Asia Defense | Security

Tanks vs. Drones Isn’t Rock, Paper, Scissors

Unmanned combat air vehicles have notched up kills against armored fighting vehicles all over the world. Does it mean the end of the tank?

Jacob Parakilas
Tanks vs. Drones Isn’t Rock, Paper, Scissors

In this image taken from a footage released by Armenian Defense Ministry on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, Armenian forces destroy Azerbaijani tank at the contact line of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan.

Credit: Armenian Defense Ministry via AP

In the first days of the new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azeri military claimed a number of destroyed tanks and other armored fighting vehicles. Those strikes seem to have been made — and filmed — by a Turkish-designed armed drone, the Bayraktar TB2. With armed drones bearing anti-tank ordnance increasingly cheap, accessible and capable, does it spell the end of the tank’s century of battlefield dominance?

Two decades ago, the U.S. rushed the first armed drones into service for its post-9/11 campaigns. They carried no more than two Hellfire missiles and were propelled by an engine producing less power than a contemporary Toyota Camry. But what they had was endurance: a drone could circle its target for hours on end before striking, whereas a high-performance jet or attack helicopter would have to return to base for fuel and crew rest in a fraction of that period. This was a crucial factor in the irregular campaigns the U.S. employed them in, where the targets had little or no anti-aircraft capability. Most strategists, however, assumed that in a high-end war, drones flying lower and slower than a Second World War fighter plane would be shredded by an adversary with integrated air defenses.

But as the control systems have become more reliable and components more affordable, drones are increasingly seen as a relevant capability for regular warfare as well, especially since there is no danger of a pilot being captured or killed. Cheap unmanned combat aerial vehicles may not have the stealthy features of a 5th-generation fighter, but they are small and quiet enough to evade notice from personnel on the ground. And air defenses can be overcome with specialist suicide drones, like the IAI Harop, which have been used in Nagorno-Karabakh as far back as 2016.

Once air defenses are rendered inoperative, tanks are an obvious next target for combat drones. Left unmolested, they can punch through defensive lines and quickly turn breakthroughs into routs — the staple maneuver of armored warfare since 1940. Their frontal and side armor render them difficult to damage, but the same level of armor protection cannot be applied all-round lest they become too slow and top-heavy. That creates particular vulnerabilities from above, exacerbated by the crew’s limited situational awareness. And tank weapons are generally designed for direct-fire engagements of ground targets, meaning that unless they are accompanied by mobile anti-aircraft vehicles, their only defense against aerial threats is to hide.

The tank, of course, has outlived confident predictions of the end of its life before. The appearance of guided anti-tank missiles – ATGMs – from the 1950s onwards was theorized to herald the replacement of the traditional tank with lighter, nimbler missile-armed vehicles. But such missiles, though they took a fearsome toll on armor in the conventional wars between Israel and its neighbors, were expensive, required well-trained crews and had limited use except as tank-killers. Meanwhile, lighter armored vehicles proved extremely vulnerable to cheaper, dumber weapons: rocket-propelled grenades, autocannon and landmines.

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The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced that theme again decades later: mobile forces supported by airpower and artillery proved perfectly capable of outmaneuvering and destroying fortified or armored opponents, but once the invasion ended and the insurgency began, light-armored vehicles revealed their weaknesses against rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. Tanks were drafted into some counterinsurgency duties, but more importantly lessons from making armored vehicles more survivable informed a new generation of heavily-armored infantry carriers which were rushed into service and proved much more adept at protecting their occupants.

It is the simplicity and wide applicability of the concept — mobility, armor and firepower — that gives tanks their longevity. It is not enough for there to be a weapon capable of defeating a tank in order to make it obsolete; there must also be a means of accomplishing the same missions. After all, by the beginning of the 20th century naval mines were fully capable of sinking battleships, but they could not provide gunfire support to invasion forces, serve as flagships or be deployed to demonstrate national intent. Decades later, what ended battleships was the aircraft carrier, which proved over the course of World War II to be not only lethal to battleships but more flexible and capable than them. Similarly, until remotely-operated vehicles can shield an infantry squad in close-quarters combat as well as fight in open terrain, they are unlikely to supplant tanks entirely.

None of that is to suggest that tanks can simply roll through this profound technological change unchanged. Rather than introducing wholly new tanks with anti-drone features at a time when R&D budgets are largely going elsewhere, the response is likely to be doctrinal – developing tactics and possibly other platforms that can at least shield tanks from overhead threats. The alternative is to risk much greater casualties amongst unarmored land forces, and avoiding that end was, ironically, the rationale for the development of both tanks and unmanned aerial vehicles.