Do Tanks Have a Place in 21st-Century Warfare?

By Equipo
10 Min Read

The drone combat in Ukraine that is transforming modern warfare has begun taking a deadly toll on one of the most powerful symbols of American military might — the tank — and threatening to rewrite how it will be used in future conflicts.

Over the last two months, Russian forces have taken out five of the 31 American-made M1 Abrams tanks that the Pentagon sent to Ukraine last fall, a senior U.S. official said. At least another three have been moderately damaged since the tanks were sent to front lines early this year, said Col. Markus Reisner, an Austrian military trainer who closely follows how weapons are being used — and lost — in the war in Ukraine.

That is a sliver of the 796 of Ukraine’s 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. A vast majority of those are Soviet-era, Russian or Ukrainian-made tanks; only about 140 of those taken out in battle were given to Ukraine by NATO states. And Russia has so far lost more than 2,900 tanks, the Oryx data show, although Ukraine claims that the number exceeds 7,000.

German Leopard tanks have also been targeted in Ukraine, with at least 30 having been destroyed, Oryx says. But the Abrams is widely viewed as one of the world’s mightiest. That it is being more easily taken out by exploding drones than some officials and experts had initially assumed shows “yet another way the conflict in Ukraine is reshaping the very nature of modern warfare,” said Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

This weekend, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine that will include desperately needed defensive weapons. Here is a look at why it matters for tanks.

A highly accurate, low-cost tank killer

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

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

Depending on their size and technological sophistication, the drones can cost as little as $500 — a paltry investment for taking out a $10 million Abrams tank. And some of them can carry munitions to boost the impact of their blast, said Colonel Reisner. These could be rocket-propelled grenades, he said, or self-forging warheads known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, that were widely used in roadside bombs during the war in Iraq. Colonel Reisner has collected videos of tanks in Ukraine being chased down by the drones or drones flying into their open turrets.

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

No easy, or single, way to defend

In November, within weeks of receiving the Abrams tanks, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine 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 Ukraine’s commanders had planned to save the Abrams for future offensive operations next year and resisted sending them to the front lines, where they risked losing the few they had. Instead, the tanks deployed early this year with the American-trained and equipped 47th Mechanized Brigade as Ukraine sought but failed to maintain control of Avdiivka, a stronghold in the eastern Donbas area that fell to Russian troops in February.

Colonel Reisner said drones, potentially including FPVs, may have been able to pick off the Abrams tanks because the 47th Brigade did not appear to have the protection of short-range air defense systems like the self-propelled, German-designed Gepard cannons that help safeguard Kyiv.

FPVs can be stopped with jammers that disrupt their connection to the remote pilot. Shotguns and even simple fishing nets have been used to destroy or catch some of them on Ukraine’s 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 kinds of shielding on the tanks, said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He said defeating FPVs required a “tailored approach on the battlefield” and that Ukrainian forces were becoming more adept at it.

But Colonel Reisner suggested that Ukraine was so desperate for air defenses that it was depriving tanks of full protections by sending Gepards or other short-range antiaircraft weapons that would traditionally deploy to the front lines to instead protect cities and critical infrastructure.

A spokeswoman for the 47th Brigade did not respond to requests for comment, and Ukraine’s Defense Ministry declined to discuss the issue. But other Ukrainian troops said they had only rarely used advanced surface-to-air missiles or other air defense systems against the FPVs, given that those 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 picked up on radar.

Some militaries are already testing laser beams that could destroy drones on attack, by essentially burning them with energy, said David M. van Weel, NATO’s assistant secretary general for emerging warfare. Such so-called directed energy weapons are likely to be cheaper and in larger supply than other kinds of ammunition, and would be able to hit small targets like FPVs. But, as with all emerging warfare, it is only a matter of time before countermeasures are invented to defuse even weaponized lasers, Mr. van Weel said in an interview on Friday.

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

So are tanks obsolete?

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

“If you want to seize terrain, you need a tank,” Colonel Reisner said of the single most lethal weapon in ground warfare.

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

Such land battles could largely pit first-person view drones against unmanned ground vehicles, Colonel Reisner said: “They will be fighting each other like in ‘The Terminator.’”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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