An M1 Abrams tank during Operation Desert Storm, 1990-91. Image from Wikimedia Commons
It is reported that the government is exploring the idea of getting rid of, or “mothballing”, the Army’s ageing fleet of battle tanks (MBTs) in favour of new battlefield technologies advocated by the Prime Minister’s main aide, Dominic Cummings. Cue indignation this week from assorted “experts” and armchair generals, many of whom have probably only ever seen a tank on the television and who would find it difficult to differentiate a main battle tank from an armoured car or armoured personnel carrier such as the Warrior or the brand new Ajax series now entering service.
The problem with battle tanks are numerous. Their effectiveness as a war-fighting asset and strategic threat was on the wane even when I was a tank commander at the end of the Cold War. This has only diminished further in the intervening years.
So why exactly is our once-essential tank fleet now becoming outdated?
First, MBTs are very large, up to 70 tons large, and they are difficult to move around the conventional battlefield and even harder to hide. The constant requirement to resupply and the need for specialist technical support at all times means that they require an inordinate amount of support just to keep the show on the road.
This means that the advent and constant improvement of thermal imaging and night vision equipment has rendered redundant any pretence that MBTs can be hidden away until used in a decisive way, such as through a sudden and overwhelming punch through enemy lines. An enemy in possession of sophisticated air assets, such as drones and attack helicopters would make easy pickings of any concentration of armour or defensive position. Tanks are also notoriously bad at fighting in cities, they are vulnerable to attack from above and cannot react quickly to adversaries using buildings as cover.
Secondly, the modern battlefield, as seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, has changed beyond recognition. Irregular, lightly armed and mobile forces that consist of motivated individuals now use tactics that are hard for conventional forces to counter. Tanks are not suited to this type of warfare – here they are vulnerable to threats from lone operators who, equipped with a moped and a handheld anti-tank weapon, are just as dangerous as an opposing tank. The threat posed by roadside IEDs is also constant.
While these methods might be crude, they can and have created havoc as, even though a modern tank might provide the crew some protection, a damaged tank still needs to be recovered. This time-consuming process directs more assets and manpower away from main tasks and puts lightly armed specialist recovery troops at risk. Now imagine hundreds of these lone operators, in possession of rudimentary night vision equipment and the problems escalate even further.
Some will argue that tanks must remain as they can be used as a projection of hard power. They show the enemy that we are here and we have this overwhelming power. But placing MBTs at strategic points such as cross-roads or airports has been shown to be ineffective, they act as rallying points to civilian populations who want to demonstrate against the occupying power. As we have seen, it only takes a few individuals bearing grudges and Molotov cocktails to cause chaos and bring any projection of hard power crashing down.
As every lecturer in military tactics will tell you, tanks can win ground, but they cannot hold it – for this you literally need “boots on the ground”.
The UK and NATO General staff are very aware of these limitations and are by no means planning for the next conflict based on the set battles of the Northern European plains or the need to chase the forces of errant dictators across leagues of empty desert ground where tanks have been extremely effective. Privately, there is agreement that MBTs have (for now at least) had their day, and even the US Marine Corps has mothballed their ageing but highly effective fleet of M1 Abrams.
The problem is that Generals, like Lord Dannatt, a man I have served under and who I admire greatly as a soldier and strategic military thinker, are reluctant to give up any available assets because they have a strong belief in the need to be prepared for all possible threats, rather than the probable threats they may have to face.
Yes, these threats will include those posed by Russia in the Baltics, Ukraine and Belarus. But as we have seen, Moscow now prefers to destabilise governments through disinformation and black operations such as the gradual infiltration of troops. For instance, I can’t remember seeing a tank used in the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and it is extremely doubtful that Putin, an ex KGB officer more familiar with covert operations, would ever consider an armoured invasion.
The mothballing of MBTs doesn’t mean that the UK will be without armoured assets, but lighter, quicker and highly versatile armoured vehicles are now required to better counter future threats. Those armchair experts who refuse to accept this and still see the tank as an effective war fighting asset can still satisfy their obsession by visiting the excellent tank museum in Bovington, Dorset. I can heartily recommend it.
Jack Allen is a retired tank and armoured car commander and gunnery instructor with 30 years of experience in the British Army.