Combat vehicles have been a mainstay of modern warfare for over a century. The British first used them in the Great War, and they have been used by armies in conflicts ever since.
However, the war that began on February 24th 2022 when Russia launched an invasion of the Ukraine is posing new questions about the role of tanks today.
In some respects, their armour makes them impenetrable, which makes them a formidable opponent in any war. But their sheer size, bulk and slowness makes them “sitting ducks” on the battlefield.
Today’s anti-tank weapons, like Kamikaze drones, makes combat vehicles vulnerable to attack not only by aircraft, but by small and nimble weapons. Add to this the fact that the Ukrainian army are receiving drones and anti-tank missiles from Western allies, including the United States and most NATO members only bolsters this argument.
This has meant that Russia’s progress and journey into the country, first in the north near Kiev and now in the Donbas region, a seriously impeded one. Numerous Russian tanks have been destroyed or hit and rendered useless. Soldiers have even abandoned them on roadsides as they’ve run out of fuel or mechanical faults that can’t be fixed in a war zone have left them idle.
All of these issues have prompted officials in military circles around the world to ask, yet again, whether tanks still have a role on modern battlefields. And if they do, how has that role changed? How will the war in Ukraine impact the role of tanks going forward?
Experts are divided on this matter. Some say that even modern tanks, like the British Boxer, has its problems. Its designed in a modular way, so that components can be replaced sometimes within one hour.
And yet, that means the replacement parts have to be carried into battle – not the most practical solution when the goal is moving as quickly as the tank possibly can. As one military official noted recently, it is one thing to change damaged components in the peace and quiet of a hangar or garage. It is a whole other challenge to change it when bullets are flying everywhere in a hot zone.
And it is not simply a matter of practicality in battle that makes tanks less favoured today. It is also the economics.
A modern tank can cost millions if it is equipped with all the bells and whistles. But the anti-tank drone used to destroy it costs perhaps $150,000 (USD). Even civilians recognize the unbalanced economics of that equation.
Russia is not the only nation that has lost many tanks to these problems in the 21st century. America lost a lot of combat vehicles during its fight against ISIS in Iraq, as did Turkey when fighting in Syria.
However, in spite of all this, most experts say that the future of tanks in conflicts is assured, at least in some measure.
New armour is being developed constantly that protects tanks from drones and other anti-tank weapons. Defense engineers and designers work continually to increase the speed and agility of combat vehicles. Most army insiders say that, even as the role of tanks changes in coming years and decades, they will always have an integral place in military forces around the world. Even if they’re acting only as a deterrent.
Right now, however, there is no question that Russia is suffering enormous setbacks in Ukraine and losing many of its tanks. That is partly because the invading army has not yet been able to seize control of Ukrainian air space. That allows soldiers to use both aircraft and drones, and other weapons, to cripple or destroy Russian tanks with relative ease.
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When military historians look back at this conflict, they will no doubt answer many questions about how tanks fought in the battle. Only then will the future of combat vehicles become more clear.