Is the tank still the ‘king of the battlefield’? The sight of burnt out Russian vehicles littering the highways outside of Kyiv has led some to question their effectiveness in modern-day warfare. But don't be deceived: the death of the tank has been greatly exaggerated. There is a reason, after all, why Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is pleading with Nato to send him as many as possible.
The tank’s detractors claim they are now too heavy, too slow and too easily picked off by anti-tank missiles fired by drones, helicopters and infantry troops. This belief is likely influenced by last year’s defence cost-cutting programme, the Integrated Review, which was designed to make the armed forces better equipped to face threats of the future such as cyber and space warfare.
‘Instead of mass and mobilisation, this future force will be about speed, readiness and resilience, operating much more in the newest domains of space, cyber and sub-sea, and working to prevent conflict, as well as winning it,’ Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence said. The consequence of the report was that the Army’s armoured regiments were plundered. Of the 227 Challenger 2 tanks in service with the Army, just 148 would be upgraded to the Challenger 3 (costing £800 million). There wasn’t a huge amount of fuss at the time. After all, the US Marine Corps had shortly before decided that it would ditch all of its 452 tanks in the next ten years.
Dumping tanks appeared to be in vogue. But slashing the number of tanks comes with consequences: the UK is now ranked 58 on the Global Firepower index, squeezed between Uganda (57) and above Kyrgyzstan (59) for tank numbers. Clearly, the new Challenger 3 will be much more capable than those of Uganda and Kyrgyzstan, but a tank can only be in one place at any one time and in war quantity has a quality all of its own. How well prepared is Britain if the Ukraine conflict escalates? What effect 148 tanks can deliver on a battlefield in central Europe is anyone’s guess.
The primary purpose of tanks is to punch a hole through an enemy’s defence, allowing ground forces to flood in and seize land. Ever since tanks helped end the bloody stalemate of the first world war, armies have been judged by how many tanks they could muster in times of conflict. They are, in other words, the ultimate symbol of military might.
The British tank is the Challenger, a 70-ton beast with a top off-road speed of around 25 mph. The crew of four is protected by a type of top secret armour called Chobham, believed to consist of layers of nylon micro-mesh, titanium and ceramic material bonded together. The tank’s 120mm gun is capable of firing a high explosive round twice as fast as a sniper’s bullet at a range of more than three miles. ‘Tanks don’t do hearts and minds,’ one senior defence officer told me. ‘They do death and destruction.’
Yet the idea that the tank is dead arises every time a new anti-tank weapon is developed, says Justin Crump, the head of Sibylline, an intelligence consultancy. Crump, who has been an Army reservist for 17 years and served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, says the idea that tanks are a thing of the past ‘remains a fallacy'. 'No other weapon system provides the firepower, mobility, survivability, endurance, and cost-effectiveness of the tank,’ he says. ‘Helicopters can hit hard and fast, but are much more expensive and vulnerable, with huge operational overheads. Cheap missiles are plentiful, but the person firing them, an infantryman, is naturally vulnerable to every weapon on the battlefield, particularly artillery.'
It's undeniable, though, that tanks have had a bad time in Ukraine. This is largely due to flawed tactics and the remarkable success of the Swedish designed, British manufactured Next Generation Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW). NLAW work on what is called a ‘fire and forget system’. Over 4,000 have been sent from the UK to Ukraine. The missile’s tracking system is passive, meaning that no lock-on signature is required. Instead the weapon uses 'predicted line of sight' targeting, incorporating magnetic and optical sensors to rapidly travel to the target. The benefits of this are that the kill rate is very high and the operator needs only an hour's training to master the system. In Ukraine, over 500 Russian tanks have been destroyed; NLAWs accounted for 40 per cent of those. (Land mines and Turkish drones armed with bombs and missiles have destroyed many more).
Modern tanks are complex beasts. While they are equipped with a dazzling array of sensors capable of turning the night time battlefield into daytime, they also require a huge amount of specialist technical support, servicing and fuel (they average around four litres of fuel per mile). This, in part, explains why the 40 mile-long Russian armoured convoy ground to a halt just north of Kyiv in the opening weeks of the conflict. The Kyiv failure perfectly illustrates the huge logistical support required by modern tank regiments.
Importantly, tanks are difficult to hide on the modern battlefield: their vulnerability to attack in urban environments means there is a deep reluctance to deploy them in cities. But the ability to manoeuvre around the battlefield is the platform’s irreplaceable strength. The tank is crucial to achieving success on the battlefield.
Despite the thrashing Russian tanks are getting in Ukraine, the kings of the battlefield may be around for some time yet. Jack Watling, a research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, insists that while many nations are now looking at reducing their tank fleets, tanks won’t go anywhere. Why? Because, he says, ‘militaries will continue to need mobile protected firepower’.
Tanks, as with any military equipment, have their flaws and these vehicles may have to be changed to combat new anti-tank weapons. But for now, tanks are simply too important for armies to ditch them entirely.