No, Drones Haven’t Made Tanks Obsolete
Wrecked armor in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was down to bad training and terrain, not magical technology.
In 1897, the American author Mark Twain replied in a letter to a London journalist, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” The same applies to the recent claims of the death of the tank, and by implication all major armored vehicles.
The overinflated claims of both sides in the recently reignited two-week-long fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia in their long-standing conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region have caused a rash of new claims of the tank’s demise. The social media battlefield is hotly disputed between both sides, with each posting videos of the destruction they’ve caused to the other side’s armor. These would indeed be stunning claims—if they were true. As of this week Armenia was claiming that the forces it supports destroyed literally a division’s worth of tanks, while Azerbaijan asserted a more qualified total of a division’s worth of “tanks and amphibious vehicles.”
The rumor mill created the tales of Twain’s death out of the illness of an English cousin of his. It’s now spinning at full speed over the Armenia-Azerbaijan fight. Both sides are deploying numerous digital stills and videos to support their extraordinary claims of the numbers of opposing armored vehicles destroyed in battle. Taken at face value, this seems to point to an obvious conclusion: Tanks (and other protected vehicles) cannot last, as they are death traps on a modern battlefield dominated by cheap drones. This is wrong.
The tank may die, but the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region doesn’t offer any evidence of an incoming demise. At the core of the issue are three battlefield elements—training, terrain, and tactics—and one underpinning fallacy: the false assumption that new technology, in particular the much-touted rise of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, trumps the old technology of the armored vehicle.
Azerbaijani and Armenian claims that they destroyed mechanized systems in huge numbers using drones are vacuous. One need not look too deep to realize that the press releases on both sides are flatly ridiculous, rather like the World War II U.S. Army Air Forces claims of how many German fighters their bombers shot down.
In their respective press releases, each side asserts they “destroyed” somewhere between 130 (Armenian) and 137 (Azerbaijani) armored vehicles in just the first 10 days of the current conflict. A simple review of the combat forces each side had prior to the conflict shows these claims are exaggerated. For either side that would be an incredible percentage of their overall forces. Azerbaijan likely had somewhere between 500 and 600 tanks before the recent fighting, and while Armenian forces are smaller, they too had no more than a few hundred operational tanks at the outset.
The cherry-picked supposed video evidence also shows another aspect. Not all of these hits stem from high-end technology. Some of the most retweeted videos clearly show tanks being destroyed by anti-tank land mines, a technology that is over 100 years old, while others are hit by indistinct munitions. But for perhaps the most comprehensive review of the respective tank (and other vehicle) losses it would be a good idea to look toward an amateur South African summation here. Yes, drones and small guided munitions are racking up destroyed vehicles, but against what quality of forces?
This phenomenon is not new. Non-military historians often talk about how it was the rise of gunpowder that led to the end of the mounted knight in Western Europe. The reality was that it was the rise of mass, disciplined, pike-wielding infantry such as the Swiss Eidgenossen and later the German Landsknechts that doomed the armored knight on horseback starting in the 1200s and accelerating from there. Mounted and armored knights, once the kings of the battlefield, were not degraded and dismounted by a new technology but by one of the oldest. Coherent and single-minded infantry formations are an idea dating back at least to the Greeks from 2,000 years earlier. Training, not technology, was the dominant force.
That’s extremely visible on the Nagorno-Karabakh battlefield. The videos presented, on both sides, demonstrate that neither seems to have a grasp on the idea that the cost of the physical weapon system is a fraction of the value of training people to use that system competently. Both sides have similar technology, with the Russians even supplying their best T-90 battle tanks to Azerbaijan, though Moscow is friendly to both countries. Neither seems to have grasped the idea that even the most high-tech tank (or armored fighting vehicle) is only so much scrap metal if you do not have a trained and disciplined fighting force inside those vehicles. Having a parade with your shiny, new tanks is one thing. Being able to use them, competently, on the battlefield is another. In video after video we see armored vehicles clumped together in tight clusters as though on an administrative, not combat, movements. They are not maneuvering while dispersed widely as the conditions in combat would warrant. Similarly, vehicles seen in static fighting positions are almost universally observed without any serious attempt at camouflage in their final seconds.
When it comes to terrain, the dry mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh are not good “tank country” as my fellow soldiers in U.S. Army tanks, past and present, would agree. The land is desiccated, without concealment in the form of vegetation, and constraining to armor. That makes tanks, especially those operating without infantry or other elements of what we would call a “combined arms team,” particularly vulnerable—as has been the case throughout armored vehicles’ history. Terrain can be overcome, but that requires a disciplined force that has specifically prepared itself for operations in that area. In 1965, the U.S. Army was unready for the jungles of Vietnam. By 1968, the Americans were tactically prepared but incapable or incompetent at the higher levels of war. In 1991, after years of training at the National Training Center in the deserts of California, U.S. forces were uniquely ready to destroy the Iraqis in Kuwait and southern Iraq, ditto to 2003. But then they dropped the ball. When the conditions of battle in Iraq shifted from one of conventional warfare to confronting an unconventional insurgency beginning in late 2003, the Americans were once again unprepared to deal that form of war for almost half a decade.
Technology and terrain can be overcome by tactics. A professional military force, with a defined area of threat or concern, develops very explicit responses to the terrain and the threat they believe they will face. They then train, and importantly equip, their forces to obviate the limitations they may face (such as open terrain without obvious concealment) or exploit their potential advantages. But in almost every video shown by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the opposing forces were behaving like amateurs—clumped together, not using combined arms tactics, and leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks from the air. Air defense artillery is a crucial component for the combined arms team of a land force, particularly one without significant airpower of its own. As U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, in reference to the Nazi defenses, “Hitler built a fortress around Europe, but he forgot to put a roof on it.” Much the same could be said in this conflict. The drones in this conflict are not exactly stealth aircraft or ones dropping munitions from 50,000 feet up. They can be shot down, relatively easily, with the right equipment and training.
The Nagorno-Karabakh skirmishing doesn’t tell us anything about the death of armor. All it shows is two incompetently trained and equipped military forces that left themselves clumsily open, and the power of quickly produced video making extravagant claims in the social media age. But there are conclusions to be drawn. Western European forces, and to a degree the United States as well, undervalue air defense artillery. Drones will be an increasing threat—but cheap drones are cheap to shoot down as well. Competent modern combined arms combat forces, even without air dominance, can sweep that threat from the sky. Faced with parade-ground forces that have not devoted the majority of their budgets to training, but instead to buying the newest toys, any modern professional force will prevail.
Robert Bateman is a writer, historian, and former U.S. Army officer