The Future of the Tank

The smashing success of the Ukrainian anti-tank missile gunners against the Russian armored forces, coming shortly on the heels of the devastation of Armenian armor by drones in their 2020 war have a lot of experts questioning the future of armor in modern warfare. Perhaps the US Marine Corps has been justified in their abandoning of the tank battalion? Have modern missiles forced the adoption of Uber-expensive countermeasures that force the tank out of the price point for a budget constrained nation?

Bottom line up front is these two conflicts are a false lesson for those advocating the demise of the tank. In reality, these two conflicts are primers in the vitality of combined arms warfare. No single combat arm can truly dominate the modern battlefield alone, as demonstrated repeatedly throughout history.

When the tank made its debut in World War One, means for destroying tanks were already at hand. Direct lay artillery morphed into anti-tank guns. Nearly immediately after the end of the War to End All Wars, the debate over the future of tanks began. Visionaries such as British Captain Liddell Hart argued for the close integration of mobile infantry with tanks. *Side-note: just because you are a junior military officer doesn’t mean you can’t have a major impact on your army.*

The development of the small and easily concealed anti-tank gun had a serious effect on tanks. The Pak-36 and other comparable anti-tanks guns were generally less than three feet tall and could be rapidly maneuvered by a small squad of soldiers. At the time of their introduction, these anti-tank guns were capable of penetrating and destroying the vast majority of contemporary tanks. Many thought these weapons gave infantry the upper hand over tanks and would prevent tanks from having success. The Blitzkriegs in 1939 and 1940 proved these experts wrong.

The tank reigned supreme across the desert of Northern Africa and the steppes of Eastern Europe and weapons developers worked on a new breed of weapons to provide infantry a means for destroying better and better tanks. Thus was born the bazooka, Panzerfaust, and RPG. The British PIAT was similar, but did not use a rocket and thus even shorter ranged. These weapons, simple in design, simple in use, and elegant in effectiveness provided a short range punch that could penetrate the thick armor of most tanks. The limitation of these weapons was their range. Staying calm enough to allow a tank in close enough to use a bazooka required significant courage and a little luck.

German Fallschirmjager with a Panzerschreck and a Panzerfaust hiding behind a M4 Sherman.
Photo from Wold War Photos.

Alert crews and tactics using suppressive fire quickly made the bazooka family less than ideal for countering armor in most terrains. Once again, the tank proved its place on the battlefield. Then the Yom Kippur War of 1973 introduced the world to the Russian made 9M14 Malyutka a/k/a Sagger missile. Now infantry teams could fire the guided missiles out to 3,000 meters and penetrate all contemporary tank armor. The anti-tank guided missile change the battlefield like no weapon before it. Many questioned the future of the tank, even as the Israelis quickly adapted tactics to counter the missile teams.

The next few decades saw significant development in both missiles and vehicle defenses against missiles. As early as the 1960’s, the Soviets developed their first Active Defense System (ADS), though it left much to be desired and was not even fielded in quantity. An ADS shoots down incoming missiles at pointblank range. Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) showed more promise and was rapidly fielded en mass by many different countries.

In 2020, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan opened the window to effective drone use against armored vehicles. The Azerbaijani forces made excellent use of Turkish and Israeli made UAS (drones) to target Armenian armor. This conflict sent shockwaves through the armored community and called for the need for improved anti-UAS protection. Once again, experts questioned the future role of the tank.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen devastation from fire and forget, top attack missiles such as Javelin and NLAW combined with UAS employment. Perhaps the call for the obsolescence of the tank is louder today than at any other point in history.

Both the Nagorno-Karabakh and the Russo-Ukrainian wars have been a complete mismatch of tactics. One side has employed tactics that match the terrain, the weapons, and training to achieve excellent battlefield effects while the other side has blundered their way forward without.

In the face of these weapons, what is the tanker to do, or should the tanker retire as the Marines have done? To answer this, we must make some assumptions and then examine the problem.

