At the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, there was a considerable minority of voices that loudly predicted the “end of the tank.”
The thinking went like this—since WW2, individual firepower held by the infantryman advanced dramatically. It took a huge and unwieldy antitank cannon to take out a tank in 1945, but advances in antitank weaponry has made it easier and easier for anyone to destroy a tank. So all the armor on the tank won’t mean a thing, and the tank will go the way of the Battleship—obsolete, overpriced and abandoned.
Early failures of Russian armored attacks seemed to strengthen this theory, but trends have reversed. Now most analysts believe that the War demonstrates the continuing value of the tank.
Personally, I’d go further, and say the trends in the War indicate the Tank not only has avoided obsolescence, but current trends imply its importance will INCREASE in the next generation of warfare.
To understand why, I think it’s helpful to understand a way in which military thinkers have abstracted a basic principle of warfare, called the “kill chain.”
What is the Kill Chain?
It’s actually quite simple. The idea is that any time a military asset (a tank, an artillery piece, or a human being) is eliminated, the attackers always go through 4 steps.
- Dispatch (of assets necessary to attack)
- Initiation (of the attack)
Sometimes, this process is kind of abbreviated. For example, a sniper sees a target walking down the street and shoot him.
- Identification — sniper sees target.
- Dispatch (sniper is already in place)
- Initiation (sniper aims and shoots)
The kill chain in this case might take all of 2-3 seconds.
Sometimes the process is a lot more complicated with lots of assets and people involved.
- Identification: A platoon of Russian tanks is observed by drones
- Dispatch: artillery and a spotter unit moves to ambush the tank
- Initiation: The spotter units tags the enemy tanks with laser guidance tor long range laser guided munitions. Artillery fires.
Part of the evolution of the modern battlefield has come from efforts to “accelerating the kill chain.” that is making the whole process faster. The idea is that the faster you can get from “identification” to “elimination,” the more effective the attack will be.
In WW2, you might fly a reconnaissance that takes a photograph of the enemy base. You wait for the plane to get back, the film roll is developed then analyzed, targets are selected, this is sent to the army air base, planes are prepared for an attack and finally you have an attack on the target. With dumb bombs, it might take multiple attempts to destroy the target. The kill chain might be 24 hours or even a week or more.
Today, a reconnaissance drone gives encrypted live observation data, which can identify a target coordinate, and these coordinates are then sent digitally to shoot a cruise missile that hits the target—a kill chain might be 15 minutes.
The faster the kill chain, the less opportunity the target has to avoid it, or “to break the kill chain.” The easiest way for targets to often avoid elimination is simply to move. If between “getting information” and “dispatch” you lose contact with the target, the kill chain is broken.
Whether by accelerating the process by which target identification is relayed, making it faster to deliver the offensive asset, the process by which the target is destroyed, or any part of this process going faster will accelerate the kill chain.
In the last 40 years or so, the place where the West has made the biggest strides has been in accelerating the kill chain for artillery and air power, and nowhere has Russia fallen behind more than in those two areas.
In this article, I’m focusing on artillery and the implications of a faster kill chain.
Artillery Kill Chain
In the early 1600s, shooting a cannon wasn’t that different than shooting a gun. You point and you shoot. As the range of artillery expanded to beyond visual range, the “identification” stage of the kill chain and the “dispatch/Initiation” stage separated, and were no longer done by the same people.
Now someone finds the target, then relays that information to the artillery team, and then an attack happens.
Western armies have accelerated this process in 2 ways.
First, they’ improved communications. Getting on a radio and telling the people in the rear where you want the artillery to hit was a dramatic improvement, but it’s only been the first step. The difficulty was being precise about communicating where the enemy target was.
In the late 1980s, the US developed the M981 FISTV, a modified M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. The M981’s defining piece of gear was a GPS based artillery targeting system called the Ground/Vehicular Laser Locator Designator (G/VLLD), pronounced "glid" (the big thing sticking out of the top of the APC).
Rather than trying to work out exactly where on a map the target is located, the Glid would allow the commander of the vehicle to simply point a laser at the target. A GPS locator on the vehicle would compare the M981’s location with the direction and distance measured by the laser range finder.
This information would be relayed back to the artillery battery, which would now receive targeting information from frontline units in minutes, instead of hours—a major advantage to US troops in the Gulf War.
In the subsequent 30 years, this system is already onto the 3rd generation M3A3 fire support system, equipped on the M7 Bradley Fire Support Vehicle (AKA the BFIST)
30 years since the Gulf War, the fire support system no longer takes up an entire vehicle and is far more compact, thus the M7 BFIST sports enough room to be a real Bradley, with a 25mm cannon and carry TOW2 antitank missiles, giving it a great deal of firepower against a variety of targets.
A whole suite of improvements have been made with the M3A3 system
- Can obtain target coordinates up to 3500m (2.2 miles), accurate to within 1m (3 feet)
- Can obtain targeting even while on the move, not requiring the vehicle to stop.
- Has handheld networked targeting range finders, so dismounted infantry within network range of the BFIST can provide targeting information—useful when the target has antiarmor capabilities making it dangerous for the BFIST to approach.
4 of these highly advanced BFIST vehicles were delivered to Ukraine in early March.
