ROME — The burned-out carcasses of scores of Russian tanks in Ukraine have prompted the world to once again write the obituary of the venerable fighting vehicle.
Repeatedly caught by Turkish drones or destroyed by Javelin anti-tank weapons, then towed away by Ukrainian tractors, Moscow’s tanks have proved to be paper tigers, demonstrating to the world these lumbering relics of past wars are no longer relevant.
But some experts warn it’s far too soon to write off the tank, pointing to Russia’s woeful misuse of its tracked vehicles and arguing high-intensity war on land still demands the armor and firepower tanks provide. And now some are worried European plans for a shared main battle tank — the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System with an estimated development cost of €1.5 billion (U.S. $1.6 billion) — will perish thanks to work-share tussles and a renewed focus on quick, off-the-shelf procurements.
“Just as high-intensity warfare is underway in Europe, we cannot lose a program designed to help the survival of European defense,” said Yohann Michel, a research analyst in Berlin with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
The failures of Russian tanks
Russia has reportedly lost more than 600 tanks in Ukraine, less than three months into the conflict.
In one example of the vehicle type’s failures, a video from March showed mortars and artillery decimating a tank column as it drove through Brovary, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Released by the Ukrainian military, the video was overlaid with what appears to be the voice of a Russian commander reporting to a superior: “Lots of losses. They waited for us. Head of the convoy got into the ambush.”
While the video ostensibly demonstrated the ineffectiveness of tanks, military experts came away with a different conclusion. They say the video only makes clear tanks are vulnerable if undefended, and Moscow has inexplicably left its tanks in Ukraine brutally exposed.
“In Brovary, a well-trained NATO armored column would have been accompanied by infantry to stop an ambush,” said retired British Army Brig. Ben Barry, a senior land warfare fellow at the IISS think tank in London. “Tanks must be part of a combined arms team. Instead, the Russian tanks have suffered huge losses from [Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapons], Javelins and even Soviet-era anti-tank weapons.
“In the south, the Russians may now use more artillery and mount more cautious offensive operations, but what we have seen so far is poor tactics and training and possibly weakness of leadership.”
American analyst Michael Kofman said infantry support is particularly essential in urban environments.
“The Russian military appears to have dramatically cut the infantry from its units, often with just two to three soldiers available for dismount in infantry fighting vehicles. These are structural issues,” said Kofman, the research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses.
The result has been evident, thanks to endless images showing Russian tank wreckage in fields and on roadsides, often with the turrets blown off, creating what has been dubbed a “jack in the box” effect.
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Russia has “generally” undertaken combined arms warfare. “But not this time, and it is difficult to explain why we are still seeing tanks without infantry support,” he said.
In terms of tank toughness, Barry argued Russian tanks have thinner armor than Western counterparts, and their explosive reactive armor has appeared to offer little protection in Ukraine.
Kaushal said Russians have a habit of placing an automatic ammunition handling system, known as a carousel loader, beneath the turret of its tanks to save space inside the hull. However, this ultimately creates problems.
“It allows the turret to be lower, which reduces the profile, but that is less of an advantage when you are targeted from above by drones,” he said. “And in that case, the positioning of the ammunition means it can catch fire, which is why we are seeing turrets being blown off.”
Ukraine’s extensive use of cheap Turkish drones has been a game changer in the war, but that does not disqualify the tank, Kaushal said. “Combined teams to protect tanks must offer surveillance and electronic attack and counter-UAV capabilities.”
Apart from tackling drones, Russian tanks needed better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, said Pierluigi Barberini, a defense and security analyst at the Italian think tank CeSI. “They seemed to lack situational awareness and did not know where the enemy was,” he explained.
‘Wake up and smell the coffee’
This isn’t the first time experts have predicated a premature end to armored vehicles. Some wrote off the tank ever since the introduction of anti-tank guided missiles, such as the Sagger in the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War.
But Kofman believes the tank remains a battlefield necessity.
“They are essential in urban warfare; tanks still offer the best combination of protection, firepower and maneuver on the battlefield in their role,” he said. “Tanks are considered obsolete after every war, but the problems they face are faced by any vehicle.”
Barry said the war has instead offered fresh lessons for tank designers, ones Europe may be considering as it weighs its joint tank effort.
“Now you really need a drone for every tank and a way to keep enemy drones off your back,” he said. “There is no silver bullet yet, but jamming, which has proved effective against improvised explosive devices, is one solution, combined with shooting down drones. Tank designers need to wake up and smell the coffee.”
Barry also noted Russia had not equipped its tanks with active protection systems, which shoot at incoming missiles.
