~ Alan Dupont, published in the Australian
War concentrates the mind like few other activities, so it’s not surprising that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is generating widespread media coverage of the combat power of the two protagonists.
Far from being a morbid fascination with the weapons of war, the debates they stimulate are critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Democracies that fail to gain public support for essential defence projects and policies are unlikely to be victorious on the battlefield.
The Albanese government’s search for a more lethal and impactful Australian Defence Force is clearly being shaped by the Ukraine conflict. There are many worthwhile lessons to be learned about battlefield tactics and the use of advanced and improvised weaponry. But one false lesson that should be rejected is that tanks are now obsolete.
Critics have labelled tanks as behemoths, dinosaurs and of “no strategic value”. Their conclusion? Money set aside for the upgrade of our vestigial tank force, infantry fighting vehicles and Vietnam-era armoured personnel carriers should be reallocated to more useful capabilities.
If these misperceptions are left unchallenged, the ADF risks being stripped of an indispensable tool of trade. The critics make four errors of judgment.
First, tanks are still the mainstay of modern armies for good reason. Without them, an army risks becomes a constabulary force that lacks firepower and the ability to survive on tomorrow’s battlefields. Tanks are the equivalent of battleships and fighter jets.
They are a game changer, as any soldier with combat experience will tell you.
Sure, Russia’s tanks are taking a hammering in Ukraine. They have lost nearly half their main battle tanks – evidence, say the critics, of their fatal vulnerability to modern anti-tank missiles and drones. But Russia’s losses seem more to do with faulty tactics and abandonment.
About half of the 994 documented Russian tanks lost in the first seven months of the war were abandoned by their crews because they lacked infantry support or simply ran out of fuel.
Foreign Policy Research Institute senior fellow Rob Lee writes in War on the Rocks that despite their effectiveness, modern antitank missiles were not the primary destroyers of Russian tanks.
What killed them during the disastrous advance on Kyiv “was our artillery”, says an adviser to Ukraine’s military commander.
“That was what broke their units.”
Despite its losses, Russia isn’t ditching its tanks. It wants more of them. And so does Ukraine, which repeatedly has asked Western suppliers for main battle tanks.
Second, quantity has a quality all its own. We need more than a handful of tanks. And they should be best of class, otherwise you have a token capability. How many does the ADF have? Fiftynine second-hand, Americanmade M1A1 Abrams tanks that are decades old. Numerically, this ranks the ADF 88th out of 114 countries with tanks and 18th out of 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific.
The US and China have 6612 and 5250 tanks respectively. Further down the scale, South Korea has 2624, Cambodia 539 and Indonesia 314. Even tiny Laos has 130.
Under a purchase agreement, now on ice, the ADF was slated to acquire 75 upgraded M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams tanks and 52 support vehicles that would have been ready for deployment in 2025. The expectation is that the government will ditch these in its March defence review and cut back an order for modern infantry fighting vehicles.
This would be a serious mistake.
Infantry fighting vehicles are an essential capability. But they aren’t a substitute for main battle tanks. They don’t have the armour and firepower to fill the same role, which would lead, Lee writes, “to a greater percentage of catastrophic losses and heavier casualties” in any serious battle.
Third, the Australian Army typically has used tanks differently to other armies as part of a combined-arms team working closely with our infantry. We have never deployed large, armoured columns in sweeping manoeuvres across plains or deserts because our region is full of islands, jungles and cities. But we used them very effectively in the Pacific and Vietnam wars, as did our adversaries.
Light tanks spearheaded the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942 and we relied on tanks to destroy Vietcong bunker systems during the Vietnam War. A 2002 Defence Science and Technology Organisation study found that without tanks, operations against these bunkers succeeded in only 65 per cent of cases compared with 95 per cent with six times fewer Australian casualties when tanks were used.
Fourth, critics assume that our maritime environment means that we need to dominate only the air and sea. Anthony Albanese seems to have ingested this skewed logic, quipping in a recent interview that our defence assets “need not be about fighting a land war defending western Queensland because that is highly unlikely”.
This ignores the fact that our maritime neighbourhood comprises thousands of islands.
As we discovered during the Pacific War, some of them would need to be secured or denied to an adversary in the event of a serious threat to Australia, a challenging task that would be far more difficult and dangerous without tanks and their supporting armour.
Far from being a one-trick behemoth or merely “a cannon in a big metal box”, the latest Western tanks are highly versatile and central to a smart, networked defence force.
If the tanks on order are cancelled, we should look to acquire a version of the next-generation Abrams-X tank, which is already being demonstrated in the US.
This is superior to anything else on offer, with an advanced system for shooting down incoming antitank weapons. It can carry six “kamikaze” drones, is significantly lighter than the variant under consideration and runs off a hybrid electric engine that reduces fuel consumption by 50 per cent.
As this paper’s contributing editor for military affairs, David Kilcullen, wrote during the last Australian tank debate, “homo sapiens is still a terrestrial, landdwelling mammal”. Some form of protected firepower and mobility is required to “defeat the enemy and control the land – where humans live – to prevent conflict or prevail in war”. Despite its flaws, tanks are still the answer.
Alan Dupont is chief executive of geopolitical risk consultancy The Cognoscenti Group and a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute.