by Ralph Berry

Tanks dominate all assessments of the Ukraine war.  That is because the authorities want us to talk tanks, to the exclusion of all other topics. Tanks are in fact a variety of virtue-signalling: they spell out a simple message, the cause of Ukraine is righteous, its leader demands more and better tanks with all manner of support materiel and services, in sending them we confirm our own moral status. The hero of the British support system, Boris Johnson, travels yet again to Kiev to embrace Zelensky, and keep his vestigial political career alive. The Telegraph headline thunders its applause for the US and Germany in cracking, and agreeing to send the tanks that will bring Russia to kits knees.


As a long-term tank sceptic, and non-military observer, I beg to differ. Has the military establishment forgotten so soon the broadside that Lewis Page delivered on 29 May in the Telegraph?

UKRAINE BLOWS UP THE TANK SUPREMACY MYTH. This article, formidably well-informed, is most convincing on the limitations and costs of tanks. From his detailed argument I select one Shakespearean moment that gives all away:

‘Another British General, a recent Head of the Army, has told your correspondent that “you have to have a proper army, Lewis”.’

And there you have it. Britain needs more and better tanks to hold its head up among other tank-flaunting nations. It is a matter of prestige, military swollen into national.

Of course, the military establishment has not forgotten Lewis Page.

They were seriously disturbed, and their response was to talk up the Ukraine cause and its saviour, the promised German/US/UK tanks scheduled to arrive by April and the Spring offensives. Here is Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, whom it is fair to regard as a vested interest. He is a former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. ‘Tanks need support to protect and supply them so that their weapons can be brought to bear on the enemy at a time and place of our choosing’.  (Suppose the enemy chooses the place?)  They are still ‘the most effective means for offensive warfare.’  But ‘what’s to come is still unsure’; the colonel’s future is tinged with doubt.

‘So, giving Challenger 2s to Ukraine is not tokenism: it could be a game-changer.’ Readers will not need to be warned that ‘game-changer’ is a salesman’s word. But the implications of ‘tank’ have to be explored.

The Press has played up the simple act of sending tanks to Ukraine, as though tanks were an end in themselves. They are not. Each tank will require spares and servicing, and trained personnel. It has to be carried to the battlefield by a variety of transports. Once there, the tanks have to be protected. This will require artillery in support, plus infantry. They need low-loaders for the taxi service to get to the workplace, and engineers to work the low-loaders. That’s not all. As soon as NATO agreed to send main battle tanks, the insatiable Zelensky demanded air cover including fighter jets, and Macron has promised to think about it. In the language of the sports pages, jet fighters for Ukraine is a big ask, with a European war on the near horizon. Tanks, in short, need a deal of cossetting. To send tanks into a serious offensive requires a whole army group. This seems a tall order, especially when you consider Page’s bull point:

‘You don’t need a tank to beat a tank.’

The imagination of tank warriors stays with Kursk, the greatest tank battle in history. The mastodons there, Tiger and Panther against T-34s, bit into each other on the Prokhorovka road in an encounter that decided the outcome of the war. Kursk is the foundation myth of tanks. It cannot happen again, however potent the myth.

The West will find polite excuses for withholding from Zelensky his heart’s desire, more tanks, more weaponry to fulfill a vaulting ambition that has small chance of coming to being. But the question remains of ever-steepling costs. The Republicans in the House of Representatives have already called time on further expansion of aid to Ukraine. What remains of the tank, that gift to arms manufacturers who also have a line in sophisticated anti-tank weaponry? They look for replacement orders for dead tanks, which may be fewer than anticipated. The audit of war is that tanks have been oversold and overpriced.

I think it not unlikely the tank’s future will be confined to museums and public statuary, like the railway engine in central Istanbul of the type that Lawrence blew up in 1917.


5 Responses

  1. Yes, great escalation justifying upcoming Russian use of battlefield nuclear explosive artillery and weaponized Ebola virus for which Russian forces have recently been protectively inoculated.

  2. Tanks have their value. Western Europeans and Canada should probably have more, having let this aspect of their armies shrink pretty far in recent decades. Germany in particular.

    But their limitations and vulnerabilities have long been known- really, since their first deployment in WW1. Since the appearance of anti-tank guided missiles in a bigger way from the 70s, all the more so. Even some popular media have been aware of these things. Canadian TV series War with Gwynne Dyer talked to Israeli tankers in the 80s who had seen the pros and cons of tank combat up close in the Yom Kippur war and, where tanks were probably mostly unsuited, in Lebanon.

    That’s why they are supposed to be used in combined arms formations, and have both pros and cons in urban combat depending on whom one is fighting and what weapons they have. All the effective practitioners have known these things, including and sometimes especially the Germans of WW2, whose “blitzkrieg” [not what they called it] was always about the most effective use of tanks in combined arms operations with infantry, aircraft and artillery to break up enemy conventional forces and cover a lot of open ground fast. It was never about masses of tanks operating without support.

    All the discussion of the past year about revelations proving the tanks weaknesses are a story as old as tanks, and utter old hat since at least the 1980s. They have true weaknesses, but there have been no new revelations at all.

    This new tank fetishism is a similarly old story, going back to the 30s if not indeed Cambrai in 1917. It too is nothing new.

    Rarely is one weapon a war winner, also rarely is a useful one irrelevant overnight, though either thing can happen. Usually they work when they add something to a system and suite of weapons, how well they do so can evolve over time, and how they are used must similarly evolve. Eventually, perhaps, they are superseded.

    1. “Rarely is one weapon a war winner …”
      And this is why adapted atomic weapons which forced Japan’s surrender and/or upgraded weaponized diseases, will turn the tide in Ukraine. Megalomaniacs and kilomaniacs like Hitler and Tojo will not prevail.
      Was the deadly Spanish Flu eliminated or warehoused for later use?

      1. I may have missed your point here but I would note that the atomic bombs on Japan definitely spared the US a costly invasion, probably joined by the Russians sooner rather than later, and likely overawed the Japanese enough that not only the invasion but post-occupation resistance was nullified.
        They MIGHT have been a war winner if deployed earlier and in numbers, by themselves, but Japan was pretty defeated already when they were used, by conventional means.
        And I did say rarely. Not never. But I might add that the war winning potential of nuclear weapons was quickly negated in its own right, not by defenses in the traditional way, as by the other side possessing them in sufficient quantities to ensure MAD.
        A weapon that can’t be used without suicide is not a war winning system, even if it was for one brief shining moment.

  3. Nuclear weapon use was successful [except for the
    WW2 Japanese].
    Will the West push Russia to use such weapons vs Ukraine cities and battlefields? Let’s see if the West will reply in kind. Call it Realpolitik Decision By Oblivion. Incompetence and stupidity are forever. That truism applies to we useful idiots as well, let’s hope.

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