General Cătălin Tomescu, former NATO MNC-SE commander: Ukraine needs 500 tanks to win

Lieutenant general (ret.) Cătălin Tomescu
© Cătălin Tomiță Tomescu   |   Lieutenant general (ret.) Cătălin Tomiță Tomescu

Tanks cannot win a war by themselves, but if they are in sufficient numbers and are used in combination with other types of weaponry, can ensure the success of offensive actions, according to the reserve lieutenant general Cătălin Tomiță Tomescu, tank officer and former commander of the Multinational Corps South East  (MNC-SE), interviewed by Veridica against the background of talks regarding the delivery of Western battle tanks to Ukraine and the Russian and Ukrainian offensives in the first part of this year.

The former NATO commander believes that, in order to win the war, Ukraine would need two fully equipped mechanized divisions. These would allow it to free the territories seized by Russia, except for the Crimean Peninsula, which is easy to defend and difficult to conquer.

On the other hand, Lieutenant General Tomescu warns that its human and material resources are an advantage to Russia, as they are superior to those of Ukraine, and so is the fact that its leaders are indifferent to the huge losses they are experiencing on the front, losses that would be unacceptable in a NATO state.

Asked by Veridica whether Romania can withstand a hypothetical confrontation with Russia, General Tomescu says that, in such a scenario, NATO's response would be “crushing”, and the Russian generals are well aware of this.

Tanks cannot not decide, by themselves, the winner of a war

Veridica: Amid discussions regarding the delivery of tanks to Ukraine, the impression was created that they would be some kind of miracle weapons, which could help Kyiv win the war. However, massive tank forces did not help Russia win in the early part of the war when they were stopped by anti-tank weapons like the Javelin. Why should it be different for Ukrainians?

Cătălin Tomescu: Tanks cannot be decisive in the great economy of the war, because there are not enough of them. From my point of view, for President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people to succeed and achieve their goals, there are three big prerequisites. The first: air defense systems with which to stand against the attacks of the Russian Federation’s air force. They have received many, but they are still not enough, as they shoot down about half of the missiles that hit them daily.

The second requirement would be to block the actions of the Naval Forces in the Black Sea and especially the possibility of landing in Odesa, because it would be very dangerous, it would mean the opening of another front in the south, as was planned in March last year. It would be a disaster because it would mean another redeployment of Ukrainian forces, already quite exhausted after a year of war.

The third requirement would be to have at their disposal armored vehicles, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, with which to carry out defensive responses or even go on the offensive where the Russians are on the defensive.

Why are armored vehicles important? First of all, at this stage, there are only helping the defense.  We are not even talking about an offensive operation that would drive out the troops of the Russian Federation from the territories they control and a return to the borders of 2014. In the situation in which the three hundred Western tanks that Kyiv said it needed arrive, then it will be possible to carry out offensive responses potentially leading to reaching the goal of expelling the Russians from the territories of the 4 regions annexed in the fall. Crimea, in my view, cannot be conquered for the simple reason that it is separated from the rest of Ukraine by an extremely narrow strip of land, which, with anti-tank dams, mines and other means, a, effectively combined “fire curtain”, the Russians can easily defend it. The Ukrainian army can only bomb Crimea. A land conquest action would result in huge losses that I don't think Ukraine can afford, given that they have 4 provinces to recapture on the eastern frontier.

Veridica: While Ukraine said it would need about 300 tanks to win the war, the West has so far promised somewhere between 100 and 200 state-of-the-art tanks that are supposed to arrive in March-April.

Cătălin Tomescu: ...and the American ones even later...

Veiridica: Are 100 – 200 tanks enough? 

Cătălin Tomescu: Only in one direction, for example in the Donbas area. You cannot string them along the entire front, which from Crimea to Kharkiv is more than 400 km long. So, what can you do with 100-200 tanks on a 400 km long front? They are not enough!

But they can see what is the enemy’s main offensive direction, the main offensive axis of the Russian Federation, and concentrate them there, but not in the front line. Tanks are used in groups, not separately. You keep them clustered in the depth of the defense, camouflaged, so they can't see them, can't spot you, can't hit you, and when the regular forces on the line of contact manage to stop the enemy on a line, then you strike and start recapturing the territory.

Ukraine must use NATO tanks, combined with infantry fighting vehicles

Veridica: Why there’s been so much focus on the fact that Western tanks are superior to those made in Russia, given that the Russians designed their tanks to fight those made in the West, and the other way round?

Cătălin Tomescu: That's right. For example, the Leopard 1 tank was the tank meant to fight the T-62 and the T-72, in the 75-80s. It’s true that the Russians now have that T-14, the Armada, which is a very good tank. The problem is that after two of them were hit by Javelins they took them out for fear of losing more...

