In the last month, the Russian media has started to cover the equipment modernization aspect of military reform, after virtually ignoring this topic for the previous nine months. I have already addressed the modernization of the Russian Navy. In this post, I want to briefly touch on the significance of the announced changes in the Russian tank fleet.
In July, the Ministry of Defense announced that they will reduce the total number of tanks in active service in the military from 23,000 to 2,000. (And down from an astonishing 65,000 at the end of the Cold War.) These will be based in two separate tank brigades and more than 20 tank battalions that will be incorporated into other brigades. The two separate brigades will be located in Siberia and Moscow.
The implication is that Russia has decided that it will no longer seek to be prepared to fight large scale land wars of the kind that formed the core of Soviet military planning during the Cold War. Instead, Russian military planners are planning to develop a rapid response army that is well prepared to fight in smaller regional conflicts, while depending on its nuclear arms to deter any potential aggression from major adversaries.
This means that planners are finally taking to heart some of the lessons that became apparent as early as 1994, at the start of the first Chechen war. This was when a column of unprotected tanks entering Grozny was destroyed by individual Chechen fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades. While the weakness of unprotected tank columns facing enemies using guerrilla tactics were recognized by Russian military observers at that point, the military did virtually nothing about it, neither in terms of changing tactics or modernizing equipment, for another 15 years. This continuing weakness became apparent during the war with Georgia, when the 58th army’s tank columns were heavily damaged by Georgian artillery. Some Russian analysts have in fact argued that Georgia’s Soviet-made T-72 tanks, equipped with thermal imaging equipment and superior West European navigation and communications systems, were superior to Russia’s T-72s and were only defeated in battle because the Georgian military could not provide their armored units with close air support. In other words, even the best tanks are largely useless without helicopters backing them up.
Nevertheless, Russia’s tanks do need to be upgraded to improve their communications, targeting, and manueverability. The reduction in numbers makes this modernization possible. The newest T-90s, of which there are around 300 in service, are equipped with thermal imaging sights and superior armor when compared to the T-72, its immediate predecessor. There are also efforts underway to modernize the T-72 to increase its speed and manueverability, though designs aimed at making the T-72 comparable in armor and firepower to the T-90 have not been accept by the Russian military. All of these measures can be seen as interim steps as the Russian military prepares to begin procuring a new generation battle tank in the next five years.
All in all, the announcement that the number of Russian tanks will be reduced by a factor of ten and those remaining modernized is another piece of evidence that Russian military leaders have finally prevailed on planners in the general staff to abandon their focus (left over from the Cold War) on planning to fight major land wars. The Russian military is being redesigned to fight small wars against opponents who may employ guerrilla tactics. Until now, this assessment was primarily based on evidence related to the restructuring of the force as a whole. It is now being confirmed by the choices military planners are making about equipment.