So, it has finally happened. A huge Russian tank army, supported by apparently massive air power, has rolled across the borders intent on conquest. Opposing Ukrainian forces were hugely outmatched in armour, artillery and aircraft.
Conventional military wisdom says that several things ought to have happened in this situation.
First, Russian air power should have been able to dominate the skies from early on. Ukrainian planes should have been destroyed on the ground. Every time a Ukrainian radar switched on, it should have been pinpointed and smashed. Every time a Ukrainian missile battery targeted a Russian aircraft, it should have been located and knocked out.
This kind of air campaign is known in military circles as Suppression (or Destruction) of Enemy Air Defences: Sead or Dead. It was carried out very effectively by US-led Nato forces against Colonel Gadaffi’s airpower in 2011. The actual strikes were made almost entirely by Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from naval units off the coast.
Once Sead/Dead has been carried out, the attackers effectively own the skies above say 10,000 feet or a little more: the maximum effective altitude of portable shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles. The rulers of the air can destroy any ground target they can detect, which means that hostile armour and artillery on the ground beneath cannot survive for long.
In Libya, and in the Iraq invasion of 2003, and to a large extent also during the 1991 Gulf War, Western dominance of the skies meant that the high-intensity ground war was over before it could really begin. There were a few tank battles in 1991 (the Battle of 73 Easting in the Iraqi desert is still wistfully rehashed among tank lovers) but even in 1991, the Iraqi armour was mostly destroyed from above.
The British ground commander on that occasion, General Rupert Smith – the last man ever to command British armour in combat at division strength – later wrote that there had been no real clash of armoured force.
Even back in 1991, it was not tanks but airstrikes and missiles which settled matters. General Smith has subsequently confirmed to your correspondent that if he had been placed in charge at the Ministry of Defence, the current Challenger 2 main battle tank would not be replaced. Nonetheless, Challenger 3 is in the works.
The fog of war is particularly thick as regards the air battle above Ukraine, but it is clear that the Russians have not achieved anything like Sead or Dead. The Ukrainians are still in the air. Part of their small force of jets is still flying and they are also making very effective use of drones, including the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar.
Flying over Ukraine is still dangerous for the Russians: they are losing aircraft on a regular basis, mostly drones and helicopters but sometimes jets too. Russia has been unable to eliminate enemy armour and artillery from the battlefield as Western airpower did in Iraq and Libya.
Strangely perhaps, air forces including our own RAF actually prefer this kind of situation, where airspace is “contested”. This allows them to argue that they should have lots of fast, manned combat jets, According to airforce wisdom only fast manned jets can survive in contested airspace, which might mean that fast jets are the best way to deliver airstrikes.
The case for fast jets was badly undercut by the wars in the Gulf, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, where uncontested airspace meant that airstrikes could be delivered hugely more cost-effectively by drones.
Drones are unmanned: But they’re good for other reasons too
Drones are better than jets because they don’t require airmen to risk their lives and they don’t have to use up payload to carry the airmen and their ejection seats. Drones don’t get sleepy or need the lavatory.
But drones are also better for a completely different reason: they usually aren’t supersonic jets.
The well-known Reaper, as used in very small numbers by the RAF, is an economical turboprop. The highly effective Bayraktar, as used by the Ukrainians, has an even simpler and cheaper petrol engine. This means that these drones are much, much cheaper both to buy and to fly than jets. They also do not need wildly expensive air-to-air refuelling all the time, as fast jets do.
In at least one case in Libya, a cheap propeller drone destroyed a heavy SA-8 Gecko missile launcher whose presence, according to airforce wisdom, should have meant that propeller aircraft could not survive. Now almost every day in Ukraine we are seeing that even cheaper, even more basic drones can be extremely effective in airspace which is plainly very contested indeed.
Bayraktars have destroyed all kinds of Russian targets, including missile systems which ought to have shot them down. It’s even thought that Bayraktars or similar drones made significant contributions to the sinking of the Russian missile cruiser Moskva.
It’s too much to say that there’s no need for supersonic jets. We probably need some, for specialised tasks. But the idea that cheaper and simpler aircraft can’t be effective in high-intensity modern wars – even, as today, against the most powerful possible adversary in the world – has very clearly been exposed as rubbish. The idea that the fast jet should be the standard airstrike platform has been fatally undermined by the Ukraine war.
The assumption that future military aircraft should be manned is now, also, even more questionable than it already was. High-end Sead/Dead or Moskva type missions are better done unmanned, by jet drones called “cruise missiles”. So are bread-and-butter strike tasks.
The RAF’s current plan of having a tiny handful of drones and as many manned fast jets as possible needs to be rethought. The RAF will not do this on its own. An air force without significant numbers of combatant aircrew could not remain an independent service for long.
But what about the army?
Going back to conventional military wisdom, if neither side manages to win control of the skies, we revert to the 1980s pre-smart-weapons view of land warfare: the view which is still current in much of the British Army.
