Ukraine is getting AMX-10RC armored vehicles from French stocks. The six-wheel AMX-10RC with its 105-millimeter gun looks like a tank, but without the tracks.
It’s not a tank. It’s a lightly-armored reconnaissance vehicle with a lot of firepower. And if the Ukrainian army uses its new-old AMX-10RCs the way French army uses the same vehicles, they could help Ukrainian brigades and battalions move faster, fight smarter and exploit gaps in Russian lines.
They could, in other words, help Ukrainian forces fight less like Russian forces—and more like NATO ones.
The subject of the AMX-10RC came up in a conversation between French president Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday.
“Had a long and detailed conversation with the President of France Emmanuel Macron on the current situation,” Zelensky tweeted. “Thanked for the decision to transfer light tanks and Bastion APCs to Ukraine.”
The Bastion armored personnel carriers do not represent a new capability for the Ukrainian army. The “light tanks”—that is, the AMX-10RCs—do represent a new capability. A heavy reconnaissance capability.
French government arms enterprise GIAT developed the AMX-10RC in the 1970s at a time when the French army was adopting a new, more aggressive doctrine for land warfare. GIAT built 457 of the 15-ton AMX-10RCs for the French, Cameroonian, Moroccan and Qatari armies. Some 250 remain in French service.
In the French army, the four-person AMX-10RCs equip reconnaissance units. It’s the job of these scouts to roll ahead of the main body of tanks and infantry, reconnoitering enemy positions basically by running into them and getting into surprise firefights.
The idea is to figure out where the enemy is strongest. And, by extension, where they’re weakest. “Tactical movement is based on the reconnaissance and command in the forward area, which draws the main force to the enemy’s weak point,” the French army explained in its field manual for general tactics.
The AMX-10RCs are as heavily armed as some older tanks, so they can give as hard as they get in these recon skirmishes. But the French vehicles are thinly armored. So their crews can’t stand and fight. Instead, they pinpoint the enemy, exchange a few rounds of gunfire, then run. The AMX-10RC’s high speed—50 miles per hour on-road—means it can get away fast. And its amphibious capability means even smaller rivers can’t stop it.
This heavy ground reconnaissance is so important to French army doctrine that it developed a unique vehicle specifically for that purpose. And when the French deployed an army division to the Middle East for the 1991 Gulf War, two of the division’s six maneuver battalions were recon battalions. A third of the overall force.
The French aren’t alone. Many NATO armies have unique scout vehicles with serious firepower. The US Army for its part equips many of its recon units with the M-3 fighting vehicle packing a 25-millimeter auto-cannon and TOW anti-tank missiles.
The Soviet army—later, the Russian army—also developed a custom scout vehicle by fitting various models of the BMP fighting vehicle with additional sensors and radios. The Russians have lost dozens of these BRMs in the current, wider war in Ukraine.
But “most Russian units do not have dedicated reconnaissance units below the brigade [or] division level,” Lester Grau and Charles Bartles explained in their definitive The Russian Way of War.
Instead, “Russia has a well-defined system for task-organizing units for this purpose.” Battalion commanders assign normal mechanized troops to perform reconnaissance … by rolling ahead of the main formation in their normal BMPs or BTR wheeled fighting vehicles.
This suits Russian doctrine. In the Russian way of war, command is highly centralized in a small number of senior officers. Brigade, division and army commanders make all the important decisions on their own, often without an independent intelligence staff informing or second-guessing the commander’s instincts and assumptions.
What this means, in practice, is that commanders tend to select plans from what Grau and Bartles describe as “well-rehearsed tactical battle drills.” Granular intel, gained the hard way by recon troops riding in special armored vehicles, simply isn’t necessary if you’re just going to follow the same plan you rehearsed a year ago during some exercise.
The Ukrainian army once adhered to the same centralized, inflexible doctrine as the Soviet army it once belonged to. That began to change as Ukraine drew closer to the West, and to NATO, starting in 2014.
The Ukrainian army’s slow evolution into a NATO-style force should result in Ukrainian commanders relying more heavily on specially-equipped recon troops at all echelons of the army.
Recon vehicles such as the AMX-10RC should help the scouts to do their job: picking fights with the Russians in order to tell the rest of the Ukrainian army where the Russians are … and where they aren’t.