Status Report: Lessons learned from the conflict in Ukraine for the Czech Army
Author: Army General Jiří Šedivý (retired), former chief of staff of the Army of the Czech Republic
here’s an article from a Czech NATO magazine, written by the former Czech army chief of staff. I hope you find it interesting.
The leadership of the AČR (Czech Army) has been working on the new concept of the army development for quite some time. It's rather complicated to to find a simple solution that would lead to a consensus regarding the army development direction. Only a few years ago, the situation we found ourselves in was clear, as were the development trends. But it all has changed recently.
Today, two threats are noticeable. The one widely known is that of radical Islam, represented especially by the Islamic State. The IS represents much more brutal form of Islam, even though Al-Qaeda and Taliban were no “peaceful organizations” either – murders happen daily. Despite all that, the Islamic State is something new. This organization is attempting to behave like a real country in all respects. One of their first steps was to arm their combatants with as good military hardware as possible, including armor and artillery. The vehicles were mostly captured in the initial fighting in Syria and Iraq. It is not clear what kind and how many other weapons were later purchased for the money from illegal oil trade, from kidnapping and blackmail.
The most important discovery is that to prepare our army for the war on terror as we know it from Afghanistan is to prepare it for the war of yesterday. Even the terrorists know that it’s very difficult to fight against heavy weapons if they want to keep their captured territories for some time and therefore they too have to obtain weapons of reasonable quality. It is up to the allies to destroy the terrorist weapons as fast as possible, especially the heavy equipment such as tanks, artillery and such. Not so long ago first news appeared about the use of chemical weapons – even though they were quite primitive. Despite that, it’s a very serious signal.
Ever since 2014, the previously calm Europe experiences confusion about the Crimea situation, but also about the situation in eastern Ukraine. The Russian annexation of Crimean peninsula was unprecedented, as was the unacceptable interference in the conflict in eastern Ukraine by giving their weapons and even soldiers to the separatists. There are many pieces of proof supporting this claim.
Due to the fighting with Islamic State but especially due to the battles in eastern Ukraine, the question of using heavy equipment in conflicts became actual again. What are the lessons the Czech army should take from the conflict?
We, as a former member of the Warsaw Pact still equipped with a large number of Soviet armor should be interested in how well did the Soviet vehicles in Ukrainian and in Russian service do in battle.
The Soviet armor concept was wrong from the very beginning. Unlike their western counterparts, the Soviet designers never really cared about the human factor. Especially the armor displays such flaws that they are impossible not to notice. All the previous battles between “western” and “eastern” equipment ended with a dramatic loss of the “eastern” one. Both Gulf wars have shown the essential differences in weapon system quality and the conflict in Chechnya only confirmed all doubts. Both losses of Saddam Hussein could be excused by him being outgunned and outnumbered and by his troops having poor training. The same could be said about Chechnya, where improper use of tanks led to high losses.
The conflict in Ukraine however is a clash of roughly the same styles of warfare, of the same level of armament and generally without the involvement of aircraft. You can have a look at the pictures from eastern Ukraine. The tanks are not only knocked out, they are totally destroyed with turrets flying off by the ammo explosions and most of the tanks are burned to a crisp. Both sides are using the T-64 and T-72 tanks – not the same vehicles, but they are in concept roughly similar.
The Soviet armor concept is built around small dimensions and low silhouettes. Combined with the relatively high quality of armor as well as sharp armor plate angles, when these vehicles were introduced, they were considered highly effective. The development roots however reach back to the 50’s with the development continuing in 60’s and 70’s.
This Soviet concept required many solutions that were far from optimal. Especially the inside of the vehicles is so cramped that the crew often does not have enough space to perform their functions. This increases the crew fatigue especially during longer operations, leading to tiredness and mistakes. The worst issue however is the fact that the crew was limited to three members by replacing the loader with an automatic loading system.
The T-64 and T-72 are somewhat different but in both cases the important part is that the crew is “sitting” on the autoloader carousel. Apart from that, the “ready” ammunition is located all around the crew space. Despite introducing various measures, the Russian designers did not manage to ensure the same crew safety as the western vehicles have. The Abrams, Leclerc, Leopard 2 and Challenger tanks are bigger and heavier, they however managed to defeat the T-72 tanks always with minimal losses.
Whenever a T-72 is hit, the armor penetration in many cases leads to the ammunition either exploding outright or starting to burn and the fire always destroys the tank completely. From what we can see in eastern Ukraine, the fire retardant development is clears insufficient. If the crew doesn't get to bail out, it is sentenced to painful death.
The very same issues happen to the BMP series where the attempts to reduce the silhouette and the weight in order to make them amphibious led to many compromises and today we can see the flaws of this design.
Based on what was said above, we should get rid of the Soviet vehicles and to finally purchase modern weapons from the western and Czech production.