According to this view there is pretty much nothing that can stop a big, heavily equipped tank army except another such tank army.
Soldiers have believed for generations that heavy armoured forces will roll over lightly-equipped opposition like “speed bumps”. Heavy attackers may not be able to take cities quickly but they will swiftly bypass them, surrounding them and cutting them off. Opposing lightly-equipped defenders will be punched through and surrounded in pockets by swift, irresistible armoured thrusts. Surrounded defenders’ supply lines will be cut and they can expect nothing but defeat.
This view of land warfare is why the British Army still, tragically, persists in trying to organise most of itself into a heavy armoured force similar to the one General Smith commanded in 1991. Another British general, a recent head of the army, has told your correspondent that this is because “you have to have a proper army, Lewis”.
The Russian army is what the British Army wants to be
The Ukraine battle has shown very clearly that the "tanks rule" view of land warfare is just not true.
Russia's invasion forces were pretty much exactly what the British Army wants to be. They had lots of tanks, and their tanks were much more modern than the outnumbered Ukrainian ones, often a generation more advanced. They had modern armoured combat vehicles for their infantry, and lots of heavy, self-propelled artillery.
The Russians had also dealt with one of the unfortunate realities of heavy armoured forces. It’s a reliable rule of thumb that even in good armies, less than half of any given armoured force will actually have working kit and be fit for combat.
Back in 1991, the British Army theoretically had several armoured divisions. Sending just one to the Gulf War should have been easy. In fact, though, General Smith tells us: “In the Gulf … I had all the up-to-date tanks in the British Army … I was also given very nearly every tank engine in the inventory. The rest of the army had been stripped of its equipment.”
The modern Russian army has dealt with this issue in the same way by going to its brigades, which theoretically have several battalions, and taking all their best weapons, vehicles and soldiers to produce a single Battalion Tactical Group (BTG). Russia’s invasion forces are made up mostly of these BTGs, rather as Smith’s force in 1991 had all the decent equipment and all the spare parts in the British Army of the time.
Ukrainian tanks are few, and mostly old. Ukrainian infantry have old armoured vehicles, or just lorries and vans in many cases. Ukrainian artillery as Russia invaded was sparse, and often it was unprotected towed guns rather than armoured self-propelled ones.
The front-line Ukrainian troops were tough, mostly hardened veterans of the Donbas: but the Russian BTGs are manned by their best too. BTGs are mostly made up of the new class of Russian “kontraktniki” professional soldiers. The unwilling short-service conscripts have mostly been left behind in the units which were stripped to create the BTGs.
The invasion ought to have been a military picnic for the Russians, then, even without victory in the sky. But it was not.
The elite, heavily armed and armoured BTGs could not manage even to encircle Kharkiv just over the border, far less Kyiv. They have retreated from both objectives, and are making only the slowest and most painful of progress in the southeast. They are suffering terrible casualties. Their powerful main battle tanks (MBTs) have been reduced to burnt-out wrecks in huge numbers.
You don’t need a tank to beat a tank
This is very strange, as Western soldiers – including many British Army officers – have been insisting for decades that the only thing worth sending against a modern MBT is an equally modern MBT. The only weapon that can reliably punch through the tremendously tough armour of an MBT, we have long been told, is a specialist, heavy armour-piercing cannon firing hypervelocity penetrators. The only way to get that cannon into the fight is to put it in a tank.
Armour soldiers will grudgingly admit that there are also shaped-charge explosive warheads, which can be put on quite small rockets and missiles: small enough for a soldier to carry and fire from the shoulder, or to be fired from drones, for instance. But these things aren’t serious concerns, the tank soldiers say. The Russians have long since taken to using “explosive reactive armour”: this is a slab of explosive mounted on the outside of the tank which goes off when it’s hit by a shaped-charge warhead, disrupting the warhead’s own focused explosion and rendering it harmless.
That’s what the funny-looking blocks stuck all over Russian tanks are. These blocks supposedly mean that the tank remains invincible and unstoppable by anything else on the battlefield except another tank.
But there are various ways of dealing with the blocks. One is “tandem” warheads. The first shaped charge disposes of the external explosive block: the second one then punches through the regular armour. This is the design of the US Javelin anti-tank missile, now supplied in large numbers to the Ukrainians, and the Turkish tank-buster missiles fired by the Bayraktars.
Another approach is “top attack”. Tank armour, both the normal stuff and the explosive-reactive blocks, is very strong on the front: that’s where the hits usually come from. It’s weaker on the sides, and much weaker on the top and the back. If it was strong everywhere, the tank would be too heavy to move. Tanks are already so heavy, at 50 tons or even more, that they are much less mobile than their proponents care to admit.
A top-attack missile flies over the tank and fires its shaped charge down into the weak top armour. This is the approach taken in the Next-generation Light Anti-armour Weapon (NLAW). It’s in service with the British Army and we in the UK have supplied thousands of NLAWs to the Ukrainians, who often shout “God save the Queen” as they knock out a Russian tank. The NLAW is Swedish, but there was a job-creation scheme when we bought it and parts of the production and assembly are done in the UK.
