Epistemic Status: Thoughts I came up with after spending too much time on Twitter, so take it with a spoon of salt.

Like many, I was surprised how bad Russia performed in the invasion of Ukraine. One obvious explanation is that Russia just does not have the skills to perform such an operation anymore. While its true that Russia seems to have problems when it comes to things like logistics and morals, I don’t think this is the only factor that comes into play. Thanks to support by NATO countries, Ukraine now has a vast amount of next generation anti-tank weapons and they use them with huge success. The Oryx Blog documents losses of equipment in the war and up until now Russia has lost hundreds of their tanks. This seems to be largely due to infantry based anti tank weapons like e.g. Javelin. These kinds of weapons are easy to carry around and show themselves to be capable of destroying even the newest russian tanks like the T-90.

I think this is a possibly substantial shift. The war in Ukraine seems to be showing that tanks are much less effective than they were in the past. Modern war before the arrival of tanks favored the defender extremely. Most notably we can see this in the first world war. While its mainly remembered for its long and bloody stalemate, the first world war had a more mobile component in its beginning. The German made vast gains in the first few weeks of the war. They tried to outflank the Entente, which resulted in a chain of engagements and only ended once they reached the sea and there was no room for maneuvers left. This part of the war was characterized by an extreme loss of life, as artillery and machine guns are extremely deadly if you have no armor to protect you. The British Army alone suffered 100.000 casualties in a period of months. After this initial phase, the war shifted to attrition, because no side could overwhelm the defenses of the other.

Only the introduction of tanks (and shifts in strategy and tactics) allowed the Entente to successfully gain the initiative again. They broke the stalemate we saw in the first world war by allowing offensive actions again. Their importance for initiative became even clearer in the second world war in form of the German attack on France. Without the mobility provided by tanks, it would not have been possible.

So, if tanks are much less effective now. Does this mean we will go back to World War I like warfare? Extremely costly mobile warfare, followed by bloody stalemates as no side can overwhelm the other. And if so, what consequences will this have in a world with nuclear weapons? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts here.