• Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Rise and Decline of Tanks in the Battlefield: A Perspective

Discussion in 'Pakistan Defence Magazine' started by Tipu7, May 18, 2020.

  1. Tipu7

    Tipu7 SENIOR MEMBER

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    Tank in World Wars:
    Written By:
    #Tipu7
    Category cloud: Investigation report, op-ed
    Tanks are among few weapon systems which have transformed the pattern of warfare. As the quote goes “necessity is mother of all invention”, tanks were also invented out of necessity in WWI to breach the German defense lines proliferated with machine guns, bunkers and artillery pieces. The result was British Mark-1, the first ever tank to enter in combat. The potential displayed by WWI tanks convinced the military minds that tanks can act as revolutionary addition in military war fighting provided that a balanced combination of mobility, firepower and protection is put into consideration.

    7c42b2896bfb38ee069e5b1357fe3885.jpg
    British Mark-1 Tank during WW1

    As far as evolution and battlefield employment of Tanks were concerned, there were three different school of thoughts in military circles in interwar period: First argued that primary function of tank was to provide support to charging infantry. They observed tank concept more like an artillery with an engine which can maintain pace with infantry and can engage targets with heavy firepower (which cannot be carried by infantry) and at closer ranges (which cannot be provided by long range artillery). Thus, their primary focus was on increasing the fire power of tank while making a compromise over mobility and protection.

    Second school of thought wanted to evolve tanks into “mechanized cavalry” which can be used for exploitation of battlefield victories gained by infantry and artillery. The advocates of this concept wanted to focus on the mobility of tanks as they believed that tanks will not be able to carry fire power heavy enough to destroy fixed defenses and at the same time cannot be armored enough to absorb heavy enemy cannon fire.

    Third school of thought, unlike first two, observed tanks as revolutionary addition in military war fighting concept. They advocated that instead of using tanks for supporting roles, tanks should be employed for primary roles and remaining forces (infantry and artillery) should act as supportive forces. Since tanks were meant to become the tip of spear, therefore a balanced combination of mobility, firepower and protection was needed to evolve tanks in right direction as front line tool of war fighting.

    In WWII, tank forces practically demonstrated the advantage they have added to ground offenses. The traditional war fighting techniques of using fixed fortified defenses rendered obsolete against mobility of armored columns. German Panzer Divisions utilized tanks to swiftly pierce through the defense lines of enemy and then cut off their supply lines by attacking from vulnerable spots. This tactic, first implemented by Heinz Guderian, became known as the Blitzkrieg. From definition perspective, Blitzkrieg is the two fold strategy involving (i) the successful penetration of enemy strategic defense line followed by (ii) driving deep into enemy rare, cutting its ground lines of communications (GLOCs) and destroying its strategic node points. Germans used tanks so skill fully to implement this nascent war fighting strategy that within opening months of WWII, they had conquered all the landmass in Europe which they couldn’t capture throughout WWI. If WWI tactical lessons can be summarized by J.F.C Fuller quote as, ”Artillery conquers, infantry occupies,” then WWII tactical learnings can be encapsulated by Guderian words as, “If the tanks succeed, then victory follows.”

    Russians, in contrast, relied on the strategy of Attrition to wear down German forces using mass firepower and numerical strength. The armed forces which are numerically superior, have bigger material base and is willing to absorb significant losses for sake of delivering absolute defeat to enemy; the defeat which Clausewitz summarize as, “the complete annihilation of enemy’s forces with brute force,” are more likely to adopt the attrition strategy for war fighting. In wars of attritions fought in later stages of WWII, tanks played crucial role on both sides and evolved accordingly for delivering the requisite results.

    Tiger and Panther tank comparison.jpg
    Tiger and Panther tanks, the mainstay of Nazi Germany in later stages of WWII

    The Cold War Period:

    The most eminent feature of Cold War was the nuclear arms race between United States and Soviet Union. Within nuclear umbrella, both NATO and USSR also continued aggressive conventional arms race. In initial phase of Cold War, the numerical superiority of Soviet armored forces posed grave threat to NATO’s defenses. As a qualitative countermeasure, U.S. introduced the idea of deploying low yield tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). At the peak of Cold War, NATO deployed as many as 3,000 TNWs to counter the threat of Soviet armored offenses. Hence, it can be argued that tanks were the first conventional weapon which forced the adversary to develop nuclear counter solution. This supposed solution was short lived as Soviet Union developed Battle Field Nuclear Weapons (BFNWs) of its own to deter NATO’s TNWs, thus forcing NATO to rework within conventional realm to strengthen its defenses. In later stages, the technological advancement allowed employment of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) as a measure to reinforce defense against armored offenses. The success of ATGMs against enemy tanks was displayed first time by Egypt in 1973 Arab Israel war. Although the tank developers also absorbed new technologies and formulated counters against such threats like explosive reactive armor (ERA), but the proliferation of ATGMs in all three dimensions of ground forces made strategists realize that tanks can no longer work on their own and instead more robust fighting concepts are required to restore the force balance in favor of armored forces.This capability race between ATGMs and armor is still in continuation today.

    hqdefault.jpg
    Egyptian Soldiers mounting and firing Sagger ATGMs in 1973 Arab-Israel war

    After the end of cold war, United States assertively displayed its combined arms concept in First Gulf War. The concept, in simple terms, has two different stages; first, in opening hours of conflict, aircrafts and stand-off weapons are used to engage enemy’s key military assets to break cohesion within its ranks; second, after establishment of air superiority the armored forces are moved within network centrist environment to destroy the remaining dispersed enemy forces. The comprehensive situation awareness of entire battlefield catalyzes the planning process, reduces the threats against ground force, minimizes the risks of friendly fire and enhances the net efficiency of all tiers of forces. Within the combined arms concept, the dependency on tanks for power projection was reduced, but on upside the tank’s combat utility became more precise in modern military equation.

