Views and Opinions
Alexander Perepelitsyn/Alamy Stock Photo FN15HK
Up the Creek Without a Paddle
Alain Cohen and Julien Chaput-Lemay
For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.
“A tank is the best weapon against a tank.”
“What if you don’t have any when enemy tanks show up?”
“That would never happen if we went to war.”
This caricatured line of reasoning is not far removed from reality in the Canadian Army. Our commonly held views on defeating armoured threats often rest on two fundamental assumptions: the first is that our deployed infantry forces will always be supported by main battle tanks; the second is that, in any event, nearly all enemy armour will be knocked out by aerial means in the opening phase of a campaign.
These assumptions were formed over the past three decades of unchallenged NATO supremacy. Today, however, these assumptions seem too bold for comfort, if not dangerous in the authors’ view. So here we are, interjecting a simple question at the end of the opening dialogue: “Really?”
Picture the following
A Canadian light infantry battalion deploys to the mountainous border region of an allied nation as part of a hastily-assembled stability force. The battalion’s orders are to enter a border town at first light to ease tensions between belligerents, while contributing to a broader show of force. The latter will aim to deter incursions by well-trained and well-equipped proxy forces mustering in the neighboring country. Close air support assets are only expected to become available 24 hours following the battalion’s arrival. As night begins to fall that first day, the battalion observation post (OP) reports four main battle tanks cresting at an 800 metre distance across the border, while machine gun fire erupts from an unknown location, suppressing B Company members, who report the contact.
This scenario is one of dozens that could be written credibly without expending much imagination. The probability of our infantry coming under contact against tanks or heavy infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) without immediate combined arms or air support is not one to be discounted. There will be segments in time and space where our infantry will be engaged in isolation by armoured threats. (i.e., during the first few hours of a stability operation when light forces are deployed to secure a bridgehead.) The very notion of Adaptable Dispersed Operations (ADO) implies that such situations could indeed occur during established, mature operations as well. (i.e., as regional conditions shift unexpectedly, requiring the battle group to physically regroup within its Area of Operations to head-off a rapidly emerging symmetric threat.)
Our ‘bottom line’ up front is that no modern army can afford to downplay the need for organic anti-armour capabilities within its infantry forces. This holds true even for the most heavily mechanized armies in the world, such as those of the Israelis, who, despite their abundance of main battle tanks and attack aviation assets, still choose to invest in their infantry’s anti-armour capabilities as a weapon that can also serve to engage enemy bunkers at standoff ranges during clearing operations.1
We believe that beyond the current re-introduction of the Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided anti-tank missile (TOW) in our mechanized battalions, our infantry’s broader anti-armour capabilities need to be seriously reassessed and improved to maintain our relevance, survivability, and effectiveness in the Future Security Environment (FSE), where tanks, next-generation IFVs,2 and small unit bunkers should well be expected to upset our aforementioned assumptions.
Testing the current state
Our views expressed here were not formed in theoretical isolation. Starting with a hypothesis about a widening gap in our anti-armour capabilities, we designed and conducted a week-long field tactical exercise that brought together some 300 participants, primarily from infantry and combat engineer regiments, both Regular and Reserve.3
We thus ‘stress-tested’ our infantry’s ability to take on an armoured force conventionally. More precisely, we sought to ascertain whether a task-tailored dismounted infantry company could defeat a mechanized opposition force (OPFOR) through defensive operations with a one-to-three force ratio (friendly to OPFOR).
The exercise was split into three phases. The first phase consisted of multiple iterations of an infantry company-group (three rifle platoons plus one ‘light’ TOW platoon equipped with ATVs and open trailers) defending against a short-changed, mechanized OPFOR regiment. 1 RCR provided the OPFOR – a reinforced platoon with seven LAVs (acting as T-80 MBTs, and in some cases, heavy IFVs, both of which were supported by dismounted infantry). The platoon was allowed to ‘reset’ itself in order to simulate the engagement of up to two OPFOR combat teams.4 Every iteration brought a change to a control variable to test for outcomes, such as kill and survivability rates.5 Variables included: tank-hunting team configurations and weapons mix, use of terrain (urban vs. natural), open-fire policy distances (minimum-maximum), and so on.
