Challenge the accepted
October 8th, 2016 by Lucas Guglielmi
The evolution of Russian armoured combat power since 1991
Military history can be viewed as a rolling account of evolution; evolution driven by need, created by experimentation and proven by comparative advantage in war that almost defines survival of the fittest or ‘most adaptable’ on the battlefield. The post Cold War Russian Army has undergone significant technical adaptation and begun a process of tactical development as a result of their wars in Chechnya and Georgia. This post outlines the Russian experience from Chechnya to today, and then assesses the trends which can help inform discussion on the future development and employment of Australian Main Battle Tank (MBT) and a future Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV).
Chechnya, Nov-Dec 1994
In the mid 1990s the Soviet military was geared towards massed armies using armour, deception and a centralised command structure. Following the Cold War, the Russians found themselves thrust into an asymmetric conflict. When Moscow backed Chechen opposition forces failed to capture Grozny with Russian specialists and advisors, the Russian Federation Security Council resolved to disarm the Chechen armed forces. The state of the Russian armed forces at this time was poor, reflecting the neglect, deprivation and scarcity of the late Soviet years. A critical shortage of junior officers, principal equipment, and establishment hollowness; coupled with corruption, conscript based manning, poor training and a lack of combat supplies, saw the Russian ground forces unprepared to operate in a hybrid environment. Following a series of meeting engagements, Russian forces made a concerted effort to capture Grozny on New Years Eve 1994.
The defence of Grozny was conducted by a Chechen force made up of a core of 15,000 regulars, enabled with an array of dismounted weapons and a limited number of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs). These were organised into platoon and company sized detachments with allocated urban engagement areas, and sighted Anti-Armoured fighting positions. Of the three Russian armoured columns committed to Grozny, all were quickly isolated and destroyed by mobile dismounted forces, using the urban terrain to effectively target AFVs moving unsupported by joint fires or infantry. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were destroyed in one sided engagements, with battalion sized elements, such as the 131st Motorised Rifle Brigade being completely destroyed in the fighting:
“…Prior to the assault, the brigade consisted of 446 soldiers. It is impossible to provide an accurate account of how many of them were killed since, as of February 9, 120 were still listed as missing in action. But of its 26 tanks, 20 were set on fire. Of its 120 APCs, only 18 returned from Grozni. All 6 Tunguska self propelled anti aircraft guns were destroyed. Later, this became known as the tragedy of the 131st Maikop Motorised Rifle Brigade…”
The Russian forces failure in Grozny, and the heavy losses incurred concluded the Chechen campaign and was a major embarrassment to the Russian government. It laid bare the state of the Russian armed forces, in particular their capacity to field an effective armoured capability. It made clear that the previous Soviet structure, doctrines and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) were inadequate for modern hybrid conflict.
The conflict with Georgia in 2008 was the next major conflict to give insight into the evolution of Russian armoured forces. During the invasion Russia was able to mass a significant and decisive force, including motor rifle divisions, airborne forces, air assault elements, as well as Special Forces and mountain troops. This was a force based on the 58th Army and was made up of approximately 40,000 troops. Armoured forces consisted of the organic elements within the motor rifle troops of the 58th Army. Whilst the lessons learned in Chechnya in strategy and operational art were operationalised in Georgia, the lessons of the North Caucasus had yet to reach the employment of armour at the tactical level. In tactics armoured forces were were still reliant upon Soviet era TTPs and equipment. The use of column formation, with no attempt made to halt and establish supporting fire positions were often ineffective against western trained Georgian forces. This resulted in Georgian forces often inflicting greater damage on Russian forces in engagements between elements of similar size. Russian TTPs took advantage of superior mass and speed, as it mitigated the inadequacies of armour in protection, night fighting, communications and sighting systems. The identified shortcomings of armour at the tactical level in Georgia would inform future innovation in Russian armour and doctrine.
These experiences in Chechnya and Georgia have shaped technical innovations in armour that are now proliferating Russian armoured systems, primarily aimed at MBT platforms. Current system upgrades to armour incorporate a mix of protective systems both passive and active. Kontakt-5 Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA), is claimed to be effective against a wide range of anti tank guided weapons (ATGWs) as well as capable of disrupting the penetration jet of armour defeating kinetic energy rounds carried by modern MBTs. This system is fitted often in conjunction with the TshU1-7 Shtora protection system which performs the active role in the T90s layered protection suite. The system provides a layered coverage of smoke and fragmentation grenades for direct disruption, in addition to a laser jammer that disrupts beam riding guidance systems.
Whilst MBTs have been the prime beneficiaries of this innovation in protection, the same has not been true of Russia’s lighter mechanised vehicles such as IFVs and APCs. The absence of survivability upgrades in line with the MBT has left IFVs vulnerable to the persistent threat of joint fires and ATGWs, and are thus more likely to be specifically targeted as this mis-match becomes known. This has reduced the combined arms effectiveness of MBTs as there is no accompanying infantry with like-for-like survivability. This shortcoming has lessons for the Australian Army as it looks to acquire an IFV capability as part of LAND 400 Phase 3. This is important because the combined arms team of infantry and armour shields the inherent weaknesses of both, therefore acquiring IFV with matched levels of protection to MBTs is preferable. When matched protection is not achieved, as seen in the Russian experience in Chechnya, both elements become vulnerable in a hybrid threat environment.
With the increased proliferation and use of Active Protection Systems (APS) and ERA as an essential component of AFV survivability on the battlefield, the TTPs for the tank infantry team will need to adapt. Does the nature of these protective systems prevent tanks and infantry operating in intimate support as in the past? Can tanks and infantry accept a degree of physical dislocation while still being capable of mutual support? This could be achieved through new groupings for the Australian Tank squadron, and its integration with an IFV capability for the APC squadron. Tactical and conceptual considerations also come rapidly to the fore. Does the inclusion of an IFV eliminate the need for intimate support tanks? Will APS need to be disabled when infantry dismount? Or is the risk of dismounted anti armour weapons in our Primary Operating Environment (POE) greater than the need for a dismounted effect short, on, or beyond an objective? Through a discussion and rethink of current TTPs, the Australian Army can develop a robust concept of employment of an IFV capability into the tank infantry team.
About the author
Lucas Guglielmi is an officer in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps with a background primarily in heavy armour and AFV training. Lucas is currently an employment category manager for Armoured Corps trade and training.
 Knezys, S, Sedlickas, R, the War in Chechnya, Eastern European Studies No 8, 1999, pp 81-85.
 Ibid, p 101.
 Cohen, A, and Hamilton, Robert E, The Russian Military and the Georgian War: Lessons and Implications, Strategic studies institute and US Army War College Press, Jun 2011 pp 11-13.
 Ibid pp 29-31.
 Janes, Land Warfare Platforms: Armoured Fighting Vehicles. 05 Feb 2016.
 Janes, Land Warfare Platforms: System Upgrades. 17 Jun 2016.
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