Russia is losing a lot of tanks in Ukraine, but why?

Are we seeing the end of the era of tanks?
Christopher McFadden
Destroyed T-72 in Iraq.U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

In recent weeks, images of ruined Russian "tanks" and wrecked convoys have filled social media feeds.

But are these images representative of a larger trend or merely isolated incidents? Is the Russian military paying for its military invasion in the form of hijacked tanks? 

After all, the first casualty in any conflict is often the truth. 

According to some reports, like one from Insider, Russia certainly sees tanks and other equipment seized or destroyed by Ukrainians: The news organization estimates 10  percent of Russian military equipment—has been destroyed. But this may not be accurate. 

While Russia appears to have lost many military vehicles in absolute terms, it is but a fraction of the military's fleet.

Most of these losses appear to be from Western-supplied FGM-148 "Javelin" missiles and Next Generation Light Antitank Weapon (NLAW), which are specially designed as anti-tank weapons. So, Russian losses shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

The end of the tank era

Some experts have even claimed that we may be watching the end of tanks as an effective military weapon. Some claim they may be soon consigned to history along with the chariot, mounted cavalry, and the battleship.

It may seem like a bold claim to everybody who paired tanks with the idea of war for more than 100 years, but inaccuracies about Russian losses aside, there is something to the idea.

One of the main problems is the distinction between what a "real" tank and other "tank-like" military vehicles are. While the definition of a tank has changed over time, today, the term generally refers to what is more accurately referred to as main battle tanks. 

Other armored vehicles, like armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and other mechanized infantry transports, are often classified as tanks in news reports when, technically speaking, they shouldn't be. For this reason, statistics on losses can be skewed heavily. Thankfully, Oryx breaks down the losses of Russian vehicles by technical class, making it much easier to gauge how severe Russian losses are. 

According to Oryx, at the time of writing, Russia has lost somewhere in the region of 279 tanks, of which 116 have been destroyed, 4 damaged, 41 abandoned. Some 118 have been captured. That might sound like a large amount, but the Russian Federation has access to 12,240 battle tanks.

However, most of those 12,240 are old Soviet-era designs, like the T-72, which is more than 50 years old. If this figure is accurate, then losses to date of actual tanks are closer to a couple of percents, not 10. 

One also must be careful about numbers, as both Russian and Ukrainian sources will either under-report or over-report losses for propaganda purposes. Ukrainian military forces will also be using very similar. Often identical, military hardware was leftover from their time as part of the Soviet Union. After all, it wouldn't take much to plant some Russian flags uniforms or paint the now-famous "V" or "Z" icons on wrecked vehicles. 

Why is Russia losing so many tanks in Ukraine?

As pointed out by many military experts, the main problem appears to be Russia's inability to supply and maintain its stockpile of hardware suitably. So far, most fighting vehicles we've seen in action are poorly maintained, and supply lines appear to be stretched to breaking point.

Not only that, but large units like tanks appear to be left exposed without infantry support or air support—a critical weakness for these powerful weapons of war. 

Tanks, even older ones like the T-72, are technically obsolete when compared to modern tanks, like the U.S. M1A2, but that doesn't mean they are not deadly when kept in peek performance and used effectively.

The United States, for example, lost some of its most advanced tanks to obsolete T-72s during the Battle of Medina Ridge in 1991.

Modern anti-tank missiles and, most interestingly, drones are making a significant impact. And it is the use of drones that has drawn the interest of military analysts through the Ukraine conflict.

Turkish drones, like the TB2, have been to excellent use by Ukrainian forces. These can either directly attack tanks or be used as spotters for artillery. 

"We're actually seeing the Ukrainian military employ drones, the Bayraktar TB2, and smaller drones, to significant effect against Russian armored vehicles," said former U.S. Army Ranger Paul Scharre, to Insider. "Drones can be very effective in contested airspaces, in part because they can fly lower and in part because you're not risking a pilot."