From the appearance of the first armored fighting vehicle in 1916, critics of the tank have argued that it is a weapon that would have short utility, given the development of new technologies. In fact, so sure was the German leadership in 1916 that the tank was a useless weapon that it made no effort to design an armored fighting vehicle of its own but continued to pour tons of steel into the construction of useless Dreadnoughts. The devastating British attacks at Cambrai in 1917 and Amiens on 8 August 1918, the latter termed by Erich Ludendorff, driver of German strategy in the last two years of World War I, as “the black day in the history of the German Army,” seemingly certified the tank’s worth. Not surprisingly, given the few that were used during the war, the interwar period was to see a furious debate about the utility of the tank, particularly in the United Kingdom, but also in Germany.
The real innovators in the 1920s and 30s were to be the Germans with their refinement of the combined-arms tactics, which had been so successful in their spring 1918 offensive. Interestingly, given their reputation, the majority of the German generals in the 1920s and 30s held considerable doubts about the utility of the armored fighting vehicle on the battlefields of the future. But exposure to how effective tanks could be in the Polish and French campaigns persuaded most of the doubters. Significantly, one of those doubters, Erwin Rommel, a convinced infantry man who was appointed to command the 7th Panzer Division in March 1940, would prove to be the most effective division commander in the destruction of the French Army in May 1940. That was because the doctrinal framework within which he worked was one that emphasized combined arms, and the armored fighting vehicle proved to be a devastating addition to combined-arms warfare by increasing the speed of exploitation by an order of magnitude.
Unfortunately, the lesson the British drew from the 1940 campaign was that tanks were a wonder weapon, which could best be utilized independently on the battlefield without major support from infantry and artillery. The result was a series of disasters in the Western Desert in North Africa until Montgomery restored a semblance of sanity to the Eighth Army at the Battle of El Alamein. Nevertheless, in 1944 the British were still minimizing combined-arms tactics in favor of massed armored assaults in the Normandy fighting, Operation Goodwood being a particularly good example.
For the next two decades after the Second World War, the tank reigned supreme on the military landscape, particularly in the Soviet Union and the United States. Yet, the argument that tanks were obsolete resurrected itself immediately after the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. The heavy losses that the Israeli armored divisions suffered in the first days of the conflict among their armored fighting vehicles seemingly suggested that once again the day of the tank was over, at least among academic analysts in the United States. The even heavier losses the Syrian armored divisions suffered on the Golan Heights gave further credence to such arguments.
In fact, the heavy losses in the first and second cases largely reflected the fact that the initial armored counterattack by the Israelis took place with virtually no infantry and artillery support. The same was the case with the initial Syrian thrusts at Israeli positions on the Golan.
The Israeli disaster in the first days of the war along the Suez Canal reflected a general misreading of what had happened in the Israeli success against the Egyptians in the 1967 Six-Day War. Ironically, the most impressive operation in the war had involved Ariel Sharon’s brilliant combined-arms breakthrough attack, involving paratroopers, artillery, infantry, and armor, which destroyed an Egyptian division. However, the success of the armored divisions to Sharon’s north led the Israelis to draw the conclusion that an emphasis on armor was the pathway to military victory in the future. The result was an underemphasis on combined arms. Thus, the attacks along the Canal in the first days of the Yom Kippur War ran into well dug in Egyptian tanks and infantry, the latter equipped with man-portable, wire-guided anti-tank missiles—the Sagger. The outcome was extremely heavy losses among the attacking Israeli armored forces, which rocked their armored divisions back on their heels.
The Israelis were nothing, if not adaptable. Almost immediately they stitched together the combined-arms approach that had proved so successful in Sharon’s 1967 attack. The crossing of the Suez Canal late in the war should have put paid to arguments that the tank was now obsolete as a major weapon of war. In a vicious fight that involved artillery support, paratroopers (suppressing Sagger armed Egyptian infantry), combat engineers (creating the bridges necessary for crossing the Canal), and close-air support, the combined-arms assault broke through the Egyptian infantry and created the opening which made possible Avraham Adan’s armored division to sweep to the south and virtually enclose the Egyptian Third Army.
Once the war was over, there were learned pieces by academics, mostly political scientists but some military as well, arguing once again that the day of the tank was over. More nuanced and intelligent analyses, however, noted that it was only when armor was fighting by itself that it got hammered. When fighting as a part of a combined-arms team where artillery and infantry cooperated with tanks in a unified fashion, armored fighting vehicles formed a crucial piece of the force.
And so today as we confront another major conventional war in the Ukraine, the argument has again appeared that new capabilities affecting the battlespace have rendered armor obsolete. What is astonishing is that a number of experts are promulgating such arguments on the basis of the minimal information the Ukrainians have supplied journalists. In other words, we know virtually nothing about what has actually been occurring, and a murky picture will only begin to appear when this conflict ends. Some possibilities have emerged. Ukrainian UAV’s have received much of the credit for the takedown of the Russian armored drive down the highway from Belarus to Kyiv in late February and early March 2022. But it appears that Ukrainian brigades with armor played an important role as the blocking force.
The more recent slaughter of massed Russian tanks at Vuhledar by a combined force of Ukrainian armor, special forces, UAV operators, and artillery gives an even clearer picture that the death of the armored fighting vehicle has been much overstated. When used in combination with the other pieces of the combined-arms team, the tank will prove as useful as it always has been. And if the Ukrainians succeed in breaking through Russian defenses in the spring it will prove crucial in the exploitation phase.