Russian tanks are having a bad time of it in Ukraine, suffering high casualties as Ukrainian troops, equipped with antitank guided missiles and armed drones, frequently ambush Russian armored formations unaware of their surroundings and lacking dismounted ground support. Observers in search of lessons are watching the war play out, interpreting the incredible attrition rate imposed on Russia’s tanks as validation of the widely held assumption that armored formations cannot successfully operate alone—an assumption that was similarly solidified fifty years ago, when Egyptian and Syrian forces destroyed Israeli tanks en masse during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
A conclusion drawn from the destruction suffered by Israeli tanks during that war was that attaching infantry solves the tank’s woes. But the character of warfare has changed since then, and both analysts and decision makers should be cautious that simply adding infantry will solve tanks’ vulnerabilities on the modern battlefield. Evidence from Ukraine suggests that the ubiquity of drones on the battlefield renders the combined infantry-armor formation less effective than in the past. Drones are hard to detect, making it difficult for infantry-armor formations to find and destroy them. This advantage allows an adversary to ambush an infantry-tank formation before it can defend itself. Thus, successful tank operations in the future will involve not only linking infantry to tanks, but ensuring the attachment of reconnaissance and security (R&S) troops. R&S troops can provide early warning and counterreconnaissance capabilities needed to mitigate the drone’s advantage. Together, infantry-tank formations and R&S troops will maintain the tank’s lethality at lower echelons and help armored combat power adapt to the changing characteristics of modern warfare.
Lessons from the Yom Kippur War
A tank’s hardened armor and high-explosive weaponry allow it to destroy enemy positions with speed, mobility, and certainty. These characteristics help the tank penetrate reinforced battle positions, producing a psychological shock in the adversary’s mind.
But, where the tank excels in survivability and firepower, it struggles to keep its crew situationally aware. For example, the US M1A2 Abrams is heavily armored and requires its commander to view and designate targets with an optic. Like a submarine periscope, this optic leaves the tank commander vulnerable to blind spots. This vulnerability worsens in combat when tank commanders retreat from their hatches because of the risk of death or injury and cannot verify their blind spots. These circumstances allow an adversary to exploit the tank’s vulnerability by hiding in the commander’s blind spot and attacking the tank with an antitank guided missile (ATGM) or armed drone.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War provides historical context. Following the success of Israeli armored formations in the Six-Day War, six years prior, Israel Defense Forces leaders assumed the tank could win ground battles alone. This belief led Israeli generals in 1973 to spearhead counterattacks in the Sinai and Golan Heights with unsupported armored formations. The result was devastating—Egyptian and Syrian dismounted troops, armed with Sagger ATGMs, decimated Israeli armor formations as their lumbering profiles moved across the desert. Effective up to two miles, the Sagger allowed Egyptian and Syrian antitank teams to hide within the terrain and exploit the Israeli tank crews’ blind spots. As a result, Israeli tanks ventured blindly into Syrian and Egyptian kill zones without early warning and suffered high casualty rates.
Altogether, Israeli armor units lost over three hundred tanks, and in the Golan Heights, an Israeli tank unit attempting to seize terrain lost twenty-six of its twenty-eight tanks to enemy ATGM teams. These events, coupled with the inherent characteristics of armored platforms, illustrate the difficulty tanks have in locating unobtrusive targets without additional eyes and ears on the battlefield.
Back to the Future
Russian tank operations in Ukraine have reinforced the lesson of 1973—that tanks operating by themselves in combat will be unsuccessful. The opening stages of the war in Ukraine saw large, unsupported Russian tank convoys speeding toward Kyiv. Subsequently, the Russian tank crews fell victim to roving bands of hidden Ukrainian light infantry armed with Javelin and NLAW ATGMs, as well as armed drones. Like the destruction waged by Egyptian and Syrian Sagger teams, these ambushes resulted in the widespread destruction of Russian tanks and contributed to Russia’s operational abandonment of its northern axis of advance. As a result, between February 2022 and March 2023, Russia lost 1,917 of what the International Institute for Strategic Estimate estimated to be a prewar total of 3,417 tanks in active service—an astronomical figure that has led Russia to take drastic measures, such as reactivating its derelict stockpile of Cold War–era T-54 tanks.
