War in Ukraine Proves That Drones Are Quickly Making Tanks Obsolete

Due to their low cost, huge numbers, and reducing the risk of troop casualties, drones are starting to dominate the 21st-century battlefields.
drones

Drones have quickly become a mainstay of the battlefield. Their small size, maneuverability, low cost, and huge numbers make them especially deadly to tanks, armored vehicles, and troops.

Tank forces currently lack any actual defense capabilities against drones – and even the latest cutting-edge tanks are incapable of stopping drone strikes.

Does this mean the end of tanks? How can a drone so easily destroy a tank? Are tanks defenseless against this new threat?

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Tanks are increasingly vulnerable to drone attacks

Destruction of Russian tanks by Ukrainian troops in Mariupol
Destruction of Russian tanks by Ukrainian troops by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. Licensed under CC by 4.0

In recent years, militaries have deployed drones in Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and Syria to launch precision attacks that create great destruction because drones are remarkably maneuverable compared to tanks, which are slow and heavy – and have no chance of evading a drone attack.

Destruction of Russian tanks by Ukrainian troops
Destruction of Russian tanks by Ukrainian troops by Міністерство внутрішніх справ України. Licensed under CC by 4.0

To make matters worse, drone strike technology is evolving rapidly, and now, even a modified commercial drone with a few modifications can destroy a tank.

This makes defending tanks against drones an increasingly complex job that has no quick fix solution in sight.

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However, recently, we have only seen a poor performance of old Soviet tanks with outdated technology. Maybe, a state-of-the-art tank such as an Abrams could withstand a drone attack in actual combat conditions.

The most lethal drones today for tanks

MQ-9 Reaper

drone attacks MQ-9 Reaper in flight
MQ-9 Reaper in flight by William Rosado. Public Domain.

The MQ-9 Reaper can be operated from thousands of miles away, carrying four Hellfire missiles and multiple bombs. It stays in the air for 14 hours, and it’s impossible for the tank crew to know if they are being observed by the Reaper.

The MQ has been used extensively in Syria, showing its destructive capabilities against Soviet-built tanks.

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The creator of the MQ-9 Reaper was General Atomics, and although its use has been mostly related to warfare missiles, it is helpful in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and rescue operations.

MQ-9 Reaper specs

  • Crew: 2 operators
  • Length: 36 feet 1 inch (11 meters)
  • Wingspan: 65 feet 7 inches (20 meters)
  • Height: 12 feet 6 inches (3.81 meters)
  • Max takeoff weight: 10,494 pounds (4,760 kilograms)
  • Maximum speed: 300 mph (482 km/h)
  • Range: 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers)
  • Endurance: 14 hours
  • Service ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,420 meters)
  • Operational altitude: 25,000 feet (7.5 kilometers)

Bayraktar

Bayraktar TB2 of UAF, 2019
Bayraktar TB2 of UAF, 2019 by Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. Licensed under CC by 4.0

The Bayraktar has been one of the most widely used drones in combat in the last few years.

It became well-known in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict… and in Ukraine, it has once again proved its worth over tanks, destroying probably dozens of them with very few losses.

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In addition to having an indisputable destructive effect, it is a reasonably cost-effective weapon as it costs about $1 million. At the same time, it destroys tanks like the Soviet T-80, which costs at least three times its value.

The Bayraktar had been successfully employed in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan with impressive results… and throughout all the conflicts in which it has been involved, it has destroyed at least 120 tanks.

Switchblade

PUMA, Switchblade, and Stalker Shoot
PUMA, Switchblade, and Stalker Shoot by Alexis Moradian. Public Domain.

It is a loitering munition that will be massively tested in the coming months against Russian troops and so far seems effective against tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery.

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In addition, it works quite well not only against tanks but also against other kinds of armored vehicles that also cannot withstand the explosion of the Switchblade 600 model.

…but all is not lost

There are technologies with ample room for improvement that can protect tanks from drone attacks and neutralize drones at a safe distance – and if these anti-drone countermeasures continue to be developed, they could potentially match the power that drones are gaining today.

  • Directed energy to stop drones

Generation Leonidas
Generation Leonidas by company-91928.frontify.com

A high-powered microwave could be a viable future technology to stop drone attacks, and it could be installed in the active protection system of tanks.

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Likewise, laser weapons could also be an edge in the future if they can be nestled on tanks and supplied with an energy system that allows them to be used sustainably.

At the moment, these technologies are under development but when they are sufficiently evolved and tested on battlefields, they could protect tanks against the drone menace.

  • Active protection system

An active protection system stops anti-tank-guided missiles from targeting and destroying tanks.

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Today, it primarily shields tanks from small anti-tank missiles. But this technology can be upgraded to defend tanks from missiles and bombs fired from drones at long distances too.

Countermeasures are being developed

In the war in Ukraine, it has been proven that drones outperform tanks by a wide margin. But, countermeasures to stop drone attacks are being developed and researched – and it won’t be long before they appear on the world’s battlefields.

They will probably deter drone attacks and make a much more balanced contest between tanks and drones in the near future.

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Feature image credit: Bayraktar TB2 of UAF by Ministry of Defence of Ukraine under CC BY 4.0