Modern warfare requires a pair of assumptions by the tanker. 1) If the enemy can see me, it can engage me. 2) If the enemy weapon can engage me, it can penetrate my tank.

Let’s take a good look at the anti-tank missile and the drone, starting with the missile. The missile is heavy, most weigh over 30 pounds. When you are already carrying 30 pounds of rifle ammo and body armor, this is a lot of weight and you aren’t going to move fast with it. The limited mobility of the foot soldier carrying a missile imposes operational limitations on the unit. With the other weapons of the infantry platoon, realistically, the platoon can only porter a handful of missiles to a moving fight. Changing this supply requires a vehicle of some kind.

The armored force can use its superior mobility to thrust in mass and force the infantry to attempt to move to keep up. This forced march will have negative effects on its ability to think and fight. Tempo is clutch.

Infantry, the Queen of Battle as they call themselves, are very vulnerable to artillery, which calls itself the King of Battle. Even dug in to prepared positions, with excellent overhead cover, infantry on the receiving end of a barrage will be hard pressed to operate their missiles. In contrast, fully buttoned up, a tank crew is still capable of moving and shooting under incoming fire.

Echelon of fires, starting with the heaviest of artillery and decreasing as forces close in on the target allows an attacking force to keep pressure on the infantry until direct fire weapons can effectively engage individual positions.

In World War Two, attacking tanks operating in areas hiding anti-tank guns and Panzerfaust wielding infantry used liberal application of firepower to survive. Lieutenant David Render’s Tank Action has an excellent description of these tactics. Give ’em a good stonk.

The future of the armored force capitalizes on its inherent advantages over the foot soldier. A single M1 Abrams series tank carries a basic ammo load of over 11,000 rounds of ammunition for the coax M240 machinegun. Some 5,000 or so fit in the ready-box, linked up and feeding straight to the weapon. Nearly all tanks have at least 15 cannon rounds easily accessible and a total capacity north of 30 rounds. The best part, is the tank can move that around the battlefield at over 40 MPH without exhausting the crew.

Modern infantry fighting vehicles, such as the Bradley, Warrior, and BMP are equipped with auto-cannons of 25mm or 30mm caliber, and can carry hundreds of rounds. Each high explosive round has the lethal equivalent of a hand grenade. These weapons are very effective against infantry.

In the face of modern anti-tank missiles, the armored force must be willing to expend copious amounts of ammunition in the interest of suppressing enemy missile gunners. This does not mean wanton destruction and shooting every tree in sight. This means investing in proper intelligence preparation of the battlefield, and finding the enemy. Once the enemy is found, fixing the enemy with every bit of firepower that can come to bear, from artillery down to machinegun fire as the armored force maneuvers on and finishes the enemy.

This requires two changes to the American way of war and how it trains for it. The first change is how we train to engage. For decades, the armored force has trained shooting at individual targets, always clearly identifiable. In my time, we never once trained how to suppress a position, via area suppression. Developing means for evaluating the effectiveness of a tank crew’s suppressive fires against a suspected enemy position must be a priority. Such engagements must push the engagement ranges out to long distance, even beyond what is considered the maximum effective range of the M240. The maximum effective range is governed more by tracer burnout range than how far the bullets can travel, but the ballistic computer of a tank can accurate place rounds on target well beyond the tracer burnout range. Identifying such positions obviously becomes a priority as well.

This gives the bean counters serious heartburn. Training this will require addition ammunition to train, and the willingness to shoot at dirt and nothing more. This means understanding battle will expend significant quantities of ammunition. Stockpiles must increase in size.

The second major change is increasing the artillery capability of the army. Currently, the Armored Brigade has one artillery battery of six howitzers and one four tube mortar platoon per Combined Arms Battalion. Increasing this ration is needed to allow proper echeloning of fires. Providing a mortar section of two tube within the line company will give responsive indirect fires to address specific missile teams. Additionally, the Cavalry Squadron requires an artillery battery dedicated to its efforts to enable it to target missile teams and UAS systems on the ground long before the Combined Arms Battalions arrive. All of these indirect fire systems must have more ammunition, particularly the mortars, who currently do not have a dedicated armored ammunition vehicle to accompany each mortar.