Since the first images of destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine appeared in the media, analysts in the defense and national security community have debated whether Russian tank losses are a sign of the tank becoming obsolete. Supporters of the use of tanks point to the absence of infantry attached to Russian armored formations. “A well-trained NATO armored column would have been accompanied by infantry to stop an ambush,” said retired British Army Brigadier Ben Barry, a senior land warfare fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Similarly, a recent security blog heading indicated, “The best tank armor is a well-trained infantry.” These claims suggest that if the Russian military paired tanks with infantry units, they would have greater success in repelling Ukrainian antitank ambushes.
Without a doubt, the tank’s characteristics constrain the crew’s situational awareness, providing adversarial ATGM and drone teams a weakness to exploit. Both Israeli tank losses during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the more recent Russian tank losses in the war in Ukraine support this assumption and affirm the tank’s need for light ground support to reduce vulnerability. US tank operations in a series of battles—from Aachen, Germany in 1945 to Fallujah, Iraq in 2004—illustrate the success of pairing tank formations with infantry units. In each of these two cases, infantry helped tank formations clear and hold urban terrain.
In this regard, the assumption that unsupported armored formations will struggle in combat remains true, and infantry support only furthers the likelihood of battlefield success. However, the war in Ukraine suggests the proliferation and success of drones will challenge the notion of infantry support as the sine qua non for armored warfare.
Closing the Distance
Consider Aerorozvidka, a Ukrainian group that straddles the line between nongovernmental organization and military unit and has been described as a “war startup.” It is known for destroying Russian infantry and tank formations in Ukraine with commercially purchased drones, such as the R18 quadcopter, which carry thermal imaging cameras and up to three RKG-1600 antitank bombs. They are cost-effective, allowing Aerorozvidka to field them in large numbers and provide Ukrainian troops with reliable long-range surveillance and attack capability.
Aerorozvidka’s drones and tactics pose a new challenge for armored warfare. Traditionally, tank formations became threatened in the direct-fire zone. In this area, the tank and its adversary are within range of each other and can utilize their weapons systems against one another. Before entering this zone, the tank was relatively safe and unencumbered. However, the increased prevalence of armed reconnaissance drones, like those utilized by Aerorozvidka, indicates this is no longer true. Drones now extend the direct-fire zone, closing the distance that tanks can operate without being threatened. These factors, combined with the tank’s maintenance and fuel requirements that prevent it from conducting long-distance operations, will create a more persistent threat and leave the tank more vulnerable.
Armor formations will need to ensure their concepts of maneuver include layers of early warning to succeed in future contingencies. While infantry may help, drone attacks like those of Aerorozvidka have been particularly successful against dug-in Russian infantry. These outcomes suggest dismounted infantry, which are also vulnerable against drones, will fare no better as the tank’s primary support. Instead, armored warfare must ensure it includes a force capable of providing warning and counterreconnaissance options to be successful—a tactical task best accomplished by R&S troops.
An Unerring Sense of Locality
In his seminal book On War, Carl von Clausewitz emphasized the importance of terrain and enemy analysis in combat operations. “With a quick, unerring sense locality,” he writes, “[a commander’s] dispositions will be more rapid and assured; he will run less risk of a certain awkwardness in his concepts and be less dependent on others.” In modern warfare, this “unerring sense of locality” is provided by R&S troops.
A commander’s eyes and ears of the battlefield, R&S troops are conventional forces whose mission is to detect enemy positions and provide early warning, rather than seizing and holding terrain. They accomplish this by operating forward and to the flanks of a tank unit, monitoring enemy activity. Smaller in numbers and burdened by less equipment, R&S forces are less vulnerable than infantry units because they operate in dispersed formations and avoid becoming decisively engaged. These characteristics make it harder for drones to detect their presence. In doing so, these troops develop a picture of the local environment into which the main fighting element (in this case, a tank unit) is about to enter. This information includes the trafficability of roads, the composition and disposition of enemy ATGM teams, and potential obstacles, like rough terrain—all of which helps the tank commander gain the situational awareness needed to create an effective scheme of maneuver and avoid an ambush.
