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The Tank is Dead … Long Live the Tank

The Persistent Value of Armored Combined Arms Teams in the 21st Century

 

Maj. Gen. Curtis A. Buzzard, U.S. Army

Brig. Gen. Thomas M. Feltey, U.S. Army

Lt. Col. John M. Nimmons, U.S. Army

Maj. Austin T. Schwartz, U.S. Army

Dr. Robert S. Cameron



Tanks enable national power projection, provide operational flexibility and tempo to joint commanders, and facilitate tactical combined arms maneuver. The tank’s true value is found at all levels of war, starting with combined arms teams at the tactical level that amplify the tank’s capabilities and mitigate its vulnerabilities. Such teamwork ensures the continued relevancy of the tank despite the proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems, loitering munitions, precision artillery, antitank guided missiles, and electromagnetic spectrum considerations. However, the tank’s inherent characteristics of lethality, survivability, and mobility as part of a combined arms team provide ground force commanders an operational option when considering how best to seize key objectives, sustain momentum, and apply constant pressure to enemy forces. Finally, the ability to place armored forces with tanks anywhere in the world signifies the strategic value they possess in terms of deterrence and offensive capability. Given these factors, it is imperative to not draw premature conclusions from recent conflicts on the efficacy of tanks and armored formations in future conflicts.


The effectiveness of armored combined arms teams in the face of an array of aerial and ground antiarmor systems, however, requires integrated training, organizational flexibility, and the means to sustain combat power. In the Ukraine war, Russia employed an array of modern weapons and capabilities yet failed to achieve an early knockout blow or shape the course of subsequent events. This outcome stems from the Russian failure to synchronize tactical, operational, and strategic actions. Battalion tactical groups—considered the centerpiece of its ground forces before the war—operated in an independent rather than coordinated manner. A lack of combined arms enablers (particularly infantry), poor training, and the inability to execute mission command further minimized the battlefield impact of these units.1 More generally, the Russians employed their armored vehicles with little support of any kind. Ukrainian defenders used antiarmor weapons to maximum effect without interference from enemy fires, aerial systems, or infantry. At Vuhledar, for example, tanks tried to drive through minefields in column formations, creating a shooting gallery for the Ukrainian defenders.2 Nor did the Russians provide continuous supply and maintenance to combat vehicles, resulting in reduced operational readiness and increased breakdowns. The high loss and wastage of tanks led the Russians to rely upon much older models, including the T-62 and T-54, for replacements.3 Misuse minimized the tactical value of Russian armor and precluded the accrual of operational and strategic benefits.


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