The Tank Is Dead: Long Live the Javelin, the Switchblade, the … ?
Is the value of the tank in modern warfare zilch? That’s the lesson many observers are taking from a flood of images depicting Russian tanks mired in the mud, their turrets blown off, having been ambushed and destroyed by Ukrainian forces armed with cheap anti-tank weapons. These images are often pointed to alongside feeds from Turkish-produced drones destroying tanks, seemingly with ease. After the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Russian-produced tanks were destroyed by the same model of drones, this is heady stuff for those ready to proclaim the death of the tank.
We already see comparisons of armor advocates to the battleship admirals before World War II, who refused to see the importance of carrier aviation, or Maj. Gen. John Herr, the last U.S. Army chief of cavalry, who continued to insist on the relevance of the horse on the battlefield even after the Nazi blitzkriegs against Poland and France.
The U.S. Navy was able to accommodate both the battleship and aircraft carrier in World War II, although the battleship mostly was relied upon to provide fire support, rather than crossing the T against an enemy battleline. The horse, however, was a different kind of problem for the Army. Herr was an obstacle to modernizing the Army with tanks, insisting that he would accept no increase in armor at the expense of horse-cavalry strength. There could be no accommodation. Accordingly, Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall used his executive-order authority, given after Pearl Harbor, to get rid of all the horses in the Army — and Herr.
What is the point to these anecdotes? There are two. In the case of the battleship, the platform may change, but not the function. The last U.S. Navy battleships were in active service until 1990, when the costs to maintain them clearly outweighed their utility. The naval gunfire mission persisted, however, albeit from smaller vessels. In the case of the horse cavalry, the role has ended. And the weapon needs to be retired, perhaps to a nice stud farm where it can recall the glories of the past. The question before us now is whether the tank is the modern equivalent of the battleship or the horse. Or, perhaps, neither.
Why the Tank?
Tanks first appeared in World War I as a means of providing a survivable maneuver option on the deadly battlefields of the Great War. Even at this early date, there were differing opinions about its utility. Some, most notably British tank advocate J.F.C. Fuller, viewed it as revolutionary. They imagined it would easily rumble through enemy defenses and press into his rear areas, causing chaos. Most others thought of the tank as a solution to the problem of how to move infantry forward on a fire-swept battlefield. This is how France and the United States used tanks — taking on entrenched machine guns to allow forward movement by conquering infantry. In short, the tank was an infantry support weapon. Germany, on the defensive during most of the war, paid little attention to fielding its armor.
After World War I, the German General Staff, led by Gen. Hans von Seeckt, studied what had happened to them in the Great War. What caused the failures of the initial offensive in 1914 — the much heralded von Schlieffen Plan — and the Spring Offensives of 1918, was the absence of operational mobility. Although the German Army was initially very successful in 1914 and 1918 at the tactical and operational levels, they failed strategically. Why is that? What the officers of the German General Staff eventually realized was that man and animal power could not negotiate the distances required for strategic victory before France, Britain, and the United States, blessed with interior lines, could bolster their defenses and thwart the strategic objectives of the German plans. Quite simply, an army cannot walk to Paris fast enough to keep the enemy off balance.
The solution to this mobility-at-distance problem was the internal combustion engine. Tanks would provide lethal and protected mobility that would give the German army longer reach. To solve the problem of fire support to support the blitzkrieg, Germany looked to the airplane. To connect the two weapons, it employed new radio technology. Although history has frequently credited this innovation to Gen. Heinz Guderian, in reality, the blitzkrieg was an institutional response to solving the strategic problems encountered during World War I.
Only Germany took this approach of combining the tank and the airplane into a combined arms force between the two world wars, even though all the combatants on the Western Front had direct experience with these technologies. This provided Germany with an elegant potential solution to the vexing problem Germany had faced since unification: how to avoid a two-front war in the west and in the east? Rapidly defeating the adversary in the west, before turning east had always been the objective. The blitzkrieg, enabled by mechanization and motorization, provided the means to achieve the strategy. Others (the U.S. and French armies) continued to view the tank largely as an infantry support weapon or alienated their militaries with demands for ascendancy (British Army).
The Heyday of the Tank
World War II and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War were the glory days of the tank. Tanks became the centerpiece of every “real” army. Development efforts focused on the reality that the best defense against a tank was another tank. There had been some improvements in anti-tank weapons for the infantry — the German Panzerfaust and the American bazooka were the most famous. These were, however, close-in weapons used in ambushes and or in desperation as soldiers faced tanks.