Additionally, R&S units are responsible for security operations. Security missions focus on preventing an adversary from observing the main fighting element and establishing hidden forward positions to detect enemy reconnaissance assets. They search for armed reconnaissance drones, enemy observation posts, and the adversary’s R&S troops. They provide early warning and help preserve the armor formation by acting as a control measure for the tank’s vulnerabilities.
Historically, R&S teams have helped armored formations achieve their objectives. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War’s Battle of 73 Easting, American tank formations led by scout platoons operated in a hunter-killer construct. Under this construct, nimble scout platoons would operate ahead and to the flanks of tank formations, serving as the hunters of Iraqi reconnaissance assets and tanks. The scouts’ discreet and agile characteristics allowed a smaller American force to observe Iraqi reconnaissance assets and tanks and report their disposition to the US armored formation in the rear, all while undetected. This enabled the tank formation to assume the killer role and pull forward to destroy Iraqi tanks and reconnaissance troops with the initiative. To be sure, the greater sophistication of the US tanks compared to those of their Iraqi adversaries also contributed, but having more advanced tanks alone is not enough—as Russian losses in Ukraine make clear. Rather, it was the method of employment that contributed to the incredibly lopsided outcome of the battle: half of the 300–400 Iraqi tanks destroyed without a single US tank lost. By increasing the prevalence of the R&S forces in tank formations and incorporating concepts like hunter-killer, tank formations can develop layers of warning against the rising drone threat that will help reduce the tank’s vulnerability during transit to the direct-fire zone.
Familiar Concepts, Renewed
While R&S troops and security concepts like that of hunter-killer can help tanks adapt to the prevalence of drones in modern warfare, they cannot rely on the same tools and equipment. Instead, these concepts must incorporate new technology and forms of maneuver to detect and evade armed reconnaissance drones.
For example, militaries should modernize their R&S and armored formations with antidrone technology. The technology could include systems such as L3Harris’s VAMPIRE (Vehicle Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment). VAMPIRE is a rocket launcher designed to locate, track, and destroy armed reconnaissance drones. Its system is small and can fit in the truck bed of a light, wheeled military vehicle, such as a Humvee. Additional tools should include modern light, wheeled vehicles and shoulder-fired systems, such as the M1297 Ground Mobility Vehicle and DroneShield—a shoulder fired antidrone weapon. These systems will help R&S troops remain undetectable while maintaining their proficiency in counterreconnaissance missions.
Tank units will also need a technological boost to improve survivability. R&S operations cannot repel all enemy reconnaissance assets; thus, militaries must equip their tanks with technology that provides local security during penetration. Prudent updates could include installing self-defense equipment, like the Iron Fist Light Active Protection System from General Dynamics and Rafael’s Trophy. Similar to how the C-RAM (counter–rocket, artillery, and mortar) protected US troops during contingencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, these systems provide local counterbattery fire to drone and ATGM attacks and help mitigate blind spot vulnerability.
The war in Ukraine has affirmed the assumption that unsupported armored warfare will struggle in combat due to blind spot vulnerabilities. However, the war also challenges the assumption that simply attaching infantry will solve these issues, as it has done in past conflicts. The proliferation of surveillance and attack drones makes both the tank and infantry vulnerable to aerial attack and ambush. As a result, these formations will need layers of early warning and security to achieve their objectives. Armored warfare at lower echelons will need to rely less on infantry troops and more on R&S forces. R&S troops provide the reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance capabilities necessary to thwart the advantages armed reconnaissance drones offer. By nesting R&S troops within an armored formation’s scheme of maneuver, and updating the technology and weapons used in counterreconnaissance and local defense, tank formations can retain their ability to influence battlefield conditions and remain effective in modern warfare.
Michael P. Losacco is a graduate student studying US national security policy at Georgetown University. Between 2015 and 2019, he served as an active duty armor officer in the US Army and deployed to Afghanistan in 2017.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Mvs.gov.ua, via Wikimedia Commons