Another way in which Western armies have shortened the kill chain is guided munitions. Guided GPS rounds like the Excalibur can hit targets on the first shot, when conventional artillery fire might take 20-30 attempts. By striking the target on the first attempt, this shortens the kill chain dramatically.
Ammunition like the 155mm SMArt round or the BONUS 155 round deploys 2 radar/LIDAR guided homing antitank munitions from an artillery shell, making howitzers a threat to Russian main battle tanks—another way in which the kill chain is shortened and expanded to include heavily armored targets. The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) has been making frequent use of the BONUS 155 round since Summer 2022.
While Russian artillery enjoys a considerable quantitative advantage against the Ukrainians, one reason why Ukraine has been able to stand toe to toe with the Russians has been how western technology gives it faster kill chains, thus higher quality firepower.
Russian artillery lacks anything like the BFIST. Communications between front line infantry units and rear artillery units is virtually nonexistent. Part of the reason Russian artillery consumes an insatiable number of shells and destroys entire city blocks, is because of these deficiencies.
Russian heavy artillery still tends to simply pound entire areas, in part due to a presumed lack of skill and guided munitions, in part due to insufficient targeting information that can be relayed to heavy artillery. Artillery is primarily fired at set coordinates on set schedules due to these communication issues. if you only have the vaguest idea of where the enemy is deployed, and the information is hours or even days old, the best you can do is to saturate the area with shells. The frequency of friendly fire incidents involving Russian artillery is also reflected in these communication problems.
Russian artillery theoretically has the 2K25 Krasnopol laser guided 152mm shell as a guided munition. But production has been very limited, and foreign purchasers of the Krasnopol shell have heavily criticized the accuracy of the guided munition as being woeful such as the Indian military in 2009 (the Indian Army chose to abandon purchases of the Krasnopol shell and now buys the US manufactured Excalibur shell since 2019).
It is fair to say that Russian artillery lags behind the West in targeting, communications, and in accuracy, significantly lengthening its kill chain. This has degraded Russian ability to conduct effective fire support, as well as counterbattery fire.
For example, probing frontal attacks by Wagner units to identify Ukrainian fire positions were supported by massed mortar teams much closer to the front lines, as opposed to heavy 152mm artillery—in all probability, because coordination between heavy artillery units and front line units are too slow, thus Wagner and more recent Russian army assault company doctrine compensated for overly lengthy kill chains in heavy artillery by reliance on light artillery closer to the front.
This is why 1 Excalibur shell that lands on a target minutes after identification may be more combat effective than 100 unguided, untimely shells that level a city block. If the target can move, slow kill chains simply fall apart.
Armored Protection and Implications of Shorter Kill Chains
Accelerating the kill chain is critical, because the target will try to avoid elimination, or “to break the kill chain.”
For example, if a Russian artillery deploys and begins firing. Its location is identified by a drone, which relays the information back to Ukrainian Artillery. This becomes a race—will the Russian artillery relocate before the Ukrainian counterbattery fire hits it?
For Ukrainian artillery, slow Russian kill chains have been a blessing.
For example, US army planners observing developments in Ukraine are reportedly convinced that the era of towed artillery, like the M777 howitzer used to great effect by Ukraine, are coming to an end.
It takes 3-4 minutes for a M777 to be ready to fire, and a highly trained crew can get the M777 packed up and ready to move in 3 minutes. Because the Russian army’s kill chain is lengthy, this has not proven to be much of a problem.
However, as the number of types of loitering munitions (like suicide drones), as well as the speed at which modern militaries can identify and fire at targets for counterbattery fire (like artillery radar, observation drones, etc), the future survivability of towed artillery is very much in doubt.
Self propelled and armored artillery like the M109 Paladin offer several important advantages.
They have far better mobility, able to immediately move after firing. Their armor gives them better survivability against enemy counter battery fire. And perhaps most importantly in this modern battlefield, the armor provides protection against broad classes of suicide drones that are only capable of striking soft targets (i.e. unarmored or lightly armored).
Looking at the implications more broadly, if the 1970s — 2010s saw dramatic improvements in antiarmor weaponry that made armored targets more vulnerable to lowly infantry, I would argue that the Russo-Ukrainian war has demonstrated how drone technology makes dismounted infantry and unarmored personnel vastly more vulnerable than in years past.
As lower cost drones proliferate, a simple FPV drone with a simple targeting AI and a cheap antipersonnel explosive represents a grave threat against any soft target. While drones that are capable to penetrating armored targets exist, they tend to be vastly more expensive. Which also makes defense systems against such attacks easier to design.
As the battlefield has become deadlier for all forms of targets—both soft and armored—there are really only 2 practical solutions. First, you could take the Russian approach and make each casualty as cheap as possible.
Invest 10 days of training on a convict., hand him a gun, and tell him to charge. If he dies, the investment in the personnel was minimal. You replace him and try again.
The other approaches rely on making the battlefield more survivable.
You can limit the types of munitions that can harm your soldiers by putting them in armored protection. Once you limit the ways the enemy can harm your troops, you can focus your efforts first on eliminating how a more limited suite of weaponry can harm your troops.
Infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers and other forms of armored protection are crucial to provide enhanced survivability on this more dangerous battlefield.