    Tanks and 21st Century:​

    The 9/11 terror attacks and subsequent Global War on Terror transformed the Global threat perceptions. Threats posed by non-state actors became primary area of concern for all nations. The tanks proved less efficient in fighting low intensity conflicts due to factors like over-dispersion of enemy forces, the unsuitable fighting conditions, complexities of supply lines and non-supportive terrains. Instead, precise munitions, unmanned systems, better equipped infantry, mine resistant vehicles and enhanced intelligence played chief role in success of COIN/CT Operations.

    A natural outcome of alternation of threat perception is the decline of emphasis on the tanks as preferable combat tools within the Western World. The most advance militaries in the World, like United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, no longer have next generation main battle tank projects. Instead, all these nations upgrading the existing platforms to meet the future requirements.

    In general, four reasons can be attributed to explain this policy. First, the objectives of warfare have evolved and wars are now rarely fought for major territorial increment. Tanks were considered as important offensive weapon to conquer enemy territory. The aspect of limited window of operability – due to efficient intervention of international community for crisis resolution, has narrowed the time space needed for execution of major tank based operations. Second, the survivability and thus the combat efficiency of tanks have become questionable due to proliferation of modern precise weapons. Third, the economic burden of raising and maintaining modern tank fleet is increasing day by day. And finally, the epicenter and methodology of power competition has changed. Unlike USSR, resurgent China pose naval power projection challenges thus shifting focus on modern naval assets. Plus the emergence of new diffused battlespace, e.g. cyberspace, has prompted military planners to also keep newly emerging battlespace into the chief consideration.

    3-42.jpg
    Losses of various types of tanks due to ATGMs during COIN Operations against militant forces

    As far as less advance armed forces are concerned, tanks will definitely play role as primary land based weapon system for comparatively longer duration of times in comparison with first World nations. This difference is due to three primary reasons. One, the armed forces of third World nations are less advance, have less budgets available and generally rely on bulk size as primary element of strength. Second, the indigenous defense industries of such armed forces can neither produce the top of the line military equipment nor they have capacity to procure it from Western nations in sufficient numbers. Third, they have limited capacity to experiment with new war fighting concepts and implement the new learnings at tactical and strategic scale. Fourth, these forces in majority of cases, do not enjoy overwhelming superiority over their adversaries, particularly in air combat, thus minimizing the options in their disposal. And finally due to difference in their threat perceptions as unlike Western World, such nations still face physical threats like loss of territory against foreign occupation forces. Take India and Pakistan as an example, both militaries are one of the largest in the World but majority of their equipment is obsolete from NATO standards. The air forces of both nations lack the capability to achieve and maintain comprehensive air superiority within instantaneous war theater against each other. And above all they have threat proximity and a significant portion of their border lack geographical barrier thus supports armored warfare. Therefore, India and Pakistan cannot exercise the diversity of military options which Western powers can. Instead of experimenting new concept at a comprehensive scale, both forces tend to favor adherence with legacy war fighting concepts. Henceforth, the case of India and Pakistan suggests, that these nations - and likewise examples in the World - will continue to rely on tanks for longer interval of time. The tank forces of both nations might shrink in overall size, but the net capability of tank forces will strengthen with absorption of more and more technologies.

    Tanks of Future?

    The advancement in technology can benefit the tanks as much as it can benefit any other weapon system. But it sums down on the requirement and matter of policy, that a certain state is willing to undertake requisite research and development in that direction. Russia for example, has introduced new tank design, i.e. T-14 Armata, which incorporates unmanned turret, dedicated crew compartment and variety of active and passive protection systems. Similarly, Israel’s Elbit system has invented new Iron Vision head mounted display system which allows the crew to get full field view through the armor without leaving the crew compartment. Meanwhile other new technologies, like the introduction of smart tank munitions and the maturing ability to operate unmanned systems, are also likely to supplement the efficiency of armored forces. A natural draw back of this evolutionary route will be the increased price per unit and therefore the limitations in overall tank numbers. Therefore, it can be argued that provided tanks continue to absorb future technologies, their role in combat will remain relevant but with a compromise in numerical strength. Although it’s unlikely that compromise in numbers will impact the overall efficiency of tank force in emerging kinetic warfare. But instead new evolved tanks will be far more capable than the ones which we see today when gauged with respect to successful implementation of assigned tasks.

    maxresdefault (3).jpg
    A snapshot of Elbit's Iron Vision System from promotional video

    A group of thought argues that tanks will ultimately be replaced by Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicles (UGCVs). In far future this can become a possibility but for time being the technology is not advance enough to justify replacement of tanks with complete autonomous systems. In comparison with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), UGVs face more acute and more diverse combat challenges in ever growing complex electronic warfare. From far future perspective, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be worthful addition as these ‘smart’ tanks will be able to achieve requisite combat tasks without human dependency.

