Ukraine’s tanks will achieve little without modern fighter jets
This week I was on Salisbury Plain listening to the pleasant sound of Challenger 2 tanks maneuvering behind me. Knowing that Ukrainian tankers are learning how to use them gives me hope that this is the beginning of the end of Putin’s illegal invasion.
However, ever since the first great tank battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917 during the First World War, we have known that tanks in themselves are not decisive – only in combination with infantry, artillery and aircraft can they be truly destructive. Thus, the news that President Biden will not yet allow the sending of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine was a big disappointment for the Ukrainian high command.
While it would take Ukrainian pilots months to learn how to fly these advanced jet aircraft, we saw in the early months of the war how devastating it could be to abandon the use of tanks as part of a combined arms strategy: Russian tanks were easily attacked. when they should have easily broken into Kyiv. In the long term, Ukraine will need more weapons than we offer.
So far, Ukraine has been promised about 130 Western tanks: the equivalent of a tank brigade, which will need to be supported by about 500 armored fighting vehicles to deliver infantry to hold the position. This did not happen at Cambrai, where the great successes of our army were followed by the loss of territory as the Germans counter-attacked our unsupported tanks.
Without the fighters of this tank brigade, with localized and extensive air defense systems, it will probably be enough to deter the expected Russian counteroffensive in March. The UK has already donated a very powerful Stormer air defense system that protects tanks from Russian attack aircraft and helicopters. Even without air superiority, the Arras counterattack in May 1940 resulted in a panzer brigade attacking the flank of Rommel’s panzer divisions. The action halted the German advance for 48 hours, allowing the British Expeditionary Force to withdraw to Dunkirk, a strategically decisive action.
However, offensive operations on a scale that will eventually drive the Russians out of Ukraine would require a combined arms force of an entire armored division, including fighters. We are still far from it. This will require about 300 Western tanks, supported by hundreds of Ukrainian T72s and modern fighters.
Air superiority really matters for a force of this magnitude. Although Russian air power was absent for most of this war, it must be assumed that they will try to prevent defeat through such an offensive. In the Six Day War of 1967, Soviet-made tanks were destroyed by their Western counterparts, which were better protected and had more firepower.
My own experience in the First Gulf War saw British and American tanks destroy hundreds of Iraqi T72s and T55s and rout a huge entrenched force thanks to heavy infantry and attack aircraft support, as well as a fair amount of artillery. This combined-arms tank group drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, as the Ukrainians are trying to do with the Russians on their own soil.
Tanks have played a decisive role on the battlefield for more than 100 years, but only with the support of infantry, artillery and aviation. In the short term, a tank brigade would not need fighters to defend itself effectively. But in an attack, the planes will be vital to building the relentless momentum that will drive Russian troops out of Ukraine.
Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is the former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. He is a regular contributor to The Telegraph’s daily podcast The Last Ukraine, which has over 20 million downloads. You can listen to our latest episode here