No Country for Old Tanks

The expression ‘Tank country’ desrcibes an area suitable for armoured warfare, and in particular for tanks. The image this usually stir up is that of open fields, with slowly rolling hills.

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Quintessential tank country, German units on the move during Operation Zitadelle (Battle of Kursk). Source: Federal German Archives via Wikimedia Commons

This idea is however somewhat oversimplified, as major Mikkonen of the Finnish Armoured Brigade explained in the Defence Forces’ podcast (Finnish). In open areas tanks are able to bring their mobility and good optics to bear on the enemy. However, it is often forgotten that a tank in open country is visible to the enemy as well, and it is generally easier to spot a 65 tonne steel beast than an infantry squad lying in a ditch with their ATGM (ask the Israelis). Another factor is that of air superiority, you don’t want to park your tanks out in the open if the enemy control the skies. If the enemy is able to field more tanks than your force (or more firepower in some other suitable way), meeting them out in the open fields might also not be recommendable.

So what do you do if your tanks aren’t able to deploy out in the open fields? You put them somewhere where they are hard to spot (especially from the air), somewhere where the enemy isn’t able to make use of their numbers, where the distances are short enough that ATGM’s won’t be able to use their range advantage, and somewhere where own infantry is able to make sure that enemy infantry isn’t able to get in close. In Finland, that would generally be a forrest. In other places, a city would do as well.

Traditionally, it has been held that tanks better stay out of cities. Incidents such as the destruction of Russian motorised units and their armour support during the first battle of Grozny has added to this idea. A closer look at the history of armour in urban warfare gives a more nuanced picture, with the protection offered by heavy armour proving quite useful in urban operations. The most famous example is probably the ‘Thunder runs‘ of the 64th Armoured Regiment into downtown Baghdad, but also e.g. Israeli experiences in Gaza seem to trend towards the usage of heavy armour (both tanks and heavy APC’s) for combat operations in urban terrain. Operation Protective Edge saw no less than three armoured brigades deploy units to the strip.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, the British contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence include a single tank troop (currently from the Queen’s Royal Hussars) of three Challenger 2 MBT’s, a number so small that very relevant questions have been asked about if they really can make an impact. Then this happened.

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Source: Royal Tank Regiment

AJAX, the first squadron of the Royal Tank Regiment, suddenly showed off a number of Challenger 2’s painted in the iconic Berlin Brigade-camo, a patchwork of  differently sized fields of white, brown, and (a slightly blueish) grey with straight horizontal and vertical demarcations.

The camouflage dates back to the 1980’s, when the British Berlin Brigade was deployed in Berlin with their Chieftains finished in the then standard bronze-green camouflage. The officer in charge of 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards tank squadron felt this to be out of place, and inspired by the dazzle paint schemes of sea wars gone by he started looking for a suitable answer.

Long story short, he noticed the light shades of buildings together with small patches of shade and an abundance of straight lines in a modern city, and started designing a camouflage around this phenomenon. While close up the pattern looks like something out of a circus it improved with range, as the major behind it explained: “50 to 60 yards was the minimum, as you got further away the target almost disappeared at 100 yards.”

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The original Berlin Brigade pattern on the British Chieftains. Source: US DoD picture via Wikimedia Commons

So why then does this (arguably useful) monstrosity resurface almost thirty years after the reunification of Berlin? The Facebook-post by RTR is open with the fact that the paint job is “part of an ongoing study into proving and improving the utility of Main Battle Tanks in the urban environment.” The RTR also notes that further modifications will be made, specifically mentioning the fitting of BEMA dozer blades (an acronym for Blade, earth moving attachment). The BEMA has been available for the Challenger 2 for quite some time already, but in practice seeing one fitted has been rare.

This seemingly rather ordinary study becomes really interesting when tied in with the question of defence of the Baltics. While three Challengers won’t be of much use when trying to stop a Russian mechanized brigade out in the fields of Estonia, being deployed in support of light infantry within the country’s cities might prove to radically increase both the survivability of the EFP tank troop and their usefulness (though urban fire support might not be the kind of Blitzkrieg the tankers had in mind when they signed up for the job). The (in)famous RAND report predicting the fall of the Baltic countries within three days did include the caveat that “quality light forces, like the U.S. airborne infantry that the NATO players typically deployed into Riga and Tallinn, can put up stout resistance when dug into urban terrain”, but also noted that “the cost of mounting such a defense to the city and its residents is typically very high [and] whether Estonia’s or Latvia’s leaders would choose to turn their biggest cities into battlefields—indeed, whether they should—is, of course, uncertain.”

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Challengers taking part in exercise Sabre Strike -17 in Estonia in June this year. Source: Mil.ee

We don’t know if the British/Estonian battle plan is to park urbanized Challengers in the side alleys of Tallinn to ambush Russian armour columns at short range, but it certainly is a possible scenario. One interesting data point is also the fact that the Challenger is the last western MBT to feature a rifled main gun, in the form of the L30A1 55-calibre. This choice, which has serious drawbacks when firing the APSFDS rounds which are today’s standard anti-tank rounds, is due to the British preference of firing HESH-rounds for both anti-tank and general high-explosive work. These high-explosive squash head rounds are filled with plastic explosives, which upon the round impacting on the targets spreads out on it’s surface, before detonating and sending a shockwave through the target.

While the HESH isn’t really up to par with destroying modern armour, one of the places where it does outshine other kinds of tank rounds is for destroying buildings and fortifications. As such, putting the Challengers to fight in an urban environment would be a classic example of playing to the strengths of an otherwise outdated technology.

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Soldiers of the Estonian Kuperjanovi jalaväepataljon practicing urban operations. The battalion is attached to Estonia’s 2. Infantry brigade, destined for operations in the central/southern parts of the country. Source: Kuperjanovi jalaväepataljon FB-page

One thought on “No Country for Old Tanks

  1. Pingback: What to do with a few tanks in Tallinn – Romeo Squared

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