Since the end of the Cold War, every one of the NATO and former Warsaw Pact nations has taken the chance to reduce defense spending in real terms. Armed forces have shrunk, with many armies barely half the size they were in 1990. One place where the reductions have bit particularly hard is in heavy armored forces – tanks. The British Army of the 1980s had three armoured divisions and close to a thousand tanks. Now it has less than 290 operational ones, with a couple of hundred more in storage. The US Army’s fleet of more than 11,000 tanks has shrunk to 1,500, with 6,800 more in storage (although most of these are old models of the M1). Most dramatic of all the former West German fleet of 3,800 tanks has shrunk to 255.
It’s easy to see why politicians and cash-strapped generals have concentrated on tanks as a target for cuts. They’re expensive, for a start. They’re a very offensive weapon, with limited use in the sort of “peace support” operations we’re supposed to do these days. They’re also perceived as vulnerable; attack helicopters, precision-guided air-launched weapons and lightweight missiles like the Javelin can all kill tanks. This is a familiar argument; every couple of decades it’s confidently announced that new technology has made the tank obsolete. Then someone’s country gets overrun by a clanking armored flood and tanks are back in fashion for a while.
Of course there’s one country where they haven’t been out of fashion since the 1930s – Russia. The Russian army has been cut even more savagely than its former adversaries, but the blow didn’t land as heavily on their heavy armor. In fact, they seem to have worked very hard to keep tank strength up at almost any cost. It’s true that they scrapped, sold off or mothballed better than 30,000 tanks but they were all older models, some of them dating back to the 1940s. What matters is that there are almost 4,500 left, all of them T-90s, T-80s or heavily upgraded variants of the T-72. The thirsty and less well protected T-80s are being phased out and replaced as more stockpiled T-72s are upgraded. Only the T-90A and T-72B2/B3 are an even match for a modern western tank, but the others are pretty close and there are an awful lot of them. There are 8,000 more T-72s in storage.
Russian T-72s are much more dangerous beasts than the export “monkey models” we destroyed so easily in Iraq, but they’re still outclassed by an M1A2, Challenger 2 or Leopard 2. Where it gets tricky is if there aren’t any western tanks around. If you’re in an MRAP, or even a Bradley, a T-72 is suddenly a massive problem. With modern reactive armor packages like K5 or Relikt, there’s no guarantee even a top-attack Javelin is going to take it out, and it’s immune to standard infantry weapons. Meanwhile a five-inch gun with missile launch capability, plus a couple of machine guns, means it can seriously screw up your day.
The standard answer to enemies with an inconvenient tank force is to use air power to eliminate it, but maybe we’ve become slightly complacent about that in recent years. Most old Cold Warriors have heard the joke about the two Soviet tank generals having a drink in Paris when one asks the other, “By the way, who won the air war?” The USA and its allies can win any conceivable air war for the next two decades at least, but Russian GBAD systems can keep our strike planes high enough that tanks can move freely over considerable areas. We saw that happen over Kosovo, when a weeks-long bombing campaign produced tank kills in single digits.
The Cold War isn’t heating up again – so far, anyone who says that is just being alarmist – but unlike just a few years ago, we can’t rule out a confrontation with Russia or one of its heavily armed proxies. With that in mind maybe it’s time we started to re-invest in the only anti-tank weapon that’s stood the test of time – our own tanks.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.