Modern Day

Are Tanks Becoming Less Vital?

Tanks are as synonymous with war as say bullets and bombs and its virtually impossible to imagine a battlefield without them. Isn’t it?

Tanks have been part of war’s landscape since the First World War when they were first introduced by the British in 1916. Over the ensuing decades, MBTs (main battle tanks) like American Stryker tanks have become integral to conflicts around the globe.

With every new war comes a new tank, better equipped, and wrapped in armour that withstands the harshest onslaught and latest military technology. However as tanks develop, so too do the anti-tank weapons meant to defeat them. Do those seesaw advances make tanks less relevant, less worthy of a place on the battlefield?

WW1 British Tank at Thiepval on the Somme
WW1 British Tank at Thiepval on the Somme
At one time it was unthinkable that wars could be waged without horses. Soldiers fought atop steeds, and many animals died right in battle just like the cavalry men who rode them. But with the advent of tanks, fighting on horseback was abandoned. Tanks could withstand enemy attacks. Horses were, for all intents and purposes, put out to pasture, certainly in a combat role. While it seems that warfare without tanks is a ludicrous notion, the idea has been posited from time to time in military circles.

According to some experts, the argument that the “era of the tank is over” rears its head every decade or so. And because Ukraine is now engulfed in a war with Russia,  the idea of tanks someday disappearing has arisen again

Javelin Missile being fired by US Troops
Javelin Missile launch by US troops on exercise. Cheaper than a battle tank!

That’s because of the back-and-forth nature of modern tanks. As they are designed with increasingly impenetrable armour, the weapons to destroy them become increasingly sophisticated.

Consider the drones now used in Ukraine to destroy Russian armour. “Kamikaze” drones, as they are called in military parlance.

These small devices fly over a target, zero in and within minutes explode their quarry. Tanks can’t defend against these relatively small opponents that circle overhead. Once the drone is locked onto its target, it’s almost impossible for the tank to evade it. Drones are rather like lethal flies buzzing overhead, and once they’ve got the tank in their sights, little can be done to change the outcome.

Death and destruction from above.

Ironically, it was Russia that first introduced enhanced armour in 1977. Since then, it’s been a race to see who can design the most sturdy protection for tanks, and who can develop the most accurate anti-tank weapons.

If the Ukraine is any example, it seems that tanks are less successful these days than small, highly technical weapons. At the start of the war, a Russian convoy of trucks and armour parked outside of Kiev, mired in mud and unable to move for days. The convoy was a sitting duck, so to speak, and many tanks were destroyed. In this battle scenario, size definitely mattered, and Russia was at a distinct disadvantage.

This could easily have been from 1944 not 2022.

But will the tank really become obsolete? It’s highly unlikely. They will be equipped with better weapons and almost invincible armour, but they will not disappear from battlefields.

That is the prevailing view of military experts everywhere, which is backed by the recent moves by Western nations to improve their tank battalions. The Stryker combat vehicle used by the U.S. Army is now undergoing an update that will see them equipped with new cannons. The improvements will cost in the region of a billion dollars (USD).

And the U.K. recently ordered more Boxer tanks to supplement its supply. As Western nations supply Ukraine with the weapons and tanks its soldiers need to fight the invading Russians, these countries must resupply their own stocks.

The Boxer AFV seen here in Australian camo.

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Russian MBTs have, according to reports, taken a battering during this war. Images have circulated of tanks left abandoned on roadsides, out of fuel and badly damaged.

However, that doesn’t mean Russia will stop using tanks in this war. It will no doubt just try to send in ones that are less vulnerable. As the conflict grinds on, tanks will remain an integral part of the fight, on both sides. For now!