Armor: Perspectives and Realities


June 27, 2023: The Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian forces in June has been successful, but slow. Russia knew it was eventually coming and built extensive fortifications, including obstacles to vehicle movement as well as planting lots of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. The anti-tank mines are frequently used because they are so effective. The mines themselves do not destroy tanks and other vehicles but inflict “mobility kills” by rendering the mine-damaged vehicles unable to move because of damaged tracks and/or tires/track wheels and suspension system. If this happens during combat, the vehicles and their crews are in big trouble. That often means the crew abandons the vehicle and seeks shelter elsewhere. Historically, most tank and armored fighting vehicle (AFV) losses come from mobility kills. The Ukraine War was unique because top attack ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) were able to destroy Russian-designed tanks and AFVs by causing the turret to explode and kill the entire crew. Now the Ukrainians are on the offensive and have to devote a lot of men and resources to removing anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. At the same time the Ukrainians use anti-tank mines to protect quiet sectors of the front line from surprise armored attacks.

The tracks on tanks are also vulnerable to accidental damage if the driver tries to cross an obstacle that can damage the tracks, often by just causing tracks to be separated from their supporting road wheels. When this happens, the crew has to get out and go through a time-consuming and strenuous effort to get the tracks back on. Track systems suffering battle damage can sometimes be repaired in the field if there is no damage to the wheels the tracks run on. Tank drivers are important members of the crew because they have to be alert and know what they are doing whenever the tank is moving. When not in combat, the tank commander will often stick his head and shoulders out of the turret and use his better view of the way ahead to warn the driver when an avoidable obstacle is spotted. .

A lot of different anti-tank weapons have been developed over the last century but none have been so successful as anti-tank mines, Anti-tank guns and missiles can be defeated with better armor or the more recent APS (Active Protection System). For example, in 2021 Germany successfully completed acceptance tests of the Israeli Trophy APS they wanted to purchase for their Leopard 2 tanks. The acceptance tests consisted of firing ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles), RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and shells from tank guns or artillery that often fire such shells equipped with shaped charge warheads at tanks, at a Trophy-equipped Leopard 2.

This was not the first Leopard 2 to use an APS. Turkish Leopard 2 and M60 tanks were equipped with the Ukrainian Zaslon APS in 2018 and were successful enough for Turkey to obtain a manufacturing license to build Zaslon. Several other countries have ordered Zaslon because it is one of the few APS systems that proved itself in combat. Zaslon is more flexible to install as it uses individual modules and can be used on tanks equipped with ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor). On the downside, Zaslon will injure nearby infantry, which is a major problem for many nations. Zaslon has been in service for as long as Trophy and worked against Russian weapons in 2015, but saw little exposure to combat after that until the Turks noticed it.

Russia has used a lot of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in Ukraine and the Ukrainian forces have been supplied with equipment and training to find and destroy or disable them. Russia has deployed thousands of these mines in southeast Ukraine to disrupt a Ukrainian offensive. Russia has mapped these minefields in case they are no longer needed and the mines can be removed. If Russia is defeated, those minefield maps are unlikely to be given to the Ukrainians and the mines will be a public hazard for years to come. Ukraine will have to maintain mine-clearing teams and await reports from local civilians about minefield discoveries. Russia and Ukraine have both been using anti-tank mines against each other since 2015.

The American M1 and German Leopard 2 have improved but are still vulnerable track-laying systems. So do large militarized commercial bulldozers used by army engineer units to clear visible obstacles as well as detect and destroy anti-tank mines.

Commercial tracked vehicles have been around since the 19th century and were the basis of the first tanks, which used commercial tracklaying systems for movement across World War I battlefields torn up by shell craters and man-made fortifications. This commercial tech was quite mature and reliable when World War I broke out in 1914 and was often used near the front lines to clear roads and repair damage caused by all the artillery shells. It didn’t take long for someone, in this case the British, to put armor and weapons on a large tractor and create the first tanks. These were first used in combat during 1916 and were a success. By 1917 hundreds of tanks of all sizes were used in successful allied offensives.

Between the World Wars there were major improvements in automotive technology, tank design and armored warfare tactics. Only the Russians, now ruled by a communist dictatorship, produced a lot of new tank designs. The World War I peace treaty limited the size of the German military and banned Germany from having tanks. That did not stop the Germans from developing new armored warfare tactics. For a while the Russians allowed the Germans to observe Russian tank developments. The Germans noted that the Russians were developing all sorts of tank designs, often using new American automotive and tracked vehicle tech. The Americans continued using World War I tanks into the 1930 because military budgets were small, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

When World War II broke out in 1939 America quickly mobilized and eventually produced more tanks and warplanes than anyone else. By 1939 the Russians finally ended seven years of border battles with the Japanese in Mongolia by defeating the Japanese with mechanized units featuring lots of light tanks. Because of this impressive Russian performance, Japan decided to stay out of any further fighting with the Russians. That lasted until Germany was defeated by the Western allies and Russia in 1945. Japanese armored vehicle design and tank warfare tactics had not developed much before or during World War II. Japanese forces in China were quickly defeated by the Russians while the Americans used their huge navy and new atomic weapons to force the Japanese to surrender, something that was previously unthinkable to the Japanese.