Building upon lessons learned from the first phase, the second phase of the exercise consisted of a 36-hour field tactical exercise that pitted a reduced light infantry battalion6 against the same OPFOR mechanized regiment. The battalion fought a guard action, followed by a main defensive battle in an urban area, and capped by a battalion ambush against follow-on forces in nighttime.
The third and final phase of the exercise consisted of an 84mm live fire complete with tank-hunting team demonstrations.
The exercise provided invaluable training for those involved in our view. However, the exercise also demonstrated that our light infantry was generally ‘up the creek without a paddle’ against an armoured/mechanized OPFOR. Individual tank hunting teams (THT) did wonders and progressed incredibly over a single week of rapid, iterative, closed-loop learning. They responded with creativity when incorporating complementary weapons, namely, the C14 command detonated, rocket-propelled AT mine, and ground-laid mines. Teams made best use of the additional firepower, increasing both their survivability and kill rates.
But no amount of tactical innovation, of which there was lots at all levels, could compensate for the fact that our infantry lacked some of the critical weaponry and related TTPs to credibly defeat a sizeable armoured threat and live to fight another day. Our observations and After Action Reports from that exercise form the basis of our opinions provided in this article.
ADO doctrine assumes freedom of movement, which cannot exist without the ability to neutralize armoured threats that deny it
An armoured OPFOR can quickly dominate open terrain, approaches, and key terrain. In doing so, it can deny our infantry’s ability to move through the battlefield and prevent us from rapidly massing or even withdrawing effectively. This is as much (if not more) a factor of an armoured platform’s weapons range and target acquisition capability as it is a factor of mobility.
Even in closed terrain, where doctrine attributes the advantage to infantry, we noted that some of the best-prepared kill-zones set by highly motivated tank hunting teams could easily be neutralised when OFPOR units employed cautious clearing drills (i.e., defile drills, etc.). This is consequential to our assumptions about armoured units always insisting upon speed and shock action. These should not be taken at face value; the Future Security Environment will likely include hybrid warfare involving localized, fragmented, and cautious engagements repeated over months and even years as adversaries seek to preserve combat power over speed. This has been the case in Eastern Ukraine and in Syria, where MBTs have been extensively employed, but not in sweeping armoured thrusts.
Even at close range, our tactical effectiveness is more limited than we generally assume
Throughout the exercise, but particularly in the beginning, we often saw engagements fail because of improper consideration for the minimum arming distance and/or the blast radius of anti-tank weapons. These factors severely limited the availability of firing positions and egress routes for the infantry, forcing tactical commanders to engage the OPFOR at greater distances. This posed a particular challenge in urban terrain, where uninterrupted line of sight paired with sufficient range could rarely be found. Tactics had to be adapted by increasing the depth of engagements to accommodate urban environments, or to achieve sufficient standoff in defiles. In many cases, dismounted infantry had to adapt by moving into terrain favourable to tanks, trading cover for stand-off distance. In principle, we considered this to be tactically disadvantageous but unavoidable, given the characteristics of the weapons available to them.
DoD photo/Alamy Stock Photo D3DJJW
We can’t see them at night!
In low-visibility conditions, the absence of thermal or light-intensifying optics on the 84 millimetre Carl Gustav severely hampers its effective range. It became obvious that defensive operations against armoured vehicles at night were difficult. Acquiring moving targets with precision in the dark at ranges greater than 100 metres was a near-impossible task. Also, the enemies’ optics were outperforming our dismounted troops’ ability to camouflage their defensive positions, especially after initial contact. Egress movements were tough to execute once the ambush had been revealed.
The 1000 metre gap
The current arsenal of anti-tank (AT) weapons available to light and dismounted infantry is particularly inadequate for the 500-1500 metre range. While it can be argued that light forces are better at engaging at shorter ranges, it is important to offer them the freedom of manoeuver and tactical flexibility that comes with medium range anti-armour weapons. The standoff provided by this weapon will assuredly increase the survivability rate of our troops. Range offers options (engagement, egress, and so on.) This is a mathematical fact.
