Have Battle Tanks Become Irrelevant in Modern Warfare?

Tanks cannot operate in isolation and have to work in tandem with infantry, air force and artillery in the highly complex and demanding contemporary battlefield.
Keywords: Battle, Tanks, Warfare, Conflict, Warfare, Firepower, Machine, Formations, Forces, Army, World Wars, Guns, Communication
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Modern warfare is all about mobility, firepower and deception. This means that you must attack when you may seem unlikely or unable to do so. Likewise, you must make the enemy believe that you are far away when you are near.

In the last couple of years, the Indian Army has proactively developed quick reaction formations which can strike and hit the enemy hard, where it hurts most. The new combat doctrine of the Indian Armyis that holding formations engage and contain the enemy, whilst the strike formations attack somewhere else, where the enemy least expects India to hit. 

There was a time in the past when elephants and horses played an important role to strike hard, penetrate and play havoc with the enemy. With the advances in technology, the elephants and horses were replaced by tanks which provide armour protection, mobility and firepower almost like a moving fortress and thus were considered one of the most potent battle-winning factors.

Over the past hundred years, tanks and armored vehicles have dominated and changed the complexion of battlefields – all over the world. Can you imagine the terror in the eyes of even the most battle-hardened soldiers seeing the giant machine, rumbling towards them from a distance — crushing barbed-wire obstacles, trenches and bunkers on the way? The fact that these fighting machines were bulletproof and carried cannons and machine guns made it even more difficult for the enemy to decide whether to stay and die or to panic and run.

Tanks were invented by the British and saw action for the first time against the Germans in the Battle of Somme in northern France in 1916. During World War I the Germans on the front line ran away in terror to escape from the huge 30-ton machines advancing towards them. Forget the enemy, even most British commanders who had never seen a tank before did not know how to use the bulky machine. The men inside the tank suffered from the engine’s heat and noxious exhaust fumes.

The result was that almost half of the tanks broke down before coming in contact with the enemy. Another big problem was that the tanks did not have radio communication for coordination with the infantry and artillery. But the heavy losses made the Germans develop anti-tank weapons and tactics.

The Battle of Kursk – 5 July to 23 August 1943 – one of the biggest tank battles in history during World War 2 which saw fierce clashes between almost 6,000 German and Soviet tanks in France, Belgium and Eastern Europe. At Kursk the Germans lost just five Panzer IV tanks but turned more than 200 Soviet tanks into smouldering wrecks. A German SS tank commander reportedly destroyed 22 Soviet tanks in under an hour

Even Indian military history is replete with examples of how tanks crushed the enemy’s will to fight. In 1947-48 the first war after independence the Indian Army played a mind-game by dismantling M5 Stuart light tanks and reassembling them across Zojila pass. This saved Ladakh from invasion because the Pakistani Army wasn’t expecting the beastly war machine at such heights.

In the 1962 war, just six AMX13 Light Tanks airlifted to Chushul and Nathu La stalled the Chinese advance. Likewise in 1965 — The battles of Phillora,  Asal Uttar and Chawinda  saw Indian tanks make  mince-meat out of Pakistani Patton tanks. The battle in Khem Karan – the largest tank battle in Indian military history saw over 100 Pakistani tanks reduced to scrap.

Once again in 1971, Indian Sherman and Centurion Tanks decimated the Pakistani forces during the battles of Longewala and Basantar and made them decide to surrender rather than die.

The last significant battle anywhere in the world was during the Arab-Israel war which saw a large deployment of tanks supported by artillery and air force, on the Golan Heights in the deserts of Sinai in 1973.

Tanks in all shapes and sizes

Tanks can be classified into light, medium, and heavy tanks, based on size and weight. Each of these has some strengths and weaknesses. Apart from this tanks can have a multifaceted role like laying bridges, clearing minefields, demolishing fortifications, flame-throwing and destroying enemy tanks.

The primary objective of a tank is to act as a force multiplier and boost the attack capability of infantry soldiers in all weather and visibility conditions. Light tanks are ideally suited for reconnaissance missions. The light tanks can prove to be a game-changer in both defensive and offensive operations.

There is a popular saying in the armed forces that tracks are for deserts, wheels are for mountains.  The biggest plus point of light tanks and ICVs (infantry combat vehicles) is their safety (armour protection), firepower and ability to operate in all types of terrains. A light tank can operate as a lethal mobile amphibious platform and cover vast distances in a matter of hours.

Do tanks have a place in modern warfare?

According to an estimate, there are 73,000 tanks in active service worldwide. Russia has the biggest number with 12,420 tanks – followed by the United States with 6,612, North Korea with 5895 and China with 5,250 tanks each, while India has 4,614 and Pakistan 2,824.

However, the biggest question in the minds of military strategists today is – do tanks still have a place in modern warfare?

According to Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane tanks have a limited role to play in 20th-century warfare. “Icons of the 20th-century warfare like large main battle tanks and fighter aircraft are on their way out,” General Naravane was quoted as saying.

“In the (last) five odd decades in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, Chechnya and Syria, armoured formations have either followed or supported the application of airpower and artillery, or else their units and sub-units have been committed in smaller tactical groupings as part of infantry – armour assaults in urban terrain,” the Army Chief said.

“During the first war in the Donbass, a single-fire mission by Russian artillery destroyed two Ukrainian mechanised battalions in a few minutes in what became known as the ‘Battle of Zelenopillya’,” he added.

Referring to Arthashastra, Gen Naravane said, “We have possibly entered the era of ‘contested equality’, wherein technology will make unequal, equal. Perhaps that is already happening — the battle-winning factor in future combat may not be numerical equivalence but technological superiority.”

Has the 100-year-old king of war lost its relevance?

The 100-year-old king of war seems to have met its match, due to deadly and relatively inexpensive anti-tank missiles (ATGMs) in the hands of infantry. In 1973, AT-3 Sagger portable anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) operated by the Egyptian infantry inflicted heavy losses on the Israeli armored formations.

Tanks are best suited for flat areas like deserts or plains but face mobility problems in mountains and jungles. This is one of the reasons why in the 1980s, the MoD in the UK reportedly commissioned a paper to evaluate whether to altogether replace the existing tanks with helicopters.

No wonder Germany, Britain and France which once had thousands of tanks in their arsenal have started cutting down on the number. The United States today has fewer tanks than those deployed by the Germans in the battle of Kursk. In many modern battles which are fought largely from behind a computer screen, tanks are no longer needed in bulk quantity as before.

Limitations of tanks

Tanks are bulky, noisy, and outdated war machines that are sitting ducks – easy to target and shoot down. The relatively slow-moving tanks are also vulnerable to artillery; and air attacks. The noise, smoke and dust raised by a moving tank column can alert the enemy – miles away.

The writing on the wall is clear. Tanks cannot operate in isolation and have to work in tandem with infantry, air force and artillery in the highly complex and demanding contemporary battlefield.

However, all said and done tanks remain an important tactical and psychological element. They might be cumbersome and slow but cannot be done away with, at least not yet.

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Neeraj Mahajan

Mr. Neeraj Mahajan is a media professional with over 30 years of experience in print, electronic, web and mobile media. He is the Editor of Taazakhabar News and World News Report.

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