As virtually everyone following the Russo-Ukrainian war is aware, it is expected that at some point in April or May, AFU will begin its “Summer Offensive.”
It’s expected that the offensive will be headed by AFU’s best brigades, many of which have been held out of combat, given western training and equipment. They’ve gotten months to rest and reorganize with the thousands of newly trained soldiers flowing in from training centers in the UK, Germany and Poland every month.
As Russia’s vaunted “Winter Offensive” comes to a sputtering close, Russia is also well aware of AFU’s intentions, and has prepared defenses particularly in the two areas that an offensive is considered most likely: in the South, at the Zaporizhzhia region towards Melitopol, and in the Northeast, towards Svatove, Kreminna and Starobilsk.
Many analysts believe that Western Tanks, with their superior armor, superior targeting and range, and high level of training of Ukrainian armored forces may be THE decisive factor in the success of the Ukrainian offensive.
In an era of powerful infantry antitank weapons, drones and guided munitions, you might ask “why are tanks still relevant?”
To answer that question, it’s first necessary to understand how Russians fight on the defensive.
Russian Defensive Doctrine: Manuever Warfare and Defense in Depth
Russian defensive military doctrine is based around 2 concepts: defense in depth and manuever warfare. Each battalion on the defensive line is assigned a “box” 10km x 10km (approximately 6 mi) that is the battalion’s tactical responsibility.
4 lines of defensive prepared positions, each separated by 2-2.5 km are created.
The Battalion will deploy 6 platoons 3 in each of the forwad 2 lines, with a responsibility to defend approximately 2-3km. Artillery units and a tactical reserve of AFVs will be held back, which represents the battalion’s tactical reserve forces. Some AFVs will also be entrenched on the front lines in prepared positions for close range firesupport.
Each defensive line will feature a dug in position for infantry and entrenched AFVs. In Ukraine, Russians have relied extensively on trenchworks for this role.
In front of each line of trenches are ofen an anti-tank ditch, vehicle obstacles, landmines, and barbed wire.
The obstacles laid out in front of the trench are designed to delay AFVs and dismounted infantry from easily appraoching the trench line, requiring time to bypass.
Russian military doctrine does not place decisive importance on infantry as the decisive factor in the defensive.
The primary role of infantry is to force the enemy to deploy into combat formations at each step of the assault., and to degrade the enemy force By transitioning from manuever to combat formation, this slows the advance of the enemy and forces their concentration to overcome a defended position.
Small arms fire, mortars, infantry antitank weapons and forward deployed AFVs aim to degrade the attacking force while it crosses the obstacles
if an enemy advances past the obstacles, Russian military doctrine states that the infantry in the trench should not allow itself to be descisively engaged such that they are incapable of retreat. Insted the infantry retreats past the platoon deployed behind them and to the 3rd line of defense. The platoon behinds them provides covering fire, giving the retreating unit a chance to retreat, disengage, rest and regroup at the next line of defense.
Russian defensive doctrine stresses that forward deployed platoons should not allow themselves to be decisively engaged—that is to be engaged in such a way that they cannot disengage and withdraw to the next line of defense.
Each retreat forces the enemy to redeploy when they arrive at the next line of defense and to overcome deployed obstacles under fire, degrading their strength and delaying their advance.
The decisive arms of Russian defensive doctrine is its artillery and reserve AFVs.
The artillery is positined another 1-2km behind the last line of defenses, and is capable of firing well infront of the first line of defense.
As the enemy approaches, Russian artillery will engage and degrade enemy forces as they attempt to advance. The prepared obstacles and forward infantry positions serve to force the enemy to concentrate and delay as they advance within range of Russian artillery.
Against armored advances, in addition to forward deployed antitank assets like infantry deployed ATGMs, a tactical reserve of AFVs is kept back to bring forward to decisively engage an enemy attack that is in danger of overcoming the defensive lines.
