For the past four months or so the world has watched agog as events have evolved in Ukraine.
In particular, Russia’s immense losses in main battle tanks (MBTs) and armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) at the hands of small, determined groups of defenders aided by arms supplied by the west has led to many questioning the value of such vehicles in modern, conventional warfare. At the time of writing, Ukraine’s claimed losses it has inflicted on Russia’s MBTs and AFVs stand at 1,200 and 2,750 respectively.
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Whilst such claims have to be approached with some caution, there is little doubt that their Russian enemy has suffered grievously. Ukraine’s own losses are harder to determine but are likely to be significant also.
There are many lessons to be garnered for the UK and other western countries from the progress of the war so far. I have written elsewhere that declarations that the age of the tank are premature and misguided, but there is little doubt that we in the UK need to address the changes in armoured warfare we have witnessed if we are to have any hope of prevailing in a future conflict of this nature and intensity.
First and foremost amongst these lessons is the need for numbers. It’s no accident that victory usually goes to the big battalions, and of course the old adage that quantity has a quality all of its own still applies. If you look at the level of MBT and AFV losses incurred by both sides in the Ukraine to date, you do have to wonder how long the UK’s current tank fleet might last at this level of conflict. My impression is that if the UK’s three tank regiments with their fifty or so tanks apiece were committed at the same time they might last a week at best before becoming combat ineffective.
The problem is that we have no immediately available replacement tanks to refurbish and re-equip so we can go again. This will be exacerbated when, on current plans, Challenger 3 comes into service around 2030, Insh’Allah. On present plans the UK is planning to procure only 148 of these, which basically equates to two regiments’ worth plus the balance for training and maintenance reserves. This will make the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) a “use once only” force, because in anything approaching a peer-on-peer conflict it will be expended quickly.
The quick-fix solution for the UK? Buy from abroad, and do so quickly. The obvious options are either the US M1A1 series or Germany’s Leopard 2 (which many of us thought that the UK should have bought instead of Challenger 2 in the first place). Apparently the USA may have as many as 3,000 + of the M1/M1A1 Abrams in storage, and who knows how many Leopard 2s might be in hangars and warehouses across Europe. Either would be a speedy and effective solution to the UK’s woeful tank numbers.
Next, we need to look at MBT and AFV protection against attack. Most are now familiar with the American Javelin and the UK/Swedish NLAW (Next generation light anti tank weapon) which have been, together with guided artillery shells, knocking lumps off Russian tanks and AFVs in Ukraine. Javelin and NLAW use a top attack mode which targets an MBT’s thinner top armour. While we have marvelled at the vulnerabilities of Russian vehicles to these weapons systems, there is nothing to suggest that western tanks would fare any better. In fact, the treatment meted out to the Turkish Leopard 2s in Syria in 2016 may have been partly due to such attack modes. I very much doubt if Challenger 2 in its current mode would prove any more survivable.
What is to be done? Again, as I have written previously, there are countermeasures available to defeat the top attack threats from anti-tank missiles, drones, and loitering and “suicide” munitions, both passive and active. At the same time, remote weapons systems (RWS) – as seen in action in some footage from Ukraine against ground targets – can be optimised to counter the threats from above. The problem here is that UK MBTs and AFVs don’t field any of these, not yet anyway, and the proposed purchase for the Challenger 3 fleet currently amounts to only 60 active protective systems (APS) between 148 MBTs. We need to move rapidly to equipping the whole tank fleet at the very least.
Then there is the combined arms aspect. As any fule kno, successful combat operations demand practiced all-arms cooperation between tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, etc, but above all air defence. While much has been made of the success in Ukraine of the British Starstreak and Martlet surface-to-air missiles, and rightly so, we don’t have sufficient of them, which again needs to be rectified as fast as. Add cannon-based anti-air capability while you’re at it too. Plus, infantry equipped properly to accompany tanks in close country and urban environments can prevent the enemy having the opportunity to engage with short range anti-armour weapons by flushing them out in advance. But the infantry need to have a modern infantry fighting vehicle to accomplish this; Warrior, the current British tracked IFV, is obsolescent and, looking at Ukraine, I’m not sure that its wheeled replacement, Boxer, will necessarily be up to the job. We’ll see.
I could bang on about other parts of the British army – artillery, engineers etc – and the need to modernise their equipment but I think you get my point. However, I think we should briefly touch upon air power and logistics. I terms of the former, it is clearly a prerequisite for successful ground operations that air superiority is achieved, even it is limited by time and geography to specific actions. Is the UK sure it could guarantee this for its ground troops – in fact, can NATO – in the face of a peer or near-peer foe? And secondly, the Ukraine war has highlighted once again the vast quantities of materiel that modern high-tempo conventional operations consume. Do we have the wherewithal to sustain such combat operations? I suspect we do not.
Let me be the 94th person to say that the current war in eastern Europe has been a bit of a wake up call for militaries around the globe. For the UK, and to a lesser extent the rest of NATO, it has also illustrated how the last twenty years of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq has been no preparation in equipment, training, or tactics for the real thing. The British army is underfunded, under-manned, and poorly equipped to take on such an enterprise now or in the near future. Only timely and appropriate action by politicians and senior leaders can pull this one out of the fire.
Over to you, Ben Wallace and CGS!
© Stuart Crawford 2022