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Does the War in Ukraine Prove Tanks Are Totally Obsolete?

Russian T-90 Tanks
Russia's T-90 tanks. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Are drones and anti-tank missiles making tanks obsolete?

You’ve seen the photos and videos that have documented the numerous mangled and destroyed Russian tanks that have littered the battlefield. The Bayraktar TB2 combat drone and the Javelin anti-tank missile have been devastating to Russian armor. The tank’s vulnerable turret is no match for missiles. Antitank systems are truly raining death from above.

1945 has chronicled attempts by the Russians to protect their tanks from these types of missiles. Vladimir Putin’s forces have built iron cages above tank turrets to block the downward trajectory of anti-tank munitions. These countermeasures have not been effective.

Astounding Russia Losses 

As of March 13, the Ukrainians have lost 389 tanks and 1,249 armored personnel carriers, according to the Ukrainian ministry of defense quoted in the Kyiv Independent. While these numbers are not independently confirmed, it is safe to say that the Russians have seen hundreds of tanks destroyed.

 Worth the Cost?

In 2020, Army Technology web magazine conducted a survey and asked whether tanks are a worthwhile investment. They asked over 6,000 respondents. 74 percent of those surveyed said that tanks indeed were a worthwhile investment while 26 percent said they were not.

The poll concluded that during counter-insurgency and counter-terror fights in Iraq and Afghanistan the main battle tank played less of a role, and it risked becoming obsolete. But due to the great power resurgence of Russia and China – both countries that have large-scale armored forces – the tank was seen as more important.

But Here Come the Ukrainian Forces

The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have changed that sentiment again. Russian tanks are being obliterated throughout the country. The use of stand-off missiles and drones by the Ukrainians have introduced a new wrinkle in armored maneuver warfare – one that has changed viewpoints on what it means to have a tank in combat.

Marines Ditch Their Armor

The U.S. Marine Corps was so sure that this change in warfare would make tanks expendable that they have retired many of their Abrams tanks and the force plans to go tankless to concentrate on their maritime amphibious mission. Marine tankers have been asked to leave the service, re-class into another military occupational specialty, or join the army.

Perhaps the marines are looking smart because the war in Ukraine is showing the tank and infantry fighting vehicle is becoming redundant. One reason for armored vehicles’ difficulty in Ukraine has been the Bayraktar TB2 combat drone.

Bayraktar Drone Making Piecemeal of the Russians

This unmanned system is proving deadly to the tank. The Bayraktar TB2 is Turkish-made, and the Ukrainians have about 50 of the drones with more on the way. Each aircraft has four laser-guided missiles.

The drone can fly for around 24 hours with a ceiling of 25,000 feet. Drone operators can be up to 185-miles away. The payload is 121 pounds with a 105 horse-power engine. Its top speed is around 80 miles per hour.

The Bayraktar is proving that it can avoid Russian radar and jamming equipment. But their success also is due to the questionable tactics from the Russian as the invaders do not always protect their armored columns with surface-to-air missiles and other types of air defense systems.

Despite the success of the Bayraktar, I don’t believe the tank should be given its last rights. Countries will learn lessons from the war in Ukraine and strengthen the armor along the top of the turret. Tactics will also improve. U.S. brigade combat teams will use their own drones to counter the enemy and better sniff out attacks from remotely-piloted vehicles. Thus, the tank will still remain a mainstay in modern combat.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Alex

    March 15, 2022 at 12:20 pm

    Tanks cannot become obsolete for clearing territory. But soon there will be unmanned options. And statements about how many Russian tanks the Ukrainians destroyed would be perfect for supporters of the Nazis. Educated people simply laugh at these figures.

  2. Chris

    March 16, 2022 at 11:02 am

    Hello Brent;

    I’d like to point out what may be a simple typo. The paragraph headed “Astounding Russia Losses” indicates the “Ukrainians have lost 389 tanks and 1,249 armored personnel carriers…” when in fact it’s the Russians that have lost the estimated amounts stated in your article.

    Also, I inadvertently ran into this site this morning and would like to express my appreciation for the fact based information provided. Whether biased towards the right, left or middle editorially, it’s nice to find a source where fact rules over political propaganda. I’ve added 1945 to my morning reading list and I’m hopeful that you manage to remain independent while 1945 viewership, and content, grows.

    Thanks!

  3. Alex

    March 17, 2022 at 5:52 am

    Good article.

    The tank has probably become a liability in attack. If it moves, it’s vulnerable to attack, and a single soldier hiding in a hole can now take out a tank.

    This probably resets the balance between attack and defence to 1914. Taking defended territory will be prohibitive. This would equally apply to attempts to take Taiwan over 300km of open water.

    The way to take terrirory will be to sneak in elite soldiers and attack from the centre. Russia succeeded in this in Crimea, but failed in Kyiv.

    What might save the tank is smaller, unmanned variants, that can take damage and continue fighting till all their multiply redundant electronics and motors have been destroyed.

  4. Charles

    March 23, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    “Last rites”, not “last rights” unless this is some sort of pun I’m missing. Overall, a solid article with useful links. Thanks Brent.

  5. John Fillmore

    March 24, 2022 at 9:56 am

    When we look at tanks as being mobile artillery, it strikes me that swarms of controlled or semi-autonomous drones will eventually replace them. Even the monetary cost factor ($6000 for a Switchblade vs. $6M per MBT like an Abrams) and human cost factor (unmanned vs. crew of 4) lean toward drones.

  6. aardi

    April 4, 2022 at 12:14 pm

    I think tanks are on their way out. There will be an even more intense technological race between tank busting drones/ATMs and tank defense but the defense side of that race will always lag behind. Meanwhile, as the cost of protecting tanks and tank crews soar, the inexorable rise in tank vulnerability will narrow the types of missions that tanks can be deployed in to the point that, just like battleships, they will become obsolete.

    The technological landscape inevitably determines the type of weaponry and tactics that the military deploys. If you step back and look at the way tech has evolved in the last thirty years or so, it’s been towards miniaturization, mobility, stealth, and computing power. These are all things that put a big honking main battle tank at a disadvantage.

  7. aardi

    April 4, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    I might also add, it’s not only tanks that are becoming increasingly vulnerable, but supply lines –fuel, munitions, food. As the Ukrainians have amply demonstrated, tank columns are only as effective (if they are effective at all) as their fuel and supplies allow them to be.

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