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The importance of European armour

The importance of European armour

. 12 min read

COVID has shown what happens to countries that fail to prepare for the worst. If we, the European members of NATO, wish to protect our interests and influence – and avoid war – we must maintain sovereign and credible military capability, with the power to deter our potential adversaries and inspire confidence in our Allies. A credible armoured¹ capability – within an enabled and robust combined arms order of battle (ORBAT) – is central to a credible military capability. Such a capability is a prerequisite to the luxury of competing in the liminal space.

Situation: Potential Adversarial Forces

Investment and export in armour amongst our potential adversaries is significant and growing. Our potential adversaries recognise that there are no other battlefield capabilities that can deliver the dedicated (to the ground commander), 24/7, all-weather effects that heavy armoured forces provide. Russia has repeatedly demonstrated their intent to exploit the utility of heavy armoured forces. They used it in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and continue to us it in Syria. Russia, and other potential adversaries, continue to invest in their modernisation. The majority of NATO’s potential adversaries continue to retain and modernise tanks and tracked Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs). The pacing threat. Russia’s T-72B3 represents the pacing threat. It is mobile, well-protected, and lethal. It features the Arena-E Active Protection System (APS² – more on this later) which provides soft and hard-kill counter-Anti-Tank Guided Weapon (ATGW) and Rocket Propelled Grenade capability. It also features Kontakt-5 Explosive Reactive Armour, upgraded fire control and targeting systems, a new engine, steering system, and better radios. With its relatively light weight (approximately 45 tonnes vs. the Challenger 2 at 80+ tonnes) and ability to snorkel to a depth of five meters, it has better operational mobility than NATO Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). Above all, it exists in large numbers alongside an abundance of other, high-quality Russian MBTs. It’s estimated that Russia fields nearly 1,000 modern MBTs³ in the Western Military Distric alone, and another approximately 2,000 across their total force4 – all with the flexibility and infrastructure to redeploy rapidly. These threats are not limited to Russia alone. Russia is an enthusiastic exporter of tanks, ready to equip willing buyers. China is actively expanding and upgrading its armoured fleet. And Daesh, they used captured Russian-made MBTs in Syria.

Lest we forget. Russian military thinking subordinates information operations to the application of hard power⁵. Information operations, offensive cyber capabilities, economic sanctions, and soft power all contribute to effective deterrence. But they are force multipliers for hard power and not its enablers⁶. Although they have developed innovative and threatening nonconventional capabilities and methods, Russia and China are pursuing a twin-track approach. “We can’t simply stop building ships or buying tanks and aircraft and go fully asymmetric instead,” said David Kilcullen in his book Dragon and Snakes. “If we did that, we would soon be outclassed conventionally, making war both more dangerous and more likely⁷.” Moreover, the West starts at a disadvantage in the grey zone, given our commitment to the rules-based international order. New domains such as cyber and space complement – but do not replace – existing ones. An army’s core business is the application of violence in the Land Domain; for all the emphasis placed on multi-domain operations, we must not lose sight of this.

Credibility, deterrence, and armour

What is a credible military capability? In short, for the purposes of this article, a credible military capability is one that deters our potential adversaries, on its own or as part of an alliance. A capability that deters our potential adversaries is also credible to our allies. Conversely, a military that is seen to insufficiently shoulder the burden of deterring our potential adversaries, is not credible to our Allies. Nuclear weapons are a blunt instrument, and they work in deterrence only insofar as non-nuclear (i.e. conventional) escalatory steps are in place below it. Armour is an integral part of the conventional deterrent. Without armour, the nuclear deterrent lacks coherence as part of a graduated response.

Without credible conventional deterrence we will find ourselves competing at a severe disadvantage – and armour is central to conventional deterrence. If the Alliance is to retain its global influence, able to protect its values and its members, then it is imperative that NATO’s forces are structured to deliver a credible deterrent effect. The collapse of a credible conventional deterrent has severe consequences. Take, for example, the Korean war when North Korean T-34s drove light UN forces all the way to the Pusan perimeter. They were eventually stopped by overwhelming U.S. air and naval gunfire support – neither of which would be available in a conflict in Eastern Europe. The first principle of deterrence is the primacy of cognitive effect⁸: Deterrence is psychological. And there is no doubt that our potential adversaries think in terms of heavy metal. Armour, therefore, is key to our credibility.

