Armored tanks dominated the theater of war from the Battle of Kursk to Desert Storm and helped define combat in the 20th century.
But the mighty tank’s place in the battles of tomorrow isn’t entirely clear. Specialists argue that the changing nature of war could limit tanks’ effectiveness and mean a major demotion in how they are fielded in the face of more effective rocket fire, advanced radar systems that make it easier to spot and target the vehicles, and the proliferation of small, deadly drones that can rain destruction on armored columns.
Researchers stress that storied ground vehicles such as the M1A1 Abrams and the Leopard 2, along with models on the production line that stem from the Army’s groundbreaking “Next-Generation Combat Vehicle” program, will by no means disappear from the military landscape.
It has become evident, however, that the once-impregnable traditional tank has become vulnerable and that its future hinges on how military leaders and vehicle manufacturers adapt.
For tank skeptics, one of the world’s hottest war zones is providing fresh ammunition for their argument.
Military strategists are closely watching the Nagorno-Karabakh clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In barely three weeks of fighting, the Armenians have lost an estimated 80 battle tanks and its military claims to have destroyed more than 100 Azerbaijani armored vehicles.
Each side denies those figures, though videos posted on social media seem to confirm that tanks have suffered badly in the fight, largely because of the widespread availability of drones and other technologies that have proved effective at eliminating them or at least halting their advance.
In another sign of the times, the Marine Corps this year divested itself of its last three active tank battalions, ceding heavy ground armor capability entirely to the Army. Marine Commandant Gen. David H. Berger said in March that tanks are “operationally unsuitable” for the Corps’ main new mission: confronting “near peer” adversaries such as China, defending ships at sea and securing military control of contested coastlines.
But specialists say deeper issues are involved, including the fact that many militaries have failed to invest in defensive systems that could enhance the value of tanks on technologically advanced battlefields.
“If you’re going to spend your money today, it’s providing those layers of protections to make sure you can deploy those systems,” said Jack Watling, research fellow in land warfare at London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “It’s not the tank. It’s the air defense system … the things that go around it.”
The Armenian military, he said, “didn’t have all of the components you needed to protect their force” and paid the price.
Analysts generally agree that most advanced militaries can easily defend ground combat forces from drone attacks. The U.S. armed forces and other militaries also are well-practiced and generally capable of fending off air assaults and weathering mortar fire as they move tanks and infantry forces into theater.
The problem, Mr. Watling said, is that opposing military leaders now understand that if they unleash enough firepower in quick succession — drones, traditional aircraft, long-range rocket fire, electronic attacks and other tools — they can slow ground vehicle formations and force them to expend so much ammunition that they become less able to defend themselves as the fight progresses.
At the same time, some traditional defensive tactics that have aided tank formations, such as camouflage and the use of decoy vehicles, are no longer effective.
“Historically, armored vehicles have been fairly difficult to find. Things like decoys have been quite effective at forcing the other side to waste a lot of their air support,” Mr. Watling said. “That is increasingly not the case.”
Major advancements in radar, electronic warfare, sensors and similar systems seem to have played a key role in Nagorno-Karabakh and allowed the Azerbaijani military to more easily and effectively target Armenian tanks.
But military strategists have written the tank’s premature obituary in the face of changing technology many times, and some say the iron laws of battlefield strategy mean the tank, or its functional equivalent, will always have a role to play.
“For as long as we continue to conduct ground operations with the purpose of physically seizing and holding ground, it is reasonable to assume that we will need protected mobility to transport troops from A to B and protected firepower to support infantry in achieving their objectives and to neutralize other armored vehicles,” former British officer and defense consultant Nicholas Drummond wrote recently in the journal U.K. Land Power.
Analysts are by no means writing off the tank, particularly in areas where one could imagine the breakout of a large-scale ground war. A theoretical Russian move into Eastern Europe or a North Korean invasion of its southern neighbor are instances where major ground forces and the tanks needed to move and protect them would be crucial.
“We’ve seen tanks become more vulnerable in the modern era. Now, precision-guided rocket fire can do serious damage, too,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book “The Future of Land Warfare.”
But, he added, “given the right terrain and flexibility and control of the skies, tanks can still be formidable as part of a combined-arms capability.”
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be without them — lots of them — in Korea, for example, or even the Baltics, depending on the scenario,” he said. “So basically, this is something we should continue to invest in, but within reason in terms of numbers of platforms, expectations for the technology and the centrality of big gas-guzzling chunks of steel in our core concepts for future war-fighting.”
The nation’s top fighting forces still retain huge stockpiles of tanks. The U.S. has more than 6,200 tanks in its arsenal, along with more than 39,000 armored vehicles, according to figures from GlobalFirepower.com, an online clearinghouse of nations’ military strength.
Russia has nearly 13,000 tanks and more than 27,000 armored vehicles. China has 3,500 tanks and 33,000 armored vehicles, according to the site.
Military leaders are keenly aware of the challenges facing those ground vehicles. At the Pentagon, Army leaders have fast-tracked a next-generation tank program that is expected to produce huge leaps in survivability and maneuverability, along with perhaps the most widely anticipated advancement: vehicles that are “optionally manned” and can be controlled remotely in settings where human operators would be at particularly high risk — a drone tank.
After the Marine Corps shift, American tank warfare will rest squarely with the Army.
Officials readily acknowledge that beyond the nuts and bolts, the advanced, cutting-edge systems surrounding the vehicle are crucial.
“The network is almost more important in some ways than building the combat vehicles,” Army Maj. Gen. Brian Cummings, program executive officer of ground combat systems, told the media outlet Defense News this week.
By the end of the year, the Army is expected to release its request for proposals for an eventual replacement of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which was put into service in 1981 and has played an integral role in virtually all U.S. ground campaigns since then.
Most observers agree that vehicles of that age are outliving their usefulness despite their effectiveness and huge contributions to American military superiority.
“The need for modernization is considered urgent, as many current Army ground combat vehicles … were developed in the 1980s or earlier,” a Government Accountability Office survey in August concluded.
Much of that modernization will center on networks and linking tanks in real time with aircraft, control centers and military personnel, all of which must have immediate access to all of the same data.
But at its core, analysts say, the next generation of combat vehicles will remain similar to their predecessors in many ways.
“The Army’s next-generation fighting vehicle should just be called its next tank,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “Nothing is advancing radically enough in the undergirding technologies for us to think that a system developed in the 2020s will be radically different than one from the 1980s. That’s a disappointment in some ways, but anytime the Army has tried to get too ambitious before … it’s found that its visions and ambitions tend to write checks that its technologies can’t actually cash.”