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No, Tanks Are Not Obsolete — The Russian Army is Just Bad at Combined Arms

Featured Image – A U.S. Army M1A2 SEP V2 Abrams Tank, assigned to 3rd Squadron, 16th Calvary Regiment, moves into position to fire at their assigned targets at Ware Range, Fort Benning, GA., July 20, 2021. These Tankers are training to become Master Gunners, and be subject matter experts in their field. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Austin Berner)

Today’s Russian army is the successor of the formidable Red Army; the very same Red Army that defeated the Third Reich and kept American generals up at night during the Cold War.

But, oh, how the mighty have fallen.

According to the Washington Post, Russia has lost more than 2,000 vehicles, including more than 300 tanks since the invasion began on February 24.

If you are following the incredible defense of Ukraine by her heroic citizens, then you might be tempted to think that tank warfare is dead. After all, Ukrainians are popping $4.5 million Russian tanks with $78,000 Javelin’s daily.

And now that Ukraine has received 100 Switchblade loitering munitions from the U.S., things are only going to get worse for #PutinsFolly.

So why are Russian armor columns performing so poorly?

There is a way to successfully deploy armor and it’s called “combined arms.” This is the idea that you must integrate different combat arms units (infantry, armor, airpower, and artillery) while using effective communication between all of these units, to achieve mutually complimentary effects.

Combined arms is the little brother to the bigger idea of “joint warfare.” If combined arms uses different combat elements from the same branch, joint warfare combines various different branches in a single action. For instance, when American infantry soldiers fighting in Afghanistan ask their embedded Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airman to radio the Air Force for A-10 or AC-130 close-air-support.

Yet, I’ve heard some commentators say it’s the terrain; that tanks just can’t operate successfully in Europe. Not true, although admittedly tank warfare in the desert is a much easier proposition.

When the United States deployed to Kosovo in the Balkans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, American M1A1 Abrams tanks found themselves in similar terrain to that in Ukraine. Despite the challenges of maneuvering a 63-ton war machine through narrow streets and poor infrastructure, the Americans still employed combined arms to ensure the survivability of their armor.

Tank commanders in Kosovo used combat engineers to compliment their columns and employ breaching assets to clear tank traps and mines.

The American tanks in Kosovo experienced six times the normal operations tempo in their fleet (a half year of op-tempo in only one month). This led to a noticeable increase in the use of suspension and automotive parts. The wear and tear on all vehicles, especially the M1A1s, proved to be an operational readiness rate challenge.

The U.S. Army solved this by keeping logistical lines secure with the use of military police and infantry units. In some instances, they moved entire supply units closer to the area of operations (AO).

The United States Department of Defense, which endorses joint warfare as an overriding doctrine for its forces, describes it as “team warfare”, which “requires the integrated and synchronized application of all appropriate capabilities. The synergy that results maximizes combat capability in unified action.”

In contrast, the Russians appear to be deploying tanks just for the sake of the psychological impact that such war machines provide. Except the Ukrainians no longer fear a T-90 rolling down the street toward them, they see it as a juicy target of opportunity.

The real reason Russia is losing this war is that they have no strategy, no tactics, and no support. Tanks are tough, but they’re not invincible.

So, what could the Russians do differently to ensure the survivability of their tanks?

Let’s start with an infantry screen that deploys ahead of the armor and clears out hidden combatants armed with Javelins. They could also throw in rotor wing (attack helicopter) support.

But all of this requires command, control, and coordination. Fortunately for the Ukrainians, the Russian army has displayed none of this. Quite the opposite: the Russian army is borderline incompetent. The problem is that when they can’t successfully kill Ukrainian soldiers, they take their rage out on civilians.

Investigating how the Russian army arrived at its current poor state, from the glory days of the formidable Soviet Red Army, is a topic for another article. Is it possible that Putin was [GASP] lied to by his closest advisors about the strength of his army? Is it possible that his cronies funneled money meant for the military to their own bank accounts?

For now, perhaps it is enough to be thankful that after decades of bluster and propaganda, Putin’s army has turned out to be a mismanaged, poorly fed, poorly equipped, poorly maintained disaster of the highest order.

There is still very much a place for tanks in modern warfare if you have an army proficient at combined arms operations.

The Russians are certainly smart enough to employ combined arms and joint warfare, and they have the technological capability to do so. Yet, for reasons unknown they choose not to, much to the benefit of the Ukrainian defenders.

As a result, the Russian army in Ukraine is fighting a modern-day war with mid-20th century tactics.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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