.

Insofar as offensive operations are concerned, yes, the western MBTs can provide a striking force that might break through Russian lines. But a decent-size force of modern tanks is likely a necessary but not sufficient condition for such an outcome.

Successful armored assaults often rely on surprise and indirectness rather than mere smashing power. Tanks deployed against a weakly held section of an enemy line are far more effective than those hitting strong prepared positions. Compare Ardennes (1940, 1944) to Kursk (1943) or even the Seelow Heights (where in April 1945 a massively superior Soviet armored force took horrific casualties to overcome prepared but weakly-held defenses).

Achieving such an outcome requires considerable operational skill and operational security. Recall the lengths to which the US went to conceal its shift of its armored striking force from fronting Kuwait to fronting Iraq some distance to the west in order to be on the Iraqi flank. (In the event, the Marines smashed through prepared defenses in Kuwait, but the point holds). In 1940 and 1944 the Germans were helped by overoptimistic French and then American/British assumptions which led them to leave the Ardennes weakly defended and to discount the possibility of German massing there. At Kursk, the preparations were too massive to be concealed, giving time for the Soviets to construct a defense in depth which ground down the German armored spearheads before they could achieve a decisive penetration and breakout. Subsequently the Soviets launched a massive armored counterattack–against weaker German forces on the flanks. The same thing happened at Stalingrad.

Recent Ukrainian successes suggest some skill at deception and operational security. They evidently duped the Russians into believing the main Ukrainian effort would be in the south but instead the attack started in the Kharkiv region–agains skeleton Russian forces.

But there’s no guarantee of achieving that again, and ironically, the very mass of a big tank force makes deception and operational security all the more difficult.

There’s also the issue of whether the Ukrainian army can carry out the combined armed tactics that are necessary to succeed in an armored strike against opposition. The large casualties they have suffered over the past 11 months has certainly weakened what combined arms skill they possessed prior to 24 February 2022.

Further, there is considerable room to question how deep a penetration Ukraine could achieve. Its logistical capabilities are also limited, and the tanks they are receiving are gluttonous consumers of fuel (especially the Abrams). It would also have to confront the inexorable logic that every kilometer of advance hurts the attacker’s logistics and helps the defender’s.

And with respect to logistics, tanks require considerable maintenance support to begin with, especially when they are on the move. The fact that Ukraine is receiving three different kinds of MBT, each requiring a separate support structure (which will be of suboptimal scales) means that a lower percentage of their tanks will be operating at any time than would be the case for an American division operating a single type of vehicle.

In sum, the new western tanks will help shift the balance in Ukraine’s favor, but are unlikely to do so in a decisive way. I doubt that they will shorten the war appreciably, especially since even though they will likely result in more Russian losses on the battlefield, such losses have clearly not persuaded Putin to consider giving up, especially on terms suitable to Ukraine. And any advances the tanks facilitate will only encourage Ukraine in its belief that it can restore its 2014 borders.

So my prediction is that the western MBTs will mainly shift the line of stalemate to the east. Perhaps a considerable distance, but not nearly the distance Ukraine desires.

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  1. Perhaps the best use might be to group the Challengers, Abrams, and Marders together as a reserve force, and the Leopard 2s and Bradleys together for offensive action. This puts a solid number of logistically similar western tanks into the offensive force along with a good number of of the most capable western IFVs. Meanwhile, the Abrams and Challengers are much less of a logistics burden in reserve.

    Comment by WhoStruckJohn — January 28, 2023 @ 4:25 pm

  2. Aspect of diluting red lines once again also seems very significant here. If all western weapon system which Ukraine operate today were delivered at month 1 of the war this could absolutely create impression in Kremlin that NATO actively entering the war as direct participator. Now it’s like cooking a frog by slowly heating the water. Apart from tactical nukes now Russia can escalate only with manpower west has many more tools to introduce. Escalating with manpower has a limited scope.

    For example one of the tutors ( he didn’t in time get scientific degree) in our university was conscripted via mobilisation. He never served in army, he did finish military courses during his student time (it’s called voennaya kafedra) culminated with 2 weeks field training without shooting even 1 mortar (only theory and dragging tube here and there). He got specialty officer of mortar regiment (35men). Now he has been assigned as commander of regiment but not mortar regiment only infantry one. Trained 2 month now with real weapons now he is front lines.

    Comment by Leenur — January 28, 2023 @ 11:16 pm

  3. Genuine question: How do you even protect a tank in a day and age of guided AT missiles that can hit you from two miles away?

    Comment by deith — January 29, 2023 @ 6:23 am

  4. Aspect of diluting red lines once again also seems very significant here.

    Definitely. I’ve had this confirmed by someone pretty well placed in the UK.

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 29, 2023 @ 7:38 am

  5. An illustration of what’s perhaps to expected is France post WW2. They took over stocks of ex-Wehrmacht Panzer V Panther tanks and formed at least one battalion, possibly a whole regiment from them.