Armour is important to maintaining U.S.-European relations. The ability of NATO’s European Allies to field armoured force elements, when coupled with sovereign divisional level of command, enables European allies to play an influential part in operations. It is a key part of the U.S./European military relationship. Of note, in the 2019 U.S. Army Modernization Strategy, Close Combat Platforms sit second in the U.S.’s priority list for investment⁹. Therefore, by continuing to invest in armoured capability and maintaining coherence with the U.S., European allies are able to exert influence in Washington, and indeed, Moscow and elsewhere.

Europe cannot – and must not – rely solely on the U.S. for armour. We must think realistically about the future of the transatlantic Alliance To do otherwise would be excessively optimistic. Domestic as well as geo-politics is straining U.S. and European relations. The recently announced U.S. drawdown in Germany is yet another milestone in the U.S. pivot towards China. As a result, there is one single U.S. armoured brigade left in Europe to face down Russian armour. We cannot not rely on it alone to provide Europe’s armoured deterrent. By one estimate – made before the COVID crisis and President Trump’s announcement – excluding the U.S. contribution there is already a shortfall across NATO’s European members of 2,500-3,750 MBTs in the event of a conflict with Russia in the Baltics¹⁰. This gap is likely to widen. We should not hope that others will fill it.

The challenges of interoperability. Where sovereign shortfalls in armoured capability are made good by allies, the attached armour will never be as effective as an organic capability working as part of an indigenous combined-arms team. Tanks add true value to an all-arms grouping. National armies do well at allarms grouping and interoperability at battle group and brigade levels. They are less effective at interoperability with other NATO partners. Furthermore, it is hard to envisage one Ally entrusting the command of their armoured forces to another without sovereign armoured forces under their command. They would not be shouldering the burden of operational activity (including casualties), and the credibility of the ‘unarmoured’ Ally’s two-star command to lead multinational armoured forces runs the risk of being diminished if its commanders and staff had limited or no experience of operating armour.

What is a credible armoured force? The interdependence of credibility and deterrence has been demonstrated. The ability to constrain an adversary requires the credibility to fight, and a weak armoured capability could leave NATO unable to prevail against, and therefore deter, a peer adversary. A credible armoured capability can be thought of in terms of:

  • Technology. Obsolescence is not an option given our lack of mass.
  • Mass. It is difficult to define what number of armoured vehicles is credible. Small numbers carry obvious risks. Firstly, our forces could simply be bypassed. Secondly, it poses problems for force generation, operations, and operations support. Thirdly, there comes a point when a platform is held in too small a number to risk losing.
  • Willingness to use – and lose – our forces. This is not purely a political issue – risk aversion remains prevalent in European armies. It is true that our people are our greatest strength. But from a pure deterrence perspective, constantly repeating that message signals loss-aversion to our potential adversaries¹¹.
  • Relevance. Forestalling Russian ‘Fait Accompli’ operations requires us to be physically present to deter. Armour must either be forward mounted in high-risk areas, or we must do more to enable strategic and operational mobility. The NATO enhanced Forward Presence has arguably proven its worth in this regard.
  • Force structures. Effective grouping of armour is key – this is discussed in the next section.

So what number of tanks represents a credible force? This point can be debated, but what is certain is that shrinking our armoured capability – while Russia upgrades and expands theirs – erodes our credibility. The importance of a balanced Order of Battle (Orbat). Why the major European Allies (UK, Germany, France) must each be capable of fielding an armoured division. An armoured brigade can deploy independently on joint medium operations. Under a sovereign, multinational or Alliance divisional headquarters, an armoured brigade can also deploy on Warfighting-at-Scale operations. However, experience from Kosovo and Iraq suggests that deploying a single armoured brigade for potential or actual warfighting is inefficient for a number of reasons:

  • It requires disproportionate logistical support – almost as much of the command and control and combat service support of a division – while producing a fraction of the combat power.
  • It requires a level of integration with its host division from another nation which is difficult and expensive to achieve (the counterpart to the preceding discussion on interoperability).
  • It lacks the independence and self-sufficiency to be able to choose its tasks to match the level of risk anticipated by its government (e.g. the disaster that befell UK 29 Brigade in Korea resulted in the formation of the Commonwealth Division).

