Small Wars Journal

Why Western Tanks May Be Wasted

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 6:23pm

Why Western Tanks May Be Wasted


By Caleb Carr


The pledge on the part of various NATO countries to send advanced armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) to Ukraine to help that country in its struggle against the Russian invasion has been welcomed by those who support Kyiv’s cause as something of a deliverance. And even most analysts who have reservations about the tanks’ actual utility base their reservations on the Ukrainian tankers lack of training in specific Western models, preeminently the American Abrams MIA2 Main Battle Tank (MBT), the German Leopard II, and the British Challenger II. Granted, it will take the Ukrainians some time to master the operational technicalities of each of these models, as they have begun to do in Germany. But their most glaring shortcoming when it comes to modern armored warfare is not unique to Western tanks. Indeed, it has already been demonstrated by their use of captured Russian MBTs: they have not yet mastered the fundamentals of modern armored doctrine, either strategically or tactically. Doing so will be far more important than learning engine specs and firing modalities, if only because it will allow them to mount a far more efficient defense immediately (without waiting for Western tanks), and eventually go on the offensive, and do both in ways for which the Russians are unprepared.


As is widely known, modern mechanized warfare began, albeit almost by accident, with the British use of their very first armored field model, the Mark IV (which looked to British soldiers as well as their German enemies so much like a device for transporting water that they immediately gained their permanent nom de guerre, “tanks”), in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Tanks had been used earlier by the British, during the Battle of the Somme, but far less successfully, in part because Cambrai was the first battle during which J.F.C. Fuller—the great genius of British tank doctrine, and one of the authors, together with his countryman Basil Liddell-Hart and Germany’s Heinz Guderian, of what we still know today as modern armored doctrine—played an active command role.


Offensively, Fuller’s doctrine became known by its more dramatic German pseudonym—blitzkrieg—and the principle behind it was deceptively simple: armored units should be massed and autonomous, not just dissipated among and acting in support of infantry units like mobile artillery (the role they have mostly served thus far on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict, as was seen in the recent fight for the town of Vuhledar). They should then use mobility and firepower to punch holes in the enemy’s lines, race into their interior, and create panic that eventually becomes crippling, both militarily and politically.


The Cambrai experience was ultimately of little use, not because the tanks failed but because they performed so well that the British did not know how to support them: they outran their infantry columns and eventually were either captured, destroyed, or forced to turn back. It would be in another war that tanks would prove themselves: the most outstanding example of modern armored doctrine in action was the German invasion of France in 1940. (It had already been tried in Poland in 1939, but not so wholeheartedly.)


Many people know that within six days of their jumping off the Germans, led by their armored, or panzer, corps, had effectively decided the issue in Western Europe; what is far less known is that they were faced, in the main, by superior armored vehicles. The French especially had in their possession large numbers of their much-feared Char-B series, which were superior to the most plentiful German models (Hitler was not yet an entire convert to Heinz Guderian’s ideas). As in the encounters between Ukrainian and Russian forces during the last year, it was not technological superiority that decided things in France and the Low Countries in 1940: it was superior doctrine that decided the German assault in the area, which might otherwise have turned into a lamentable repeat of the incredibly costly experience on that front from 1914-18.


The world was stunned by not only the attack also the speed of the German victory; so stunned that they were left asking, How had the Germans learned to achieve such things so seemingly quickly? The answer was and is, they hadn’t: the victory had been long in the making. Guderian’s fight to get Germany to shift over to the ideas of Fuller and Liddell-Hart had been going on since the 1920s, and the training of the panzer corps had been conducted largely in secret, as well as in another country: at four sites within the new Soviet Union, and starting long before even Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Guderian and other key forward-thinking German officers—particularly Erich von Manstein, actual strategic planner of the 1940 attack on France—worked in conjunction with Soviet officers to train their panzertruppen (tank troops) and work out the details of actual modern armored doctrine. (The work was illegal, under the Treaty of Versailles; and so, in an extreme irony, the Germans often donned Soviet uniforms to escape detection by visitors from Western countries.)


German tank technology, however, was not progressing anything like so fast; indeed, some of their better tanks were Czechoslovakian models that the Germans had captured when they completed their occupation of that country in 1938. And had the officers of the Polish Army—which fought far more valiantly than did their Western counterparts when invaded, holding out for six weeks when the French could barely manage as many days—not been forced to rely in too many key engagements on courageous but obviously antiquated horse cavalry units, the fate of Nazi Germany might have been very different. Even by the time of the Western European action, Germany was still relying on the earliest serviceable models of its tank production program: the legendary Tigers and Panthers were still years away.


But the men who drove these comparatively light, inferior vehicles were the products of years of secret, and only later open, training under the tutelage of Guderian and the corps of officers he’d indoctrinated, first in Russia and then in Germany. (This did not include Erwin Rommel, who was in charge of Hitler’s personal escort unit during the Polish invasion, and only allowed command of the Seventh Armored Division in France because he had seen a chance to apply infantry tactics he’d developed in World War I and asked his former charge for a transfer.) From generals down to individual tank commanders, the panzer divisions were indoctrinated with the principles of modern armored doctrine; that, far more than any supposed (but almost non-existent) technological superiority, is what caused the success of 1940.