    MB2RIV44ZZAVLGCOLJLIEMJCIA.jpg
    Russian Uran-7 UCGV

    Ultimately, the future of armored forces in emerging battle space will be decided by technological edge they will manage to obtain against anti-armor weapons, the room tanks will manage to occupy within future battle space, and the power projection options tanks will be able to offer which other weapons will not. Provided these conditions are met, tanks as a weapon of war as well as efficient conventional deterrent, will be able to secure their existence, in one form or another, in threat environments of future.
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    Disclaimer: The article may or may not display references. This article is a work of contributing member of website. Pakistan defense management is not responsible for the content nor the article in any way represents our point of views.
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    @Signalian @Bilal Khan (Quwa)
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 29, 2020 at 10:01 PM
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  2. Starlord

    Starlord ELITE MEMBER

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    any updates on AK2 ?
     
  3. Hamartia Antidote

    Hamartia Antidote ELITE MEMBER

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    Certainly the future of tanks took a hit when Saddam's wall of tanks got wiped out from the air.

    It seems the future definitely lies with a swarm of almost suicidal robot tanks overwhelming enemy forces
     
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  4. denel

    denel PROFESSIONAL

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    From a south african prespective, we had completely routed out the role of tanks in our doctrine in 70's. They just did not cut it for our landscape and operational reality. Instead the focus was on independent mine proof vehicles with hunter killer capabilities that could take on tanks as well as saturation forces that used common platforms with ability to carry troops at a much higher speed.
     
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  5. Joe Shearer

    Joe Shearer PROFESSIONAL

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    It is possible today, here, now.

    Vast quantities of obsolete tanks exist in inventory, that can be retro-fitted with electronic systems that permit a locus of advance based on GPS waypoints, that allow automatic loading of main armament, and that allow target identification and neutralisation. These unoccupied hulks could form an impenetrable wall of armour, that would absorb huge amounts of expensive anti-tank munitions at zero human cost and minimal capital cost, outside the modifications needed.

    This is not an advocacy of some future pie-in-the-sky concept. Each of these mentioned above has been developed in simulation; members may be aware of the use of actual flight control systems in aircraft simulators, pointing to the closeness of simulated systems to the actual thing. Simulators developed fifteen years ago for a south Asian army allowed all the features listed above, locomotion, auto-loading, targeting and fire at targets. Installing these on demobilised hulks will not take massive effort, only the interconnection of manually guided portions of the machinery with the vehicle control system, the installation of auto-loading systems, and a sighting feature, laser or infra-red. None of these is frontier technology; some, indeed, are tried and tested.

    These automated armoured vehicles, or smart tanks, call them what you will, will also disregard tactical nuclear weapons. For one, no human lives will be lost; for two, if that phrase is legitimate :P , it is possible to harden the internal electronics circuitry to withstand the electronic impact of a nearby nuclear explosion.

    The missing element, fortunately for all of south Asia, is the political will.
     
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  6. Blacklight

    Blacklight PROFESSIONAL

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    Sir, Could you just list these vehicles for the benefit of our readers?
     
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  7. Indus Pakistan

    Indus Pakistan ELITE MEMBER

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    Boss, because non of your neighbours had large armoured divisions. If they did trust me SA would have a large armoured force.
     
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  8. Hamartia Antidote

    Hamartia Antidote ELITE MEMBER

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    Too much armor since there is nobody to protect. Better to simply armor it only in critical places.

    Also with 3D printing we may have repair bots as tank "medics" putting them back ttogether like LEGO blocks
     
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  9. OsmanAli98

    OsmanAli98 SENIOR MEMBER

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    Fidal Castro be like how about I support the folks in Angola lol,when tiny country in the Caribbean beats some Anglo dudes in Africa
     
  10. Joe Shearer

    Joe Shearer PROFESSIONAL

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    True, but I was talking about recovering obsolete armoured vehicles in inventory and retro-fitting systems onto them. It doesn't matter what their armour was/is; they represent a moving, firing menace without humans to die in them.
     
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  11. Beast

    Beast ELITE MEMBER

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    I think tank still need to be back to basic... Take punishment and spearhead assault, breach thru enemy defense.
     
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  12. Foxtrot Alpha

    Foxtrot Alpha STAFF

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    I second that opinion @denel
     
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  13. Stannis Baratheon

    Stannis Baratheon FULL MEMBER

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    If Turkey has shown anything, the future is drone and electronic warfare.
     
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  14. truthfollower

    truthfollower FULL MEMBER

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    Are you a world of tanks player? Or you took this image from internet? M26 Pershing with 2 stars nice :-)
     
  15. Tipu7

    Tipu7 SENIOR MEMBER

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    Mod's choice, not mine.