Anticipating A Russian Attack, The Ukrainian Army Trained Its Tank Crews To Fight Like Artillery

    Ukrainian army 17th Tank Brigade.

    Ukrainian army photo

    Ukraine’s tank corps wasn’t ready for the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. The Ukrainian army’s two tank brigades and 10 mechanized brigades, together equipped with around 400 ex-Soviet T-64 tanks, were no match for Russian brigades with their thousands of more modern T-72s and T-80s.

    But the Ukrainians learned fast. When Russia widened its war on Ukraine starting in February, Russian brigades faced a much bigger and better-equipped Ukrainian tank corps.

    Analysts Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds explained the Ukrainian tank corps’ evolution in a new study for the Royal United Services Institute in London. Besides more than doubling their armored force structure, the Ukrainians improved their T-64s, added T-80s and T-72s and developed new tactics for the tanks’ three-person crews.

    Most importantly, Ukrainian tank crews practiced firing their 125-millimeter guns at high angles in order to extend the guns’ range. “This technique blurs the line between tanks and artillery,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds wrote.

    Eight years after the initial Russian invasion, the Ukrainian armored corps had expanded to six tank brigades, 13 mechanized brigades, five air assault brigades and two marine brigades, together operating 900 upgraded T-64s, T-72s and T-80s.

    The Russian armored corps still was bigger and, in many ways, more sophisticated. The Russian invasion force that rolled into free Ukraine in February had some 2,800 tanks, a force that eventually included some of the latest T-90s.

    The mismatch didn’t matter, as it turned out. Serious analysts never expected a lot of tank-on-tank combat, as Russian and Ukrainian doctrine doesn’t lean on armor to destroy armor. Rather, tank units are shaping forces that help to pin down and isolate enemy troops so that artillery, protected by the tanks, can deliver the decisive blow.

    It doesn’t necessarily matter if one army has more tanks than the other. What really matters is how well each army uses its tanks.

    The Ukrainian army, in its mad dash to modernize following the 2014 invasion, wisely emphasized artillery and, by 2022, nearly matched the Russian invasion force, gun for gun. “The difference in numbers between Russian and Ukrainian artillery was not so significant at the beginning of the conflict,” the RUSI analysts wrote.

    The Ukrainian army fielded 1,176 artillery pieces and 1,680 rocket-launchers against the Russian army’s 2,433 artillery pieces and 3,547 rocket-launchers. Notably, the Ukrainians could deploy virtually all of their big guns and launchers for the 2022 war, whereas the Russians couldn’t. Russia still must maintain some forces along its borders, after all.

    So the Ukrainians went to war earlier this year with nearly as many artillery pieces as the invaders possessed—and with enough modern tanks to fix the invaders so the big guns and launchers could strike them.

    What’s more, the Ukrainian armed forces trained their tankers to fight like artillery when necessary. “The tankers of the UAF changed traditional approaches and developed techniques for indirect fire,” the RUSI analysts wrote. That is, firing high at targets that are beyond visual range. Like artillery normally does.

    “For this task, high-explosive fragmentation projectiles are usually used,” the analysts said. “This requires the use of special guidance devices—an azimuth pointer and a side level.”

    New computational methods “made it possible to achieve high accuracy at distances of up to [six miles].” That’s three times farther than a tank gun normally shoots. The Ukrainian methods also “reduced the time for calculating fire corrections to a few seconds.”

    “The value of this technique is that it allows tanks to concentrate fire over a wide area, while they can maneuver without the protection and screening needed by artillery pieces,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds wrote.

    So in a pinch, Ukraine’s tanks can do the job of artillery—and, in at least one way, do that job more efficiently. True, a tank lobbing shells at a high angle still doesn’t have the range of a purpose-built howitzer. But where artillery batteries might depend on nearby armored battalions for protection, armored battalions functioning as artillery batteries can protect themselves.

    The results of these advancements speak for themselves. The Russians widened their war on Ukraine this year with more tanks and more artillery than the Ukrainians had. But the Ukrainians not only blunted the Russian attack, they eventually counterattacked—and began driving the Russians back.

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