Some Of Ukraine’s Heavy Brigades Don’t Have Real Tanks Yet. Here’s How They Might Fight.

The Ukrainian army doesn’t say no to armored vehicles. Whatever surplus tanks, fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and reconnaissance vehicles some ally offers, the army happily accepts.

That has resulted in some weird imbalances as Kyiv reequips brigades for a possible counteroffensive this spring. The army hasn’t received the right mix of vehicles to form balanced combined-arms formations.

Balanced, that is, by the usual NATO standards. At the moment, the Ukrainians have a bunch of new infantry fighting vehicles as well as lightly-armored tanks that nonetheless have effective main guns. They don’t yet have many of the new heavy tanks that NATO countries have pledged, but which still are winding their way into Ukraine.

Luckily for the Ukrainian army, this isn’t a new problem. Other armies have pondered it and come up with possible solutions the Ukrainians might internalize. The British Army, for instance, always is one bad budget cycle from having its last few tanks taken away on cost-saving grounds.

Analysts have thought through a possible tank-less future and arrived at a simple solution. Replace tanks with missiles.

Posssibly the first Ukrainian unit to face the same dilemma is the 47th Assault Brigade—a new, all-volunteer formation that began as a battalion in eastern Ukraine and steadily has expanded to oversee around 4,000 troops. As it’s grown, it’s received big consignments of Western-style vehicles.

The 47th’s tank battalion got those 28 super-upgraded ex-Slovenian M-55S tanks—Soviet T-55s with Israeli electronics and British 105-millimeter guns. The brigade’s three mechanized battalions are getting some of the 109 M-2 infantry fighting vehicles the United States has pledged to Ukraine.

One battalion of tanks and three battalions of IFVs is a standard configuration for a mechanized brigade. The problem, for the 47th, is that the four-crew, 36-ton M-55S isn’t really a tank by modern standards.

Yes, the M-55S has good optics and an accurate and powerful 105-millimeter L7 rifled main gun firing all the best NATO-standard shells out to a distance of two miles. But it’s lightly protected compared to a Russian T-72, T-80 or T-90.

So how does a mechanized brigade with no real tanks, but lots of IFVs, fight an enemy brigade that might have scores of tanks of its own? William Owen at the Royal United Services Institute in London has mulled it over. His conclusion: IFVs can replace tanks—if they’re armed with anti-tank missiles.

Owen isn’t the only observer to make this claim. A modern anti-tank missile “allows a single soldier to target and destroy even the most heavily-armored main battle tank with an almost guaranteed kill-rate, at great range and with minimal risk,” Vincent Delany wrote for the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute.

It’s worth noting that the American Tube-Launched Optically-Tracked Wire-Guided missile can deliver a downward-blasting warhead as far as 2.8 miles. This exceeds the effective range of many tank guns, including the M-55S’s gun.

Those M-2s the 47th Assault Brigade is getting? They pack dual TOW launchers on their turrets. So the brigade could deploy its 28-ton, three-crew M-2s to fight Russian tanks. After, of course, the M-2s drop off their infantry squads.

The brigade’s M-55Ss could function as infantry support vehicles while the M-2s are busy fighting tanks. When the infantry run into a bunker or fortified building they can’t defeat, they would call in an M-55S to put a few cannon rounds into it.

In that role, the M-55S is less a tank than it is a “mobile gun” in the class of the French army’s AMX-10RC, the Italian army’s Centauro or the U.S. Army’s recently retired Mobile Gun System. The Americans are fielding a new mobile gun, the 38-ton Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle, that looks a lot like a tank but packs—you guessed it—a 105-millimeter gun.

Is this inversion of roles—IFVs filling in for tanks while tanks fill in for IFVs—ideal? No. And there’s every reason to expect that, once sufficient numbers of Western tanks arrive, the Ukrainians will assign them to heavy brigades alongside IFVs in the usual roles and proportions.

For the next few months, however, it’s likely the Ukrainian army will have many more new IFVs than it has new tanks. So it needs to get creative.

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