Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 21, 2022 Updated 28 Days ago
IA needs to weigh on the extant debate on armour in the wake of the RA’s battlefield performance in Ukraine
War in Ukraine: The Indian Army’s silence on tanks The Russian invasion of Ukraine has produced a deluge of analyses and commentary on the role of the battle tank. Most of the debate around the battle tank has centered on whether it has reached obsolescence given the decimation of Russian tanks forces. It is estimated that 1,400 tanks of the Russian Army (RA) have been destroyed in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. This same analysis concedes that a large number of Russian tank losses are due to a combination of partial damage and abandonment or outright capture. The Indian Army (IA) for its part has not made any official statement, let alone present and release an analysis on the relevance or the irrelevance of the battle tank in India’s Order of Battle (OB) in the wake of the performance of the armoured forces of the Russian Army’ (RA). The perils of inferring too much from a single conflict about the performance of the battle would be a grave error. One Indian analyst stated that given the poor performance of Russian armour in the ongoing war, it might be wise for the IA to give up on the tank which constitutes up to nine-tenths of the IA’s armoured forces. This claim was reinforced by the former Commander of the IA’ Northern Command, Lt. General Deepinder Hooda, who went to the extent of stating that: “A single anti-tank guided missile can hold back an entire regiment of tanks in a narrow Himalayan pass.” These pronouncements on the battle tank’ obsolescence and its obituary require a careful assessment and response given the IA’s evident silence. The IA has to consider two things, did the performance of Russian armoured forces owe to the T-72s and T-90s, which remain a mainstay of the Russian and the IA’s tank fleet, technological weaknesses or due to the poor tactical and operational use of the tank during the course of Moscow’ invasion. The dynamic contest between tank and anti-tank is not new even with the emergence of drones and anti-tank weapons such as the Javelins. Indeed, drones can equally be deployed from tanks for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The Indian Army (IA) for its part has not made any official statement, let alone present and release an analysis on the relevance or the irrelevance of the battle tank in India’s Order of Battle (OB) in the wake of the performance of the armoured forces of the Russian Army’ (RA).

Firstly, the inference that Russian tank destruction owing to the technological weakness of T-72 and T-90 battle tanks and therefore the IA should reconsider the role in the IA’s inventory is not self-evident. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent performance as of now do not provide sufficient evidence for the wholescale replacement of the battle tank. Both of India’s primary adversaries—the Pakistanis and the Chinese field Russian-origin tanks or their knock-offs. Given that the IA fields several tanks that India’s adversaries deploy, it is unclear why the PRC and Pakistani armoured forces would have a significant advantage over the IA’s T-90 and T-72s from a purely technological standpoint. Apart from the T-72s and T-90s, Russia also used the T-80 tanks which suffered higher rates of attrition in the form abandonment and capture and not per se destruction due to their higher fuel consumption and fuel type, which is distinct from the other Type “T” variants. Secondly, anticipating little resistance from the Ukrainians, the Russian aim of capturing Kyiv rapidly contributed significantly to the high attrition that the Russian armour suffered during the initial stages of the invasion because the RA saw speed and stealth or secrecy as the foremost priorities over all else. As a consequence, the costs were steep for Russian tanks. There are antecedents of this kind in wars from the past. The most vivid one of these is the India-Pakistan War of 1965 in which Pakistani armour suffered debilitating losses largely because to retain the element of surprise secrecy and stealth. More importantly, there is consensus, at least among both Indian and Pakistani experts on the 1965 War, that the armies of the two states did not press home their advantages due to poor military leadership, despite a great initial dash.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent performance as of now do not provide sufficient evidence for the wholescale replacement of the battle tank.

Thus, the failures were not due to the poor performance of the battle tank but due to poor military leadership or command. Even in specific tank battles in the 1965 war, notably the “Battle of Asal Uttar”, the American-built Pakistani Patton tanks were technologically superior to the IA’s vintage Centurions, but their poor employment by the Pakistan Army’ (PA) 1st Armoured Division in frontal assault over swamp terrain deliberately flooded by the IA’ breach of a canal on 9th September and then on 10th September rendered them “sitting ducks”. As an informed Pakistani analyst observed: “Many tanks were abandoned by their crews with their engines running. The chief officer of Pakistan’s fourth Cavalry Regiment, twelve officers and several other ranks (soldiers) were captured on the morning of 11 September. India claimed to have destroyed some 75 Pakistani tanks while losing only one Centurion and four Sherman tanks in the Battle of Asal Uttar.” Just as the Pakistanis did, Russians too have today abandoned tanks albeit in larger numbers owing to poor tactics and coordination with the other arms of the RA such as infantry, artillery, and airpower. Thus, the lack of combined use of infantry and armour by the PA and a general absence of combined arms by the RA as we witness today in Ukraine is a critical factor in explaining the battle tank’s poor performance. However, the most decisive variable explaining Russian armour suffering high rates of attrition is logistics. Tanks are logistics-intensive and their sustainability took a hit because the RA attacked along far too many axes creating long and vulnerable supply lines, which were brutally exposed and mauled by Ukrainian interdiction. Even in the India-Pakistan War of 1971, the IA’s success in the Battle of Basantar involving the Poona Horse was ultimately the product of a great operational daring and initiative by the commander Hanut Singh when he led his tank units over mine-infested terrain. The Battle of Longewala in the same war brought home the significance of the combined use of air power and land-based capabilities. Airpower in the form of the Indian Air Force’ (IAF) hunters air offensive combined with stout static defence by the IA at the Longewala Post destroyed a large chunk of the tanks of the PA’ 22 Cavalry’ and the infantry of the 38 Baluch, significantly degrading their advance. The PA’s armoured units deployed for the battle were supported by poor logistics, just as we witness today in the Russian military campaign against Ukraine.

Tanks are logistics-intensive and their sustainability took a hit because the RA attacked along far too many axes creating long and vulnerable supply lines, which were brutally exposed and mauled by Ukrainian interdiction.  

Finally, a very critical yet a subjective and dynamic variable is troop morale in war, which should be obvious even to the uninitiated. The crucial factor, that many observers of the Russia-Ukraine War fail to see is how low morale is likely to have played a key role undermining the operational performance of Russian tanks commanders and crew. As for the critics of the battle tank in India, it is here to stay, as the IA appears in no haste to rid itself of its T-72s and T-90s and proceeding intensively with the development of an indigenous light tank for high altitude armoured operations. However, the IA needs to weigh on the extant debate on armour in the wake of the RA’ battlefield performance in Ukraine and demonstrate greater public clarity on where it stands on the role of the battle tank in the IA’s order of battle.
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Author

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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