Veridica: And there were just a few of them made, anyway…

Cătăin Tomescu: As far as I know they only have two regiments, because this tank was promoted in all kinds of military technical exhibitions and they actually made it to sell it, just like they did with the Sukhoi 57, to make money from the defense industry.

Veridica: What about the T-90?

 Cătălin Tomescu: Well, the T-90 is just as efficient, except that they haven’t taken this one to the front very often either. They’ve used the upgraded T-72, version 2, mostly to fight the Ukrainian tanks. Now if the Abrams and Leopard 2 arrive - we are talking about tanks that are superior to the T-72, they are even above the T-80 and T-90, equal to the T 14 model – then they could make the difference in favor of the Ukrainian forces .

The problem that few people realize is that it's not just the tank itself that matters, it's also the training of the crew that is essential for tanks. It's not enough to want such a vehicle, you have to get trained to use it because it's a different technology. Like it or not, the Ukrainians had Soviet equipment, the technology known to them is the one coming from the space of the Russian Federation or the former U.S.S.R. Western technology is different. The firing system is different, the target acquisition system, the fire management are different, the maintenance is different…. Such new equipment takes time to get used to because otherwise you can’t fight effectively.

Veridica: Beyond these different technical characteristics, the operation of the NATO tanks is also different from that of the Russian tanks, and anyway, as far as I know, they no longer use those massive tanks units, but rather go for smaller, flexible and mixed units.

Cătălin Tomescu: We have to see the tanks in combination with the infantry fighting vehicles, that's why the Americans give them Bradley and Stryker, because they work in an integrated manner. The Soviet doctrine says that the front is fixed with infantry structure and the line of contact is established, then the enemy’s strong points are discovered, and so on, after which, when the essential conditions have been created, the next move is a counterattack or offensive, the tanks coming from the rear, deploying along intermediate elements starting from 60 km to the front line, after which they get concentrated on a section of land in which the defense is broken, after which they maneuver right, left or forward, depending on the target and mission.

Ukraine, which is now on the defensive, shouldn’t take its tanks to the front line, it must fight the Russian tanks with Javelins and their anti-tank systems there. Tanks must be used by making the most of their maneuverability, firepower and mobility. Thus, when you manage to stop the Russians and intelligence says that they have no more reserves to support the front line, then you start the counter-offensive and go up to the border.

Wars can still be won with human wave attacks if you don't mind casualties

Veridica: There are reports coming from the frontline about the fact that the Russians attack in human waves, as it happened in World War II, as the Chinese did in the Korean War, the Iranians in the war their country lost with Iraq, etc. Can wars still be won using this strategy that entails so many casualties, used against modern armies?

Cătălin Tomescu: For a normal and civilized country, you cannot say that if you lost 150,000 people in 3 months of war, it is good. You can imagine if something like this happened to a NATO country, like France, Great Britain or the United States; it would be a colossal disaster. To give you an example, do you remember the first Gulf War? Desert Storm? 454,000 troops were used to fight an Iraqi army that was similar to what the Ukrainians have. It took 42 days of aerial bombardment, 4 days of ground maneuvers to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait and out of 454,000 soldiers, 196 died. That’s it. Here, the figure of one hundred thousand has already been exceeded, on both sides. The problem is that to the Russians, it doesn’t matter. You saw that with the Wagner group – it’s true that they are convicts, they have no combat ethics, they have no procedures - but also in the regular army. You can't just send cannon fodder - we're talking ethically and morally at the level of the 21st century. But the problem is that they do apply this wave tactic.

Veridica: But beyond any ethical considerations, after all, human resources are also limited. Can a war be won with human wave attacks?

Cătălin Tomescu: It is possible, when it’s about the Russian Federation attacking Ukraine. Ukraine probably still has 25 million to 30 million people in the country, from where it can still mobilize soldiers. Don’t forget that the Russian Federation has around 140 million people. The partial mobilization involved around 330,000 soldiers. It’s been also said that, without making a big fuss, Russia would mobilize about one and a half million people more. So, they can bring another million and a half that Ukraine cannot after a year of war.

Here is the problem. That is why a war of attrition, in which they attack with bombs, missiles and hit the infrastructure, suits them. Luckily, the winter has not been hard, because otherwise the effects of these actions and these strikes would’ve been much more serious on the civilian population, not necessarily on the military, because we fight anyway; it's about the population and I mean women, children, the elderly and so on. So, the numbers do matter to them.

