Tanks and warships: soon to be obsolete?

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Is the era of large warships and armored tanks about to end? Just for a change, there’s a bit of heat surrounding discussions about the future of armor and surface ships. I thought ASPI analyst William Leben recent Strategist room was good at trying to find common ground.

I think a lot of the argument centers on a semantic misunderstanding of what it is to be ‘obsolete’ for something. I myself have been guilty of using the word speciously, more recently about surface combatants, when what I really meant was “significantly reduced utility”. Strictly speaking, no ability is ever entirely useless. There are probably still occasional circumstances in which the crossbow, mounted cavalry charge, or battleship’s 16-inch guns would still be effective weapons. But these cases are so rare that no one sees the benefit of including them in modern force structures.

The military are inherently conservative organizations that tend to retain capabilities that have provided exceptional service, often longer than they really should. (See the first chapter of this book for a good explanation of the phenomenon.) Thus, weapon systems generally do not disappear overnight; instead, it happens gradually over time. There were several mounted cavalry charges during World War II (and many of them successful), and the last two Iowa-class battleships (the Missouri and the Wisconsinlisten)) participated in shore bombardments during the 1991 Gulf War. There are simply more reliable or cost effective ways to produce these effects these days.

As I pointed out in my Surface Fighters article, there are things they can do that are currently difficult to replicate in other ways. And Ukraine’s persistent demands for armored vehicles, despite their own success in countering Russian armor to date – Russian vehicle losses so far in this war have likely exceeded those of the Red Army in the first phase of the gigantic Battle of Kursk in 1943 – show that we have not yet reached the point where armor is “obsolete” by any meaningful definition.

Proponents of continued armor acquisition point to poor Russian tactics and the possibility of developing counter-armor systems in future developments. Similarly, Navy aficionados point out that the Russian Navy must have been asleep at the helm to lose a cruiser to a few subsonic missiles and a drone. In the mind of Mark Twain, we might observe that assessments of the disappearance of armor such as tanks and surface ships are, at least for now, exaggerated.

But – and anyone who has read much of my articles knew this was coming – while I accept all of these points, I believe that both systems are now in the decline phase of their history, and that will not only become more difficult for them from now on. I think this can be understood by looking at some very general historical trends.

One of my messages during the first days of The strategist included some historical data for two important military trends. The first is the phenomenal increase in the military’s ability to deliver lethal force with speed and precision. It’s hard to overstate how rapid this increase has been – it’s well beyond exponential. The result has been a steady, albeit less mathematically dramatic, decline in combatant density on the battlefield as the military adopts a small-target, scattershot approach. Of course, there is tension there. The military wishes to prevent large formations from being destroyed by enemy strikes, but must also concentrate their forces so that they can produce decisive effects when needed.

Some “bulkness” in a force structure is acceptable if it can avoid being seen and struck by an adversary long enough to do the job, and the “fog of war” allows this in many cases. Similarly, a capability block (a working definition being “anything worth an expensive missile”) can be relatively safe if its physical size is less than the typical aiming error of the weapon targeting it. The war in Ukraine provides examples of both successes and failures in successful targeting avoidance. For example, a single ship, even when stationary, would be unlucky to be hit by a ballistic missile with an uncertainty of 100 meters on its landing spot. But when three ships are moored alongside a major port facility, the chances of such a missile hitting something valuable increases, and shooting becomes interesting. It seems to have been the fate of a Russian landing ship.

Tanks and ships are inherently lumpy. So far they have managed to manage with more or less acceptable casualty rates as the offensive weapons they face have generally been a little too slow to arrive or a little too inaccurate to completely overwhelm defenses. But it’s also clear that the speed and accuracy of weapon systems continue to improve, with the added complication of the ubiquity of drones of varying shapes, sizes, and lethality. It’s always possible to develop new defensive systems, but they tend to be more expensive than the weapons they defend against, and they drive up the unit cost of the rigs they protect without providing additional offensive value.

Russian tank T-90. Image credit: Creative Commons.

All elements of the calculation weigh against expensive sizes. Like the weapon systems of the past that are now universally recognized as obsolete, today’s major systems will one day be anachronisms. The only question is when that day will come, and I’d bet the 2030s will see the end of armor such as tanks and warships as front line force elements. I’m tempted to say that they won’t go away all at once but will gradually fade – but there will actually be quite a few bangs in the process.

Andrew Davis is a Senior Fellow at ASPI and former Director of ASPI’s Defense and Strategy Program. He previously spent 12 years at the Ministry of Defense in capability analysis and intelligence.

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