MARCH 20, 2023
Front-line officers are desperate for a less glamorous weapon: the infantry fighting vehicle.
The last few months saw a contentious debate among Kyiv’s Western partners about whether to supply Western-made main battle tanks to Ukraine to help it beat back the Russian invasion. Germany’s much-delayed decision to deliver Leopard 2 tanks (and allow other countries to deliver the German-made weapon), along with a British decision to send Challenger 2s, was hailed by many observers as a potential game-changer that would enable Ukraine to conduct offensive operations this spring.
Listening to Ukrainian military officers, like I was able to do during a research trip to Kyiv and the Donbas this month, and a different picture emerges. Not the tank, but it’s less glamorous cousin—the infantry fighting vehicle (IFV)—was at the top of its weapons wish list. “We need everything, but IFVs are probably the most urgent need we have,” an officer in a Ukrainian mechanized brigade messaged me last week.
That’s because success in ground combat doesn’t depend on tanks alone but rather on how well tanks can be integrated with other platforms to conduct combined arms operations. The most important of these other weapons—the one Ukrainians on the front lines have been clamoring for—is the armored IFV. Without the main battle tank and IFV operating together, the choreography of the swift and effective combined arms attack would collapse. Without IFVs, there can be no rapid and successful Ukrainian offensive this spring—regardless of how many Western tanks arrive. Although the United States, Sweden, and Germany have each pledged Western IFVs to Ukraine, their actual delivery has yet to be confirmed.
First developed in the late 1950s in West Germany and the Soviet Union, IFVs are a hybrid between armored personnel carriers (APCs) and tanks. Lighter in terms of armament and armor than a tank, they are nonetheless designed to advance with tanks in battle, protecting their heavier cousins from enemy infantry and armor. Unlike an APC—a kind of infantry battle taxi that can’t do much else—the squad aboard an IFV does not have to dismount the vehicle to fight; it can engage the enemy with the IFV’s main cannon, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), and machine guns. Another important role for the IFV’s role is to provide direct fire support to infantry when it dismounts—for example, for urban combat.
Ukraine has been just as desperate for Western IFVs as tanks despite the public debate’s focus on the latter. Currently, the majority of Ukraine’s IFVs still consist of older Soviet-era BMP-1 and BMP-2 models. According to the Military Balance+ database, Ukraine started the war with 1,212 Soviet-era IFVs of all variants. According to online database Oryx, Ukraine has lost more than 500 IFVs to date, almost all of them the old Soviet types.
Ukraine is in the process of receiving a number of Western IFVs for future offensive operations, including 109 U.S.-made M2 Bradley IFVs. For the upcoming spring offensive, the importance of these deliveries—and the ongoing training of Ukrainians on them—could hardly be overstated. With the Ukrainian armed forces about to operate both Western-made main battle tanks and Western-made IFVs, the effective integration of these two types of armor into combined arms teams supported by artillery could increase Ukrainian forces’ offensive maneuver potential. That, in turn, would reduce Ukraine’s dependence on mass artillery fire on the front line.
Given how rare tank-on-tank warfare has been in Ukraine—and the fact that both sides most often use it as a kind of mobile artillery—Western-made IFVs could have an even greater impact than tanks.
None one of this should be surprising. The importance of IFVs is one of the central lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which much of Western fighting doctrine for ground warfare is derived from to this day. During that war, Israel was nearly defeated by the armies of Syria and Egypt in a surprise attack, losing a substantial number of tanks to Egyptian infantry operating Soviet-made ATGMs. It was then that the IFV, a completely new type of weapon at the time, was first observed in actual battle.
The Yom Kippur War marked the combat debut of the BMP-1, which the Soviets had supplied to the Egyptian army. The United States had no equivalent type of weapon in its arsenal; Israel’s infantry formations fought the war with thinly armored and outgunned M113 APCs. For the U.S. Army, which was keen to push the development of its own IFV, the BMP-1’s performance in combat was of particular interest.
To the chagrin of IFV advocates in the U.S. Army, however, the BMP-1’s combat performance was extremely poor. It lacked armor to protect itself against Israeli anti-tank weapons, and the Egyptians lost them in great numbers. Questions arose in the U.S. Congress about the utility of this new weapons class. The U.S. Army downplayed the poor performance of the BMP-1 in postwar analysis to not jeopardize its own IFV development program, which would eventually result in the Bradley. Instead, it focused its internal discussion on comparing the new IFV with the APC, a comparison the IFV won handily. Still, it would take until 1983 for the first combat unit to receive Bradleys.
It was, however, the Soviets’ own response to the BMP-1’s disastrous performance in the Yom Kippur War that led the U.S. Army to revise its warfighting doctrine. For the Soviets, the war triggered an intense debate. At two major military science conferences in November 1974 and January 1975, one of the main subjects of discussion among senior Soviet military officers was the BMP-1’s vulnerability to tanks and ATGMs. This vulnerability jeopardized existing Soviet doctrine, which envisioned operations built around massed armor breakthroughs spearheaded by tanks and supported by IFVs.
As military analysts noted at the time, the Yom Kippur War (in addition to the emergence of precision-guided munitions) helped trigger a tactical revolution in Soviet doctrine by abandoning massed armored attacks in favor of multipronged attacks by smaller groups of tanks and IFVs seeking gaps and weak spots in the front line, which even weakly armored BMP-1s—and later BMP-2s—could successfully exploit. The idea may have been sound, but it also required other changes. Soviet military writing at the time stressed that the new doctrine required a more dispersed force structure along with battlefield initiative by junior commanders. The reality, however, showed that the Soviets’ hierarchical, top-down command style and military culture prevented much of the new doctrine’s implementation at lower echelons of command.
The U.S. Army was aware of these ongoing changes in Soviet doctrinal thinking in the late 1970s and early 1980s—including the Soviets’ difficulties in effecting the required changes in their military hierarchy. These Soviet efforts provided a powerful argument for those U.S. officers favoring the doctrinal shift away from Active Defense—the old doctrine designed to hold off the Soviets should they launch a ground attack in Europe—to a more flexible doctrine called AirLand Battle. The latter became official army doctrine in 1982, and it has attained almost mythical status in U.S. military circles to this day—largely thanks to its supposed role in the swift allied victory over the Iraqi military during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. AirLand Battle emphasized firepower, but more importantly, it also focused on flexible maneuvers built around mission command. This more flexible doctrinal approach seemed to have been validated by the lopsided victory in 1991, although there is an ongoing debate to this day about the AirLand Battle doctrine’s impact on the war’s overall outcome. Still, the doctrine’s impact on individual fights is clear; at the famous Battle of 73 Easting, tactical initiative at lower command levels in combination with combined arms proficiency carried the day.
Besides the Ukrainian army’s adoption of the flexible, mission-centric fighting doctrine that directly resulted from the first combat deployment of IFVs during the Yom Kippur War, Ukraine will benefit from another legacy of 1973. With the delivery of the Bradley, whose development was set in motion at that time, Ukraine will have a powerful generation of vehicles in a weapons class that Ukrainians are already using and familiar with. The technical capabilities of the M2 Bradley in terms of firepower, protected mobility, and battlefield awareness outclass the bulk of existing IFVs in Ukrainian or Russian service. This may present a tactical opportunity for Ukraine during the upcoming spring offensive.
At the same time, we need to manage our expectations of what combined arms warfare built around tanks and IFVs can achieve for Ukraine. Maintaining new and diverse Western platforms beyond their existing Soviet vehicles will be a logistical challenge for Ukrainian forces. IFVs and other armored vehicles alone do not confer a capacity for combined arms maneuvers without adequate training. To be sure, combined arms maneuvers built around tanks and IFVs may help break through the Russian front line, reduce Ukrainian needs for artillery ammunition, and lower Ukrainian casualties. The crucial question, however, will be how long Ukraine can sustain its offensive momentum—and whether there will be enough to have a significant impact on the course of the war.
Interesting. But, it makes sense, what the article says.
“IFVs and other armored vehicles alone do not confer a capacity for combined arms maneuvers without adequate training.”
There are numerous Ukrainian troops doing just that in various European countries.
“The crucial question, however, will be how long Ukraine can sustain its offensive momentum…”
I have confidence that the AFU generals staff, along with its counterparts from the UK and US will make sure that the capacities will suffice to roll over the cockroaches far into occupied territories.
“…and whether there will be enough to have a significant impact on the course of the war.”
Sad, but true … as usual…
The Bradley’s are proven to be lethal and reliable. The Paladins share a chassis and so it’ll be easier to service both. Russia is in real trouble. Only supplied from China can save them now.
Why no ATCAMS? If it’s fear of escalation or more likely an escalation in the fear rhetoric that could derail public support for aid, perhaps they can be given when the counter offensive is rolling. It’ll look more like Ukraine is winning anyway, so what’s a few more missiles. Missile escalation is a scary thing but with a mechanized force re-establing Ukraines borders, will be less noticed.
I think they should already have been provided, and hope we can somehow find the courage to do what needs to be done. The burden on Ukrainian defenders is too high now. They’d have nukes to protect themselves if they hadn’t surrendered them for all our safety.
Fear should not have any chance to exist in the White House. But, unfortunately, it does, and it’s an ingredient of every decision made by Biden.