Why did Napoleon end his days on a desolate rock in the South Atlantic as a captive of his enemies rather than as Emperor of France? Because at Waterloo, the French cavalry foolishly charged British infantry without support from infantry and artillery.
The Ukraine war may become Putin’s Waterloo, but that doesn’t mean that Ukraine’s army can afford to make Napoleon’s mistake. What was true for cavalry is true for cavalry’s successor — the tank.
Yet to judge by the (social and other) media buzz, all that Ukraine needs to succeed in its long-anticipated spring offensive is tanks and more tanks. After months of indecision, the West is beginning to provide them. German-designed Leopard 2 and British Challenger 2 vehicles have already arrived in Ukraine, to be followed this autumn by 31 US M1A2 Abrams. The multinational Ukraine Defense Contact Group has delivered “more than 230 tanks and more than 1,550 armored vehicles, along with other equipment and material that have allowed the Ukrainians to support more than nine new armored brigades,” the Pentagon announced on April 21.
Ukraine has about 800 tanks now, according to some estimates. Add in the more than 300 Western tanks promised so far, and that would give Ukraine more than 1,000, or about the same number that Germany deployed at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
If that sounds like an impressive amount of firepower, it is. But tanks aren’t solitary predators. They function best in packs. More importantly, they need to operate as part of well-balanced, tightly integrated teams to which each member brings a unique capability. These include infantry, artillery, combat engineers, reconnaissance, aircraft air defense, as well as ample maintenance and logistics support.
Failure to do this can be catastrophic. Just as Napoleon’s gallant horsemen impaled themselves on the bayonets of British infantry in 1815, Israeli tanks charged Arab infantry in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and were decimated by massed salvos of Soviet-made anti-tank guided missiles and shoulder-fired rocket launchers.
Ukraine and its Western allies know this. While the firepower, protection, and mobility of tanks will make them the fulcrum of the Ukrainian offensive, there is a reason why the US and other nations have sent Ukraine a diverse array of items. The shopping list includes infantry fighting vehicles, river bridging vehicles, mine-clearing systems, breaching equipment to clear obstacles, and fuel tankers and ammunition carriers.
But combined arms theory is one thing. Getting those arms to Ukraine is something else. Political hesitation in Western nations, limited or poorly maintained stockpiles of Western arms, and logistical and training bottlenecks limit the amount of materiel that can be sent and assimilated by Ukrainian forces.
For example, one concern is whether Ukrainian infantry have the vehicles they need to operate alongside the tanks. After a recent trip to the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut — which has been fiercely contested for months — Western observers warned that while Ukraine has managed to field a considerable force of infantry, these troops lack sufficient infantry fighting vehicles or even trucks. Ukraine is receiving a hodgepodge of Western troop carriers, including the US M-2 Bradley, German Marders, and Swedish CV-90s. But a couple of hundred vehicles may not be enough.
In addition, ammunition for artillery — which will be crucial to suppressing anti-tank weapons — is in short supply. And any successful mechanized offensive requires either air support, or at least the ability to keep enemy airpower at bay, or bad weather, as the Germans relied on at the Battle of the Bulge. Yet while Russian airpower has proven remarkably ineffective, Ukraine is running out of aircraft and air defense systems to contest the sunny summer skies.
Meanwhile, Russia has been busy fortifying its defenses in southern Ukraine. These trenches, anti-tank obstacles, and minefields may be only a shadow of those at the 1943 Battle of Kursk, where the Red Army created multiple lines of entrenchments 100 miles deep and strewn with a million mines. But Ukrainian tanks bereft of sufficient infantry, artillery — and especially engineers — could take heavy losses while breaching these defenses.
In addition, ever since Hitler’s panzers decimated the Red Army in the early days of Operation Barbarossa, Russia has paid special attention to anti-tank defense. Russia has a formidable arsenal of tank-killing weapons, including man-portable and vehicle-mounted anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank mines, plus Russia’s considerable tank fleet (and even armed drones.) Some of these weapons have proven quite deadly against tanks, such as during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.
Of course, if the Russo-Ukraine War were strictly a battle of materiel, the Kremlin’s men would probably be sitting in Kyiv by now. Outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops have consistently outfought poorly trained and unmotivated Russian forces. There is reason to believe that Western tanks such as the Abrams and Leopard, with their advanced sensors, will outmatch Russian armor.
However, there is no reason to believe that Western tanks are invincible. Whatever these tanks can accomplish, they can’t do it alone.
Michael Peck is a defense writer. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.