Currently, the medium range capability gap is filled by the TOW weapon system. Considered as an interim measure, the allotment of these weapons to infantry battalions in its dismounted version (tripod) fails the test of realism. It is too heavy, too cumbersome, and offers an obvious target to the enemy once fired. Its few redeeming qualities are its sights, its ability to destroy strongpoints, and, at least for now, the encouragement it will provide to the Infantry Corps to relearn how to win the anti-tank fight.
PJF Military Collection/Alamy Stock Photo HF35HD
In short, our infantry must be capable of destroying armoured threats, as these can surface across the spectrum of stability and combat operations.
We understand that selecting the next generation of anti-armour weapons for the infantry will mean having to make choices among lethality, range, and portability.7
Currently, the greatest gap, in our view, is the absence of a portable medium-range weapon system (500-1500 metres) that would allow for the standoff destruction of tanks, IFVs, and strongpoints. Such a weapon system is needed now to improve the survivability and freedom of movement to acceptable levels for dismounted infantry companies and light infantry battalions.
Next, our short-range weapons systems (84 millimetres) should be upgraded to include uncooled thermal sights that would allow our infantry to engage enemy armour and strongpoints in low-visibility conditions at short range (75-500 metres).
Finally, in closed terrain, our infantry should be equipped and especially trained on existing systems, such as ground-laid and remote-detonated AT mines that can neutralize or destroy armour at very close range (0-75 metres).8
PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo G69MJ1
Anti-armour warfare training should be incorporated as mandatory battle training for infantry soldiers deploying abroad. Future light infantry doctrine should certainly address the issue as well, and include provisions for a portable medium-range AAW.
In February 2002, Directorate Land Requirements 5 published an Anti-Armour Master Plan (AAMP) with a number of forward-looking recommendations. The plan, however, fell victim to the growing needs in other types of materiel and capabilities for our combat mission in Afghanistan. Now, some fifteen years later, as the world’s geopolitical situation shifts towards multipolar competition and conflicts by proxy, it is grand time to move forward with a new AAMP. This will be needed to maintain the Army’s effectiveness as a deterrent and as a generator of combat-capable task forces. With the looming deployment of a Canadian Battle Group to Latvia, we see no better time than the present to do so.
Lieutenant-Colonel Alain Cohen commands Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, as well as 34 CBG’s territorial battle-group. He is the author of Galula (New York: Praeger, 2012), and a contributing editor for Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.
Major Julien Chaput-Lemay commands 2R22eR Service Company. He has published articles in the Canadian Army Journal, as well as the Infantry Corps Newsletter. His interests include tactics, operational planning, and organizational behaviour.
Alexander Perepelitsyn/Alamy Stock Photo FN15KA
- See Cordesman et al., “Lessons of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (2007) for the employment of reinforced, mutually supporting strongpoints by Hezbollah.
- It is well to note that the new generation of heavy IFVs, such as the T15 Armata or Kurganets-25, are not likely to be as defeatable (if at all in the case of the T15) by Bushmaster cannon, as were earlier generations (i.e., BMP series).
- The following units participated in the exercise held at CFB Petawawa in May 2016: “A” Company from 2R22R, “B” Company (composite) from Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal (FMR), Canadian Grenadier Guards, and Régiment de Maisonneuve, a Weapons Platoon from 1R22R, a Composite Engineering Field troop from 2CER and 34e Régiment de Génie du Canada, and a Battle Group HQ from FMR, 2R22R, and 34e Régiment des transmissions du Canada (RTC). OPFOR was provided by 1RCR in the form of a reinforced mechanized platoon.
- Unfortunately, none of the armoured units approached were available to participate in this exercise. The officers, NCOs, and soldiers of 1RCR returning from Op Unifer did a great job of conveying lessons learned from their time in Ukraine, applying observations they had gleaned regarding the use of armour equipped with advanced countermeasures in disputed zones.
- An operational researcher from Canadian Army Land Warfare Centre (CALWC) supported the exercise to this end, accompanying us in the field.
- Two rifle companies, the TOW platoon, the Engineer troop, and the HQ platoon.
- Shooter safety issues will also emerge at close range in the design and choice of anti-tank weapons powerful enough to destroy a modern MBT.
- ‘Very close range’ is defined here as that range under which shoulder-fire systems are ineffective, due to minimum arming distance and blast effects.