Key point: The number of tanks Russia has is impressive and it makes sense given that Moscow is a land power. But America is an air and naval power.
The Russian military is increasing its arsenal of tanks, weapons and armored vehicles in 2020 in an apparent attempt to add to its growing fleet of 27,000 armored vehicles, a number which includes as many as 1,200 tanks.
A report in TASS, the Russian News Agency, quotes Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko as saying his country’s military has received as many as 160 tanks during the first half of 2020. The tanks, according to the report, include many repaired, upgraded and refurbished T-72Bs and T-80s.
According to Globalfirepower.com, Russia’s 12,000-strong fleet of tanks is twice that of the U.S. 6,000 tanks, raising an interesting question about the prospects of a lengthy ground war.
The Russian T-72B is regarded as a third-generation tank variant of the 1980s-era T-72, something which could loosely be paralleled to the years of innovations poured into the U.S. Abrams.
The arrival of more Russian tanks raises an interesting question. Just how much would it matter to have thousands of more tanks in any kind of protracted ground war? Would that many tanks be destroyed in a multi-year ground conflict, creating a scenario that would ultimately favor an invading Russian ground force?
Interestingly, the Global Firepower breakdown cites that the U.S. has more armored vehicles total compared to Russia. The U.S. operates 39,000 armored vehicles compared to Russia’s 27,000. That being said, Russia’s 6,000-plus tank advantage cannot be overlooked.
However, any modern war would also heavily rely upon airpower, and the United States has more than twice the combat aircraft as Russia and nearly five times as many helicopters. Air supremacy might ultimately decide which ground force prevails on the ground, as Russia’s tanks would be vulnerable to destruction from the air should the U.S. gain air superiority.
Perhaps the major tank advantage is one reason why a Rand Corporation study several years ago maintained that an invading Russian land force could quickly overrun the Baltics, unless the U.S. sent major reinforcements to the region.
There are several other factors to consider, such as the current technological condition and sophistication of Russia’s tanks. How many T-72s have been upgraded such that they might in any way be comparable to an Abrams? After all, even though many details related to technical upgrades to T-72Bs might not be available, it is unlikely that they rival the latest Abrams.
The more recent Abrams variants have advanced Forward-Looking infrared sensors, new thermal targeting sights to detect the heat signature of enemy vehicles, new armor materials and multi-functional ammunition, among other things. All of this raises the question as to whether the Abrams can possibly outmatch the Russian T-14 Armata.
Finally, just how important are sheer numbers anyway? If an Army is able to field a sizeable, capable force, does an Army really need 12,000 tanks? Wouldn’t the range, accuracy, survivability and combat performance of a tank greatly outweigh sheer numbers? If one tank had the sensors to find and destroy enemy tanks and armored vehicles at safe standoff ranges, then a single tank could outmatch dozens of enemy vehicles.
It is a similar concept to the F-35 in the air; it is engineered with so many advanced sensors and weapons, that it is intended to find and destroy multiple enemy aircraft before it is seen. Perhaps when it comes to modern war, technical capacity including range, precision accuracy, air-ground coordination and weapons efficacy would prove more decisive than numbers?
Kris Osborn is 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared earlier this year and is being reposted due to reader interest.