With regards to structure, multiple elements capable of a range of tasks clearly provide the commander with more tactical options, than two elements with dissimilar characteristics. The same applies at brigade level – a 1,2 (triangular) brigade is a weak construct – weaker still if on its own.

Why armour matters

There is clear evidence that having armour when the enemy does not, or possessing superior armour to the enemy, conveys a battlewinning advantage in ground manoeuvre. Most recently, this has been demonstrated on a number of occasions in the Ukraine, but also by the Israeli Defence Forces in the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2019. Armour is the only arm that provides 24-hour, all weather, mobile, protected, dedicated, and precision direct fire capability¹².

Armour is a totemic element of hard power, but it has utility across the spectrum of conflict. Armour has the highest levels of firepower, protection, and tactical manoeuvrability of any land capability. It provides shock effect at great speed and lethality in the attack. It is heavily protected and can survive in the most contested environments, capable of holding ground 24/7 in any weather. The tank is psychologically imposing, physically dominant, and capable of highly destructive, precision (and therefore discriminatory) direct fires. The primary purpose of armour is to engage and defeat peer and peer+ adversaries directly through Close Battle. But its effects have utility across the operate and fight framework too, as historical analysis demonstrates.

The wages of Defensive Aid Suite (DAS). MBTs are the only decisive, assured, anti-armour close combat system. Studies conducted by multiple NATO partners have shown that kinetic MBT main armament is the only weapon effective against DAS in both defence and attack. All threat MBTs, and many threat (in particular heavy) Infantry Fighting Vehicles will likely be equipped with DAS in future. Given the proliferation of top-attack ATGWs, the logical development for future DAS is to provide full top hemisphere protection.

Armour is future-proof. The tank has existed in virtually the same form since its invention in World War I – in essence, an armoured box on two tracks with cannon(s). Every army that has tried to get rid of it has reversed course. Those facts are testament to its conceptual durability. Moreover, there is little evidence that the technological paradigm shift required to render it obsolete will occur within our lifetimes. Indeed, DAS has heavily tipped the scales in favour of armour. Armour is also the arm best suited to providing ‘mothership’ capability in the Land Domain as armies automate in the coming decades. Network-enabled MBT and IFV with digitised turrets, using current and future communications and information systems, will deliver information and decision superiority for tactical commanders. Armoured digitization confers tempo by enabling targeting from advantageous positioning on the battlefield.

  • There is clear and enduring evidence that armour is and will continue to be an essential integral part of the combined-arms package. The battlefield is an increasingly complex interaction of many systems, their human users, and the environment; and maintaining a credible force necessitates a system-of-systems approach. This requires a robust and flexible mixture of Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), lethal weapons that will overcome modern countermeasures, and the command, control, communications, and computer (C4) capacity to coordinate them. There is no doubt that money will be short in the coming years. Armour sits as a (relatively expensive) bid alongside a number of other urgent capability requirements. Nevertheless, existing armoured modernisation programmes must be protected if NATO Allies are to maintain an indigenous armoured capability, and stay competitive in the coming decade and beyond.
  • The shape of things to come: Future armour The Russian GPV programme (and before that, Israel’s conservation of its Centurion tanks) shows what can be achieved with old platforms. But looking beyond 2030, what form should future armour take?

Convergence towards 50 tonnes. We are no longer defending the Fulda Gap. We must therefore prioritise operational and tactical mobility over protection. Modular (and eventually electric) armour, DAS, rubber tracks, and lighter, more efficient power trains should help reduce the weight of future MBTs down from the 80+ tonnes deployed weight of some NATO tanks. Conversely, lessons learned in the Ukraine, Gaza strip, and elsewhere argue for heavier IFVs and Armoured Personnel Carriers, based on a common chassis (per the Russian T-15 and Israeli Namer).

DAS. APS – ideally capable of defending against top-attack munitions – should be fielded as widely as possible.

Kinetic energy weapons. Given the protection afforded by systems such as DAS and explosive reactive armour, the future force must mount the kinetic energy weapons required to defeat it. This may take the form of 130mm+ calibre weapons, or improved projectiles. Future platforms must be designed with this requirement in mind – we cannot wish away the diminishing effectiveness of ATGW.

