By Air Cmde TK Chatterjee (retd)
For the last two weeks the European media is going ga-ga over sending battle tanks to Ukraine. It is now being believed that it will change the course of the war. The Germans were bearing the brunt of the entire political and diplomatic pressure of the West for their supposedly inordinate delay in concurring to send their Leopard2 tanks to Ukraine and in not allowing other European nations who have Leopard 2s in their inventory to send them to the battle zone either. Agreed that the Leopards being in the EU region are easier to transport to Ukraine than the Abrams, which have to come across the Atlantic. The Germans obviously waited till the Americans agreed to pitch their M1 Abrams in the fray. Now the Germans have agreed to send the tanks from their own inventory and have no objections to other EU countries sending Leopard 2s to Ukraine. The Brits were the first to commit with their Challenger 2s, while France has also now committed their Leclercs. A coalition of Leopard operating countries is presently being sought to keep Ukraine supplied with these tanks, their spares and ammunition. The rest of Europe does not have any tanks of original makes, so these are the names that we will hear through spring of 2023.
But I am confused with one aspect of this whole turnabout of land warfare. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, we saw long columns of Russian armour entering Ukraine from Belarus and heading for Kiev. There were enough reports to elaborate in minutest details how the Ukrainian forces, who lacked armoured fighting capabilities, outsmarted the Russians by using their Javelins, NLAWs and Stugna anti-tank weapons by pitching guerilla type attacks on the Russian columns. Pictures of smoldering Russian tanks and other armoured and logistic vehicles were plentiful in the media. The armoured columns as well as their supply lines were very effectively attacked by the Ukrainians using the west supplied ammunition of ATGWs and long range HIMARs. So, it is kind of bizarre that having halted the Russian blitzkrieg the Ukrainians are themselves crying for tanks.
It was widely published in opinion columns of the whole western world that just as the machine gun saw the end of cavalry charges and drove them to trenches, and the tanks ended the trench warfare, it was now the time for tanks to become obsolete and give way to smart weapons from land and air. The International Institute of Strategic Studies questions the effectiveness of the German tanks in Ukraine in their piece “Can the German leopard change its spots?” Though these tanks are technologically more advanced than current Ukrainian holding of AFVs, but to have any effect on the outcome of the war, a large number will have to be supplied along with a sustainable logistic chain.A piece in The Economist says “Tanks have rarely been more vulnerable…some armies are scrapping them, others are innovating.”
What has suddenly changed, that the same western forces are now pumping their MBTs into Ukraine? For an airman like me it is difficult to understand. Many like me will prefer to fight differently. I would still like to have a tank in my sight with the CCIP on the turret in a 25-degree dive at 900 kmph speed at a laser range of 600 m and give it a half second burst of my 30 mm rotary barrel Gatling, firing 3000 rounds per minute anti armour rounds, than depend on some jean clad young man’s smart software. Believe me, no tank will survive that. That is perhaps why I am retired.
The West has committed in many forums that the Russian military leadership has proven to be incompetent in dynamic warfare. They use war time statistics and analysis of open-source data to prove that. As per western estimates Russians have lost 100000 soldiers whereas Ukrainians have lost about one third of that. Of course, Ukrainian civilian casualties are not included. Russian news and internet media is blocked in the EU, so there is only one-sided picture available for the masses here. In this West Vs Russia warfare, I am yet to find a neutral news source. I am about to accept that in this world of high media stakes, there is no financially independent news source. NDTV was perhaps the last one standing.
But the Russians have never been dependent on technology to win wars. Recently I saw a picture of a cockpit snap of the first Soviet manned space capsule cockpit, and I saw some of the gauges that looked like those I had in the first version of the Mig 21 that I flew in 1977. Russians have always thrown low-cost high-volume counters to any known threat. History has enough examples to prove this. In the famous battle of Kursk of WWII, the largest armoured battle of our times, the Axis powers had about 2500 tanks against which the Russians committed about double that number in armoured vehicles and triple the number of soldiers.
There is an anecdote of Russian simplicity to technological problems. When the space race commenced, there was a problem to find a solution to a zero-gravity pen for astronauts to write with. While the Americans authorized a multimillion dollar grant for research, the Russians used a pencil.
According to reports:
The Russian anti-tank weaponry is not a throw away. In January 2017, the German newspaper Die Welt reported that ISIL fighters used Kornets to destroy six Leopard 2 tanks used by the Turkish military in Syria.
On 1 September 2019, a Kornet was used by Hezbollah forces to fire on Israeli military stations in retaliation for the bombings of a Hezbollah media office a week earlier.
On 26 February 2022, a Kornet was used by Russian troops against a Ukrainian armored vehicle.
The irony of the whole thing is that what was a loser a few months ago in land warfare has suddenly become a game changer. If I had trust in the media, I would have perhaps gone along. But I don’t. Are tanks not selling in the world market? Or is it as an opinion piece in the Washington Post said “Tanks are always outmoded but never obsolete.” Or have the Ukrainians now realized that satellites, drones, missiles and rockets are all ok, but none can hold ground. Armour is inescapable if you want to protect your infantrywhen assaulting and to hold captured territories thereafter.
The author is an IAF veteran.
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