T-72 tanks in urban combat, Indian Army Tankman says they did their job well in Sri Lanka and Ukraine

Please understand there is infantry. There are air defense units. There are, there are so many others. What was their role, and where are they? I mean, nobody was talking about them. So why singularly look at the tank?

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Vaibhav Agrawal
Vaibhav Agrawal
Vaibhav Agrawal is the founder editor of Bhraman (a Digital Travelogue). As an independent journalist, he is passionate for investigating and reporting on complex subjects. He has an extensive background in both print and digital media, with a focus on Travel and Defence reporting. *Views are personal

T-72 tanks have been the object of many debates since they rolled into Ukraine. In general, the tanks have been called a failure in view of Anti Tank Guided Missiles (ATMG) proliferating on the tactical battlefield. The T-72 tank has also done a spectacular job in the war, which is not getting highlighted. We have heard the opinions of the British and French experts, but they are not the users. Frontier India spoke to Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) from the 65 Armoured Regiment, which fought a similar battle in Sri Lanka in Operation Pawan. 65 Armoured Regiment operated the T-72 M1 tanks in Sri Lanka.

The transcript is below:

The Indian Army last operated in Sri Lanka when it was fighting in the built-up area. And today, we have the Russian Army deployed, you know, in Ukraine and fighting in built-up areas. And we see many Videos on social media, right? Let us understand that social media is being used effectively as information warfare. Ukrainian Army and the Russian Army use similar equipment; who is losing more is a conjecture and a vague assessment. 

Firstly, let’s get the perspective right. Tanks are an offensive weapon platform and were held back on the mainland when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was launched on 29th July 1987. When the role of the Indian Army changed from Peacekeepers to Peace enforcement on 10th October 1987, the tanks were flown into Jaffna airfield. The tanks were used individually as mobile pill boxes to give added firepower to the Infantry battalions, which had been overwhelmed by the enemy’s guerilla warfare tactics and firepower. The infantry battalions had self-loading rifles with ammunition of 7.62 mm, a vintage weapon suitable for conventional operations.

In comparison, the LTTE was carrying equipped with AK Series rifles and G3 rifles, which had immense firepower in terms of rounds for per minute firing capability. Let me narrate an anecdote. Major Sheonan Singh from 10 Para Commandos was asked by GOC IPKF (General officer Commanding, Indian Peace Keeping Force), what is it that the SLR can’t do, and what the AK 47 can do. As per hearsay, he told the GOC, quote, “Sir, you give me an AK 47. I’ll melt into the jungles, you send 10 of your best men after me, and I’ll send you back ten dead bodies’ unquote.

Now he was stating that because an AK 47 has a 30-round magazine, there is a very rapid rate of fire. You can fire a single shot; you can (fire) a burst of three; you can fire on fully automatic. The SLR was a single shot with a 20-round magazine, but it had immense firepower to knock the man and kill him instantly—no matter where the enemy got hit.

The LTTE were nimble-footed; they would operate in a small group of five-six, climb up coconut trees/ climb up rooftops and engage sporadically, shifting positions continuously. Therefore, you could never get a sense of what the opposition was against you, especially at night; you couldn’t see where the fire was coming from, and casualties were being inflicted. Not a very good scene to be in.

The tanks were basically being used as fixed platforms behind which the infantry would move. The tanks had devastating firepower, with a 125 mm smoothbore gun and a High Explosive shell of about 33 Kg; fired at close range and knocked out the opposition.

Was that the correct way of using tanks? No, it wasn’t because tanks are not supposed to be used as pill boxes. Tanks operate as a troop consisting of a minimum of three tanks. The terrain factor has to be borne in mind. The Jaffna peninsula was something which had the sea on one side; it had multiple lagoons in the hinterland, and the water table was very high, making cross-country movement very difficult. Tanks perforce had to move on existing roads and tracks or rail lines. The LTTE knew from where you could operate. But notwithstanding that, after our few setbacks, the combined firepower ensured that the enemy was kept at bay.

Listen to the full interview.

LTTE had been trained by the armoured corps and knew how to negate a tank. They would shoot at our vision devices because when you’re closed in the tank, you observe everything outside through the day or night vision devices.

Operating in an open-up mode was vulnerable, as you presented a target, but we found ways and means to negate that threat. The T 72 is a conventional offensive tank. It is not a tank designed and built to fight and build up areas, unlike the Israeli Merkava.

