Do tanks have a place in 21st century warfare?

Drone combat in Ukraine, which is transforming modern warfare, has begun to test one of the most potent symbols of American military might – the tank – and threatens to rewrite how it will be used in future conflicts.

Over the past two months, Russian forces have eliminated five of the 31 American-made M1 Abrams tanks that the Pentagon sent to Ukraine last fall, a senior American official said. At least three others have been moderately damaged since the tanks were sent to the front lines earlier this year, said Colonel Markus Reisner, an Austrian military trainer who closely follows how the weapons are used – and lost – in the war in Ukraine.

That's a fraction of the 796 Ukrainian main battle tanks that have been destroyed, captured or abandoned since the war began in February 2022, according to Oryx, a military analysis site that counts losses based on visual evidence. The vast majority of these are Soviet-era tanks, Russian or Ukrainian made; only about 140 of those killed in battle were handed over to Ukraine by NATO states. And Russia has lost more than 2,900 tanks so far, Oryx data shows, although Ukraine says the number exceeds 7,000.

German Leopard tanks were also targeted in Ukraine, and at least 30 were destroyed, Oryx says. But the Abrams are widely regarded as one of the most powerful in the world. The fact that it is more easily eliminated by detonating drones than some officials and experts had initially assumed shows “another way in which the conflict in Ukraine is reshaping the very nature of modern warfare,” said Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute in New York. Washington.

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Despite their power, tanks are not impenetrable and are most vulnerable where their heavy plate armor is thinnest: on the top, on the rear engine block and in the space between the hull and turret. For years they have been targeted primarily with land mines, improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles, such as shoulder-fired “shoot and scoot” systems. These were used extensively early in the war in Ukraine because they could hit tanks from above and hit them up to 90% of the time.

The drones now used against tanks in Ukraine are even more precise. Known as first-person view, or FPV, drones, they are equipped with a camera that transmits real-time images to their controller, which can direct them to hit tanks at their most vulnerable spots. In many cases, FPVs were sent to “finish off” tanks that had already been damaged by mines or anti-tank missiles so they could not be recovered from the battlefield and repaired, Colonel Reisner said.

Depending on their size and technological sophistication, drones can cost up to $500 – a paltry investment to take down a $10 million Abrams tank. And some of them can carry munitions to increase the impact of their explosion, Colonel Reisner said. They could be rocket-propelled grenades, he said, or self-forging warheads known as explosively shaped penetrators, or EFPs, which were widely used in roadside bombs during the Iraq war. Colonel Reisner collected videos of tanks in Ukraine being chased by drones or drones flying into their open turrets.

“Welcome to the 21st century — it's amazing, actually,” said Colonel Reisner, a historian and former armored reconnaissance officer who oversees the training of Austrian forces at the Theresian Military Academy.

In November, a few weeks after receiving the Abrams tanks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “It is difficult for me to say that they play the most important role on the battlefield. Their number is very small.”

Some officials and experts believe that Ukrainian commanders had planned to save the Abrams for future offensive operations next year and had resisted sending them to the front lines, where they would have risked losing the few they had. Instead, the tanks deployed earlier this year with the American-trained and equipped 47th Mechanized Brigade as Ukraine tried and failed to maintain control of Avdiivka, a stronghold in fallen eastern Donbas captured by Russian troops in February.

Colonel Reisner stated that drones, potentially including FPVs, may have been able to shoot down the Abrams tanks because the 47th Brigade did not appear to have the protection of short-range air defense systems such as the German-designed self-propelled Gepard guns who help safeguard Kiev.

FPVs can be stopped with jammers that sever their connection to the remote pilot. Hunting rifles and even simple fishing nets were used to destroy or capture some of them on the Ukrainian battlefields.

“At this stage, the most effective means used to defeat FPVs is electronic warfare and various types of passive protection,” including additional armor and other types of shielding on tanks, said Michael Kofman, senior member of the Russia and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He said defeating FPVs requires a “tailored approach on the battlefield” and that Ukrainian forces are becoming increasingly adept at this.

But Colonel Reisner suggested that Ukraine was so desperate for air defenses that it was depriving tanks of full protections by sending Gepard or other short-range anti-aircraft weapons that would traditionally be deployed on the front lines to protect cities and infrastructure instead criticisms.

A spokesperson for the 47th Brigade did not respond to requests for comment, and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry declined to discuss the matter. But other Ukrainian troops said they only rarely used advanced surface-to-air missiles or other air defense systems against FPVs, as such weapons are usually needed to shoot down jets and helicopters. And some experts doubted they would be effective because the drones are too small and fast to be hit or detected by radar.

Some militaries are already testing laser beams that could destroy attacking drones, essentially burning them with energy, said David M. van Weel, NATO's deputy secretary general for emerging warfare. So-called directed energy weapons are likely to be cheaper and more available than other types of munitions, and would be capable of hitting small targets such as FPVs. But, as with all emerging wars, it is only a matter of time before countermeasures are invented to defuse weaponized lasers as well, van Weel said in an interview Friday.

Zelensky has repeatedly implored the West to send more air defenses, which European and American defense officials say are among Ukraine's most pressing needs. That could happen this weekend if the U.S. House approves the relief package that Republicans have blocked for six months. Other allies, notably Germany, are trying to bridge the gap, including in negotiations this week between diplomats at the Group of 7 summit in Italy and defense ministers at a NATO meeting on Friday.

Colonel Reisner said that military engineers have been looking for new ways to destroy tanks as long as they have been used on the battlefield and that FPVs have not made the Abrams and other advanced tanks such as the German Leopards obsolete in Ukraine.

“If you want to conquer terrain, you need a tank,” Colonel Reisner said of the deadliest weapon in ground warfare.

But he added that FPVs were a key part of what some analysts believed would lead to future warfare underground, with remote-controlled weapons fighting it on the surface. In this circumstance, soldiers would direct the weapons systems from nearby underground bunkers to ensure they could maintain line of sight and radio frequency on the weapons.

Such land battles could largely pit first-person-view drones against unmanned ground vehicles, Colonel Reisner said: “They'll fight each other like in 'Terminator.'”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to the reporting.

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