Has the War in Ukraine Finally Killed the Main Battle Tank?

Has the War in Ukraine Finally Killed the Main Battle Tank?

Under Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo discussed with The National Interest his observations about armor and anti-armor weapons emerging from the war in Ukraine

The U.S. Army is working on a program known as the Optionally Manned Tank, a largely conceptual effort to explore future tank platforms. Army platform developers say some kind of initial “step” is expected to emerge next year, but that a wide range of options are being closely examined. Unmanned capabilities, long-range sensing and fidelity, composite armor materials, and multi-domain manned-unmanned, air-ground networking are likely to figure prominently. These factors are informing ongoing analysis of how the Army plans to address the future role of heavily armed platforms.

There does appear to be a delicate and perhaps necessary balance between a continued place for heavy armor and the need for faster and lighter expeditionary platforms. Unmanned teaming, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled computing, multi-domain networking, and high-speed, lethal, forward-operating anti-armor weapons may all be used in close coordination with a future tank platform as part of modern combined arms maneuver concepts. Weapons developers are likely weighing the promise of current and emerging future technologies with the kind of protection, informational, and mobility requirements necessary to prevail on the battlefield.

Under Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo discussed with The National Interest his observations about armor and anti-armor weapons emerging from the war in Ukraine, with a mind to their potential implication for future combined arms maneuvers. Camarillo emphasized that many lessons from Ukraine are just now being fully learned. Therefore, weapons developers would be well served to avoid “snap” decisions about future armored warfare configurations.

“People have spoken a lot, for example, about lessons learned from Ukraine, it’s just too early to tell as we’re beginning to get those insights. I think it’s too early to make any kind of snap decisions about what it means or portends for the future. And then I’d also say the Army is going to have a requirement to be, you know, to potentially operate anywhere in the world. So I think that has to be a factor that we take into account,” Camarillo told The National Interest.

Camarillo’s point seems well placed given the nuanced circumstances in Ukraine. While the effectiveness of dispersed, disaggregated forces armed with cutting-edge anti-armor weapons have proven extremely effective, such dynamics may not preclude a continued need for certain kinds of heavy armor. Thus, Camarillo’s call for continued analysis of lessons learned and ongoing experimentation makes sense given the pace of technological advances and breakthroughs in long-range sensing and AI-enabled multi-domain information processing.

For instance, when it comes to a defensive posture, Ukrainian fighters had great success using crossroads, intersections, bridges, and narrow passageways to stage successfully conduct attacks against Russian tanks. However, Ukraine’s counteroffensives to reclaim territory may require or greatly benefit from more linear mechanized formations and heavy armor. This is one reason perhaps Ukraine continues to ask for more tanks from the United States and NATO. While Camarillo did not take a position on the future of heavy armor platforms, he made the critical point that a host of variables, tactical situations, and technologies will need to be carefully analyzed to determine the optimal force mix for the future.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.