The implications for the current situation in the Ukraine are obvious. Neither army has demonstrated even a rudimentary grasp of armored doctrine: Russian tanks filtered into the Ukraine a year ago in slow-moving columns that easily fell prey to ambushing Ukrainians armed with massive numbers of the most advanced American and Western hand-held anti-tank missiles, such as Javelins. This occurred again at Vuhledar. But, when the Ukrainians began to capture large numbers of vehicles abandoned by the bewildered Russians, they similarly showed no grasp of how best to use tanks like the T-72s, T-80s, and T-90s: tanks that, while outmatched by their Western counterparts, are perfectly adequate to the task of, essentially, defending against themselves. But to do that, Ukrainian tankers would have had to understand not only armored doctrine as it pertains to offense, but to defense, as well. Consider only Vuhledar: instead of massing their tanks to the rear in preparation for a counterstrike through Russian lines aimed at creating massive confusion, panic, and destruction, the Ukrainians dissipated their armor unnecessarily among the ambushing troops (they had more than enough missiles and artillery to finish the Russians), and lost the opportunity for that decisive counter-move.


And here the Ukrainian weakness is particularly glaring. When Allied armies achieved the D-Day landings in 1944, Germany’s top commanders quickly realized that America’s ability to produce massive numbers of the somewhat inferior but still serviceable (and above all fast) Sherman tank was going to be a repeat of their experience in the East, where Russia had demonstrated an enormous capacity to produce equally large numbers of the famous T-34 (which they often drove straight from their factories to the front lines to face the Germans). Speed of production was plainly going to overwhelm technological superiority: the German Tigers and Panthers, when they appeared, were far superior to either American or Russian models, but they could not be produced in sufficient quantities to permit counterattacks on either front. A new kind of armored defense was called for.


Here, in an example full of implications for the Ukrainian forces, the Germans took a page, not from the future, but from the past: from traditional Prussian military thinking. A relatively small country faced for centuries in the East by the numerically superior Imperial Russian Army, in the West by first Royal, then Republican, then Imperial, and finally, once again, Republican French forces, and lastly to the south by Austria, the Prussians had emphasized disciplined movement in their army, so that their troops could swiftly turn to face whichever enemy made the deeper advances into their terrain. Railroads, exploited by the most significant military thinker of the 19th century and head of the Prussian (later German) General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, allowed such a massive offensive and defensive intensification of this strategy that it led to three fast victories—over Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870-71. These experiences had formed the background of Germany’s armored doctrine, though not the specifics: so great an innovation were armored units that even the speed of rail-based movement could not compare.


But when the war began to go badly for Nazi Germany after D-Day, the essential training of not only panzer officers but many more traditional German officers kicked in. They—led by such elder members as Gerd von Rundstedt, in his 70s and the man who had told Hitler’s coterie of sycophants after D-Day, to “make peace, you idiots!”—saw the chance to combine armored movement with what would become internationally known as elastic defense: the panzer units must be kept concentrated and out of useless pitched battles, it was decided, and allowed to rush to whatever point they were most needed at a given moment. The idea was anathema to the offensive-obsessed Hitler; but it kept the Germans in the war for almost another year.


And it holds the secret to Ukrainian defense now. The idea of rolling tanks into cities to participate in urban warfare, which was such a disaster for America in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, must be abandoned by Ukrainian forces. Instead, those cities should be cut off by concentrated, independent armored units, while the body of Ukrainian armor rushes to whatever points they are most needed. Above all, Ukrainian tankers must be taught that their salvation does not lie in Western tanks: it lies in reeducating themselves according to the principles of modern armored doctrine. They must realize that the coming Russian offensive will perhaps see the use of the latest Russian tank, the Armata, so far kept out of the conflict: if the Armata lives up to its hype and is not in fact just a “show tank,” (which is genuinely possible), the Ukrainians will have to first achieve a coherent defense and then a major offensive to reclaim as much territory as possible.


The reeducation of Ukrainian officers, following the example of German panzer leaders in the 1920s and early 30s, should continue to take place outside the Ukraine: the work by American and NATO officers in Germany should continue, and be expanded to such countries as Poland, which has offered to teach the better use of captured Russian tanks. But the moment Western instructors enter Ukraine to teach its tankers they will also become targets; and when they die in combat, as they will, they will become a rallying point for the most hawkish American politicians and retired military leaders. It is imperative that the U.S. remains only a sponsor of the Ukrainian cause; the naïve belief that Russia can effectively be neutralized as a result of the Ukrainian conflict is not supported by military history. Russia has endured, in its unimaginative, bloodthirsty way, through far more significant wars than this one. Anyone who wants to see Ukraine do the same should not wish for us to do anything more than we are, beyond which lies the possibility of international conflict. It is up to the Ukrainians to learn how to win on their own.


About the Author(s)

Caleb Carr began his career at the Council on Foreign Relations, then became a contributing editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, for which he wrote several widely reprinted pieces on tank warfare. He has since written The Devil Soldier: The Story of Frederick Townsend Ward and Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare against Civilians. He also writes fiction.



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