The Tank Is Not Obsolete, and Other Observations About the Future of Combat
After six months of war in Ukraine, some observers have insisted that “we are seeing the very nature of combat change” and that tanks, along with fighter jets and warships, “are being pushed into obsolescence.”
But it is too soon to write off the tank, and we should resist jumping to other sweeping conclusions about the future of warfare based on a conflict whose lessons are not yet clear. There is still much about this war that is not known from open sources, and there is good reason to think that the conditions that marked its early phases will not necessarily be relevant to future conflicts. As a result, specific weapon systems may appear to be ineffective based on how and where they are employed, not necessarily due to their inherent shortcomings.
The available data from Ukraine, as well as the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, indicate that tanks are still critical in modern warfare and their vulnerabilities have been exaggerated. Russia’s heavy tank losses can be explained by employment mistakes, poor planning and preparation, insufficient infantry support, and Ukrainian artillery. The use of Javelins and other light anti-tank systems in Ukraine has not demonstrated that the tank is obsolete any more than the Sagger anti-tank guided missile did in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as discussed by David Johnson in these pages.
Russian Missteps and Tank Losses
Russia’s initial operation prioritized speed and secrecy above all other factors. Because they expected little resistance, Russian forces made minimal attempts at executing a coherent combined-arms operation, which would have required careful coordination and planning between air, ground, and naval forces. Russian ground units simply drove toward cities, unprepared for a fight. In addition, Russian forces were given insufficient time to prepare for such a complex operation. This decision was likely made at the political level, since the Russian military’s doctrine, exercises, and previous conflicts all prioritized combined arms. As a result, the opening phase of this war may not be a good indication of how effective tanks and other systems would prove to be in a better-organized military operation. Many of the supposed weaknesses of manned ground, aerial, and naval platforms were a result of these mistakes, not a reflection of their technical relevance in modern warfare.
Of the 994 Russian tank losses documented by the Oryx blog, a website that uses open source tools to count destroyed Russian equipment, at least 340 — or 34 percent — were abandoned. (The figure jumps to 38 percent if damaged tanks are included.) This percentage was highest during the first month of the war when Russia’s tank losses were the greatest. At the beginning of April, for example, 53 percent of Russia’s recorded tank losses were abandoned. In addition, many of the tanks listed as destroyed were first abandoned by their crews and destroyed by Ukrainian soldiers who either could not or chose not to capture them. This means that as many as 50 percent of Russia’s documented lost tanks may have been first abandoned by their crews. In other words, the tanks themselves were not the problem — they were simply employed poorly, which led to their high losses.
Three key issues explain Russia’s tank losses: lack of warning and preparation, poor strategy that exacerbated logistics issues, and insufficient infantry to protect them. Tanks are among the most logistics-intensive pieces of equipment. They require routine maintenance, spare parts, and substantial fuel to keep them operational. Because of these requirements, logistics planning is more important for tank battalions and regiments than nearly any other type of military unit, but Russia’s disorganized invasion exacerbated these logistical challenges. Russia’s operation was marked by extreme efforts at compartmentalization and secrecy, with most soldiers finding out that they were going to war only a few hours before the invasion. As a result, commanders and logisticians were given insufficient warning to plan and prepare. Tank units did not have enough time to schedule proper maintenance or to procure sufficient spare parts, fuel, and other items necessary for a conventional war that would involve long-distance movements.
Moreover, Russia’s plan involved too many axes of advance, many of which were not mutually supporting, and Russian Ground Forces units were tasked with advancing at an extremely rapid rate. As a result, Russian forces often moved beyond artillery, electronic warfare, and air defense coverage, further exacerbating logistics issues. The rapid advance also meant that Russia had longer and more exposed supply lines, and its logistics convoys were not prepared to handle ambushes from territorial defense forces. It is not surprising that tank units performed comparatively poorly at the beginning of the war, since they require greater preparation and planning than lighter units.
Logistics problems were also evident in the type of tanks Russia lost at the beginning of the war. Most of Russia’s tank force is composed of T-72 or T-90 variants, which use diesel engines. However, Russia still has a large number of T-80 variants in service as well, often based in extremely cold regions where their gas turbine engines are easier to operate than diesel engines. A higher percentage of T-80 tanks were abandoned than T-72 or T-90 variants. Of the 85 T-80U-series tanks that Russia lost, according to Oryx’s data, 50 (59 percent) were abandoned or captured. Of the 34 T-80BVM tanks that were lost, 19 (56 percent) were abandoned or captured. Compared to the more numerous T-72 and T-90 tanks in Russian service, T-80 tanks have higher fuel consumption and use a different type of fuel. The higher percentage of T-80 losses suggests that fuel was a critical factor in their abandonment or capture.