    It didn’t go well. Even aside from the Panther’s chronically weak transmission and dodgy late-war build quality, the spares supply generally was limited and once gone it was was gone. Likewise the Panther’s main gun was used by no other weapon system in the French army, so if ammo ran low, the unit couldn’t just top up from the nearest depot – unless the depot happened to have a supply of KwK 42 75mm L/70 rounds about the place, just for the one and only unit of Panthers in the whole French army.

    Some of the issues the French faced trying to operate ex-enemy equipment would not recur now, eg fuel type, because modern types are versatile like that; but many would. In the western desert each side kept capturing the other’s trucks and would run them till they broke down for want of spares.

    I am not sure this will really work.

    Comment by Green As Grass — January 29, 2023 @ 8:51 am

  6. @Green As Grass. Good comparison. There is a lot of stuff on tanks to break, and it does. Routinely.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 29, 2023 @ 6:19 pm

  7. @deith. This is precisely why tanks must operate with infantry, and why the Russians suffered such heavy losses from ATGMs when they didn’t.

    Some tanks, including the ones provided by the Americans, British, and Germans, have a variety of defensive measures, including active protection systems like Trophy (on the Abrams M1A2).

    Comment by cpirrong — January 29, 2023 @ 6:22 pm

  8. Any idea of the benefit to the Russians if they capture an Abrams MBT? Can they reverse engineer it? Advantages lost?

    I keep wondering whether the Biden regime’s interest in Ukraine is protection of its main money-laundering center.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 29, 2023 @ 7:50 pm

  9. @Prof. Thanks for the answer.

    I do understand the reason for the infantry protection, I am just genuinely puzzled how it is supposed to work nowadays. Seemed obvious enough in the age of Panzerfaust: the infantry boys form a protective cocoon around. But when the enemy can be hiding that far away? Is the tactic today for the infantry to really push that far ahead of the tanks, even during offensives? Seems oddly counterintuitive. Then again, I know nothing about military, so… 🙂

    Comment by deith — January 30, 2023 @ 1:56 pm

  10. I know nothing, really nothing, about military operations. But it seems to me that this is a field where “learning by doing” is the supreme educational experience.

    (who are you gonna call if there’s a leak in your pipes? A plumber or a hydraulic engineer?)

    The Yanks and the Brits have lots of recent experience (even if when losing). Wagner has some in West Africa. Russia has a bit from altitude bombing in Syria.

    The rest? France, a bit, losing. Germany, Japan, etc: none whatsoever. China? They got their arses handed to them by the Vietnamese 30+ years ago, haven’t done any real exercise since.

    Comment by philip — January 30, 2023 @ 7:19 pm

  11. @Deith: It’s a good question, my (totally uneducated) guess would be that once the first tank blows up, THEN the infantry can set about protecting the rest of them by shooting back at whoever fired the anti-tank missile. It’s a big ask though, as you say, since somebody with an NLAW or Javelin will scoot as soon as they pull the trigger, and somebody with a Stugna will be 50 metres away from the launcher, probably behind cover.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — January 31, 2023 @ 3:15 am

  12. @ Pat Frank

    I’m not an expert, just an attentive lay person, but I doubt there’d be that much advantage. There is an actual example of what happened when Russia tried to reverse-engineer western tech in the past. B29s in distress after raids on Japan occasionally landed in Soviet-controlled territory; Russia kept the planes, reverse engineered them and put a copy into production called the Tu-4. The resulting cargo-cult B29 was a complete partridge among the pigeons in production terms; the original used western materials, specs and measurements; Russia did not. The prospects of Russia successfully copying western tech are probably still not very good. They have been just about to deploy the T-14 Armata for about ten years now and still haven’t. If they can’t make their own tank tech work properly, ripping someone else’s doesn’t look promising.

    In WW2 anyway, the advantage of capturing a piece of enemy equipment was less that you could copy it, and more that you could evaluate it to learn its performance, its weaknesses, and so on. This then told you what was the optimal altitude at which to engage an enemy fighter, which part of a Tiger tank’s lower hull to aim at, and so forth.

    It was still a bit hit and miss. The Germans got hold of a Spitfire in 1940, with a fixed pitch prop and running on low-octane French avgas, and concluded it wasn’t very good. The ones actually opposing them had variable speed propellers and used 100-octane fuel – totally different animals.

    It’s possible the tanks being supplied to Ukraine have some hitherto completely unsuspected disastrous weakness that an inspection of a captured one would expose, but it seems unlikely. The issue really is that small numbers of a piece of kit that is basically alien to Ukraine’s forces is going to be tricky to integrate and use.

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 31, 2023 @ 4:16 am

  13. @ deith

    I think the idea is that modern infantry are themselves armoured, in their own vehicles – IFVs, APCs, what have you*. This means that anyone looking to do mischief with an NLAW or Javelin first has to eliminate the IFVs that are trying to flush you out. This itself requires the use of your NLAWs. Opening fire on the armoured infantry around the tanks thus gives away your position, expends your supply of anti-tank missiles, exposes you to countering fire, etc.

    If OTOH you do what Russia appears to have done, and send tanks forward unaccompanied, it doesn’t really matter that Ukes give their position away in blowing them up.

    * along with “mission command” and the “assault rifle”, this was yet another German idea from WW2 that’s still in use. They called their armoured infantry “panzer grenadiers”, and sent them forward in half-tracks, but their job was the same.