Notwithstanding that, now let’s go relate to your question on Ukraine. It’s the same tank. Now the threats have changed. These tanks were designed sometime in the seventies and were to be used in mass against the NATO forces in the planes of Europe. And the Russian doctrine was that use them in plenty and firepower to overwhelm the enemy in larger numbers.

The NATO thought process was that since they couldn’t match the Russians in terms of equipment, their focus was on protection, firepower, and mobility. This is to explain the basics of how a tank is designed. Step forward to Ukraine’s environment has changed. Drones have come in with top attack munitions.

Azerbaijan conflict reflected how the Turkish UAVs were effectively used for carrying out a top attack and negating a tank. A tank typically has maximum protection against its frontal arc and on the sides. It has minimum protection at the top and at its bottom, because most conventional anti-tank weapons are fired head-on or from the sides.

The Russian Army quickly adapted. They made cages, put nets and ensured that the top attack wouldn’t succeed, but that was just a quick fix solution. Today an active protection system for the tanks is a requirement like all modern aircraft friendships have anti-protection systems on board.
The T-90s do have an active protection system, which the Russian Army uses, but too many T-90s have not been used.

Indian Army 65 Armoured Regiment
T-72 M1 and the crew from the Indian Army 65 Armoured Regiment

The thing that has to be corrected is that we really don’t know whether the T-72s or the T-80s are being shown in the Video clips, which have been circulated on social media, which the Western governments control are Ukrainian or Russian. So somebody said, oh, you know, the Russians will run out of ammunition, they’re going to be running out of equipment. It is a war of four days; it’s a war of 10. 24th February 2022, and today we are sitting on 29th July. The war is going on, and I’m told the Russians have increased the number of rounds they’re firing per day from 20,000 to 40,000. So they’re not running out of ammunition. They’re not running out of anything. They are fighting the battle that they want to. So, it does not fit into the template of the various think tanks in the U.S. or in Europe or India. Mr Putin doesn’t listen to anybody, and he is doing what he wants to do. He wants to get Ukraine, and he’ll get it, in my view.

I mean, how he gets it may take him a year or two.

The Rouble trade is being isolated from the Dollar currency. The Chinese currency is also being isolated. We are trying to get our Rupee to get isolated from the impact of the dollar, right? So these are new things from a unipolar world, a multipolar world who will win, who will lose, which are the new collaboration that comes up, whether it’s China, Russia, Iran, or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On one side, you see Indians, you know, balanced on the centre, but not bending towards Russia or to Japan or the others. But on the QUAD side, we are still trying to figure out how to sort of keeping our balance impact.

So I. We are fairly well balanced. And at the same time, I think the tanks would need to get active protection suits. Tank is a weapon of offense. The tank has done its job in Ukraine. It led the Russian Army into the hinterland of Ukraine to achieve the objectives that it wanted to achieve.

Please understand there is infantry. There are air defense units. There are, there are so many others. What was their role, and where were they? I mean, nobody was talking about them. So why singularly look at the tank? The tank did its job. It was what it was meant for. So, are tanks supposed to find battles independently? No, you are supposed to be fighting as combat or combined arms group. Or the new term, the Indian Army uses integrated battle groups (IBG). So there’s a compliment: ensuring your close protection all around.

It’s like the Navy carrier battle group. So you have an aircraft carrier. You have destroyers; you got subsurface submarines. You’ve got aircraft flying on top. Nobody is surprised, but you have the offense capability to hit out. So you have to do that with your land forces also. So, you know, it’s an evolving world, and drones will be there, swarm drones will be around, but they’ll be anti-drone and anti-swarm drone systems. So as we spoke earlier, you have to be nimble-footed. You have to be fast. You have to ensure that your tech is up and about, using all your resources and integrating what everybody talks about, IoT machine learning, and, you know, all the fancy gizmo words you hear.

Laser weapons are still under development, and they’ll take some time. It’s not easy to firstly store energy and release it in a point form. They’re still not approved by the UN and therefore still not on the list to be used as conventional warfare, though, in the space environment, the Chinese have been using them to demonstrate their anti-satellite capabilities.

But now, the U.S. has also said that anything that happens in space will be taken as a conventional operation threat. So things are evolving. So it’ll be too early to sort of put a grid around what is logical or which is legal and what is illegal. So it’s like the LOC (line of control with Pakistan, Ed.); it’s all a matter of perception. It’s aligned. It’s imaginary. You decide which way goes.


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