October 1, 2020 - 4:00pm

If you’re not following the war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh which broke out last weekend, you probably should be. Like the Boer War and Balkan Wars before World War One, or the Spanish Civil War before World War Two, this bloody clash in a faraway country of which most of us know nothing already looks like a sobering vision of warfare’s future. 

As our own defence staff deliberate over the delayed Strategic Defence and Security Review, and leak ever-more alarming hints over what military capabilities they’re planning to axe, some of the answers to the question of what the British armed forces should look like over the next few decades are being written in distant Nagorno-Karabakh — as long as we’re paying attention.

Take the question of armoured vehicles, for example. What kind of armour do we want for future wars, and are we prepared to pay for it? As this disheartening recent piece made clear this week, the British Army’s worryingly indecisive approach to replacing our ageing fleet of tanks, armoured reconnaissance vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles has been plagued by a generation’s worth of dithering. As the analyst Jonathon Kitson puts it:

The Army’s struggle to define and implement its own requirements for medium-weight vehicles have consumed the best part of two and a half decades, at least a billion wasted in direct costs, and several billions more wasted in indirect costs (such as rushed purchases of mine-resistant off-the-shelf vehicles for service in Iraq and Afghanistan). An alphabet soup of programmes – MRAV, TRACER, FRES – delivered a grand total of zero vehicles into service.
- Jonathon Kitson, CapX

But while the Army’s spent decades procrastinating over what kind of armoured force it should field, military technology’s moved on, and despite strong opinions on the topic, no-one’s entirely certain how useful tanks still are.

On a purely technical level, Turkey’s deployment of its cheap and capable Bayraktar drone platform in Syria, Libya and now Nagorno-Karabakh has shown the vulnerability of armour in a 21st century battlefield. Without total control of the skies, tanks and other armoured vehicles seem fatally vulnerable to destruction from above. 

On the other side of the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline, the Armenian defending side have been making powerful use of their stock of anti-tank guided missiles against armoured assaults from the Azerbaijani army — dramatic footage from the past week’s fighting has shown serious losses of Azerbaijani armour, knocked out at long range by well dug-in Armenian troops, using the region’s rugged terrain to their advantage.

So is the tank dead? Probably not, at least, not yet — nothing else comes close to its capability to take and hold ground, and it remains pivotal to modern military doctrine. But at the same time, drone and anti-tank missile technology has advanced to such a degree that any future conflict would likely be carnage for a deployed armoured force.

The tank might not yet be totally obsolete as a concept, but the losses an armoured force would take in battle may well be beyond our realistic capacity to sustain — both economically and politically.

So the SDSR isn’t coming at an easy time for our military planners. Even if tanks aren’t quite ready to go the way of the battleship and the horse, there’s a question mark hanging over their future in a way that wouldn’t have been the case just a few years ago.

We’re living through a kind of interregnum in military technology, with no clear answers yet either way. If our politicians and top brass aren’t following the war in the South Caucasus with trepidation, then they really should be.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.