Death Knell of Tanks: Fact or Fiction

With attention shifting to cutting-edge technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous drones, the logic behind maintaining large, legacy platforms has been brought into question

Issue: Aero India 2021 Special By Lt General R.K. Jagga (Retd)Photo(s): By Wikipedia, Wikipedia / Vitaly V. Kuzmin, Nexter Systems, UK MoD, bmc.com.tr, KNDS
Modern Battle Tanks are Equipped with latest weapon systems and have tremendous ground combat capability: (Left) K2 Black Panther Tank; (Right) T-14 Armata Tank

The recent conflict in Azerbaijan - Armenia region and the exaggerated claims of the tank kills has once again brought into focus the debate on the relevance of armour on the battlefield. The analysis of photos and videos in social media of battle in the region points to the fact that not only tanks but all types of other vehicles including dug in infantry are at risk. Therefore, to conclude based on these videos about the tank’s demise is contentious.

The Ongoing Debate

The discussion on the relevance of armour has got intensified because the UK army is debating the role of heavy armour in their context. The UK delayed the modernisation of its tank fleet and is now facing the dilemma of an expensive upgrade or replacement programme. The present fiscal constraints of UK are exacerbating the issue and driving the reappraisal of the role of armour. So, the debate in UK defence circles is because of resource crunch and has nothing to do with the importance of armour in the modern-day battlefield.

It is not the first time that the relevance of tank is getting debated in defence circles. Since the tanks came onto the battlefield this debate has raged off and on. The Attack helicopters came and consequently many a naysayer predicted the demise of tanks. However, the relevance of the tank did not diminish but increased with new concepts and combined arms operational philosophy. The tank fleet all over the world militaries kept expanding because, in any war which is fought on the ground and for the ground, the tank is undisputedly the most flexible and versatile weapon system. Cometh the war clouds, all commanders at all levels want more and more armour - the deployment of tanks in High altitude by both India and China is a testimony to this fact!

Modern Battle Tanks are Equipped with latest weapon systems and have tremendous ground combat capability: (Left) Leclerc Main Battle Tank; (Right) Challenger 2 Battle Tank

Upgrading the Armoured Fleet

All over the world, countries have been modernising their Main Battle Tanks. Russia has been steadily modernising and expanding armoured forces. The German’s too are focusing efforts on its armoured force. And so are US, France, China, Israel, and most other militaries. The modernisation is happening despite the advent of sensors and shooters. The large-scale destruction of armour in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was mainly due to wrong employment, bad tactics in open barren terrain, poor skills as well not adhering to the principles of combined arms warfare.

There is no denying the fact that the paradigm of ground warfare has changed with the arrival of drones, the other precision weapon systems and the increased lethality of anti-tank weapons

Nonetheless, there is no denying the fact that the paradigm of ground warfare has changed with the arrival of drones, the other precision weapon systems, and the increased lethality of anti-tank weapons. There is no gainsaying that in the ever-changing modern battlefield, the combined arms fighting concept needs revision. The tank needs to improve technologically to increase its survivability and the tactics will have to be modified. The main threat to a tank today besides another tank is the air and other precision weapon systems. And this is especially true in the open terrain. Every military equipment has some inherent limitations and tank is no exception. No one can fight and win wars alone. At the National strategic level, it is whole of nation approach which leads to strategic gains in world affairs; similarly, in the war zone, all weapon systems must be integrated and employed in a manner to achieve victory.

Modern Battle Tanks are Equipped with latest weapon systems and have tremendous ground combat capability: (Left) ALTAY Tank; (Right) European Main Battle Tank (EMBT)

Changed Battlefield

The modern battlefield is getting filled with sensors and it is becoming easy to pick up adversaries’ movement, both by day and night; the sensor and shooter integration can inflict heavy losses on advancing armoured forces. But all these threats can be countered - electronic jamming of sensors and drones, Air Defence weapon system to fitting active protection system on armoured vehicles; better tactics and good training skills can overcome the terrain disadvantages. The grouping of forces for any operations will be critical to success; jammers and adequate air defence weapons will be an essential component of any combined arms force. As per reports, Russia has deployed its ‘Belladonna’ drone killer system in Armenia to counter Azerbaijan’s use of Turkish-made Bayraktar. The Russian system is ascribed with knocking out at least nine Turkish Bayraktar armed drones used by Azerbaijan to target Armenia. This goes to show that well trained combined arms forces can counter this threat from air. However, the fact remains that the density of drones is going to increase in the modern battlefield and the composition of combined arms forces will have to find the balance to achieve the desired result in the battlefield.

Relevance of Tanks

The modern battle space demands changes yet abandoning tanks will be a grave mistake for any army. Any country which retires tanks thinking that drones/air/electronic jammers/long-range artillery/missiles would win them wars would face strategic costs and will be left behind. Militaries world over continue to invest in armoured forces as they carry a great punch, are potent versatile weapon system and have tremendous ground combat capability. Land warfare is about holding and capturing ground. To capture the ground, you need to assault the ground; armour remains a critical component of the assaulting forces. The classical World War II tank vs tank battles may not take place, but the tanks will remain the centrepiece of the array of weapon system employed on the modern battlefield. Only time will tell what changes will take place in the tank’s design, size, shape, form etc but in the end, it shall always be called tank. The death knell of tank is a sheer exaggeration - the Tank is here to stay and will continue to be part of new-age warfare.