Video Above: What Will Russia's Attack on Ukraine Look Like? Tanks? Even Hypersonics?
As Russian missiles strike airfields and key military targets throughout Ukraine and Russian armored ground vehicles advance from Belarus toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, many are likely to wonder what kind of defenses might Ukrainian ground forces be able to use to counterattack?
Interestingly yet not surprisingly, Ukraine’s military operates largely Soviet-era Russian-built equipment. The extent to which Soviet-era tanks, armored personnel carriers and howitzers have been upgraded in recent years may not be fully known, yet the largest difference between Ukraine and Russian ground armies may simply be numbers. Global Firepower’s 2021 assessments state Russia operates as many as 12,000 tanks, whereas the same cites list Ukraine as operating merely several hundred.
Ukrainian Tank Force
The Ukrainian tank force is largely comprised of Cold-War era, Russian-built T-72s, T-80s and T-84s. The newest tank, the T-84, is described by Global Firepower as an upgraded Ukrainian variant of the Soviet-era Russian T-80. The T-84 is listed as having emerged in 1999, and Ukraine is listed as operating about one-third as many armored vehicles as Russia’s force of 30,000.. The fact that the Ukrainian T-84 it dates all the way back to 1999 is not particularly of concern, as weapons, thermal sights, computing, ammunition and other technologies may have been substantially upgraded. The US Army Abrams tank, for example, may originally be a 1980s platform, yet years of upgrades have made it almost an entirely new vehicle, capable of rivaling if not out matching the best tanks in the world.
Russia-Ukraine Tank-on-Tank Equation
The real question with any Russia-Ukraine tank-on-tank equation, regardless of the relative sophistication of the tanks themselves, is simply one of numbers. Massive formations of Russian tanks, should their weapons ranges and precision targeting be comparable or superior to Ukrainian tanks, would likely overwhelm and destroy Ukrainian tanks. The Russian tank force is made up of T-72s, upgraded T-80s and T-90s and possibly even a small number of new, high-tech T-14 Armata tanks.
Self-Propelled and Towed Artillery Platforms
Apart from tanks, the Ukrainians might seek to slow down or damage incoming Russian armored vehicles with its self-propelled and towed artillery platforms. Ukrainian artillery, however, is quite old and seems to be limited in range. The newest Ukrainian system, the Model 1963, emerged in the 60s and is listed as having a firing range of roughly 13 miles. While it is quite likely to have been upgraded since its introduction decades ago, the weapon may operate with a distinct range disadvantage when compared to Russian long-range artillery systems.
Should this be the case, more modern Russian mobile artillery might be positioned to destroy Ukrainian formations from protected stand-off ranges. Global Firepower does not list the range of Russia’s newest artillery system, the self-propelled 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV artillery platform, yet it reportedly emerged in 2018 and has a high-rate of fire with digital controls. This Russian artillery vehicle is likely far more modern and capable than Ukrainian rival systems and, depending upon how many of them are operational, could have a decisive impact and are likely to outgun the 1960s-era Ukrainian artillery systems.
There is also a large Ukrainian numbers deficit when it comes to force size as Russia operates more than 7,600 pieces of towed artillery compared with Ukraines 2,000 towed artillery weapons.
A major Russian ground war advance, it seems, would be positioned to massively outgun any kind of Ukrainian defense, yet that might not necessarily mean Ukraine’s defenses would be totally useless as they are likely to employ more hit-and-run types of operations or seek to control, disrupt or block key passages, intersections or choke points for advancing Russian forces.
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Nevertheless, as Russian forces reportedly close-in on Kyiv and other critical areas of Ukraine, there is still a question as to whether there will be large-scale armored confrontations between advancing Russian forces and Ukrainian defenses. Do Ukrainian ground forces have any chance of stopping, or even slowing down a full-scale Russian invasion?
Armored Combat Vehicles
Russia is reported to operate roughly three times as many armored combat vehicles as the Ukrainian army and many of the Russian systems are listed as being much more modern. Global Firepower’s 2022 military force assessment, reports Ukraine as operating roughly 12,000 armored vehicles, compared with Russia’s 30,000.
The size difference alone is likely to be overwhelming to Ukrainian forces should they seek to combat an approaching mechanized force of Russian armored vehicles, yet Ukrainian armored vehicles may also suffer from a technology deficit. Many of Russia’s armored vehicles, such as its T-14 Armata tank and KAMAZ SBA-60K2 Bulat Armored Personnel Carrier are listed as having emerged just within the last 7-to-10 years or so. The Russian Bulat APC is listed as a 6X6 Armored Personnel Carrier emerging in 2013, a vehicle likely complemented by the very modern Russian 8X8 BTR-90 APC from 2004. The Russian Army may not yet operate large numbers of the highly-touted T-14 Armata tanks, the platform emerged as recently as 2016. Russian T-90s are reported to have emerged in the 90s, yet they are likely to have been upgraded substantially.
Ukraine operates several Soviet era Armored Personnel Carriers to include the 1980s BTR-80 APC, a system complemented by Ukraine’s BTR-84 upgraded variant.
Russia seems to not only have vastly superior numbers of armored vehicles but also operate much newer systems, placing them in position to likely be able to overwhelm Ukraine’s ground forces. Ukraine’s most modern “light tank” Infantry Fighting Vehicle is the 1987 BMP-3, a Soviet era design also possessed by Russia’s Army. Russia, however, complements its BMP-3 light tanks with the modern 2011 BMPT (Terminator) Heavy Armored Support Vehicle.
Surface to Air Missiles (SAMS)
The Russian ground force also operates mobile, ultra-modern SA-21 S-400 Surface to Air Missiles which first emerged in 2007 and have been upgraded since. As mobile weapons, these SAMS give advancing Russian forces the ability to track and destroy enemy aircraft. Ukraine’s air defenses, by contrast, are listed by Global Firepower as being Soviet-era, 1980s built SA-15 Gauntlet systems.
According to CNN’s Mathew Chance, Ukrainian officials reported that a Ukrainian fighter jet has already been destroyed by mobile Russian SAM systems.
Should there be this kind of apparent heavy-armor mis-match, assaulting Russian forces may need to dismount and engage in what’s called CQB, or Close-Quarter Battle. It certainly seems possible that there could be elements of building-to-building, house-to-house warfare between approaching Russian units and dismounted Ukrainian infantry seeking the cover of buildings and urban areas as areas from which to mount surprise hit-and-run attacks on advancing Russian armored units.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.