Certain Russian units faced far higher tank losses than others. In the first few weeks of the invasion, the 4th Tank Division’s two tank regiments lost more than 40 percent of their T-80U-series tanks. The Northern Fleet’s 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade lost a large number of T-80BVM tanks, while the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division’s 1st Tank Regiment reportedly lost 45 of its 93 T-72B3M tanks in the first three weeks of the war. The particularly heavy tank losses from the 1st Tank Army’s 4th Tank Division and 2nd Motorized Rifle Division suggest that this was a unit issue. It doesn’t appear that Russia’s Southern Military District or Eastern Military District sustained similar tank losses. This may be partially explained by the stiffer resistance that the Western Military District faced in Kharkiv and Sumy Oblasts at the beginning of the war, but it may also reflect poorer leadership and preparation. Indeed, Western Military District Commander Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlyov and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Alexey Zavizion were both reportedly relieved, as was the commander of the 1st Tank Army, Lt. Gen. Sergey Kisel.
Not Just Javelins
Of the tanks that were damaged or destroyed, many of them were lost because Russia’s initial invasion was not conducted as a combined-arms operation, and it lacked sufficient infantry to support its tank units. This is another reason why Russia lost so many tanks during the first few weeks but far fewer after the first phase. More than half of the Russian tank losses recorded by Oryx occurred in the first 50 days of the war, which is also when the first articles were being published questioning the value of tanks. One of the well-known weaknesses of tanks is that they require infantry to protect them from opposing infantry forces with anti-tank weapons, particularly in urban terrain. Russia chose to reduce the strength of motorized rifle battalions on BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles from 460 to 345 servicemen, and many of the battalions that invaded Ukraine were only at two-thirds to three-quarters strength. In practice, this meant that Russian motorized rifle units lacked sufficient dismounts for fighting in urban terrain. Russia also chose to reduce the motorized rifle battalion in each tank regiment to a single company, which was clearly insufficient to support the two battalion tactical groups that each tank regiment should be able to generate. Thus, it is no surprise that Ukraine had success in targeting Russian tanks with anti-tank teams. With sufficient infantry support and unmanned systems and ground reconnaissance to locate anti-tank teams, Russia’s tank fleet would have fared much better.
Despite their effectiveness, modern anti-tank guided missiles were not the primary killers of Russian tanks. According to an adviser to Ukraine’s most senior military officer: “[A]nti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down [during the advance towards Kyiv], but what killed them was our artillery. That was what broke their units.” Indeed, countless videos posted by the Ukrainian military have confirmed this, including those showing the ill-fated offensive by Russia’s 6th Tank Regiment in Brovary in mid-March. In addition to artillery, many Russian tanks were destroyed or disabled by Soviet-era systems, such as TM-62 anti-tank mines. Javelins, next generation light anti-tank weapons, and Ukrainian-made Stugna-P anti-tank systems have been effective, but they are just one component of Ukraine’s anti-tank efforts. Indeed, they likely destroyed a relatively smaller share of Russia’s tanks during its offensive in the Donbas, where Russia conducted a more coherent combined-arms operation. It is also important to note that public sources may not provide a representative view of how Russian tanks were damaged. Russian tanks struck by Stugna-P or Javelins are much more likely to be filmed and uploaded to social media than tanks damaged by mines, which may not be recorded as frequently. Of course, artillery battalions are not cheap, so the available evidence regarding tank losses in Ukraine does not particularly support the argument that we are seeing a “swing in favor of smaller and cheaper defensive weapons.” Ukraine has also suffered heavy tank losses, losing 244 tanks as documented by Oryx, of which 128 were destroyed. It does not appear most of these losses were from anti-tank guided missiles either.
For all these reasons, we should be cautious about drawing broader lessons from the performance of Russian tanks and other weapons during February and March. There is little risk that NATO militaries, or even China, would ever launch an offensive war without conducting a combined-arms operation. If anything, the early stages of the war simply confirm key components of U.S. military doctrine such as unity of command, mass, decentralized execution, combined arms, mission-type orders, and proper preparation.
Tanks in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War
Similarly, heavy Armenian tank losses during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2021 have driven debate about their continued relevance. In that war, Armenia and its ally, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, lost a substantial share of their tanks. But to attribute this to the tank’s obsolescence is a misinterpretation of the data.