In the 1950s, recoilless rifles began to appear in armies. These were anti-tank weapons that could use large-caliber ammunition (e.g., 106-millimeter), rather than via weapon recoil. Before the advent of the recoilless rifle, anti-tank guns were much like howitzers, requiring an energy-absorbing recoil system that made the systems much larger than a recoilless rifle. These new weapons gave soldiers a tank-killing capability at a greater range that was, in many cases, man portable. But even though the range had grown, it could still be too close for comfort.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was the first conflict since World War II that saw the large-scale employment of tank formations on a mobile battlefield. The resounding Israeli victory in this conflict solidified the view in most state militaries that the tank was the dominant force on the battlefield.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was of particular importance as it validated the warfighting concepts in other state militaries. There had not been a large state-on-state war between similarly equipped adversaries since World War II in Europe. This was particularly important during the Cold War, when Allied and Warsaw Pact forces stood toe-to-toe along the inter-German border. What the Israelis demonstrated was that the principles of combined arms maneuver — which the United States and others had adopted during World War II to defeat Nazi Germany — were sound. Furthermore, although outnumbered, the Israel Defense Forces showed that well-led, trained, and equipped militaries could defeat numerically larger forces. Additionally, given that the weapons and tactics employed by the Israel Defense Forces and the Arab armies largely mirrored those in use by the United States and the Soviet Union, each looked to the wars to improve their own weapons and tactics — and to better understand those of each other. Thus, the wars in the Middle East became surrogates for what might happen in NATO.
Enter the Sagger
In less than ten years, the same battlefields in the Middle East that had validated the main battle tank as the dominant force in modern combat betrayed the tank’s first major vulnerabilities. Between 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, two technologies appeared that seemingly changed everything. The development of the Sagger and other anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) gave infantry the capability to destroy a tank at long range for the first time. Similarly, the other key component of the Israeli defense establishment — air power — was put at risk by mobile surface-to-air missiles. For the first time ever, the ascendancy of the air-armor team was in doubt. The two key components that were the basis of the blitzkrieg and combined arms maneuver warfare — tanks and airplanes — had failed dramatically.
In aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War the first obituaries for the tank were published. The Sagger showed vulnerabilities in the tank that many believed at the time cast it onto the trash heap of failed weapons and ideas, like the death knell of the armored knight at Agincourt. These expensive, high-technology systems were depicted as lumbering prey to cheap, easy-to-use ATGMs. For the price of a tank, armies could field hundreds of ATGMs.
So, why didn’t they?
What to Do About Anti-Tank Guided Missiles?
Two critical questions had to be answered with the advent of ATGMs on the battlefield. First, why did armies need tanks? Second, if tanks were needed, what could be done to mitigate the ATGM threat? The answers to these two questions mattered a great deal to all militaries, but particularly to the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. Armed Forces. Again, there were two domains being contested, air and ground, by the fielding of ATGMs and mobile surface-to-air missiles. The solutions to restoring their survivability would be similar for both the tank and the airplane.
The principal role of the tank had remained basically unchanged since World War II. On the offense, the tank provided mobile, protected lethality on the battlefield to enable ground-force maneuver. On the defense, the tank was the best weapon against another tank: your gun against the enemy’s in a gunfight. For the Israel Defense Forces, the tank was the basis for their ground ability to defend their country against numerically superior adversaries on multiple fronts. For the United States, the tank was a key component of land power in Europe to deter a numerically superior Warsaw Pact. Solving the vulnerability of the tank was key to both nations’ ground deterrent.
Furthermore, there was no other technology that could provide the mobile, protected lethality of the tank. Dismounted forces with ATGMs were not the vanguards of maneuver, neither in the offense nor in a defense that required rapid movement to survive on an artillery-swept battlefield and to conduct counterattacks to thwart the adversary’s maneuver schemes.
The solution to the ATGM, as would be the case in the ongoing lethal competition between the tank and future threats, looking back to World War II for tactical solutions, with the addition of technical improvements to the tank. During World War II, all armies learned what German forces had practiced: combined arms fire and maneuver that included air support. In the U.S. Army, this approach was more difficult to implement because of the intra-service competition between the ground Army and the air Army (the Army Air Forces were part of the Army until the creation of the U.S. Air Force after World War II). I talk about these challenges, and how they were resolved, in Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers. Suffice it here to say that air-ground integration was not driven by the institutions in Washington, but by commanders on the battlefield trying to figure out how to survive and win on the battlefield. What eventually evolved was an air-armor team, supported by field artillery, that devastated the vaunted German army. Air took on German formations, whose defenses were suppressed by artillery fire. The same artillery also fired on dismounted infantry with Panzerfausts and other anti-tank weapons.
