The war in Ukraine has stirred new debate about the role of armored vehicles.
Despite high losses, the war has shown that tanks and armored personnel carriers still have a role.
The war has illustrated the utility and the limits of wheeled armored vehicles in particular.
The war in Ukraine is expected to spur interest in wheeled armored vehicles, especially eight-wheeled models, adding fuel to the long-running debate over the merits of tracked vs. wheeled armored vehicles and whether wheeled armor can survive intense mechanized warfare.
Global spending on eight-wheeled armored vehicles is estimated to total $26 billion between 2022 and 2035, according to a market report by Defense Insights. That’s substantially less than the report’s estimates of $62 billion spent on tracked armored vehicles or $84 billion spent on main battle tanks over that period, but it would still be a considerable investment in vehicles that critics say are too vulnerable to survive on the battlefield.
Defense Insights pointed to several factors that will encourage acquisition of wheeled armor, including “the ever-increasing importance of rapid strategic mobility, demand for armored C2 [command-and-control] vehicles, and the potential for 8×8 wheeled platforms to replace medium/light tanks in African/South American markets.”
Wheeled armored vehicles have always been a good option for some users.
Tracked vehicles — especially tanks — tend to be heavy platforms that operate best in regions where there are sturdy bridges and roads, favorable terrain (preferably not jungles or mountains), and extensive maintenance and logistics support. And in nations where the military is focused more on crushing internal opposition than defeating foreign invaders, an armored car is as good as a tank when it comes intimidating protestors.
However, the Ukraine conflict has brought new attention to the value of wheeled armor in a mechanized war waged by traditional heavy weapons such as tanks, artillery, and guided missiles. Ukrainian forces in particular is using a variety of wheeled vehicles, including French AMX-10RC heavy armored cars, US Stryker infantry fighting vehicles, and French Caesar 155-mm self-propelled artillery. Both Ukraine and Russia also have a variety of Soviet-era wheeled vehicles, such as BTR troop carriers.
Wheeled vehicles are lighter: An AMX-10RC weighs 16 tons and a Stryker about 20 tons, compared to 70 tons for the latest M1A2 Abrams. Modern wheeled armor can also be quite sophisticated, capable of carrying heavy cannon, anti-tank missiles, and big howitzers, as well as active-protection systems to intercept anti-tank missiles.
Yet there is a good reason for tanks and many troop carriers to be tracked. They can carry heavier armament and armor protection, and tracks offer superior off-road maneuverability in terrain that would damage or bog down wheeled vehicles.
Tires are also more vulnerable to damage than tracks, as Ukrainian troops have discovered. The “weakness” of the AMX-10RC “is the wheels,” one Ukrainian said after using the vehicle in combat this summer. “Fragmentation cuts up all the wheels in an instant. It impacts the speed, the maneuverability, all the advantages of this tank are instantly gone.”
Research suggests that while wheels might be fine on roads or on firm or sandy soil, tracks can perform better on soft, wet soils.
“Put simply, the argument that wheeled vehicles can match the off-road mobility of tracked vehicles does not have a wheel to stand on,” Sam Cranny-Evans, a British defense and land-warfare analyst, wrote earlier this year. “A force that structures its procurements primarily around wheeled vehicles and finds itself unable to move over the terrain it is defending will likely be punished very quickly.”
In the 1990s, studies suggested that wheels are better for carrying light loads for long distances over roads, Cranny-Evans noted. For vehicles over 50 tons, tracks were better.
The choice between wheeled or tracked vehicles all comes down to terrain, according to Cranny-Evans. Under the right conditions — with good roads or on firm soil — a wheeled vehicle might be armed and armored to the level of a tank. But on wet terrain, that vehicle is a sitting duck.
In the end, troops in combat will take their wheeled and tracked vehicles “wherever they feel they need to,” Cranny-Evans wrote, which makes training and instruction vital for both the troops in the vehicles and the strategists deciding how to employ them.
“Adequately informing them of the limits of their vehicles, from the driver to the officers leading operations and planning routes, will help them avoid committing to scenarios that the technology cannot match,” Cranny-Evans wrote.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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