Russia began the war in Ukraine with the largest tank force in the world, but the losses it suffered reveal its weaknesses on the modern battlefield.
Moscow forces have lost more than 230 heavily armored tracked vehicles since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to Oryx Blog, an open-source site that tracks military equipment losses. Many have been destroyed. Others were abandoned, captured or damaged, says Oryx.
The Ukrainian government claims to have imposed an even higher toll, claiming to have destroyed more than 400 Russian tanks and many other less armored military vehicles.
Before the war, Russia had around 3,000 heavy tanks, prized for combining a deadly gun with heavy protection and the ability to traverse rough terrain. Ukraine started the war with around 850 tanks. Neither side said how many tanks they had lost.
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The battering of battlefield armor in recent weeks probably represents the highest number of tanks destroyed in such a short time since World War II, analysts say. In this conflict, the most effective way to destroy a tank was with another tank.
Today, Ukraine relies on more compact and agile weaponry, including Turkish-made armed drones, American-made javelins and other infantry-carried anti-tank missiles. High-tech equipment left a small number of Ukrainian soldiers to take a heavy toll on Russian tanks, armored vehicles and supply columns.
The White House said this week it would supply an additional $800 million in weapons to Ukraine, including many of the anti-tank weapons that have proven so destructive against Russian armour. The package includes 2,000 javelins and 7,000 other anti-tank weapons. The United States also said it would provide 100 deadly Switchblade drones.
In response, Russia may be adapting its tactics on the battlefield and trying to better coordinate its forces – a weakness it has demonstrated and which has left it open to attack.
“They’re ineffective in combined armed operations,” said retired General HR McMaster, a former national security adviser to the Trump administration.
But improved tactics don’t go so far against new technologies, history shows. The competition between tanks and systems to deactivate them has been raging for decades.
Tanks first entered the battlefields in World War I and played a pivotal role in World War II. Russian tank operations in this conflict, which helped defeat Germany, are among the best known of the era of industrial warfare.
Soviet tanks in combat in the North Caucasus in 1943.
Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Destroyed Soviet T-62 tanks abandoned by retreating Syrian troops in the Golan Heights, a week after the start of the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.
Eitan Haris/GPO/Getty Images
US M-1 tanks in the Saudi Arabian desert in September 1990.
Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Getty Images
The largest tank battle of all time took place just north of Ukraine in 1943, near the Russian city of Kursk, and involved around 6,000 German and Soviet tanks, thousands of aircraft and around two million soldiers.
German blitzkrieg tactics demonstrated the strength of combined attacks coordinating armored vehicles with infantry and air support. Since then, most tank-led assaults have used similar tactics, including the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the two US-led Gulf Wars.
“To maximize the utility of the tank, you have to use it in a combined armed force with armored infantry and infantry vehicles” and other elements, said Ben Barry, a former commander of a battalion of British armored infantry now at the International Institute. for Strategic Studies think tank in London.
After the massive tank battles of World War II, the Soviet Union produced large numbers during the Cold War. The United States, unwilling to directly compete with Soviet arms production, instead developed other ways to retire armored military vehicles.
The A-10 ground-attack jet, introduced in the mid-1970s and known as the Warthog for its unusual look, was designed to fly low and tear through enemy targets. It uses bombs, missiles, and powerful machine guns capable of firing exceptionally dense ammunition that takes advantage of momentum to pierce armor.
The AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, which entered service a decade later, was designed to perform similar tasks but with greater maneuverability.
Now, drones and shoulder-fired systems seek to do the same, but with even smaller, more portable, and self-contained systems.
“These two weapons in particular keep the Ukrainians stuck in there, forcing the Russians to stop and reevaluate,” said defense industry consultant Nicholas Drummond.
These advances mean that tank warfare, especially Russia’s approach, must adapt to avoid casualties. But tanks will likely continue to play an important role in ground warfare, military experts say.
Russian tank losses in Ukraine are “not a shortcoming of tank versus infantry,” General McMaster said. “It’s the inability to use both artillery infantry and armored forces.”
General McMaster said that without heavy armour, forces are extremely vulnerable to enemy artillery, something Ukraine experienced when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and annexed the territory. Russian forces “were then able to kill anything that wasn’t heavily armored”, he said.
Forces advancing against infantry are protected within and behind tanks, which use their guns to eliminate an enemy. The United States and its allies have indeed used tanks or lighter armored vehicles in battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russian tanks that are destroyed by Ukrainian forces appear to lack innovations deployed by the Western military, such as blowout panels that release the pressure of an internal explosion and thus reduce the danger to a tank and its crew, said Veli-Pekka Kivimaki, speaker. in Geospatial Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University.
Other technologies are being developed to help tanks survive on the modern battlefield. Israel’s Trophy system, which aims to identify, intercept and destroy incoming projectiles, is one. Warships have carried active defensive systems for years. Scaling them down for tanks and designing them to operate at shorter ranges presented technical challenges that the military is overcoming.
This is a lesson not lost on Moscow. Russia said its new tank, the T-14 Armata, which has not yet entered operational service, has an active protection system.
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