After taking heavy losses, Russian forces are trying out new ways to protect the tanks they have left from Ukrainian missiles, but there’s a tradeoff, according to a new report.
Russia has lost nearly 2,000 tanks since its armed forces violently invaded Ukraine over a year ago, according to open-source intelligence, a staggering loss that has forced the Russians to be much more cautious with what was once seen as an overpowering force against Ukraine.
Unlike the Ukrainian forces, who are adept at anticipating battlefield developments and adapting to threats before they become a problem, Russia is much more reactive and tends to learn lessons the hard way, Jack Watling, a land warfare expert at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute who co-authored the new report with Nick Reynolds, told Insider.
The Russians, he said, tend to “run teeth first into the problem” before they start to work on solutions. Only after significant losses did Russia begin changing the way it employs its tanks — masking their vulnerabilities to infrared targeting and limiting their involvement in front-line assaults.
The shifts in tactics and force protection are coming at the cost of Russian tank operations, the report titled “Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine” said, but that may matter less to the Russians if the aim isn’t territory but outlasting the Ukrainians.
Why are the Russians changing tank tactics?
Russia’s deployed armor force, which consists of both modern and more antiquated systems, has faced threats from other tanks firing anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and rounds and dismounted infantry equipped with anti-tank weaponry like the Javelin guided missile. These weapons have taken a toll.
Tank battles are relatively uncommon compared to other engagements, but in those fights, Russian tanks are well protected by added explosive reactive armor that “has proven highly effective, preventing most anti-tank systems from defeating the tank’s armour,” the report from Watling and Reynolds said.
The authors interviewed multiple Ukrainian commanders, military analysts, and tank crews, among others, and operators recalled “hitting tanks multiple times with barrel-launched ATGMs without knocking them out.”
Explosive reactive armor, or ERA, is a kind of boxed armor that can be seen on modern tanks and other armored vehicles that uses explosive force to repel projectiles and protect them from incoming missiles and rounds.
The Russians use this kind of protection extensively.
“It is pretty rare to find a Russian tank that hasn’t blasted ERA on every single surface they can conceivably get it on, including somewhere it’s really counterproductive,” Watling said. “Russian crews get ahold of ERA kits, and they start stacking them up.”
While ERA is quite effective, the Ukrainians know where the weak points are to one-shot kill a Russian tank, though it’s not always easy to get a clean shot off. Key vulnerabilities include points between the turret and the front glacis plate and the tracks, the latter of which can be struck for a “mobility kill” that might compel Russian operators to simply abandon it.
“This is because a tank’s mobility is considered the best means of protection against artillery and its survivability is compromised if it is immobilised,” the RUSI report said, noting that there have been skirmishes to capture abandoned vehicles in the aftermath.
Perhaps a more substantial threat to Russian tanks in Ukraine has been anti-tank guided missiles like the US-made Javelin or Ukrainian Stugna, capable systems with thermal imagers designed to penetrate explosive reactive armor.
Over the course of the war, Russia has often exposed its tanks to these threats and others with questionable tactics, such as driving unsupported tank columns straight into Ukrainian ambushes, pushing tanks through minefields, and leaving its tanks sitting out in open fields largely unprotected. A former US Army tanker and Russia expert previously told Insider this is “just dumb.”
But the Russians do appear to finally be learning from at least some of their mistakes, particularly after the devastation of a naval infantry brigade near Vuhledar, where Russia repeated failed tactics seen around Bucha to horrific effect. The hits Russia’s tank force has taken have led Russia to shift to a more cautious approach.
How are the Russians changing their tank game?
“The Russian use of armour has evolved significantly during the conflict,” the RUSI report said.
Russia started the war using armor “to punch into operational depth” as part of its battalion tactical group concept, the report said, but “massive losses” led Russia to use its tanks for “attempts at breakthrough” only when conditions appeared suitable. Now armored thrusts are no longer the norm. “Tanks are very rarely used in this way,” the report said, noting these developments reflect Russia’s caution.
Though Russia has used some its older tanks to support breach operations in urban combat, such as in Bakhmut, tanks are largely being used as artillery and fire support and to raid Ukrainian positions.
While this approach helps reduce losses, it prevents Russia from leveraging the firepower, mobility, and shock factor that tanks bring to the table to deliver breakthroughs and exploit gains on the battlefield, limiting Russia’s overall offensive capability.
Russia’s winter offensive captured very little ground, roughly 870 kilometers from December to May, at the cost of over 100,000 casualties, according to US estimates. Russia has put its dead and wounded figures significantly lower.
In their report on shifts in Russian battlefield behavior, Watling and Reynolds noted that the Russians have begun modifying their tanks to hide them from the anti-tank guided missiles that have had a devastating effect on Russian armor, specifically the thermal targeting sensors that spot them.
Vehicles and defensive positions are being fitted with anti-thermal material. The engine deck and resulting heat plume have been altered, “reducing the reliability” of anti-tank guided missiles, which can use infrared sensors to lock onto a target. And the Russians are changing the times of day they fight.
In trying to conceal its armor from Ukrainian missile systems, Russian forces have found that “fighting at dusk and dawn when the vehicle temperature is most similar to the ambient temperature of the surroundings” is beneficial.
As the report notes, this situation is known as thermal crossover, and at those times, the Russian tanks and other armored “vehicles are harder to detect through thermal imagery,” making them notably less vulnerable to Javelins and other weapons.
Watling and Reynolds write that the Russians have managed to achieve “a significant decrease in the probability of kill from several ATGM types,” but it has only done so by ” imposing a range of tactical constraints” on its armor, ultimately making its tanks less effective.