Additionally, against a concentrated attack that a forward deployed battalion cannot counter alone, commanders of a front reserve IFVs, APCs and Tanks as a operational reserve force that can quickly deploy to an area of danger.
For example, here a brigade of Russian forces has the responsibility to defend 30km of front. Per doctrine, Russian deploy 3 battalions in 10km x 10km defensive squares.
Remaining Russian forces are organized into an operational reserve—these reserve forces will generally be the most elite Russian troops, that will be fully mechanized and supported by armor. This permits the brigade to deploy its most powerful forces against the most threatening sector of attack, and to respond quickly to danger.
The depth of Russian defensive deployment permits forward deployed units to buy time in the face of numerically superior enemy forces. This time is used to degrade the enemy force, by infantry and forward deployed armor fire, as well as artillery fire
As the enemy is degraded through the repeated assault of prepared defensive positions, with losses kept to a minimum from manuever combat by infantry platoons, the decisive engagement to turn back the attack will be conducted by reserve armored forces—the battalion reserve, or if necessary an operational reserve at the brigade level.
NATO Breach Tactics: Combined Arms Assault
These russian tactics are inherited from Cold war era Soviet mliitary doctrine, and have been studied in detail by NATO forces for literally decades. The solution that NATO tacticians have come up with is the idea of a combined arms mechanized assault.
The goal is to breach—to penetrate the enemy defense—at a tempo that exceeds the ability of enemy forces to react. If the offensive deploys faster than the Russian army can bring reserve forces to bear on a position of attack, NATO forces can engage the enemy reserve forces on it’s own terms and defeat the enemy position in detail and isolation—turning the deep deployment of Soviet/Russian forces from an advantage into a disadvantage.
NATO offensive doctrine stresses
- Degrading command and control (C&C) prior to the attack
- Achieving superior concentration of force at the decisive point of engagement
- Destruction of forward deployed AFVs and suppression of enemy positions
- Breaching the enemy defense: rapid overcoming of enemy obstacles through specialized equipment supported by combined arms
- Penetration of the enemy line to isolate forward elements and prevent retreat, while blocking the arrival of reserve elements to reinforce forward positions
- Destruction of the isolated forward deployed enemy to breach the enemy line
An offensive usually begins for the US army with a massive air campaign and a barrage of cruise missile strikes aimed at degrading the antiair assets, logistics and C&C of the enemy. Obviously, this is not possible for the AFU, but the AFU has substituted long range munitions like HIMARS and drone strikes to serve this purpose.
The idea is to strike command centers and supply depots, to reduce available ammunition and fuel. Destruction of battalion or brigade headquarters and inflicting casualties on staff officers and/or command officers can distrupt and degrade operation flexibiliy and response times. A reserve force that fails to react in time is as good as worthless. A reserve force without fuel or ammunition is as good as worthless. Every minute, every round, ever gallon of fuel can save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers, and may separate the success of an operation and a failure.
Achieving Superior Concentration of Force
Training is key here. In my last diary, I detailed how difficult coordinating armor units at the company level and larger can be. And how low levels of training among Russian armored units is the erason why Russians consistently fail to achieve force concentration on the offensive.
US army breach tactics dictate that ideally, at the point of attack, the offensive force should have at least 4 to 1 numerical advantage at the point of contact. The standard breach force would aim to concentrate 4 companies (2 armor / 2 mech infantry +combat engineers in support) against 1 infantry company.
In addition to combat engineers, the troops will require antiair assets, supply units, and coordination with air forces.
The goal is to isolate the enemy forard unit, to penetrate it’s defenses, to isolate and destroy it before Russian reserve forces can reinfoce the position.
Destruction of enemy entrenched AFVs and Fire Suppression Mission
First, the two armor companies will move forwards and engage any forward entrenched enemy AFVs. At the point of attack, ideally the AFU will bring forwards 2 companies of western tanks as their spearhead—or 28 tanks. Rarely will the Russian deploy more than 2-4 IFvs and 2-4 tanks in these forward positions, as Russian doctrine stresses maintaining tactical flexibility with armored assets on the defensive.
