When Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it aggressively pushed its main battle tanks and lighter, but heavily-armed, BMP and BMD fighting vehicles forward on the offense. But in a classic tactical error, Russian armor lacked enough escorting infantry to detect and flush out ambushes in built-up areas.
This resulted in rapid, catastrophic losses—and contributed to Russia hitting the milestone of 2,001 main battle tanks visually confirmed destroyed, captured, or abandoned by May 30, 2023. That count only includes losses individually documented by the Oryx blog—meaning that the actual count is surely higher, considering the losses that didn’t get photographed.
However, a May report by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank clarifies that Russian tankers are now mostly using more cautious tactics supporting infantry, and employing technologies and techniques that implicitly reduce the effectiveness of even highly capable Javelin missiles supplied by the U.S.
This is part of a broader, ongoing process of adaptation by Russia’s military attempting to correct at least some of its least successful tactics from early in the war.
The report’s authors Jack Watling and Nick Reynold arrived at their findings on Russian armor through interviews with various individuals, including two members of Ukraine’s general staff, the deputy commander of Ukraine’s northern command, deputy brigade and tank battalion commanders, and a Ukrainian tank crew.
Russia’s Staggering Tank Losses
Of the over-2,000 Russian tanks counted lost by Oryx, 62% were deemed permanently destroyed, another 27% were confirmed captured by Ukraine, and the remainder were labeled abandoned or heavily damaged. Attrition of valuable infantry fighting vehicles was similarly immense, with 2,372 Russian BMP, BMD, and BTR-82A vehicles lost.
Ukrainian infantry armed with long-range anti-tank missiles—notably, heat-seeking Javelin missiles, shorter-ranged predictive-guidance NLOS missiles, and Ukrainian laser-guided Stugna-Ps—accounted for many Russian armor losses early on. But Ukrainian sources later reported that indirect artillery fires guided by overwatching drones actually killed even more Russian tanks than anti-tank missiles.
Other contributors to losses include anti-tank mines, shorter-range anti-tank rockets, civilian quadcopter drones dropping anti-tank grenades, and Ukraine’s own tanks—which engaged Russian armor in battles around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Volnovakha.
Russia is thought to have had an active fleet of roughly 3,000 tanks when it invaded Ukraine, meaning that it has lost the equivalent of 2/3 of what it started with. However, Russia’s fleet is receiving a trickle of newly produced T-90M tanks. The fleet is also receiving old Soviet tanks reactivated from storage, though Russia has only proven able to reactivate a small subset of that stockpile.
Tactical Adaptations: Infantry Support and Gunfire Raids
The RUSI report states that after the early war catastrophes, Russian armor is using “significantly evolved” tactics aimed at minimizing losses by keeping them in a supporting role. The primary mission is now observed to be direct fire support by tanks situated 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) from Ukrainian positions, outside the reach of shorter-range anti-tank weapons. At that distance, Russian tankists use their optics to spot enemy positions and destroy them with direct main gun fire.
The notable recent exception to that support-oriented role was Russia’s disastrous winter offensive targeting Vuhledar, where massed Russian armor assaults repeatedly smashed themselves to pieces against robust, prepared Ukrainian anti-tank defenses—including pre-sighted artillery, mines, kamikaze FPV drones and anti-tank guided missiles—leading to the effective destruction of Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigades.
Currently, a favored Russian tactic is the ‘gunfire raid’, preferably made at night by agile 0020T-80BVM tanks equipped with superior passive thermal optics (many older Russian tanks rely on infrared searchlights, which expose their position when used.)
In such raids, a Russian tank rushes up to allow for direct fire on a Ukrainian position, fires off all their ammunition as rapidly as possible, and then hightails it back out of sight. Such attacks are often timed to hit Ukrainian forces ‘changing shifts’ to cause maximum chaos. You can read a detailed analysis of a more risky gunfire raid recorded by a Separatist tank unit in the video below.
Russian tanks, especially old ones, are also being used as indirect fire artillery. The report observes that while this use is “inefficient” due to their low angle of fire, tanks are sufficiently protected to provide indirect support in higher-risk areas where artillery and munition supply convoys would be at grave risk of destruction, particularly from aerial attacks or counter-battery artillery salvoes.
Watling observes that even the antiquated T-54 and T-62 tanks that Russia has deployed to Ukraine pose “a serious battlefield threat when there are a limited number of [long-range] anti-tank guided missiles…” Their big guns still leave them more effective in many fire support roles than most BMPs with smaller, shorter-range cannons.
Older, more expendable tanks are also often used in urban combat, where engagement range is short and flank ambushes are common enough that the advantages of modern tanks with superior optics and frontal armor are reduced.
The report notes that Russian tanks serve crucial support rolls in urban assaults through “suppression of urban structures and rapid breaching of buildings to avoid entering through choke points and known avenues of advance.” Less euphemistically, it implies that Russian tanks are being used to literally blast new corridors through buildings, through which infantry can ingress at reduced risk.
Close and Quick on the Draw: Tank Vs. Tank Battles
The occasional tank-vs-tank battles in Ukraine usually occur at short range, from one kilometer (.62 miles) down to just 50 meters. They are usually won by the tank that spots the other and shoots first, as has long been the case historically. Ukrainian gunners report that striking the point between the turret and glacis (frontal hull armor) is most likely to result in a one-shot-kill of a Russian tank.
However, mobility kills aimed at tank tracks are also extremely effective, as immobilized tanks on the frontline that can’t be promptly recovered are almost inevitably finished off by precision artillery or small drones dropping grenades through the hatches left open by the fleeing crew. That said, attempts to recover abandoned tanks often results in “extended skirmishing by both sides.”
Old and New Tricks
Watling writes that the characteristic “bricks” of explosive reactive armor (ERA) girding both Russian and Ukrainian tanks are actually “highly effective” against “most” anti-tank guided missiles, including gun-launched Kombat missile used by Ukrainian tanks. Multiple guided-missile hits sometimes fail to knockout Russian tanks.
But, more worryingly, Watling implies that Russia is having some success with counter-measures aimed at defeating U.S.-supplied Javelin heat-seeking top-attack missiles—arguably the most expensive and capable of this type of missile given to Ukraine.
One method is to operate around dusk and dawn (when thermal imagers struggle to distinguish vehicles) to “significantly decrease….the probability of a kill” as well as using special infrared signature-minimizing coverings that are “highly effective” in reducing the heat signatures of their vehicles.
Watling also notes that alterations to the engine decks on Russian tanks are effective in reducing their heat plume. This may refer to snorkel-like heat-venting pipes spotted before the war on some Russian tanks intended to divert IR-missiles.
As the vast majority of missiles used by and supplied to Ukraine employ optical or laser guidance, that implies that the missile being referred to is likely the IR-guided Javelin.
The RUSI report’s findings may seem to contradict the huge outpouring of media showing the destruction of Russian tanks. But it also may simply mean that anti-tank methods not described in the report are responsible for a larger share of the kills—particularly mines and artillery fire.
Whether Russia’s more successful adaptations can stem the massive bleeding from this war remains to be seen. There’s a particular risk that Russian armor may again be subject to higher losses, as it’s employed for counter attacks in response to Ukraine’s forthcoming summer offensive.
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