Ukraine & T-72: The death of the tank?

Written by Jamie Middleton Research Assistant at The Tank Museum.
Published: 26/05/2022

The invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the ease with which tanks can be killed in modern combat. Social media has been littered with footage and images of destroyed Russian tanks strewn across roads, destroyed by donated Ukrainian drones and shoulder-mounted anti-tank missiles.

Many have asked if the time of the tank is finally coming to an end. We argue this to be unlikely, as shall be explained in this article and David’s Tank Chat.

T-72 tank

Firstly, we should look at why Russia is a poor example when it comes to the viability of the tank. Their army’s morale is low, and training appears to be at a rudimentary level. In terms of their logistics – vital for maintaining and supplying tanks – it is clearly disorganised.

One can have the best equipment in the world but if your troops are unmotivated and don’t know how to use it then it is essentially useless. Furthermore, the Russians have failed to learn their own lessons from the Second World War.

Combined arms doctrine is vital in modern conflict, all elements of the military must work in tandem with one another. The tank cannot operate effectively without infantry and an effective air force supporting it.

Tanks sent into combat alone are easy targets, particularly on roads, another lesson the Russians should have taken from Grozny in 1995. There is a reason Ukraine continue to request tanks to combat the Russians, they are well trained, motivated and can use them effectively.

In his Tank Chat, David lists the many times the tank has been declared ‘dead’, not just by journalists looking for headline-grabbing titles, but also by Senior military personnel. One recent example of this would be General Hillier, former head of the Canadian Armed Forces.

In 2003, he made a big show of Canada’s plans to abandon its fleet of Leopard 1s, opting instead for lighter wheeled vehicles. He declared that tanks had hamstrung military thinking for years, despite serious objections that this would endanger lives.

Leopard 1 in the arena.

Shortly after this pronouncement, Canada was quickly abandoning these plans and shipping its tanks to Afghanistan, where the mobility, firepower, and protection they provide was desperately needed.

T-84 tank at Kyiv parade.

So long as the tank provides these three features, they will continue to be used by modern militaries, who can adapt their strategies and countermeasures for new threats, as Israel did following Yom Kippur, another so-called ‘death’ of the tank.

One comparison often made is the end of the battleship. However, this misunderstands why these ships were abandoned. It was not because they were easier to destroy, but that their job could be performed better and more cheaply by smaller destroyers, armed with advanced missile systems which could out-perform the large naval guns they replaced.

Until another piece of equipment can provide mobility, firepower and protection in a neat package, the tank will remain relevant.

Discover more with Curator David Willey on The Tank Museum’s YouTube channel.