Second, let's consider the situation in which the Ukrainians get the 300 tanks. I saw an analysis somewhere that the Russians have 10.200 T-72 tanks, variants 1,2 and 3, of which 6,000 are operational. So, they can just take 2000 of these and throw them into battle. Then what can you do with only 300? Let's say that a tank produced in the West destroys 4 Russian tanks, that means 1,200 destroyed and there are still 800 more Russian tanks left.

To conclude, the great misfortune is that the Russian Federation has capabilities and there is always a piggy bank from which they can take out both men and equipment, and Ukraine does not have such reserves and they cannot be supported with NATO troops because they are not members of the Alliance, and the watchword of the North Atlantic Treaty is that “we do not interfere unless we are attacked” - and I am convinced that Russia will not make that mistake - and we support them as much as we can. They’ve been supported with Javelins with drones, they’ve been supported with many anti-aircraft systems, artillery equipment - don't forget the HIMARS - I mean everything possible has been done. The problem is that the force coming at you still has resources, even if it is not super technologized. So, the answer to your question is yes, you can still win a war in the 21st century based on numbers alone.

To win the war, Ukraine needs 500 tanks supported by armored vehicles and aviation

Veridica: How do you assess the situation on the front now and what do you think are the most plausible scenarios for the coming months?

Cătălin Tomescu: The Russian Federation has switched to the contact offensive, and as they are ready for battle, the 200 thousand who would still be in training will also switch to the development of offensive actions on the move. I think their strategic objective is to conquer the four oblasts, the annexed provinces, to reach their western border. Because if we look at a map where the front line can be seen, we will see that those regions have been declared by Putin as his, but he does not control any of them. With this spring offensive that started earlier, simply to not give the Ukrainian forces time to prepare with the armored equipment that is coming from the Western countries, not to give them time to use it and then get there first, they want to secure these four provinces. Once secured, I think they would move into a defensive, strategic posture, on strong alignments in the field. They will prepare for defense and say “We are ready to negotiate from here”. With what they have now they don't have the strength to carry out offensive actions to conquer the whole of Ukraine.

The Ukrainians, as their president says, do not give up the idea of driving the troops of the Russian Federation away from all four regions plus Crimea and returning to the borders of 2014. From my point of view, and I am speaking here as a military man, we cannot judge the situation emotionally, and I want this to be properly understood.  I do not wish harm to the Ukrainians, but the problem is that with what they have at their disposal now, it will be very difficult for them to get the Russians out of the country, from all four regions plus Crimea. From Crimea, at least, it would be extremely difficult.

Veridica: But what would Ukraine need to win this war?

Cătălin Tomescu: First of all, to take them out you need armored equipment, but much more than 300 tanks. They would probably need around two fully equipped mechanized divisions. That means around 40,000 staff, and as combat structures there should be 4 tank brigades, which means about 500 tanks, and infantry equipment even more, so somewhere over a thousand strong. But this is not enough because, for the ground operation to be successful, you need helicopter support, we are talking here about the tank-helicopter binomial, and aviation, in order to bomb in the depth of the defense, in the depth of the enemy, in the depth of the troops of the Russian Federation.

If Russia were to attack Romania, NATO's response would be crushing

Veridica: The war in Ukraine has raised concerns about Russia’s aggression in many states in the region, and in this context, many have reassessed their ability to defend themselves. How do you think Romania is doing? Is it prepared to face a confrontation with only the forces currently on its territory? What are its strengths?

Cătălin Tomescu: An attack on a NATO country would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which heads of state and government activate upon notification of the attacked country. The plans already in place for each country and border region are to be applied.

The retaliation would be crushing for the capabilities shown so far by Russia in terms of technology, army and aviation, and they know it. The Russian generals would never recommend an attack on a NATO country.

If, however, this happened, the country would take a defensive posture, but besides that, the entire NATO air force would go to war with the Russian Federation, and we are talking about an air force that could strike anywhere from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. All the while, NATO ground forces would be transferred to the country that is under attack.

Russia could attack by surprise only with missiles, on the land such an attack cannot be achieved due to the current technology, satellites, AWACS planes that each monitor a territory of 310,000 square km, the size of Romania and Bulgaria combined. To attack on land requires significant forces, and NATO will know in advance, as it did when Russia was preparing the war against Ukraine.

Even without Article 5 being activated, NATO's military commander in Europe, SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe), can deploy forces of any kind when they notice that Russia is beginning to do so as well. I would like to conclude by saying, firstly, that our great chance in securing our state independence is the fact that we are NATO members and secondly, I hope that the leaders of the countries involved in the conflict, together with the global players, will find a diplomatic way to put an end to this extremely bloody conflict before it reaches situations with unpredictable outcomes.

Cătălin Gomboș

Cătălin Gomboș

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