- Footage of Azerbaijani drones attacking Armenia forces during earlier this year showed the small, relatively cheap munitions wreaking havoc on tanks and armoured vehicles.
- The brief but destructive conflict has reinvigorated debate about whether tanks, which have long been the most dominant ground weapon the battlefield, will still be viable in a clash between modern, technologically advanced militaries.
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On November 9, an armistice brokered by Russia and signed by the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a six-week conflict that killed some 5,000 people.
The brutality of the fighting, which has displaced tens of thousands of people, was due in part to the large-scale use of armed drones.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev directly credited the drones with Azerbaijan’s battlefield success, saying they “shrank our casualties” and helped destroy entrenched Armenian defences that had been in place for decades.
The footage showed the Armenian military taking unsustainable losses, especially among its tanks and armoured vehicles, long believed to be the dominant platforms in any army. The massive toll, seen around the world, has reignited debate about the future of the tank.
The debate has been around since at least 1973, when dozens of Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed daily by Arab infantry using Soviet-built AT-3 Sagger anti-tank guided missiles during the Yom Kippur War.
Those arguing against the tank say that there is no point in investing in new ones since they will easily be destroyed by attack helicopters and anti-tank weapons, which have only gotten more advanced since the 1970s.
The recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to lend credence to this argument.
On October 26, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev claimed his country’s forces destroyed 252 tanks and 50 infantry fighting vehicles. A day before the armistice was announced, Armenia claimed it had destroyed 784 armoured vehicles in total.
Both sides are likely exaggerating, but dozens of videos published by the Azeris, as well as open-source analysis, make clear that armoured units suffered catastrophic losses.
Tank detractors also point to the Dutch decision to disband their entire tank force in 2011, the US Marine Corps’ current disbanding of its tank units, and reports that the British may soon get rid of their tanks as proof that the tank’s days are over.
Drones are a major new phenomenon
But the case against tanks is not so clear-cut.
For one, just as anti-tank weaponry has gotten more advanced, so have tank defences. Today’s main battle tanks are equipped with things like composite armour, explosive reactive armour plates, and active protective systems designed to detect and destroy incoming anti-tank weapons.
The threat today, as highlighted by the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, is from relatively new weapons: drones and loitering munitions.
“In terms of [unmanned aerial vehicles], there’s no question that that is a major new phenomenon,” Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and a former Marine Corps colonel, told Insider.
Azerbaijan has invested heavily in drones from Russia, Turkey, and Israel, buying armed attack drones as well as “kamikaze” drones.
Their effectiveness was clear. One Azeri video showed at least five Armenian tanks in of a column of seven destroyed or damaged in a single engagement. Drones also provided targeting information for Azeri artillery, something that Russian drones in Ukraine did with devastating effect.
A new phase
Recent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has not settled the debate over the tank’s future. Rather, it marks a new phase of it, showing that the threat of drones must be addressed for tanks to be useful.
“The question is not ‘do I get rid of tanks?’ but ‘if they still have utility, what do I do to protect them so they can be employed in the things they are useful for?” said David Johnson, a principal researcher at the RAND Corporation and former US Army colonel.
“The big question is, ‘how do you kill the drones?” he added. “That’s a hard question.”
The US Army has lacked sufficient anti-air defence capabilities for quite some time. Many of its short-range air-defence weapons were retired after the Cold War, and it has long relied on the Air Force to achieve air supremacy.
But a number of anti-air and anti-drone projects are in development. The Army has ordered anti-aircraft IM-SHORAD Strykers for its immediate anti-air needs, and jamming and laser systems are also being pursued.
New tanks are still being developed and deployed. The US Army began fielding the new M1A2 SEP V3 last summer. China is continuing the roll-out of its new Type 15 light tank, and Russia is expected to receive its first batch of T-14 Armatas soon.
Tanks are still useful, but future wars promise to be more destructive
Tanks have largely proven their worth in the 21st century’s irregular conflicts.
US tanks were particularly useful in urban combat during the war in Iraq, and Canadian and Danish tanks proved so effective in Afghanistan that the US Marine Corps sent 15 tanks on a similar mission in Helmand province, resulting in fewer attacks on convoys and numerous battlefield successes.
More recently, Russian and separatist tanks played key roles in the most important battles in Donbass against Ukrainian forces.
It’s also worth noting that Armenia and Azerbaijan are not first-rate military powers. Armenian air defences were largely outdated, severely limiting their ability to shoot down the most threatening drones. Additionally, Armenian tanks may not have had the latest protection equipment.
However, a modern war between two great powers will be far more destructive than anything the US or its allies are used to, meaning conflicts over the past two decades aren’t the best models for such a fight.
“You always have to be a little bit careful extrapolating from these kinds of regional conflicts to what a great power conflict would look like,” Cancian said, noting that the Spanish Civil War was wildly different from World War II.
“Modern warfare is extremely destructive, and there is just no way of getting around that,” Cancian added. “When you see a lot of tanks getting chewed up and aeroplanes getting chewed up â€” that’s what modern warfare looks like.”
While the US has focused on fighting non-state actors over the past 20 years, the prospect of great-power conflict is once again taking centre stage. And the US’s potential rivals now are investing in combined arms â€” both air and ground power.
“They’re buying both.” Johnson said. “They realise that the combined arms team can exploit the effects of drones and provide protective mobility in doing it.”
That will lead to losses for all platforms at levels not seen in decades.
“We are accustomed to insurgencies where the pace of the conflict is very slow. It’s all about skirmishes” Cancian said. “This is quite different.”