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

Estonian Updates

This is a short follow-up to my last post, dealing with the current Estonian SNAPEX. In case you haven’t already read that one, I recommend doing so before continuing on with this one.

The expansion of the armed forces include a number of systems I did not mention in the last post, including key upgrades to the personal gear of the infantry men (body armour and night vision), as well as a number of turret-less CV9030 from Norwegian surplus stocks. These will be rebuilt in-country to function in a number of supporting tasks as part of the 1. brigade, such as command vehicles, mortar carriers (either with turreted or portee-mounted heavy mortars), ambulance/MEDEVAC, observer posts, and so forth. A second major batch of Javelins paid for by the US have also now arrived to further boost the anti-vehicle capability.

Noteworthy is the fact that the current expansion have solely been directed towards the ground forces. The air force is still non-existent, and the navy is made up of a number of older patrol craft, most of them having been donated or sold to Estonian from other countries around the Baltic Sea after they had become surplus to their original owners. The pride of the navy is a small but relatively modern force for coastal mine warfare, made up of three ex-UK minehunters of the Sandown-class and a single light minelayer of the Danish Lindormen-class. None of the Estonian vessels feature any kind of modern anti-air or anti-ship armament. The navy is supported by the relatively sizeable maritime component from the border guards, which is also made up of patrol craft that have been acquired mostly in the same way as the navy’s vessels.

Still, this is hardly a problem. The country lack the strategic depth to be able to base tactical aircraft at a safe distance from the frontline, and the navy would only come to play by the time reinforcements and supply convoys start to arrive across the Baltic Sea. While it is certainly true that the Russian Baltic Fleet would try to seal off the battlefield and besige the Baltic states by blocking the sea routes, this would probably happen not in the immediate vicinity of Estonian waters, but further south. There, the main players will be the combined fleets of Poland, Germany and Denmark, coupled with US units. For Estonia to muster a squadron of any meaningful size to have a go at trying to keep the sea lanes open would most likely incur a prohibitively large cost. As such, it is probably safer to invest the limited resources available on the army, who in any case will be the one to try to keep the fight going long enough for NATO to bring in the reinforcements needed.

Is everything nice and fine then? Certainly not. The Estonian forces will always be the underdog, simply due to the small size of the population compared to their eastern neighbor. Despite the recent expansion, there are also a number of key systems that needs to be upgraded, with the artillery park probably being the most acute. The heavier FH70 is still adequate, but no more, while the venerable D-30 122 mm howitzer of Soviet origin is definitely starting to show its age, and is lacking in both range, handling characteristics, and firepower. There is a reason why even the notoriously artillery-heavy Finnish army was prepared to give up a number of their D-30’s (or 122 H 63, as it is known locally, with 63 indicating the year of introduction), and it wasn’t purely about brotherly love. These would certainly need to be replaced by either a self-propelled system or a modern light-weight heavy howitzer such as the BAE M777, and procurement of a heavy self-propelled system is in the plans (curiously enough illustrated by what seems to be a Russian 2S19 Msta-S), with the German PzH 2000 currently entering Lithuanian service being the likely candidate.

When it comes to ground based air defence, there are also obvious deficiencies. The Mistral 3 is a potent weapon, and networking it to the Giraffe should provide the target data needed for added lethality. Still, a modern medium-range system such as the NASAMS would greatly enhance the over all capability against airborne threats by providing a longer reach and a layered air defence setup.

The question of tanks have also been discussed, with the Estonian army currently fielding none and the 2022-plan being void of them. The main battle tank have been the undisputed queen of the battlefield since its introduction, and recent developments to the level of protection (new anti-missile systems, enhanced ceramic/composite as well as reactive armour) have further heightened their lethality. Estonia is a rather flat country, with a fairly large proportion of open fields and farmlands, and as such relatively suitable for tanks to operate in. Still, modern tanks are extremely expensive to operate, and it is questionable if they fit into the prospect of a light mobile force moving quickly from position to position, withering down the adversary while never staying in the same positions long enough for the enemy to bring their whole force to bear on them. I find it questionable whether getting tanks at this point would be called for, especially given that both Poland and the US seems to be ready to dedicate a sizeable force (with today’s standards) of modern tanks on NATO’s northeastern flank. Given Estonia’s limited resources and lack of other key systems, such as the medium ranged surface-to-air missiles discussed above, my impression is that the money would be better spent elsewhere. Otherwise, it is entirely possible that the number of tanks acquired would be too small to make a real impact on the battlefield, while still being large enough to eat up too much of the defence budget.