Both the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. Army eventually realized that, given the continued importance of mobile, protected lethality (the tank), the imperative to neutralize the Sagger and other ATGMs was the first order of business. The solution was mainly tactical: combined arms operations, with particular attention paid to suppressing these ATGMs. The Israel Defense Forces also made a technical improvement, installing mortars on their tanks, a practice that continues to this day with the Merkava main battle-tank series. Finally, smoke-cannister dischargers were mounted on the combat vehicles in every army to screen them from fire. This was not a new practice, having been used on German tanks during World War II.
In combat, when a tank crew detected a Sagger, it immediately began suppressing it with mortar fire. That fire would soon be joined by larger mortars and field artillery. Furthermore, a practice evolved in the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. Army where artillery units would have guns laid on potential Sagger locations so they could rapidly engage them with immediate suppression missions. This technique was particularly effective against the Sagger, which required the dismounted gunner to track the missile all the way to the target. Making him flinch — which high explosive rounds near one’s position tend to do — would break his lock on the target and cause the ATGM to miss.
The most important technical improvement in response to ATGMs was, however, the development of improved armor to replace the World War II-era rolled homogenous steel that was used on tanks. The demand was for a new armor that would protect the tank against the shaped warheads of the Sagger and other anti-tank weapons. Here, the British led the way, developing and fielding Chobham armor that protected against both shaped warheads and kinetic energy penetrators. Other solutions soon followed, e.g., explosive reactive armor.
Furthermore, given that the Israel Defense Forces relied heavily on air-ground operations, it had to solve the SAM challenge to air superiority. It learned that suppression by artillery fire was the tactical solution to neutralizing enemy missiles as well.
The U.S. Army also studied the 1973 Yom Kippur War, realizing that the Arab armies the Israel Defense Forces had faced were largely equipped with Soviet weapons and practiced Soviet doctrine. If the Syrians and Egyptians could almost defeat the heretofore thought invincible Israeli forces, what would the Warsaw Pact be able to do against NATO? Here, as with the Israeli military, combined arms provided the solution. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force also came together around their shared problem — one that neither could solve independently — to develop solutions. But, basically, the core lesson was that tightly integrated air and ground forces that relied upon each other would prevail. The tank and the airplane regained their ascendancy on the battlefield.
No Human in the Loop
The next indication that the tank faced a significant, and perhaps mortal, new challenge came during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Again, the challenge was the ATGM. But, the 9M133 Kornet had a much longer range than the Sagger (5,000 meters vs. 3,000 meters), a tandem warhead that can defeat all known armor, even frontal, and — most importantly — it has a laser-beam guidance system that is simple to operate.
Almost immediately, the end of the tank was proclaimed, but this time at the hands of even sub-state actors. Cheap weapons were once again the nemesis of expensive main battle tanks. Nevertheless, the Israeli military realized that only the tank had the potential to survive on the battlefield, even against hybrid adversaries like Hezbollah. If tanks were vulnerable, then dismounted infantry were meat.
Part of the solution for the Israeli military was to realize that Hezbollah was a competent adversary armed with very capable standoff weapons and demanded combined arms tactics. Tank crews had to again be trained in battle drills for high-intensity combat and air-ground integration and artillery suppression again came to the fore as capability requirements. Adversary weapons had to be suppressed to enable armored formations to get infantry into the close battle — the last 100-meter fight. Nevertheless, the Kornet, given its range and guidance system, needed a technical solution as well as a doctrinal/tactical approach. Even one ATGM surviving to engage meant the likely loss of an expensive system and casualties.
The technical solution the IDF fielded in response to the new generation of ATGM was the Trophy active protection system. Briefly, the Trophy uses a sophisticated radar-directed weapon, mounted on the tank, to shoot down an incoming ATGM. It also has the benefit of providing the crew and other networked systems with the location of the ATGM launcher.
Trophy soon proved its worth in Israel’s operations against Hamas in Gaza, essentially neutralizing the ATGM and rocket-propelled grenade threats to vehicles equipped with the system. The United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom have all fielded Trophy. Other states have developed both soft- and hard-kill active protections systems, e.g., the Russian Arena and Afghanit and the German MUSS.
If You Can’t Go Through, Go Over
Most active protection systems were designed to defeat ATGMs attacking the front or sides of a vehicle. This was the plane in which ATGMS like the Sagger, Kornet, and the U.S. TOW were employed because the front and sides are the most heavily armored areas of a tank, given that is generally where enemy weapons hit. Top-attack weapons aim at the much more lightly armored tops of vehicles. These include ATGMs, e.g., the U.S. FGM-148 Javelin, an increasingly wide variety of artillery projectiles, and drones. These weapons have all complicated the active defense challenge that Trophy originally addressed.