“We need to pay more attention to active protection, meaning [the Israeli-made] Trophy, but also lighter versions since Trophy cannot be used on a vehicle like [an American-made] Bradley [fighting vehicle]. And we should be looking at countering active protection,” he said.
A European land warfare industry executive said many defense contractors are now looking into unmanned tank technology. “Everyone is working on that, possibly using Tesla [driverless] car technology,” he said on the condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
But analysts have warned the complexity of urban tank warfare still requires a human presence onboard because negotiating obstacles on the ground and tackling close-up enemy action are far more challenging than unmanned flight.
“Ukraine teaches us that heavy weapons are needed in warfare, and that means tanks will play a part,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, the deputy director at the French think tank IRIS and a scientific coordinator at its Armament Industry European Research Group.
Europe looks to the next-generation tank
Events in Ukraine may not have proved the tank is dead, but Europe’s much-vaunted Main Ground Combat System initiative, designed to bring together the continent’s fractured and divided tank programs, appears headed that way.
Launched in 2012, the fledgling MGCS program convenes Germany’s Rheinmetall with KNDS, the European land warfare giant created in 2015 by the merger of German firm Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and France’s Nexter.
The program is a response to the frequent complaint from politicians and industry leaders that Europe has 17 tank programs, making the vehicle type a prime example of how to waste money and duplicate efforts.
Almost all European nations operate tanks, even if just a handful in the case of small states. In recent years, the U.K. deployed its Challenger tanks in the Balkans and Iraq.
In early 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through Europe, the French and German governments announced a 20-month study phase for the platform’s system architecture. The program is the “flagship project for Franco-German cooperation in the land domain,” according to a French Army statement provided to Defense News.
But the program does not appear to be accelerating.
Studies are ongoing to hone the system’s architecture, the statement said, and the launch of the program’s next phase was recently extended to “deepen and consolidate” the various candidate architecture designs. The aim is to complete the studies by 2023 to begin work on a system demonstrator and eventually field a system by 2035. The project aims to “gradually” open up to other partners, the French Army noted.
The French Armed Forces Ministry earmarked €58 million in its 2022 budget to fund MGCS-related studies. Germany has agreed to match France’s spending during development.
A spokeswoman in the German Defence Ministry would only say companies are still negotiating among themselves and that “generally” the signature of a follow-on implementing agreement is still on the calendar for 2022.
The irony is the program could peter out because of the war in Ukraine, not despite it, as jumpy nations seek to make quick purchases rather than to wait for lengthy joint development programs to bear fruit.
Poland, which media reports suggested was interested in MGCS, rushed in April to spend about $4.75 billion on 250 Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 tanks from the U.S. to counter Russia’s flagship T-14 Armata tank.
Poland “bought Abrams tanks in a hurry because of the war — meaning MGCS could struggle,” according to the European land warfare industry executive.
Maulny noted that defense budgets are growing and that countries are rapidly seeking capabilities. “The MGCS could be shunned as countries buy new Abrams and Leopard tanks which they will not need to replace for years,” he said.
The war in Ukraine has accelerated other quick weaponry purchases and upgrades across the continent, raising fears a host of longer-term joint programs like MGCS will suffer. One example is Italy, where a program to upgrade its Army’s Ariete tanks is gaining attention, as is a plan to replace its tracked Dardo infantry fighting vehicles.
Meanwhile, in Germany, analyst Christian Mölling said Berlin is falling out of love with the MGCS.
“Appetite for the program in Germany has been shrinking, with some feeling that it would involve giving away the crown jewels of the defense industry,” said Mölling, research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “A common feeling is: ‘Are we financing French interests?’ ”
Mölling said the program has been “losing traction” since 2017, when French President Emmanuel Macron and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to pursue joint defense programs like MGCS and the Future Combat Air System fighter jet.
Interest has diminished even as current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz prioritizes defense spending with a €100 billion boost to procurement, announced in February in reaction to the war in Ukraine.
“Scholz has a different perspective on the defense industry — Merkel was never interested. He understands the economics, and there are long-standing ties between his Social [Democratic] Party and the industry,” Mölling said.
He added, however, that it might only mean MGCS staggering on for a while longer before it’s terminated.
But some analysts argue that if Europe ever needed a focused, money-saving joint tank program like MGCS, the time is now, as tanks do battle in Europe for the first time in nearly eight decades.
Michel, of IISS in Berlin, said canceling the program would be a “stupid” outcome.
“Both France and Germany will need a new tank to take on the new realities of conflict, and it is really important to move now,” he said.
If the program fails, two national programs could emerge, at the cost of interoperability, he added.
“The worst possible outcome is that we waste money and time, then have to buy tanks, possibly from the U.S., which is not good, not even for the U.S. because we get stuck with fewer production options.”
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.