For those questioning the monetary value of expending so much more ammunition, even if you factor out the unquantifiable value of a highly trained soldier’s life, a single mortar round costs around $100, while a M1 tank over $4,000,000. Most missiles cost over $150,000. In my book, this means I can justify expending a lot of ammunition to suppress and then destroy a missile team.

Now for the drones, the UAS. The most recent versions of the Stinger missile are supposed to be able to acquire and track the smaller aircraft. Additionally, the missile has tweaked to allow its warhead to create an airburst that can destroy drones without losing the capability to destroy larger aircraft. LASER weapons promise great things, though the Achilles Heel might be the extensive cooling systems for the weapons, vulnerable to shrapnel. Additional systems use electronic warfare to break the line between the drone and operator.

In the US Army, none of these systems are proliferated down to the maneuver company, yet those companies are where it is needed. Perhaps copying the old Soviet model of placing an air defense missile team within every company is a long overdue adjustment. In a dispersed battlefield, one per platoon could be the answer. In the future, there will be no such thing as having too many tools for destroying enemy drones. These missile teams must be equipped with enough ammunition, readily available, to fend off multiple attacking drones.

Excellent concealment is a key part of avoiding detection by drones. If the drone cannot find you, it cannot kill you. It is that simple. Fieldcraft must become a bread and butter routine for not just tanks and armored vehicles, but ALL vehicles and even the infantry. For two decades, we fought wars with built up installations the enemy already knew about, so we made no effort to hide them. Instead, we bunkered in and hung the plasma TV displays to aid the commander’s feeling of situational awareness. Those days must be over and the bad habits unlearned.

Another minor, but very important change is the practice of painting our equipment for the last war. That we still have desert tan vehicles in Europe is absolutely criminal. Providing our forces the proper means for concealing themselves in the environment they are actually in is vital. Throwing some camo netting over the paint does not make up for this absurd failure by the Army leadership to provide a basic paint job. If it costs too much, then the SecDef and the generals at the top better lead the first attack in person.

Camo netting helps, but the paint underneath matters.

There is a tendency to over-think the problem at hand when it comes to evolving warfare. In truth, solid tactics and a willingness to apply firepower can enable even a more modestly equipped force to defeat the best weapons money can buy.

It is tempting to look to the robot vehicle as a replacement for the tank. While robots do have the ability to fill certain niches, there is a host of problems that they also pose to the user. It is impossible to replace the human sensor, and even on a tank, the human senses expand beyond the view through the gunner’s sight. Maneuvering robots in formations across terrain is a challenging task, even without the need to maintain excellent situational awareness, vital in avoiding fratricide.

One problem I see as the most important, is robots tend to be viewed as more expendable than a system containing a human. When things are seen as expendable, they get used with less caution. While replacing a destroyed robot might be simply another purchase (much to the defense contractors’ glee) the mission of that robot at that time might well have been essential for the reduced risk to a soldier who cannot be outsourced to binary code in a bucket of bolts. Left without critical fire support, an infantry unit well could be overwhelmed and killed. That is unacceptable.

While US Army and Marine tank units suffered horrendous casualties in World War Two, tankers embraced the risk and continued to be the combat arm of decision. The value of the tank to the infantry was that big of game changer. Instead of tossing the towel at the danger, the tankers adapted tactics and found ways to make their tanks more survivable when hit.

Todays tankers face the same situation. There are a horde of weapons that can kill a tank. Tankers must acknowledge this basic fact, adapt tactics to become more skilled in concealment, and exercise their superiority in firepower and movement. Tankers do not need a gargantuan land battleship designed to be impregnable, but rather something that balances the functions of the tank while offering good survivability in the event of a penetrating hit. It is the tactics of employing the tank that matter most.

The future of the tank is not dead, but the era of blind faith and margin for terrible tactics is.

– Galen d. Peterson, Author Strike Hard and Expect No Mercy

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