The Dash for Defence: Protecting Tanks from Drone Attacks

Drone warfare in Ukraine is creating a race to develop drone countermeasures and improved shielding for tanks.

The Dash for Defence: Protecting Tanks from Drone Attacks

For more than 100 years, the tank has been the apex predator on the battlefield. But their position of dominance is now under threat as technological advances are turning drones into tank-killers.

The result is a rush by both Russian and Ukrainian military commanders to deploy countermeasures and to develop stronger shielding from these loitering menaces. This is particularly needed as experts warn that the latest drone designs have effectively become steerable weapons with larger payloads, first-person-view (FPV), improved tactics, and increasingly skilled pilots. A situation which is becoming more and more problematic even for fast-moving vehicles.

A burnt-out T-90A Russian main battle tank on display in Prague.

One-way attack drones such as FPV or loitering munitions provide a beyond-line-of-sight capability that enable the operator to follow tanks to their concealed staging areas or departure points and strike them 24/7,” explains Federico Borsari, a military analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank. “These systems can also chase and strike moving tanks in their most vulnerable points, especially the rear exhaust of the engine.”

It is a situation which has even led to reports that some nations want their frontline battle tanks kept in deeper positions to protect them from drone attacks until new counter-drone tactics can be developed.

“When you think about the way the fight has evolved,” said US Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. Christopher Grady, “massed armor in an environment where unmanned aerial systems are ubiquitous can be at risk.”

While primarily designed to punch a way through defensive positions held by infantry in trenches, even the state-of-the-art battle tanks like the Abrams and Leopard 2 have suffered considerable losses against drones.

A German Army Leopard II tank.

This has led to as the arms industry having to step up its game in boosting tank and armoured vehicle defences, resulting in impromptu shield designs being implemented on the battlefield. As Defense News reports, “In the last two months, a number of Russian tanks were spotted sporting unusual types of armor, including improvised metal roofs layered with metal grills. Ukrainian social media channels have nicknamed these vehicles turtle tanks, while Russian telegram accounts have referred to them as ‘Tsar Mangal’ or tsar’s BBQs.”

These countermeasures aim to reduce the likelihood of projectiles breaching the hull by activating the explosive charge of drones early, even at the expense of other qualities.

For example, in the case of the turtle tank, “add-on log armor and metal plates, installed to create a full-fledged metal shell completely covering three sides and the top of the tank, make it impossible to rotate the turret and significantly limit the vehicle’s visibility,” observed Borsari.

Additionally, both sides have also made extensive use of various electronic warfare tools in order to interfere with or jam enemy drone radio frequencies, with these devices often mounted onto tank roofs.

A counter-drone weapon.

Although many experts believe that electronic warfare is the most effective way to counter drones deployed as guided warheads, both Russian and Ukrainian forces are still experimenting with other novel solutions.

But while these make-shift shields may appear far to homemade to be effective, there is evidence of their success as it is testing drone pilot’s ability to find weaknesses in a tank’s armour.

“At this point, successful FPV attacks against tanks are contingent on pilot experience,” observes Samuel Bendett, a military analyst at the Naval Analyses think tank. “It takes a lot to destroy a tank, and only the best and most experienced ones can maneuver their drone at exactly the right spot to strike.”

Evidence from the frontline makes it clear that Russian and Ukrainian forces have needed to rapidly adapt their tank strategies and protective measures in response to the widespread use of off-the-shelf drones equipped with explosives.

Whereas in previous conflicts, tanks were relatively protected against small arms fire and RPGs, the proliferation of low-cost drones (worth many thousands of dollars) has enabled even irregular forces to strike at heavy armour (worth many millions of dollars).

This has led to a kind of arms race, with each side attempting to modify and augment their tanks' defences. The Russians have largely focused on installing slat armour, chain link fencing, and even makeshift ‘cope cages’ made from bed frames and other scrap metal to deflect or detonate drone munitions before they hit the actual tank armour.

A Warrior light tank with increased armour.

The Ukrainians, with their more limited resources, have improvised reactive armour from sandbags, rubber mats, and even wood planking, while also developing innovative drone-hunting rifles to shoot down kamikaze drones.

Both sides are also changing their operational doctrines, using more dispersed formations, concealing tanks under overhead cover, and deploying drone detection systems and electronic countermeasures.

While tanks are still vital for combined arms operations, their previously near-invulnerable status on the battlefield has been diminished – a true indication of the effectiveness of the modern drone and a sign of the shape of warfare yet to come.

You may also like to read: Is Russia Using Laser Weapons in Ukraine? or How Adapting Ukraine’s Drone Industry Could Make All the Difference

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