Back to the snap exercise, it has been enlarged to include over 25,000 members of the Kaitseliit Estonian Defence League volunteer organization (in some sources this is referred to as a separate exercise, but even if so, the two snap exercises are certainly linked). The interesting part is the fact that while it might simply have been a case of logistics, the headquarters wanting to coordinate and/or evaluate one branch at a time, the schedule also fit what could easily be the blueprint for a staggered response to a theoretical threat scenario, where first the regular units are deployed in the field, and if the crisis continues to worsen the Kaitseliit would be called up a few days later.

Thanks to gideonic and redrocket as well as to Ambassador Lauri Lepik and the team behind @estNATO for giving input on the last post and continued development!

Estonia Leads the Way

In the stream of Russian snap drills that have come to be part of the ”new normal”, news broke today of a more surprising snap exercise, held by Kaitsevägi, the Estonian Defence Forces. In a surprise move, Estonia has launched an unannounced exercise involving the whole standing army made up of two infantry brigades, the aptly named 1. and 2. Jalaväebrigaad (est. infantry brigade). The exercise does not include calling up reservists.

What is truly astonishing is the rapid expansion undertaken by the Estonian Defence Forces as a whole. Before the Russian invasion of Crimea the Estonian army consisted of a single light infantry brigade, featuring wheeled transports in the form of the Patria (Sisu) XA-180EST and XA-188 APC as the only vehicles with any kind of armour protection, and while a nice long-term expansion plan had been drawn up already in 2007, little of this had materialised. The Estonian army was a professional force with ample of experience from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from UN missions, but it was woefully undersized and lacked key weapons systems and capabilities to be able to defend its homeland from an aggression by a modern mechanized force.

However, everything changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a number of planned procurements shifted into high gear. These included the acquisition of surplus CV9035NL infantry fighting vehicles from the Netherlands (also source of the earlier XA-188) and modern Javelin anti-tank missiles, of which especially the former is a key element in the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s transformation into a (light) mechanised brigade. The years since have also seen the delivery of the first Mistral M3 short-range air defence missiles, which together with the Saab Giraffe radars they are networked to significantly boosts the integral air defence capability of the 1. Brigade.

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Corporal Roman Metsatalu from the Scouts Battalion on a foot patrol in western Baghdad. Estonian Army soldiers served with US Army soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, as part of the Multi-National Corps to secure a 15-kilometer section of road in western Baghdad, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Source: Wikimdeia Commons/Sgt. David Foley, U.S. Army
The numbers have also grown, with the Kaitseliit (volunteer Defence League, roughly corresponding to the National Guard) receiving a record number of applicants in 2015 and crucially the 2. Jalaväebrigaad being activated in 2014. The brigade might be young, but it traces its roots back to the Estonian War of Independence and the Julius Kuperjanov Partisan Battalion (est. Ülemleitnant Kuperjanovi partisanide pataljon). With the 1. Brigade being formed around the capital of Tallinn in the northern parts of the country, the new brigade is situated in the south-eastern parts of the country, proudly wearing the arms of Livonia and colours of the city of Tartu, opposite the border of Pskov and the Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division.

Even more importantly, the army has stepped up its training regime, both in size and in complexity. The annual spring exercise of 2014, Kevadtorm 2014, was the largest held in the country up to that date, but was surpassed by the corresponding Siil 2015 exercise the following year. Siil 2015 was not only the biggest Estonian exercise to date, but it was also the first time the whole brigade took to the field to practice as a coherent unit, the first time the artillery battalion fired all their guns as a unit, and the exercise ended with the first time the whole brigade stood at attention together in a magnificent lõpurivistus (literally “finishing alignment”). To these can now be added today’s snap drill, specifically meant to test the ability of the army to respond swiftly to the emergence of a new threat (something one can’t help but feel would be a sorely needed exercise in Finland as well).

While Tallinn might be worried about their eastern neighbour, they are certainly not going to just lay flat in the hope of not provoking the bear. Instead, they are doing the best they can to plug the holes identified in the capabilities of their armed forces. The fact that certain key capabilities, such as air policing, are provided by NATO, means that they seem to be doing quite well with the limited resources they can muster with 2% of the GDP.

The next time anyone tries, Estonia is determined to not give in without a fight.