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In Ukraine, tanks face an existential battle. Is it time to ditch them?

Even though India fought its last major tank battle in 1965—the famous battle of Asal Uttar—the armour continues to have a key place in operational plans.

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New Delhi: “Lumbering slowly towards us came three huge mechanical monsters such as we had never seen before,” nineteen-year-old signals officer Bret Chaney recorded. The tank—hulking 30-ton monsters, two cannons mounted on its sides, capable of just three miles an hour—had just made its first appearance, on the blood-soaked World War I battlefield of the Somme, in 1916. “They sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape.”

In the century since, the tank has been the spearhead of countless successful military battles. But the war in Ukraine has dealt its reputation as the king of the battlefield some devastating blows. Few haven’t seen videos of $30,000 man-portable missiles blowing the turrets off $1.25 million T-72 tank. Turkish and Israeli drones have also been used against Russian armour with lethal effect. Tanks suffered heavy losses, too, in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war.

Earlier this month, soon after taking office as chief of the Indian Army, General Manoj Pande told a small group of journalists that the real lessons from Ukraine was that conventional wars were still possible, and that future conflicts wouldn’t be short. Traditional war-fighting weapons like tanks and artillery were, therefore, still relevant.

In militaries across the world, though, there is intense debate on what the war in Ukraine means for the future of armour. Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland are among the countries where this intense debate is on. The United States Marines have ditched tanks; their Army still swears by their Abrams. So, is the future of tanks dead? Have tanks lost their relevance? Does investing in tanks make sense for India?


Also read: Fate of Russian armour in Ukraine not encouraging but premature to write off the tank


The debate on tanks 

Even though India fought its last major tank battle in 1965—the famous battle of Asal Uttar—the armour continues to have a key place in operational plans. India operates around 3,500 tanks of three different types. Two, the T-90 and T-72, are of Russian origin. The third, the Arjun Main Battle Tank, or MBT, is indigenously designed and produced. Early this year, the Army ordered 118 more Arjuns, and has plans to next procure over 1,700 Future Ready Combat Vehicles, or FRCVs—the next generation of tanks. Light tanks are also being sought to defend the Line of Actual Control.

The Army’s requirements state that the FRCVs should be able to defeat not just enemy tanks and armoured vehicles, but also unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and capable of destroying or deterring attack helicopters. The FRCV will thus be equipped with multiple kinds of anti-aircraft weapons, and also possess remotely controlled weapon stations.

For some, this programme is reminiscent of Major-General John Herr, the last US Army chief of cavalry, who insisted on the importance of the horse on the battlefield even after the Nazi armoured blitzkrieg, using tanks and fighters, against Poland and France.

In March 2020, former Army chief General M.M. Naravane had said that “military icons of the 20th century”, like tanks and fighter aircraft were on their way out the same way the Sony Walkman was made redundant by newer technologies to hear music. He had noted that the last large tank battle, one where large armoured formations of two armies manoeuvred against each other supported by artillery and air forces, took place in 1973, during the Arab-Israel war on the Golan Heights.

To many other experts, though, arguments claiming that the tank is dead are wearyingly familiar. As former armoured-corps officer Major-General Jagatbir Singh noted in 2020, “the end of the tank was also predicted in the 1950s when the threat was from ATGM’s”, or anti-tank guided missiles.


Also read: China’s threat won’t wait for India to get better technology. Army must use more brainpower


Flawed Russian tactics?

Loitering munitions—capable of remaining airborne until targets appear—and drones do pose new kinds of challenges to tanks, sources in the Indian defence and security establishment told ThePrint. However, several also blamed the debacle of Russian armour in Ukraine on poor planning and operational tactics. “Russian armour, most of which were the older and less protected T-72s moved into Ukraine without any kind of air support or any kind of real air defence weapons,” a military official noted.

Former Western Army commander Lieutenant-General KJ Singh, a retired Armoured Corps officer, found Russian tactics wanting. Large unprotected columns, he noted, made it easy for the Ukrainians to take out first and the last tank, causing mayhem.

“As a young soldier,” Gen. Singh said, “I was always taught that two tanks should be 500 metres away from each other, but the Russians rolled them down the road one after the another. This was a big mistake.”

A serving military source argued that the timing and tactics used by the Russians contributed to their problems. “The Russians seem to have delayed their original dates for operations because of the Winter Olympics being organised by China. Ukraine is a great terrain for tank warfare. But by the time Russians moved in, the snow had become loose and mixed with the dark soil which made it impossible for the tanks to move in and hence they ended up hitting the roads in a concentrated manner.”

The Russians, other serving officials told ThePrint, also made several other tactical blunders, failing to adequately support their armoured assaults with mechanised infantry, electronic warfare systems and air defence. Problems with communications also led Russian soldiers to communicate with mobile phones, vulnerable to enemy interception.

Russia’s biggest failures were logistical, with planners failing to ensure armoured columns were provided with enough fuel and maintenance. This meant that the stranded armour became a sitting duck for the enemy fire, sources explained.


Also read: Protracted war has damaged global military supply systems. Time for India to step up


Will tanks win India wars?

Experts are divided, though, on the relevance of tanks to future wars India might fight. “Tanks will still be a deterrent and offensive factor in the future,” noted Colonel Vivek Chadha, a research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses and retired infantry officer. “The real question is what kind of wars do we envisage in the future and how the armour will be deployed,” Col Chadha said.

Given that both Pakistan and China have tanks—many of the same lineage as India’s armour—they will play a role in future combat, Col. Chadha said. But, he argues, the prospect of tanks playing a lead role in conflicts with China or Pakistan is low.

Lt Gen K.J. Singh, though, said design changes in armour will be key to their future.  “Tanks are designed to counter frontal attack. However, both Azerbaijan-Armenia and Russia-Ukraine conflicts have shown top attack capability which the tanks are not designed to withstand.” Tanks, he said, also will need better air defence systems and active protection systems.

Lieutenant-General K.H. Singh, a former infantry soldier, swears by the continued relevance of the armour and mechanised forces. “Armour is absolutely relevant. It needs an upgrade for air defence and anti-drone,” he said. The retired Rajput Regiment officer conceded, though, that there needs to be a “significant relook” into the tactics that is employed when it comes to armour.

“Both Pakistan and China have a high number of tanks and hence tanks for India will be relevant. Of course, technology has taken over many aspects of warfare but in any war, destruction of the enemy is what is intended and for that, tanks, artillery, fighters and long-range missiles are needed. To finally sweep in for the win, you need armour and the infantry,” Singh said.

Former Northern Army Commander Lieutenant-General D.S. Hooda concurred with the need for design changes, but said that tactics and deployment would depend on the terrain in which tanks were used. “In deserts, armour has an important role as there is space to manoeuvre but in Ladakh it is different,” Gen. Hooda argued. Anti-tank weapons, he suggested, would be more useful in Ladakh than acquiring.

The officer added that in Ladakh, what is needed from the India side is not more armour but anti-tank weapons as it will play a better role than tank vs. tank. “We need to rethink the whole concept of how armour will be used and how we can integrate them with other arms,” he said.

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