NLAWs, Javelins and Bayraktars have nailed huge numbers of Russian tanks. Even much older portable shaped-charge weapons can work: it was reported that one of Russia’s latest T-90 tanks was knocked out earlier in May by a Carl Gustaf 84mm (once known as “Charlie G” in British service), which dates from the 1940s.
Just as the RAF really ought to be rethinking its love for manned fast jets, the British Army’s indefatigable armour enthusiasts need to stop re-fighting 73 Easting or the Kursk Salient and take a look at the way the Ukrainians do it.
The tank which doesn’t rely on its armour
Tank lovers, however, would much prefer to talk about Russia’s T-14 Armata, held up as a bogeyman by armour people for a long time. It was supposed to be in Russian service long since, but it isn’t. It may never be if access to imported digital components remains cut off by sanctions. It’s even bigger and heavier than a T-90, though still not as heavy as a British Challenger.
The thing about the T-14 Armata, however, is that it doesn’t rely on armour for protection, though of course it has plenty. The T-14 also has a small, secondary robot gun turret intended to detect an incoming Javelin or NLAW (or Charlie G) and shoot the missile down before it can strike. A similar robo-gun is planned for Britain’s Challenger 3.
Tank people passionately believe that even though the T-90 – and its much more common predecessor, the T-72 – have turned out to be paper tigers, the T-14 and Challenger 3 will finally make their worldview come true. But to anyone else, the fact that tank designers have effectively admitted that armour doesn’t work is very significant.
It’s long been acknowledged, after all, that no practical amount of armour can protect a tank against another tank’s cannon. It’s now acknowledged – and this is heavily underscored by Russian fortunes in Ukraine – that armour cannot effectively protect a tank against light shaped-charge weapons either. You need a robo-gun or some other new magic for that.
What is heavy armour for, then?
Vehicle protection beyond the level which works against bullets and landmines would seem to be less and less justifiable in the real world, away from the kriegspiel table.
There are other inconvenient truths about tanks and armoured forces. One particularly sad fact about heavy tracked vehicles is that they cannot be driven to the battlefield: they have to be shipped by rail or on wheeled road transporter vehicles.
The British Army doesn’t move by rail any more. It doesn’t have any wheeled tank transporters either. It does have a PFI contract giving it first dibs on a privately-owned fleet of 74 such vehicles. This fleet could move most of our armour to eastern Poland, say, over a period of weeks.
But remember: to stop a British armoured force going anywhere, you don’t need to fight any tanks. You only need to take out a few dozen civilian lorries.
A ‘war-fighting’ force which can’t fight wars
Another problem for armour is that it’s not worth sending unless you also send a lot of heavy, specialist combat engineer units to deal with some other unfortunate realities of using these supposedly all-terrain, supposedly unstoppable vehicles. Tanks can’t get across rivers and various other obstacles. Many bridges can’t support their weight. Landmines or other simple defences can stop them cold if they have no engineer support.
All this means that if Britain ever managed to send its mostly fictional present-day armoured division to war it would have perhaps 40,000 troops. Of these, just 1,300 would be rifle section infantry expecting to get out of their armoured vehicles sometimes and fight the way the Ukrainians mostly do.
Another unfortunate reality of the British Army today with its one nominal armoured division is that it would be doing very well to assemble a single armoured brigade actually fit for combat: much the same 1-in-3 ratio as the Russians with their one BTG from each brigade. This is widely admitted by our soldiers, for instance in General Sir Richard Shirreff’s interesting book War With Russia.
The armoured division, in the British Army, is referred to as the “war-fighting” force. But is it really for fighting wars?
It does seem foolish to tie up so many of our increasingly scarce soldiers in notional units only a third of which, realistically, can fight. And given the abject failure of Russia’s BTGs, does it really make sense to devote so much of our shrinking army to generating exactly the same kind of formation?
Against this background it’s looking more and more sensible that much of the future British Army will have Boxer vehicles which are wheeled rather than tracked, much though hardline armour-heads insist that wheeled vehicles aren’t proper armour at all. At least you can drive them on the road.
It’s also looking like a possible stroke of luck that Boxer’s primary companion Ajax, which is tracked, has been comprehensively fouled up and doesn’t work, which might offer an excuse to cancel it.
It’s also probably worth noting that a Boxer costs more than £5m and an Ajax more than £10m. A Reaper drone which can destroy a dozen of either, unanswerably, in a single pass, can be had for £10m.
The British Army, if it’s sensible, might seize the chance to simply cancel Ajax and Challenger 3 while it reconsiders its current plan: which appears to be turning itself into something as close to the Russian army as possible.
Lewis Page is editor-in-chief at Capital.com and author of Lions, donkeys and dinosaurs: Waste and blundering in the military