Between 1939 and 1943 the Germans conquered most of European Russia using increasingly inferior, compared to the new Russian tanks, mobile forces. From 1943 to 1945 the Germans were on the defensive. Germany developed superior tanks like the Panther and Tiger, but not enough to offset the larger allied and Russian tank forces.

At the end of World War II Russia was using a lot more T-34/85 tanks which were good enough to overwhelm the smaller number of superior German tanks. Britain and the United States never developed any outstanding tank designs during the war but, because the American out-produced everyone else, the allies always had more tanks in action, supported by more artillery, warplanes and much else. Both Russia and the Western allies used huge numbers of adequate tanks to defeat the smaller number of more effective German tanks.

During the subsequent Cold War (1947 to 1991) the Russians and Western allies never fought each other directly. By 1991 the Soviet Union had dissolved and a much smaller Russia ended up with most of the 50,000 tanks the Soviet army had. By then the Western allies, including West Germany, later reunited Germany, had developed superior tank technology and, for the first time in 2023, those Western tanks saw their first action against Russian forces in Ukraine. The Western M1, Leopard and Challenger tanks were operated by Ukrainians, who had earlier wiped out most of Russia’s modern tanks using modern anti-tank weapons. Ukraine had more than a thousand Russian-designed tanks but it was Ukrainian infantry armed with new anti-tank weapons, most of them from NATO countries, who really destroyed the larger and theoretically superior Russian tank force. After sixteen months of that the Ukrainians went on the offensive but not with a lot of Western tanks. There was a lot of Western artillery and other new weapons. The Russians were forced to fall back on older and still reliable defensive tactics using anti-tank mines, tank obstacles and a sense of desperation. This time, unlike World War II, the Russians were the invaders and unsuccessful ones at that during the first major war between Russia and Western weapons operated by Ukrainians. The war isn’t over yet but the Russians are seeking ways to get out of Ukraine and from underneath the crippling economic sanctions imposed because they invaded Ukraine.

Modern Western tanks were a factor in the victory, but more as a threat than actual use in battle. That was because the Western tanks had already proved themselves in battle, but not a major war.

The M1 entered service in 1980 and 10,300 were built. The Leopard 2 followed in 1983 and 3,600 were built. Production of both these tanks sharply declined after the Cold War ended in 1991. At that point a lot of existing Leopard 2s were no longer needed and became a hot item in the second hand market. By 2010 secondhand Leopard 2s were hard to come by because so many had already been sold or scrapped.

Germany sold off or retired so many of its Leopard 2s that by 2017, when they sought to rebuild their tank force to face the new Russian threat, it found Turkey, Chile, Greece, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland and Poland each had more operational Leopard 2 tanks than Germany. This odd situation was revealed in late 2017 when it was discovered that 53 of Germany’s Leopard 2s were unavailable because they were undergoing upgrades and 86 were inoperable because of spare parts shortages. That meant Germany only had 95 Leopard 2 tanks that were combat ready. That’s 39 percent of the 244 Leopard 2s then operated by the German army.

This was all attributed to a 2015 program to expand and upgrade the German tank force. That involved taking 104 retired (in the 1990s) Leopard 2A4 tanks and putting them back into service after refurbishing the older tanks and upgrading them to the A7V standard. The 104 reactivated Leopard 2A7Vs did not begin arriving until 2019 and it will take until 2023 to complete the process. There may be further additions to the active tank force depending on how much of a threat Russia continues to pose.

Most Germans believed peace would last after the communist governments Russia had imposed on most East European nations after 1945 suddenly collapsed in 1989 followed by the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991. That marked the end of the Cold War. On top of that Germany was reunited in 1990 and the Russian-equipped East German military was largely scrapped. At that point the German Leopard 2 fleet shrank over 85 percent (from 2,000 to 225). Germany also retired over 2,200 Leopard 1s. Most of the retired Leopards were sold off or scrapped. But nearly a thousand Leopard 2s were put in storage just in case. Until 2014, Germany believed that those retired Leopard 2s would eventually be sold off or used for spare parts. A minority of Germans thought there was still a risk of a renewed Russian threat, so plans were made to keep upgrading Leopard 2s for foreign customers who were now operating most of the remaining Leopard 2s. Only 225 German Army Leopard 2s nominally remain in service.

Currently the American M1A2SEP and the Leopard 2A7V are the two most effective and numerous modern tanks. There are also the lighter 57-ton French LeClerc 2 and the 63-ton British Challenger 2. Both of these tanks were built in small numbers (about 400 each). German firm Rheinmetall won the billion-dollar contract to produce the Challenger 3, which is a major upgrade of Challenger 2, including a new turret and much improved 120mm gun. Sometimes superior tank designs can help win a war without ever fighting. There were also new developments in anti-tank weapons, including anti-tank mines. A new American anti-tank mine design not only damages the tracks but also sends a metal projective through the thinner bottom armored of tanks. As in the past, these mines remain the major threat to tanks and any advance involving tanks has to be led by armored mine-clearing vehicles.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close