Ukraine Tank Tactics

Two full weeks plus in, and the Ukrainians are standing strong, to say the least. First, for some context, hare are two situation maps ten days apart, from the Institute for the Study of War.

March 1
March 11

Now compare to the railway map below.

Courtesy of

You can see the Russian advances towards Kyiv hinge off that big blue line, one of the most capable, well engineered rail lines. Looks like the Russians are trying to clean up their logistical disaster. Time for some partisan action.

The Russians are sending in the C list equipment now. I watched some footage from Russian state TV, Pravda, to see what they are telling their people about it. What I really was looking for, was footage of units and equipment.

One clip really caught my eye. The narrator claimed it was on the advance to Kyiv and it was footage of engineers passing a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) over a pontoon bridge. A BTG is the Russian combat task force that mixes tanks, infantry and such. Instead of fighting as regiments within the division, the Russian divisions organize three or four BTG out of the three regiments. They don’t have the equipment and troop operational readiness to create a BTG out of every battalion in the division. This particular BTG was equipped with much older T-72B model tanks, sporting the earliest version of explosive reactive armor, and BTR-80s.

Let’s talk tanks for a moment. The Russians have the T-14 Armada, which I would be shocked to see a combat debut. That vehicle has issues, despite it being their much heralded top tank. Most of the Russian army has T-90M / T-90A or T-80BMV as their real top tank, equipped with thermal sights and better reactive armor, and anti-missile defenses. It is worth noting there is video evidence of T-90s surviving TOW missile hits in Syria. The Russians supposedly have more than 4000 of these 3rd Generation tanks in storage. The Russians also have a large number of older T-72B3M tanks, a modernization of the T-72B model.

The Russian vehicles in Ukraine do not appear to have been using their active missile defense systems. Why? Is this the result of poor maintenance or budgeting or a reluctance to risk them falling into Western hands?

The question worth asking at the moment is why are the Russians pushing much older T-72B tanks forward when the loss of 300 or so tanks doesn’t even dent the stockpiled inventory? Same question for the older BTR-80.

Now let’s look at non-Russian tanks. First and foremost, I will tell you that even our Abrams is not invulnerable. I have a pair of Purple Hearts to prove that. With top-attack munitions, this is obvious, but even direct attack munitions, penetrations can and will happen, even on the front slope. Burn me at the stake if you want, but I have seen RPG’s penetrate. Missiles are even more powerful than RPGs. Your tanking tactics must account for the reality that things can kill a tank.

Ukraine is farming country. With the exception of the Russian advance along the Pripyat, it is good tanking country. Rolling hills, large open fields separated by tree lines. The farm fields of eastern Ukraine are not the bottomless bogs of the Pripyat, so maneuver is possible.

Advancing across this terrain is the mechanized force’s bread and butter. Use reconnaissance to find the defenders, establish a base of fire to support an assault on a flank. Use artillery to suppress infantry equipped with anti-tank missiles until you are on the objective and can clear them with the combined effects from tank cannon and machinegun fire and dismounted infantry. The Russian TOS-1 artillery fuel-air rocket system was developed for this sort of thing. A mixture of smoke and high explosive artillery fire is quite useful for suppressing infantry and blinding most of them to your movements.

No movement with likelihood of contact should occur without an over-watching base of fire. Rinse, repeat.

The width of the advance needs to be much wider than the road it is clearing. Merely marching down the road only breeds an ambush. At a minimum, the terrain within missile range and line of sight must be cleared. This actually means clearing any areas beyond it that could serve as a hide site for ambush teams. Really, a minimum of ten miles each side of the roadway must be cleared or reconnoitered because light infantry are comfortable with that length of a march. Ideally, the advance needs to have secure flanks, whether by a cavalry screen, or by adjacent advances.

Infantry defending this terrain needs to be smart and bold. It is vital to escape detection until initiating the firefight on own terms. The tree lines and farms are key to this, but are also obvious positions. Excellent camouflage and if time permits, constructed cover are must haves. Mutually supporting, but geographically distant fighting positions allow massing of missiles without enemy artillery suppressing everyone at once. Decoy positions to force enemy armored forces to deploy at the wrong time or orient on the wrong area allow light infantry to have a more even fight. A good egress route that goes where tanks cannot is a great asset.

