Does the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Prove the Tank is Toast?
Should the tank be retired based on armor attrition in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Last month as Azerbaijan and Armenia engaged in the bloodiest fighting in recent years along their shared border, leaving nearly 100 killed, it was noted that multiple aircraft and armored vehicles were destroyed. According to online reports at least ten Azerbaijani tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were destroyed along with four helicopters and some fifteen drones in the first days of the fighting.
Videos released show that at least five tanks hit land mines or were struck by munitions, while other lighter fighting vehicles were also shown to be damaged or destroyed, Forbes.com reported.
Mounting Losses in the Mountainous Region
The rugged terrain in the Caucasus has been the site of countless wars over the centuries. The Greater Caucasus mountain range has historically been a natural barrier between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and the region is home to Europe's highest mountain, Mount Elbrus. It isn't exactly considered ideal ground for tanks yet this most recent fighting has shown the vulnerabilities of tanks on the modern battlefield.
As the fighting has continued both sides have claimed to have destroyed large numbers of enemy tanks – and the conflict could result in the largest loss of tanks in combat since Operation Iraqi Freedom.
To date, Armenia has claimed to have destroyed at least 137 Azerbaijani tanks and armored vehicles, while Azerbaijan has claimed to have destroyed 130 Armenian tanks and armored vehicles since just the start of the conflict on September 29. Those numbers are in excess of the Battle of 73 Easting in February 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, where the Iraqis suffered 85 tanks destroyed along with 40 other armored vehicles.
Tactical Training Failure
The fact that multiple tanks have been destroyed in short order could be seen to suggest that the day of the tank has passed – that the platform could be too vulnerable to aircraft including unmanned drones. However, some experts suggest it isn't a failure of the tank but rather one that is a tactical training failure.
One issue is that the terrain of the Caucasus may require different thinking in how to deploy tanks, and even military thinkers in Azerbaijan and Armenia have been unable to understand those challenges.
"Army personnel are very familiar with the Caucasus Region," Major Nicholas Moran of the Texas National Guard and tank historian told Military Times.
"It's a very messy area with a whole bunch of different players, some of whom are in NATO, some of whom aren't, some are aligned with the Soviets, the Russians," Moran added. "It's all sorts of bizarre terrain combinations. There's isolated water, there's water you can access with big ships, mountains, there's flat space, oil – there's lots of oil."
A concern Moran noted is that neither side has the necessary air defense to help defend units on the ground. As a result those in the tanks can do very little to protect themselves. This is something that is unique to this particular conflict, he added, as most modern armies are aware of such threat and have developed equipment to counter air attacks.
To Tank or Not to Tank
The age of the tank is far from over, but the United States Marines Corps concluded this year that tanks are vulnerable of precision strikes and as the service has sought to transform into a more mobile and lean fighting force it retired the tank after nearly 80 years.
Likewise, the British Army – which introduced tanks onto the battlefield – announced it would scale back its tank force.
However, other powers have sought to ramp up their respective tank forces.
Last month, India began to deploy large numbers of tanks on its border with China where they would operate on the flat plains of the Ladakh Valley. Unlike Armenia and Azerbaijan however, India has a modern air force and air defense weapons to help protect those tanks on the ground. But in war, nothing is ever certain as many a losing power has learned the hard way.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.