Friday, 19 August, 2022
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Fate of Russian armour in Ukraine not encouraging but premature to write off the tank

You can only plan a major operation till the point the logistics supply is assured, come what may. But Russia didn't opt for it.

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I plead ‘guilty as charged’ of trodding the well-beaten path of ‘military lessons’ as observed from the ongoing Russia-initiated war in Ukraine with its sixth week of conflict drawing to a close but no end in sight. The Russian military has completely withdrawn from Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north, according to the latest US intelligence inputs. It is now preparing for operations to take full control of the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine and remove the final pockets of resistance in a devastated Mariupol. There should now be a greater operational focus and shortening of logistics lines by the Russian army as it refits and regroups its battalion tactical groups, or BTGs, for the coming battles with Ukrainian forces in the east.

That, however, is in the future. What these past six weeks of war have brought forth are pertinent lessons for military practitioners, especially at the operational level, in a conventional conflict between near-peer adversaries using a mix of legacy, modern, and state-of-the-art weaponry.

The utility and future of armour

“The only thing all sides in the armour debate can agree on is that Russia is badly misusing its tanks — and Ukraine is taking full advantage of Russian ineptitude,” says an article in The Washington Post, encapsulating a range of feelings about Russia’s use of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, along with supporting tracked platforms, as it initially made a series of deep forays to try and force the fall of Kyiv within a short timeframe. Things did not go as planned, and within a few days, visuals of miles of stranded Russian vehicles, carrying fuel and ammunition, were all over mainstream and social media. These were lucrative targets for Ukrainian drones and ground ambushes. Soon, abandoned vehicles that had run out of fuel or were damaged, littered the countryside and a few were towed away with tractors by Ukrainian farmers (generating memes on social media), leading observers to suspect that some Russian conscripts might not be motivated enough to fight.

Russian spearheads had many tanks fitted with a semi cage-like canopy welded over the turret, which, even to an untrained eye, would suggest a restricted use of the tank’s external machine gun in addition to the overall size and weight increase. Western analysts and media have derided these, labelling them ‘cope cages’ that cater to the psychological fear of tank crews to top attack threats without any actual benefit or statistical armour, as they have only a 50 per cent chance of stopping or degrading a shaped charge warhead. The Russian army’s decision to fit these cages could be ascribed to its combat experiences in Syria, and even Chechnya, where the ubiquitous RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launcher (and its newer versions) could be aimed from windows of buildings onto tank turrets. Even a well-lobbed grenade from above can kill or maim a crew if a hatch is open, and hence, any overhead protection is useful.

Another threat that the Russian armed forces may have had in mind would be fragmentation munitions dropped onto the turret from combat-rigged drones. It is a fear-inducing weapon, first seen in Syria during the start of the Civil War in 2013 and has since grown in size, sophistication, and accuracy. The cages would certainly have some protective effect in close urban combat with such weapons. However, in Ukraine, against the newer generation of anti-tank weapons such as the Javelin and the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW), which use thermal or optical homing and trigger the shaped charge at preset distances, these cages have proven to be pretty useless. It is possible that Russian armour units expected to face a threat only from limited Ukrainian resistance fighters after they’d captured large chunks of urban areas.

To come back to the question of ‘wither armour’ in the future. It would be premature to write off the tank (just as it is premature to write off manned fighter aircraft) based on Russian experiences in Ukraine. An overestimation of Russian might have led to some serious miscalculations in the initial military strategy, coupled with a gross underestimation of the Ukrainians’ capacity and will to fight. That was sought to be corrected and the story not visible in the media (but which can be estimated by Russian gains in the east and the south) is the combined arms use of firepower and restricted manoeuvre, in which tanks and other fighting platforms played a significant part, along with the use of airpower, fixed-wing and rotary as well as long-range fires directed by effective intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance.

Thus, it would only be right to quote Nicholas Drummond, a well-known British analyst of fighting vehicles and future platforms, who tweeted, “Russia’s disastrous tactics have been a terrible advertisement for tanks. But we should be careful to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions. No artillery support. No infantry support. No air support. This is not how combined arms tactics work in an era of multi-domain operations.”

Also read: Russia launching hypersonic missiles heralds a new era of warfare—high speed, more lethal

Logistics trumps plans

To me, this is the major lesson arising out of the ongoing Ukraine war. The Russians did not opt for adequate secure logistics routes for their BTGs and other support units once they launched from their firm bases. With a mechanically heavy footprint, the challenges of resupply and maintenance of critical equipment came to a cropper and results were very much visible after mid-March. You can only plan a major operation till the point the logistics supply is assured, come what may. Any overstretch, and you play into the adversary’s hands.

Control of air and the EM spectrum

The fight to control the air and use the electromagnetic spectrum unhindered is a key part of any operational campaign, and if you are unable to do this quickly and then maintain your superiority vis-à-vis the other side, your ground thrusts will flounder and be attrited. Russians were overconfident about their airpower and superior electronic warfare capabilities. However, the Ukrainian air defences were no pushover, and neither have their counter electronic warfare efforts been static ever since the conflict began in Donbas back in 2014. However, within three weeks of the war, Russia’s edge in the air was visible. Hence, the voluble demands for ‘closing the airspace over Ukraine’ by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have only grown louder, coupled with demands for fighter aircraft from friendly countries for the Ukrainian air force.

There are numerous other operational and tactical lessons that, no doubt, keen observers will be focusing on in the days to come. However, it is clear that in a fight between well-equipped and motivated forces, it is the ability to use your strengths such as knowledge of terrains, practice and capability of combined arms manoeuvre, being able to work under the umbrella of air cover, and leverage new technology (drones, new generation of missiles, cyber and electronic capabilities) that will eventually decide the victorious side. Right now, Russia has the edge in size and military capability, and yet, the human factors of morale and motivation, together with the will to continue against all odds, which are tilted in Ukraine’s favour, may very well decide the final outcome of this war.

The author is a retired Major General and was commissioned into the Armoured Corps in Dec 1983. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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