Waste not, want not. Ukraine says it has more tanks now than it did before the war began because Russian troops keep abandoning them.
The battles unfolding in the fields, forests and city streets of Ukraine are taking an unexpectedly high toll on armoured vehicles.
Ukraine admits to losing some 74 main battle tanks since Russia’s army crossed the border on February 24. Unconfirmed estimates place Russian casualties at about 280.
But open-source documentation efforts have visually confirmed an additional 213 Russian tanks have changed hands.
It’s a lucrative haul.
Now formerly Russian tanks are shooting back at the Russians.
But Ukraine wants more.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed to Nato heads of state for hundreds of fresh main battle tanks. He wants 500.
“You have at least 20,000 tanks!” he declared. “Ukraine asked for a per cent, one per cent of all your tanks to be given or sold to us!”
Nato, however, is hesitant.
Russian President Vladimir Putin could use the supply of such significant weapons as an excuse to expand the war into eastern Europe. This was why an earlier proposed deal to hand over surplus MiG-29 fighter jets fell through.
Russian tanks are vulnerable
Tanks have big guns. They have thick armour. But they’re not invulnerable.
“Big metal boxes with people in them can be destroyed by effective but cheap human- and drone-launched missiles,” warns Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Michael Shoebridge.
Tanks have a significant but specific role on the battlefield.
They’re ideal for assaulting entrenched positions, fortifications and other armoured vehicles.
Their job is to break a stalemate. To enable soldiers to keep moving forward. To avoid the long grind of trench warfare.
“Russia’s disastrous tactics have been a terrible advertisement for tanks,” says armoured warfare analyst Nicholas Drummond. “But we should be careful to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions,” he added. “No artillery support. No infantry support. No air support. This is not how combined-arms tactics work in an era of multi-domain operations.”
Combat experience in Ukraine shows they are at their most vulnerable while travelling to where they’re needed.
The thirsty 45-tonne slabs of steel can only travel 415km before running out of fuel. And that’s on roads. With extra external fuel tanks.
Military analysts point out that President Vladimir Putin’s ambitious objective of surrounding key Ukrainian cities within the first few days of the war has cost him heavily.
The rapidly advancing tanks overstretched their supply lines. And they had no infantry to find and clear any concealed ambushers. Soon many were left exposed – sitting immobile without fuel and ammunition.
That made them sitting ducks.
Ukrainian forces – and farmers – recovered dozens simply abandoned by their desperate crews on the side of roads and in the middle of fields.
Since then, many more Russian tanks have been captured.
Their supply convoys have proven unexpectedly vulnerable. Especially because Russia has failed to gain air superiority.
Russian armoured anti-aircraft vehicles support every column. And they essentially deny the skies to Ukrainian combat aircraft. But Ukrainian air defences also exact a heavy toll on Russian ground-attack helicopters and aircraft.
That allows Ukrainian troops carrying Javelin and NLAW antitank missiles to ambush strategic chokepoints. Small, difficult to detect drones roam the sky, picking off choice targets.
Destroying heavy vehicles at a crossroads, for example, will halt a long column of fuel, food and ammunition trucks in their tracks. And these are then highly vulnerable to follow-up attacks.
Ukraine’s in a strong position. It uses similar tanks and armoured fighting vehicles to Russia. So even damaged enemy machines can be a source of spare parts.
It doesn’t have the same exposed supply lines. And its tanks have the opportunity to dig in and wait for the Russians to reveal themselves.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian missile-carrying troops and drones roam the countryside – hunting tanks.
Azerbaijan defeated Armenia’s Russian-made tank force in 2020 “with large volumes of cheap, consumable armed drones, missiles and multiple launch rocket systems”.
And he warns adding expensive, complicated self-protection lasers and guns simply adds to the burden a tank must carry without substantially reducing its vulnerability.
A Russian prototype tank fitted with an experimental antimissile system, the T-80UM2, is among the blasted wreckage piling up on Ukraine’s roads.
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