According to Oryx’s data, Armenia lost 255 tanks, of which 146 (57 percent) were destroyed. Of these 146 tanks, 83 (57 percent) were destroyed by TB2s, the now famous Turkish-made drones. Others were damaged by TB2 strikes or destroyed by artillery and anti-tank guided missiles that were located by TB2 drone. Many of the other Armenian tanks were destroyed by loitering munitions. These tank losses occurred after Azerbaijan reportedly destroyed 60 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s air defenses and 40 percent of its artillery in the first hour of the war. Once Azerbaijan achieved air superiority, its TB2s then focused on targeting tanks, artillery, and other armor. After a couple of weeks of heavy losses, Armenia used its tanks far less frequently because of the persistent threat posed by the TB2. This made it far more difficult for Armenia to reinforce its positions or to counterattack. The one exception was during the Battle for Shusha, when overcast weather prevented the TB2 from playing a significant role. For several days, Armenia used tanks and armored vehicles in counterattacks on the city, but it was too late to retake it.
Instead of demonstrating the obsolescence of the platform, Armenia’s losses showed how important tanks are in modern warfare. Once Armenia was unable to effectively employ its tanks, it was at a significant disadvantage. These heavy tank losses preceded Azerbaijan’s breakthrough. Indeed, tanks were critical to Azerbaijan’s success in penetrating Armenian defensive lines and exploiting that success. Baku only had limited success in assaulting Armenian defenses along most of the line of control, largely composed of mountainous or elevated terrain. It is no coincidence that Azerbaijan’s breakthrough came in the south where the terrain was flatter and where Baku could maximize its advantage in armor. Azerbaijan’s ability to protect its tanks and employ them effectively, and Armenia’s inability to do so, was one of the main factors that explained Azerbaijan’s success in the war. The war did not demonstrate that tanks were obsolete. Instead, it demonstrated that Armenia’s air defenses were insufficient to defend its tanks and artillery from Azerbaijan’s airpower.
The Enduring Importance of Tanks
The wars in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh both show that mobile armored platforms with firepower are still important. They also demonstrate that tanks need to be employed with adequate combined-arms support. Otherwise, tanks, like any armament, will be vulnerable. Russian tank units lacked sufficient infantry, which left them vulnerable to anti-tank teams, and Armenia’s aging air defenses failed to protect its tanks from Azerbaijan’s TB2s, which led to their high losses. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has disproven the arguments that drones rendered tanks obsolete in Nagorno-Karabakh. TB2s have been effective in Ukraine, but they have not seriously threatened Russia’s tank fleet. Furthermore, tank units require significant logistical support to operate effectively. These are well-known lessons that were understood by tank commanders as far back as World War II.
While the threats facing tanks have grown, so have countermeasures. Although many articles have been written about Russian tank design flaws, there are plenty of examples from Ukraine of Russian tanks being struck by anti-tank weapons, including anti-tank guided missiles, in which the crew survives. Oryx’s list, which only includes observed losses, undoubtedly undercounts the number of Russian tanks that were damaged but eventually recovered by Russian forces. Strikes may disable the tank’s weapons or ability to move, but the survivability of tanks is far greater than that of other armored vehicles. Without tanks, a military involved in a large-scale ground war would have to rely on armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles to fill that same role, which would lead to a greater percentage of catastrophic losses and heavier casualties. Indeed, a Russian war correspondent argued that Russia needed more BMO-T heavy armored personnel carriers based on a T-72 tank chassis because its BMP infantry fighting vehicles didn’t have sufficient armor.
In fact, both Russia and Ukraine have seen the value in employing tanks in this war. Russia continues to ship tanks from storage depots to equip units in Ukraine and to raise new volunteer tank battalions. Likewise, Ukraine continues to ask for more tanks and armor from Western countries, and it has used tanks in counterattacks and to stop Russia’s advance in the Donbas. Although Russia has developed a variety of unmanned ground vehicles, they have only been used to clear mines far from the front lines in Ukraine, which demonstrates that they are not ready to replace tanks on the battlefield.
While the Russian military would have been better served in Ukraine by having more infantry and fewer tanks, tanks will continue to be important systems in ground warfare. They remain a key ground component of combined-arms warfare, without which other arms are more vulnerable. Infantry are vulnerable when attempting to seize defensive positions, meaning tanks still play a critical role during offensive operations. Anti-tank guided missiles certainly cannot replace the tank’s role in supporting maneuver.
Crucially, NATO tanks generally have better crew protection than Russia’s, and NATO militaries would be unlikely to eschew combined arms as the Russian military did in the early stages of its invasion. So not all lessons from this war directly apply to NATO. Drawing similar sweeping conclusions based on Russian tank losses from this period would also be a mistake. The evidence from Ukraine reveals that tanks are still very relevant in modern warfare.
Rob Lee is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. He is a Ph.D. student researching Russian defense policy at King’s College London’s War Studies Department and a former Marine infantry officer.
Photo by ArmyInform/Ukrainian Armed Forces