Artillery needs to be integrated with two purposes, one, disrupt the advancing armor before it deploys and force the crews to button up and lose some of their situation awareness. Two, suppress the enemy base of fire so it isn’t as effective in suppressing you. Trying to target the assault is difficult. A final protective fire of artillery right on the edge of your position can target the enemy mechanized infantry as they dismount, but timing is difficult. Train like your life depends on it.

Light forces can fight a deep battle by infiltrating the rear areas of an armored thrust, or hiding well enough to let the tanks go by. Targeting the logistics tail can have huge impacts on the teeth of the armored force. The destruction of fuel truck especially should be high priority. Destruction of rail bridges, track and overhead power lines can slow the Russian logistical advances. An aggressive deep fight will pull combat power from the tip of the spear to guard rear areas. The Russians really don’t have that much combat power to go around. I’m waiting for the video of a NLAW used against a train crossing a bridge.

Watching the videos of the fighting in Ukraine, I’ve noticed the Russians are not doing well at maneuver. They spend a lot of time on the roads and their reaction to ambush is not consistent. The armored reaction to ambush needs to be aggressive to survive the ambush. It is important to remember an infantry unit has a finite number of soldiers equipped with and trained to employ anti-tank missiles. Aggressive return fire on these teams can prevent them from engaging vehicles one by one. Turning into the ambushing unit’s position places the thickest armor towards the incoming weapons. This buys a higher survivability rate. This also places the ramps of the infantry vehicles away from the enemy so dropping ramp doesn’t invite bullets into the squad compartment. This sort of aggressive action will also plant a seed of doubt into the ambushers’ mind. There is always a large element of risk ambushing armored vehicles.

There has been a lot of talk about the success of missiles. Saint Javelin, Father NLAW, and Mister Metis are indeed having huge success, but much of this would be countered with good tactics. The Russians are not demonstrating good tactics. That being said, even the Metis missile is much faster than the old Sagger. I’m not sure the sagger drill I grew up with is still a valid tactic. The sagger drill of zig-zagging aggressively to throw off the missile gunner’s aim requires a longer flight time. The base of fire is clutch now.

To the end of suppressing and destroying the enemy in armored warfare, firepower is important. Artillery plays a huge role. On that note, let’s address something the mainstream has been talking a lot about. The “vacuum bomb” and cluster munitions. The “vacuum bomb” is more accurately described as a fuel-air explosive. The munition disperses fuel into the air at the concentration required to get a large explosive. It has the advantage of being able to seep into covered positions and cause an explosive force there. The primary mechanism of destruction is the explosion, not the flame, so is not considered an incendiary weapon under international treaty (CCW 1980). In fact, we have used fuel-air explosives in combat in the 21st Century (remember the Mother of All Bombs?). While there is a prohibition on the use of cluster munitions, there are a lot of exemptions, which can easily be used legally. I highly suggest reading the actual conventions yourself instead of taking someones word for it.

I also wonder how many of the cruise missile hits on high rises are the result of someone not checking the flight path for obstructions between the launch site and the target. One does not waste a Kalibr missile on an apartment building. On the other hand, a barrage on a hospital is clearly a targeting decision.

If we are going to talk about war crimes, let’s do it correctly so we don’t leave room for whitewashing of real crimes with over-exaggerated ones. There are war crimes going on, no doubt, so let’s be clear and precise.

My apologies for the detour into talk of war crimes, but it is difficult to wage war at the tactical level without risk of collateral damage, even when trying to be careful. So it is worth discussing.

The bottom line, tank tactics on the modern battlefield are not obsolete, but they need to be executed correctly. Defending against tanks is the same story. If you are a soldier and are not taking notes from the fighting, you are wrong. The lessons in the Ukraine-Russia war are significant.

The Russians have a long way to go towards clearing the east bank of the Dnieper River and Kyiv might well be the next Stalingrad. The vital rail hub of Kharkiv is still in the hands of a determined Ukrainian force. Despite the maps’ appearances, I suspect the Russians are in deep trouble because they are flailing tactically, operationally, and strategically.

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