Common platforms. The Alliance fields a bewildering variety of armoured platforms. This is a perennial complaint that is unlikely to be resolved given national defence industrial priorities. Nonetheless, individual member states at least should seek to reduce the number of platforms in the next generation of armoured vehicles. The Russian Armata series provides a guide. This is key to driving down procurement and running costs. It improves operational and tactical mobility by guaranteeing that all vehicles in a given formation can travel at the same speed, and by reducing the logistic tail of deployed formations. It also satisfies the requirement for heavier IFVs.

Automation. Increased automation and the advent of unmanned systems suggest MBT crews could be reduced from four to three – and perhaps further. However, the cognitive burden of fighting on increasingly ‘informationalized’ battlefields lends itself to retaining a larger crew. Four-person crews have traditionally been preferred for their endurance and ‘fightability’. It is unclear that a smaller crew is cheaper, and it may be a false economy. Manned/Unmanned Teaming promises much – but may prove a distraction from the core business of maintaining a credible armoured force, particularly given the financial conditions imposed on many NATO armies.

What is to be done?

Conclusions. To protect the Alliance’s interests and values, we must deter our potential adversaries. To deter, we must be credible. To be credible, NATO must field a credible armoured capability within an enabled and robust combined arms ORBAT. Europe should not expect the U.S. to underwrite its security, particularly given the challenges posed by the rise of China. Emphasising grey zone competition sees us venturing onto a conceptual battlefield defined by Russia, China, Iran and others, developed by them to counter Western superiority in the traditional domains. Ceding ground in the traditional domains to contest a space in which the West starts at a disadvantage is a risky strategy. An army’s unique selling-point (versus other instruments of state power) is its ability to survive in a contested land environment and deliver lethal force. Armour is central to this pitch. If we never have to use it, armour will have done its job: So much of its value lies in its deterrent effect. And if we do, having armour will save lives and deliver victory.

Postscript: A warning from recent history. There are clear chains of causality that link the Great Recession of 2008-09 to the many security crises that followed, not least the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in 2014. Even now, the unforeseen consequences of the COVID-crisis are being felt, and the moment will resonate long into the future. The rivalry with China has likely entered a new, more dangerous phase, and hastened the emergence of the Russia-China axis. Post-COVID, many European member-states will both be poorer and less safe. We ought to spend more money on defence, but there will be less money to do so. During this time, we must resist the temptation to cut expensive heavy formations and exploit the fact that borrowing costs remain at historic lows. Investment in defence generally – and armour specifically – will yield a return much sooner than we think.


Artikkelen er publisert i Nato LANDCOM Land Power Magazine Fall 2020


Foto: NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup Lithuania


(1) The terms armoured infantry, armour, and heavy armour are used interchangeably to refer to armoured (main battle tank, infantry fighting vehicle, and armoured cavalry) capability. The terms do not refer to medium weight capabilities such as Stryker brigades and other NATO equivalents.

(2) For the purposes of this note, APS and DAS (Defensive Aid Suite) will be used interchangeably.

(3) T-72B3, T-80, T-90. Numbers of the advanced T-14 are unknown but likely to be small.

(4) Deduced from Harris, Catherine and Kagan, Frederick W. (2018) Russia’s Military Posture: Ground Forces Order of Battle, ISW

(5) Giles, Keir (2016) Handbook of Russian Information Warfare.

(6) Watling, Jack (2020) By Parity and Presence: Deterring Russia with Conventional Land Forces, RUSI.

(7) Kilcullen, David (2020) The Dragons and the Snakes, p.223.

(8) Watling, Jack (2020) By Parity and Presence: Deterring Russia with Conventional Land Forces, RUSI.

(9) Lt Gen Ted Martin (DCG TRADOC) speaking at the International Armoured Vehicle Conference, 21-23 Jan 2020.

(10) Barrie et al (2019) Defending Europe: Scenario-Based Capability Requirements For NATO’s European Members, IISS, dated April 2019.

(11) Bronk, Justin (2019) The Weakness of ‘People’ in Deterrence, RUSI.


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