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Tanks But No Tanks

March 9, 2008

An iconic photo from the early Afghan campaign shows a group of US Army Rangers calling down precision air strikes against the Taliban while astride horses. Don’t expect a return of the four-footed cavalry just yet, but this a prime example of how modern technology has changed the nature of 21st Century warfare. GPS satellites, smart bombs, robot weapons, and cruise missiles added to such basic platforms are leaving our ancient and worn out Industrial Age weapons in the dust.

Yet, Martin Sieff, in an expansive series of article for UPI recently argued for the relevancy of 20th Century arms, specifically the Main Battle Tank:

“U.S. military planners have been increasingly criticized in the
specialist media for their continued commitment to maintaining a large — and
expensive — force of Abrams M1A2 Main Battle Tanks. But they are by no means
alone in this commitment. The military planners of India, China and Russia — as
we have previously noted in these columns — remain committed to the strategic
doctrine that their armies may have to fight large-scale land wars in the
foreseeable future. And in each case they are still trusting in tanks to be the
backbone of their main land forces.”

Like many such armor advocates, Sieff uses history as his guide in his well thought out articles, but fails to grasp the significant change brought on by 21st century digital weapons. Specifically, the threats against the Main Battle Tank has become greater than their usefulness in combat. Over the decades the tank has grown enormously in cost and size, while increasing only marginally in fighting power. The types of ammunition carried has changed dramatically, but such advanced arms need no longer be housed in an expensive and highly visible platform, while its old-style cannon armament is out-ranged by modern rockets and missiles.

Proponents of such hi tech behemoths claim these legacy weapons must be maintained for some future Great Power conflict, as we fought in World War 2, yet the opposite should be the case. Third World guerillas have already used inexpensive anti tank rockets and mines, plus cruise missiles and UAVs against the world’s greatest land powers: Israel in Lebanon and the US in Iraq. Why then can’t the same hit and run, swarming tactics be studied to fight America’s peer enemies?

Wheeled vehicles have also proved their utility and survivability on the modern battlefield. Light armored vehicles like the Stryker and MRAPs generally cost a few hundred thousand up to $3 million each. Such weapons, especially geared for the urban battlefield, have gone from concept to construction in just a few years. Contrast this to the 20 or so years required to finally field an M-60 MBT replacement, the M-1 Abrams tank.

Where an MBT relies on its heavy and expensive armor to defeat modern anti-tank weapons, easier to build and afford light armored vehicles are forced to use speed, stealth, maneuverability and special tactics to defeat such threats. Removable slat or cage armor is carried on the Stryker to defeat rocket propelled grenades. MRAP vehicles rely on its “V” shaped hull design to deflect much of the explosion from a roadside mine.

Satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft missiles, smart sub munitions, and primitive land mines are all combining to end the reign of the tank in land warfare. Add to this advanced sensors now being carried on aircraft, which leave the tank dangerously exposed on the modern battle field. While the 90 year old tracked warrior might still be popular with the major land powers, the less affluent Third World is taking notice of cheaper and more effective means to circumvent our Industrial Age superiority, as we continue to see with each new battle against the insurgents in the Middle East.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 26, 2012 11:22 am

    I totally agree with this Curios George guy. He obviously knows his shit from his pis. Tanks are bad-ass and are awesome and will be with us for many years to come. True, tanks need air and infantry support to survive. But infantry need tanks to survive against enemy tanks, or else their hand held rocket and missiles will be overwhelmed by a massed tank assault. Tanks can also defend ground, especially in urban areas. A tank hiding in an allyway or between buildings is just as deadly as infantry doing the same, or hiding ‘in’ buildings. Tanks are needed to clear out dfending tanks in urban areas. Tanks along with infantry hold ground, not air power or missiles from afar.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 15, 2008 12:17 am

    Right West. I see the new wheeled infantry carriers as subordinate to their new tech empowered passengers, even more than the tanks were dependent on protective infantry.

  3. west_rhino permalink
    March 14, 2008 2:40 pm

    Mike, outside the heady notions of pilots and tankers, infantry never abdicated the role. Tank Desants, Panzergranadiers, