The lessons of Debaltseve: Armored vehicles still matter, but they need to be mobile, lethal, and survivable
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Brian Drohan and Andy Forney
Best Defense guest columnists
After nearly fifteen years of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, American advocates of heavy armored forces interpreted Ukrainian forces’ defeat at the battle of Debaltseve as an indication that “tanks still matter.” But the key lesson of the Debaltseve fight is a broader one: Combat vehicles of whatever kind must provide the mobility, protection, and lethality that commanders require in order to best integrate armor, infantry, and artillery in a combined arms fight.
On February 18, 2015, after several weeks of heavy fighting in and around Debaltseve, pro-Russian forces surrounded the city. Cut off from friendly forces, government troops withdrew from the city in a manner which the Guardian called “anything but orderly.” In the aftermath of the battle, many reports highlighted one particular aspect of the fighting: The separatists’ use of Russian-supplied armored vehicles to drive home their attack.
In a sense, the separatists’ use of armor to achieve battlefield success could be interpreted as a vindication of the continued need for “heavy” forces in contemporary warfare. Several accounts reported the presence of T-72s and T-80s in eastern Ukraine. In late January, pro-Russian armored columns fought entrenched Ukrainian forces outside Debaltseve. Although the Ukrainians reportedly achieved some successes, separatist forces used their tanks’ mobility and firepower to break the Ukrainian defenses and force government troops to withdraw. But focusing on the use of tanks misses the greater significance of the fighting.
Although armored vehicles played an important role in the fighting, the separatists’ success actually was achieved through the effective use of combined arms operations — that is, the coordinated employment of tanks, infantry, artillery, and other battlefield assets to achieve military objectives. Rebel artillery disrupted Ukrainian vehicle columns withdrawing from the city, forcing many soldiers to leave their vehicles behind and evacuate on foot. The Guardian quoted one Ukrainian soldier: “Guys are running out on foot through the fields because [rebels] are shelling vehicles.” The ability to exercise effective command and control by communicating orders and coordinating actions — an essential element in combined arms operations — also proved vital to the separatists’ success. The separatists coordinated their actions better than Ukrainian forces. As Ukrainian commander Semyon Semyonchenko said: “What hindered us in Debaltseve? We had enough men and material… the problem was with the leadership and coordination of actions.” According to Semyonchenko, the Ukrainian defeat was “the result of incompetent management of our troops.”
Finally, the Ukrainian experience indicates that combat vehicles which cannot protect soldiers from the threats they face on the contemporary battlefield are of limited value. These vehicles lack the capability to influence the fight. Based on the Guardian’s report, Ukrainian troops had a greater chance of escaping Debaltseve if they abandoned their vehicles. Most of the Ukrainian army’s vehicles are Soviet-era designs. This includes armored fighting vehicles such as BMPs and BTRs, trucks and utility vehicles, as well as towed and self-propelled artillery. Some new tank models have been introduced since Ukrainian independence, such as the T-84, but these vehicles are evolutionary upgrades of Soviet-era main battle tanks such as the T-72 and T-80, which also remain in service. Ukrainian troops have upgraded some aging armored vehicles with field-expedient protection designed to prematurely detonate incoming rocket-propelled grenades. These modifications reflect the vehicles’ vulnerability to lightweight, portable anti-tank weapons. The key lesson here is that outdated vehicles cost money to maintain and employ, but add little to combined arms capabilities when facing a complex enemy force armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, not to mention heavy artillery and tanks of their own.
Like the Russians and Ukrainians, the U.S. Army’s armored force largely relies on Cold War-era vehicles such as the Abrams tank and Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. These heavy forces remain effective and relevant, as demonstrated during the Iraq War, but armored units are also vulnerable to improvised explosive devices and lightweight anti-tank weapons. Another limitation is that heavy forces take a long time to reach the theater of operations. For these reasons, lighter infantry brigade combat teams can deploy around the world at short notice, but once these units arrive in theater they lack the mobility, protection, and lethality of armored forces, which makes infantry brigades vulnerable.
In the early 2000s, brigade combat teams based on the eight-wheeled Stryker were created in an effort to strike a balance between the infantry brigade’s lack of vehicle mobility and the armored brigade’s inability to deploy quickly. In Iraq, the Stryker provided infantry units with mobility, except sometimes in mud and rough terrain, but lacked sufficient lethality and protection. Strykers received field-expedient armor upgrades similar to those carried out by the Ukrainian army in its current conflict. In summary, Abrams tanks and Bradleys have the best combination of mobility, protection, and lethality but lack deployability. Strkyers are mobile and provide some degree of protection, but lack lethality. Infantry brigades, however, are lacking in all three capabilities.
U.S. Army combat vehicle modernization efforts in the near term should therefore focus on improving the infantry brigade combat team’s vulnerabilities so that U.S. Army forces do not face a similar tactical situation as the Ukrainians in Debaltseve. The infantry brigade combat team’s lethality is based on dismounted infantry squads. Humvees provide its mobility. But Humvees are poorly protected, provide little firepower compared to armored forces, and lack off-road mobility. During the Iraq War, improvised explosive devices and anti-tank weapons exposed the Humvee’s limitations as a fighting vehicle. To better protect soldiers, the Army adopted new vehicles such as the more heavily armored MRAP. Since the end of the Iraq War however, light infantry units have rapidly divested themselves of MRAPs. Humvees and MRAPs face the same limitations as the modified Ukrainian vehicles that now litter the Debaltseve battlefield. Lacking the necessary capabilities of mobility, protection, and lethality, U.S. Army infantry brigades are far more vulnerable to adversaries who effectively employ combined arms operations, be they state, non-state, or “hybrid” enemies.
The U.S. Army must consider these shortcomings as it makes critical decisions on the Army’s contribution to the joint force during this current period of fiscal uncertainty. Planners and programmers cannot become wedded to particular vehicle platforms, but must consider the capabilities needed to attain overmatch and win in the current and future operational environment. To succeed, the Army must identify the capabilities necessary to win on the battlefield and modernize toward those requirements. Combat vehicles must bring useful capabilities to the fight—mobility, protection, and lethality—rather than the charred hulks that now line the roads leading out of Debaltseve. Future combat vehicle designs may not seek to combine all three elements in one platform. Remotely operated or autonomous systems could perform reconnaissance or logistical functions, increasing mobility while requiring much less protection than a manned system. Enabled by networked communications, heavily protected but less-mobile manned command and control vehicles might employ “swarms” of highly mobile, remotely operated attack vehicles to increase lethality without the weight of armor to protect a crew. While the future will most likely include budgetary “belt-tightening” and enforced prioritization, the battle of Debaltseve shows that combat vehicle capabilities matter. The U.S. military must heed this lesson.
Brian Drohan and Andy Forney are U.S. Army officers and instructors in the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy-West Point. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
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