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33 Turkish soldiers were killed on the night of 27 February in an airstrike in Idlib, northern Syria. The precision strike was an uncharacteristically competent operation by what Russian and Turkish diplomats insisted were Syrian military aircraft. Whether undertaken by Moscow or Damascus, the intent was clearly to suppress Turkish forces, allowing the Syrian government to occupy the final rebel redoubt. It was a calculation that backfired spectacularly.
Over the following 48 hours Ankara unleashed UAV and artillery strikes across Idlib against Syrian regime forces. Footage released by the Turkish military clearly shows that they destroyed dozens of Syrian Army armoured vehicles and killed over a hundred soldiers. The diplomatic repercussions remain to be seen, but the military lessons of Turkey’s onslaught pose serious questions for future concepts of operation. In short, armoured vehicles on the modern battlefield cannot hide.
Ever since their invention in the First World War, the armoured vehicle has enabled protected mobility around the battlefield by being impervious to most weapons systems. By the Second World War it usually took a competing tank or anti-tank gun to knock out armour, and except against the most heavily armoured tanks, the gunner that saw, fired, and hit first was likely to prevail. Indirect fire, and particularly airpower, if queued against static or exposed vehicles, could be devastating, but for the most part tanks were primarily threatened in the direct fire zone. The periodic nature of the threat from airpower – assuming that the airspace was still to some extent contested – could be mitigated by effective camouflage.
Today, these dynamics do not hold. The ubiquitous availability of highly attritable and high-fidelity surveillance and reconnaissance assets, from electronic and multispectral sensing, to video feeds from UAVs, leaves little room to hide. Modern camouflage designed to reduce the electromagnetic signature beyond the visible spectrum can render armored vehicles less obvious to passive surveillance, but generally fall short of concealing vehicles from more determined observation. Turkey’s domestically produced Bayraktar and Anka UAVs had little difficulty in picking out Syrian armour amidst Idlib’s sparse terrain, and then following their movements. Once found, vehicles can also be targeted by increasingly precise and tailored munitions, whether delivered by the UAV, or from afar.
It is fair to say that Western armies have to a large extent been in denial about the impact of these capabilities. Awaiting a revolution in swarm technology and AI, Western forces have largely overlooked the fact that it is the density of sensors that is decisively reshaping the battlefield. Of course, much criticism can be leveled at the Syrian forces for their poor vehicle handling, lack of camouflage, and tendency to bunch up in targetable laagers. However extensive testing in the US and UK has consistently shown that Western vehicles are not much harder to find. The deep and unmistakable tracks that armoured vehicles cut in the ground leave a trail that UAVs can follow, and the fishhook turn leaves little doubt as to which woodblock the vehicle has entered, even if it has subsequently set up multi-spectral screens and camouflage.
Given the range and endurance of modern ISR capabilities, and the distance that armoured forces must traverse under threat before actually coming into the direct fire zone, it must be doubted whether existing concepts of armoured manoeuvre will remain viable, as armoured units face persistent attrition before ever they reach an adversary ground formation. As the weight of most armoured units – with a correspondingly limited operational reach – restricts long marches, the distance from a safe start line to an objective may render the logistics and break down rate prohibitive for established norms of operation. Little solace should be taken from the small number of Turkish strikes in which Syrian tanks survived the hit. Turkey’s MAM-L and MAM-C munitions are not ideally suited for knocking out main battle tanks (MBTs), but MBTs are of little value if they have no supporting infantry to take and hold their objectives, and armoured personnel carriers are significantly more vulnerable.
The lessons from Idlib are stark. While armored vehicles still have a great deal of utility, if units lack effective layers of defensive capabilities they will not reach the fight while remaining combat effective. These critical capabilities include electronic warfare units, radar-warning systems, ground based air defence (GBAD), and in particular short-ranged air defence systems (SHORAD) that can cheaply and quickly engage less sophisticated air threats and ISR platforms. They also require the ability to integrate, analyse and disseminate information sufficiently to track threats in a congested battlespace and bring these defensive capabilities to bear in an effective and coordinated manner. When working together these capabilities create a protected node within which forces can manoeuvre.
A second question is whether Western forces need to rethink camouflage. While concealment will remain a key skill in warfare, it may become subordinate to deception, whether through generating a myriad of false positives in the electromagnetic spectrum, or a plethora of dummy targets. The ability to overwhelm an opponent’s analytical capacity, and thereby prevent the prioritisation of targets for what must ultimately be a finite number of expensive munitions, is likely to be critical.
A further implication is a renewed emphasis on attrition, albeit of equipment, rather than people. In short, we may envisage the early stage of an engagement comprising a mutual attempt by both parties to tear down one another’s ISR networks, and protective capabilities. In both instances numbers matter, and if attritability is a key requirement for both seekers and deception, then the cheapness and capacity to mass-produce those platforms becomes a critical enabler for power projection. Western forces remain dazzled by exquisite ISR platforms. It seems increasingly clear that the most important question is what fidelity of sensors is sufficient to deliver effects?
The trends outlined above are primarily relevant today in state-on-state warfare. As key technologies become ubiquitous, however, and especially as states engage in intensified proxy warfare, these threats may become increasingly present when confronting non-state actors. The Islamic State had a substantial indigenous UAV construction programme. Their drones – while crude – were effective. The Houthis have not managed to field UAVs on the same scale, but have built sophisticated ‘loitering munition-style’ strike drones, based on Iranian designs, and have used them to deliver precise effects at reach.
In the context of the UK’s Integrated Review, Idlib throws up troubling questions. Major land force procurement programmes, including the Challenger II Life Extension Programme, and Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme, represent commitments that deliver a force just as susceptible to emerging threats as it is today. By contrast, British forces lack GBAD in any density, and SHORAD of any kind. Ground forces risk replicating the familiar at the expense of the effective. Mechanised and armored manoeuvre has a theoretical pathway to future viability. The electronic warfare and air defence capabilities exist and are most versatile when they have mobility through being vehicle-mounted. However, the changes required in terms of the design of manoeuvre units, what capabilities they include organically, and how they are protected by assets held at higher echelons indicate that the concept of operations for these forces is in desperate need of updating when the current threat environment is taken into consideration.
Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling
Nick is Research Analyst for Land Warfare in the Military Sciences team at RUSI
Jack is Research Fellow for Land Warfare in the Military Sciences team at RUSI
Banner Image: Screenshot from drone footage released by Turkish Ministry of Defence via AFP.