Destruction of such entrenched vehicles is necessary to safely deploy combat engineering assets to remove obstacles.
With Western tanks, AFU should be able to engage at distances of 3000m or greater, permitting them to destroy enemy AFVs with minimal risk of effective return fire. Once the location of entrenched AFVs are identified, AFU artillery can open fire with long range howitzer fired antitank munitions, like the BONUS155 or 155mm SMArt rounds, which fire radar/LIDAR based homing antitank munitions from 25-30km away (which the Russians do not have any equivalent).
All the more reason why it’s unilkely Russia will forward deploy much of its effective armored assets on the front lines, although they may entrentch some older BMP1s or T62/T54s and other older AFVs as living target dummies as way to buy time.
Upon destroying the enemy AFVs, the tank companies will begin fire suppression—laying down HE rounds at targets of opportunity on the enemy line, preventing enemy movement within position and suppressing their ability to deploy combat assets outside the trenchline.
Most of the most powerful antitank infantry weapons of the Russian army, such as the 9M133 Kornet antitank missile, cannot be deployed from within a trench. A 2-man russian antitank squad with a Kornet would have to exit the trench, deploy a missile stand, attach the missile, aim, then fire. An experienced and well trained antitank squad can do this task in 20 seconds, although untrained troops will take longer.
Thus, fire suppression should be highly effective at neutralizing most infantry based AT assets of the Russian army.
The only modern antitank weapon that can be fired from a trench that the Russian army possesses is 9K115-2 Metis-M, which unlike the Kornet can be shoulder fired by a single soldier and can be fired out of entrenched positions. Unfortunately for the Russians, the Metis-M only can penetrate up to 900mm of armor equivalent. Leopard 2 armor protection is classified, but later models (like the ubiquitous 2A4, and the advanced 2A6s received from Germany) offer armor protection ranging in the equivalent to 1800-2600mm range of frontal armor protection, making it highly unlikely that it can penetrate the frontal armor.
Leopard 2s side and top armor is less effective, thus weapons like the Javelin (that hops up and strikes down at the target from above or a Russian antitank munition fired from above can be effective, but frontal return fire (even if in range) by Russian infantry AT weaponry is unlikely to penetrate Western MBT armor.
Ideally, this step will be achieved within 5-10 mins of contact.
Breaching the Enemy Defense
Now, with aid from covering fire from the 2 tank companies, the combat engineers move forwards to clear a path of advance. NATO has developed specialized vehicles to address each type of Russian obstacle.
Armored assault bridges, like the JABS to lay down a movable bridge to cross an antitank ditch.
Armored bulldozers like the D9 Caterpillar to remove antitank obstacles.
An APC or IFV equipped with a MCLC mine clearing system can fire out a line with munitions at spaced intervals to clear a 8m x 100m corridor through a mine field.
Followed by a flail tank that will destroy any remaining antitank mines designed to withstand the MCLC, which also grades the road surface and can tear up any barbed wire, to allow easier movement by forces through the “road.”
This creates an 8 meter wide “road” through the enemy obstacles through which tanks, APCs and IFVs can advance.
NATO doctrine states this step should be completed by a well trained force within 20 minutes of the start of the assault.
First, 1 company of Tanks continues to lay down suppressive fire, while the other company of tanks prepares to assault the enemy position. 2 companies of mechanized infantry prepare to follow.
The assault company of tanks runs through the breach opened by combat engineers, runs through the enemy defensive position, and deploys behind the enemy position, at a range of 300-500m beyond the enemy line.
This force deployment ot the rear of the enemy position serves 2 purposes.
First, it cuts off the enemy ability to retreat.
Second, it positions the company of tanks to intercept enemy reinforcements. They can destroy any approaching enemy IFVs or APCs, and engage enemy tank units to shield friendly APCs and IFVs that will now engage the entrenched infantry.
