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The Tank: News of my death have been exaggerated


One of the most common hot takes from the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the idea that the main battle tank, that has ruled the battlefield for a century, is no longer a viable system. Depending on the author one of the modern wonder weapons, be it anti-tank missiles like Javelin, NLAW, the Bayraktar TB-2 drone or the accurate drone spotted artillery and mortar fire have made the tank an obsolete behemoth that is unable to successfully operate in the modern battlefield.

This conclusion is easy to come by when observing the Russian attacks on Kyiv, Sumy and Cherniv from the western media coverage. Especially the battle for Kyiv was indeed a triumph of the Ukrainian light infantry against mechanized Russian forces. But was this victory somehow revolutionary? The answer is straight forward, it was predictable to a degree that many analysts discounted the possibility of a Russian attack towards Kyiv from the north. The terrain through marches of Pripyat and the Chernobyl exclusion zone was very difficult for successful mechanized operations. The Russian forces were pushed to narrow corridors of passable lands.

This resulted in the classic traffic jam formation that was made exceedingly vulnerable by the fact that the Russian forces remained in marching columns without any serious attempts to secure their flanks. The overhopeful leadership most likely counted on the front to keep advancing at any moment and thus didn’t want any delays with moving on.

Similar situation, with similar results developed in the 1939-40 Winter War between USSR and Finland. Convoys can only project a fraction of their power forward, thus making the defense easier. Bundled up troops make easy targets for artillery, mortars and raiding light infantry.

Despite being mechanized and motorized, the Russian forces heading to Kyiv were also rather light, with more focus on fast MRAPs, IFVs and APCs. This reflected the Russian thinking that Ukraine would collapse under their fast advance. 

The Russian forces heading to Kyiv through Sumy and Cherniv were much more traditional Russian mechanized and armored units with significant numbers of main battle tanks with them. These offensives were also hampered by the limited mobility constrained by the wet terrain, but also long distances and broad sectors that quickly channeled the Russian BTGs into isolated units that could be taken out by the combination of the new systems and traditional mechanized warfare. Especially around Cherniv, Ukrainian mechanized troops mounted a successful defense with tanks of their own.

In the area where Russians concentrated their heaviest armored formations, Kharkiv, Ukrainians countered them with their own mechanized units. In these battles Russians weren’t able to gain much ground and the Ukrainian tank units were able to effectively counterattack the Russians.

Russian army has its own advanced and battle proven weapons that, if the theory of the tank being obsolete are correct, should be capable of countering the numerically limited and aging Ukrainian tanks. Despite their best efforts, the Russian Army has seriously struggled against well executed Ukrainian combined arms offensives spearheaded by tanks.

So instead of assuming that the tank is obsolete, the correct analysis is that the Russian tactics, that were obsolete in 1939, are still obsolete. The battlefield is a dangerous place to a tank, probably more dangerous than ever before. But effective anti-tank weapons have existed nearly as long as tanks have. Artillery devastated tank formations during WW2, when the intel to employ it was available. But when employed with proper support from artillery and infantry in a coordinated attacks or flexible defense tanks can still turn battles around.

-Petri Mäkelä


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