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 31, 2023 @ 4:32 am

  14. Thanks for the replies guys. All of what you said makes sense.

    I can definitely see a heavy increase in recon drone usage going forward. Think I even heard that when they asked tank commanders to comment on the proposed designs of tanks meant to replace the Abrams, one of the suggestion was to add just such a drone with its operator into the crew.

    Comment by deith — January 31, 2023 @ 5:39 am

  15. The anti-tank missiles take as much as 20-25 seconds to reach maximum range (for the longest range versions). As soon as there are launches, accompanying IFVs can open up with autocannon (a few seconds to reach maximum range) and well-trained troops will call for artillery (mortars and/or howitzers). Instead of being able to take repeated shots at the armor, the anti-tank teams are going to be focused on not getting killed by suppressing fire. That gives the armored force the opportunity to deal with them, sending in the infantry while supporting with direct fire and artillery. When Russia attacked in 2022, not only was there a shortage of infantry (often of poor morale too), but also less flexible artilllery response meant the Ukrainians could snipe the Russian columns with anti-tank missiles.

    A tank expert remarked recently on the German KF51 tank design that it did not make sense to him to put a drone operator in the tank when said drone operator could be in a roomier IFV variant out of sight of enemy direct fire. Space is at a premium in tanks and room for an extra person inside costs in terms of more armor, therefore more weight, therefore either a larger powerpack or less mobility. Larger powerpack means yet more weight and more fuel consumption.

    Something Ukraine could definitely use, but won’t get due to western sensibilities, is DPICM ammunition for 155mm artillery and HIMARS/M270. That’s the right tool for breaking Russian infantry attacks in the Donbas. But that means evil cluster munitions. Nevermind that the Russians have been using cluster munitions all along …

    Comment by WhoStruckJohn — January 31, 2023 @ 10:13 am

  16. Oooh, the White Sun of the Desert has turned up. Best wishes, how’s it going and all that jazz…


    Are Ukrainian logistics actually going to be that much of a problem at the sharp end? Challies in one place, Leopards in t’other, never the twain shall meet… shifts the problem rearwards, but as long as they don’t operate mixed units, how much of a problem is it, really?

    Second question – is the US actually supplying Abram’s directly, or are they going to the likes of Poland to make up the resulting “tank gap” from their supply of Leopards to Ukraine? This isn’t all that clear to me, being honest.

    There’s a few bits and pieces floating around, and I’m trying to fit them into a coherent whole. Probably a mistake. First, UKR forces appear to have a method of using tanks as artillery – plus a C&C system for co-ordinating indirect fire from same. How many of the tanks to be supplied, would actually be used in the “traditional” punch a dirty great hole through enemy lines role? Second, the US military appear to have been experimenting with a single MBT with a couple of IFVs in concert recently. Looks like that small, semi-independent, force would have a decent-ish operating range, with the BFG from the MBT, and anti-air and anti-tank from the IFVs, possibly operating a handful of km from the MBT. Strikes me that you could easily augment that distance with technicals, such that the protection to a single MBT begins much further out.

    How would decoys and drones fit into this? To me, it looks like the beginning of a serious raiding force, that is reasonably survivable, with a halfway decent in and out range. There’s been an awful lot of experimentation going on, post-2014, particularly with the RM (from a UK perspective), less so for 16AA and assorted. Still…

    On the whole, is the ability to field a divisional level armoured force, a la Gulf War v1.0 and v2.0, beginning to look seriously obsolete?

    Comment by Ducky McDuckface — January 31, 2023 @ 3:38 pm

  17. Umm, putting that another way – given the apparent situation in UKR (and Nagorno with the Azeris and whoever only a few months before) has the previously purely Naval concept of “fleet in being” been extended to “air force in being” or “armoured corps in being”? Just asking for a friend Ben Wallace.

    Comment by Ducky McDuckface — January 31, 2023 @ 3:54 pm

  18. D McD, you seem to overlook the possibility of using NBGs in PDQ mode to drive the RF infantry USCWAP.

    Comment by dearieme — January 31, 2023 @ 4:55 pm

  19. Oh, IGL, SSBAFA, dearieme.

    Comment by Ducky McDuckface — January 31, 2023 @ 5:19 pm

  20. “NBG,PDQ,USCWAP,IGL, SSBAFA”…alphabet soup usually points to the military-spook identity of the author…

    Comment by Tatyana — February 1, 2023 @ 8:48 am

  21. I an fairly sure that “USCWAP” means “up shit creek without a paddle”, which does not necessarily mean our correspondent is military.

    Comment by Green as Grass — February 2, 2023 @ 5:04 am

  22. United States Combat Weapon Aggression Paradigm.

    Comment by dearieme — February 2, 2023 @ 12:39 pm

  23. At this point the war is over for the Ukrainians. They no longer have the people to backfill for gone from the ranks. This is a war we should never have started.

    Comment by OldSarg — February 3, 2023 @ 10:52 am

  24. Ukraine: 157,000 soldiers dead.

    Comment by Jwalk — February 5, 2023 @ 1:14 pm

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