Additionally, the Javelin is a fire-and-forget missile with lock-on before launch and automatic self-guidance, which enables the crew to displace to survive after firing. Again, a relatively cheap, easy-to-operate weapon that kills the expensive prime jewel of an adversary army.
Images of Javelins have captured the public imagination because of their use in the hands of heroic Ukrainian fighters: a veritable slingshot for the Ukrainian David against the Russian Goliath. And the videos showing its devastating effects on hapless Russian armored columns are compelling. The Javelin’s effectiveness is already being used by some to justify ongoing controversial force-design decisions, e.g., the decision by the U.S. Marine Corps to get rid of its M1 Abrams tanks, that have recently appeared in War on the Rocks.
Tim Barrick and Noel Williams have responded to the important questions that are being posed by those who dissent about the current Marine Corps approach embodied in the concept of expeditionary advanced base operations being championed by its commandant, Gen. David H. Berger. Barrick writes that these senior retired Marine officers are concerned that:
The elimination of tanks, cuts to suppressive cannon artillery fires, smaller infantry battalions, and the focus on building Marine littoral regiments fundamentally alters the service’s expeditionary combined arms capability to perform any mission.
Barrick notes that “these concerns persist despite multiple attempts by the commandant and others to communicate the applicability of the force to other missions and theaters.” He continues, using the early lessons from the ongoing war as a response to the commandant’s critics:
Directly related to the above question is the role of tanks, artillery, and infantry in contemporary combined arms warfare. Everyone has witnessed the annihilation of Russian mechanized formations in Ukraine where the power of the defense and the lethality of light infantry armed with modern anti-tank weapons defeated Russia’s assaults.
It is too early for such conclusions, other than to try to understand why Russian armored forces have proven so vulnerable to the Javelin, as well as to the Ukrainian Stugna-P and other ATGMs.
My sense is that Russian forces are facing the same difficulties Israeli forces faced in Lebanon, albeit at a vastly larger scale. The Russian Army has shown that it is not competent in combined arms fire and maneuver. Where is the accompanying infantry with the tank formations, who are supposed to bust the ambushes executed by Ukrainian forces? Where are the suppressive mortar, artillery, and close air support fires? If the Russian Army was tactically skilled, then the Javelin and other ATGMs would be suppressed by artillery or air support and their surviving crews would be swept up by Russian infantry. Thus far, these key competencies seem to be lacking and Russian soldiers are paying a high price for their unpreparedness.
Again, the ATGM threat in Ukraine is different than that encountered in earlier conflicts, in that the weapon uses top attack to penetrate the thin top armor of targeted tanks and to avoid interception by active protection systems that do not provide top cover. This is a technical problem whose solution, when coupled with effective combined arms and suppression, will likely enable the tank to continue to do what tanks do best: provide decisive shock action through the skillful application of mobile, protected, lethality as part of a proficient combined arms team.
Drones, however, are a different matter.
Drones Über Alles
Unmanned aerial systems came into their own during the “Global War on Terror.” Predators and Reapers were invaluable in providing long-duration theater intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance coverage, as well as long-range precision strike capability against critical targets. These platforms are, however, complex and expensive, with massive supporting infrastructures. And, given their relatively high costs and competition with human-piloted systems, they have not been fielded in large numbers. There have not been, nor will there likely be, Predator or Reaper swarms. What has, however, proved a shock to the system is the arrival of smaller, cheaper, expendable drones: the dreaded “swarm.”
These expendable, weaponized drones first gained public notice in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. What were previously considered hobby shop toys all of a sudden appeared on the battlefield with grenades. Although the threat these Rube Goldberg weapons posed was largely inconsequential, for anyone paying attention it was clearly a harbinger of things to come.
In the past decade the growing ubiquity of unmanned aerial systems on the battlefield has been stunning. Be they Predators, Reapers, Switchblades, Turkish TB2s, loitering munitions, or weaponized toys, unmanned aerial systems are a capability with which to be reckoned. As already noted, many existing armored ground systems are vulnerable to top-down attacks. This type of attack can also be delivered by drones. Other uses that have shown great utility include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; geolocating targets; communications relays; and jamming, to mention but a few.