Following the advance of the assault company of tanks, attacking mechanized infantry (aboard APCs and IFVs) will travel through the breach, dismount at the trench works and will fan out to attack the remaining infantry with small arms fire and grenades.
The IFVs and the support company of tanks will continue to lay down suppressive fire, removing the Russian infantry’s ability to tactically respond, rendering them immobile inside the trench system. With superior numbers (2 infantry companies vs 1) and superior force concentration, ideally the trench can be cleared with minimal casaulties.
A well trained unit of US army soldiers can complete this mission in 20-30 minutes. For example, during the Gulf War, the 1st Marine Division positioned near the right flank of the Coalition assault directly and frontally advancing on the heavily fortified Saddam Line breached and overran the forward enemy defensive position in just 25 minutes.
Now, some readers may protest—the NATO doctrine of advancing the assault company of tanks through enemy infantry position to the rear seems highly vulnerable to enemy infantry antitank fire in the mdoern era.
This is true.
However, there are many ways to neutralize the infantry where the tanks will make their penetration. For example, firing a single M30A1 GMLRS will spray 180,000 tungsten rounds, killing all soft targets (like infantry) in about a 100m x 100m area.
FPV drones with RPG warheads being sent forwards to attack portions of a trench line might be another effective method of clearing a section of trench for the tanks to penetrate.
Infantry in a trench are nowhere near as safe as they were 30 years ago to enemy attack, and there should be plenty of good ways to neutralize infantry in advance of the rush forwards by the assault tank company.
The key to the whole operation is coordination and tempo—cooperation and speed.
Artillery, tanks, mechanized infantry and engineers must operate as one, to rapidly complete the complex task of breach and assault. To do things well and do it quickly, training is absolutely key—probably why the best AFU units like the 1st Armored Brigade or the 17th Mechanized Infantry brigade have surreptitioiusly disappeared since the end of the Battle of Kherson.
Done well, AFU breach assaults should penetrate Russian defense faster than they can mobilize and deploy reserve forces to plug gaps in their line. If a force concentration of AFU armor breaksthrough the enemy defensive line and into the open rearward area of Russian defenses, then the REAL fun begins.
This is what happened during the Kharkiv Counteroffensive last September. Concentrating their forces at Balakliia, the Ukrainian spearhead broke through Russian defensive lines by advancing almost 20km in 2 day, exiting into the rear of Russian defense.
Russian reserves failed to react in time, and the advancing sprearhead of the AFU, lead by the 4th Tank Brigade was running free as it ran into elements of the Russian 4th Guards Tank Division. Despite having some of the best Russian tanks in T80Us, the 4th Guards Tank Division was confused and uncoordinated, and in open combat with the AFU 4th Tank Brigade’s coordinated attacks, suffered massive casualties.
In 100 hours, the Russian 4th GTD suffered over 100 tanks lost, more than half it’s available tanks and was virtually annihalated in its rear guard actions north of Izium before being overrun. The AFU 4th Tank brigade at full strength only counts 95 tanks, so the damage it inflicted upon a larger formation of Russian armor was truly impressive.
if the Russians had been able to move their reserve armor units to plug the gap at Balakliaa, obviously the AFU offensive would have had far more problems.
This represents the advantage that speed, surprise and superior concentration of force provides. And illustrates why tempo is such a key factor in determining the success of a breach action.
Tanks are key to this equasion, because they can dominate the mobile assets of an enemy’s mechanied force. Western tanks can dominate other tanks. They can dominate enemy mechanized infantry in IFVs and APCs. They serve to dominate the battefiled, providing protection against enemy armor during the breach assault, serve to isolate the enemy and cut off their retreat, and once the breach has occured, serves to exploit the breakthrough.
While tanks are more vulnerable than ever in the modern battlefield, they remain an integral and important force. Supported by infantry, artillery and engineers, tanks still dominate the battlefield and represent an irreplaceable source of cheap and plentiful armored frontline firepower that cannot be eaisily replaced by artillery or IFVs.