The potential use of unmanned systems is only limited by the imagination and the cultures of the militaries trying to integrate them into their forces. The fact that they are comparatively inexpensive, hard to target, and do not require (in most cases) highly trained pilots to fly them makes unmanned aerial systems attractive for many reasons: cost, reducing risks to pilots in cockpits, low training burdens, etc. The principal constraint, as it has always been for unmanned aerial systems, is cultural. “Aircraft must have pilots” is a theological statement that often goes unchallenged. Absent the demonstrated effectiveness of the Predator over the wide expanses of Afghanistan and elsewhere, it is doubtful that the U.S. Armed Forces would have progressed as far as they have to this point with unmanned systems.
Barrick raises these important questions in his discussion of Marine Corps force-design efforts, both from a Marine capability and the defense against enemy drones perspective. First, he asks if drones, manned aircraft, loitering munitions, and rockets can effectively replace Marine Corps tanks and artillery. Second, he warns that there is currently no effective counter to adversary loitering munitions and drone swarms. No matter what weapons and force design the service eventually settles upon, marines will be at risk until there is a solution to “the thousand-foot air battle against drones.” This advice is well worth heeding, by both the Marine Corps and the Army.
Thus, once could reasonably ask whether or not cheap, swarming drones could be the final stake in the heart of the tank vampire. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and the ongoing war in Ukraine both seem to prove this to many. An article in Foreign Policy proclaiming that “off-the-shelf air power changes the battlefield of the future,” is representative.
In that article, Scott Shaw, the then-director of the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, is quoted noting that in Nagorno-Karabakh, “You can see video of tanks being hit by an unmanned aerial system, artillery positions being hit by an unmanned aerial system, troops being hit by an unmanned aerial system.” Thus, in Shaw’s estimation, the implications are enormous:
What’s clear in that conflict is that a less funded nation can do combined arms warfare. … You don’t have to be the United States or Russia. The price point to entry into combined arms warfare is lower than initially thought. You don’t need something like the United States Air Force, a superbly trained, spectacular capability, in order to conduct potentially a local air-to-ground or air-to-air activity. In this view, the challenge posed by drones, be they unmanned aerial systems, naval vessels, or ground robots are profound. They do not just sound the death knell for the tank, but potentially everything about combined arms warfare as we know it.
Or they don’t.
First Order Questions First
The first order question that needs to be asked and answered is how does a military conduct successful ground combat operations in the face of the threat posed by unmanned systems. Some have offered unmanned ground vehicles as a solution. This approach is attractive principally important because it protects soldiers; it does not preclude the destruction of the vehicle. Unfortunately, not losing soldiers is not the key measure of success in war. Attaining objectives at the least cost in your soldiers’ lives is.
Furthermore, the state of ground combat robots has not progressed to a point where they have the agility of manned platforms. I realize that this is the same argument that has been used for decades by advocates for manned aircraft and that this view retarded the development of unmanned aerial systems for way too long. The reality is that the ground environment is much different and more cluttered than the skies. Robots may eventually supplant manned ground systems; they will certainly augment them. But at some point, the objective of ground warfare is to negotiate complex terrain to defeat the enemy and occupy his territory. This is something that human soldiers will likely have to do for some time in the future.
As to the utility of the tank versus the robot, the standard should be that both should provide decisive shock action through mobile, protected lethality to defeat the enemy, be they manned by soldiers or robots. Again, it is important to understand that, in all likelihood, the robot will be just as vulnerable to ATGMs and drones as manned systems. To be able to maneuver on the battlefields of the future, a solution that enables ground maneuver against enemy weapons is the key requirement.
Is the Era of the Tank Over?
Are the headlines coming from the Russo-Ukrainian War the final obituary for the tank as a viable instrument of war correct or — as with the Chicago Daily Tribune banner declaring Truman’s loss to Dewey in the 1948 presidential election — premature? Is the tank the horse cavalry of the 21st century? Or is it a useful supporting system, like the battleship in World War II? Or is it still, with adaptation, the weapon of choice for ground combat?
As with every other move in the never-ending wrestling match between offense and defense, unmanned systems and top-attack weapons pose heretofore unencountered challenges that must be met, or you will have to conduct a Monty Python reassessment of your military: And now for something completely different.
Before the rush to the funeral, however, the first question that must be addressed before one buries the tank is this: Is there a continued role for mobile, protected lethality on the battlefields of the future? If the answer is yes, or even maybe, then the next act in the ongoing drama of how to protect the tank is to enable it to do what only it can do. And, given the events of the day, this question must be addressed objectively and urgently.
We should all recall the words of Australian Maj. Gen. Kathryn Toohey in 2019: “Tanks are like dinner jackets. You don’t need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do.” The general’s caution explains why the tank has endured and why it is perhaps not time for its funeral, unless she can be proven wrong.
David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. From 2012-2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for General Raymond T. Odierno.
Image: Army Inform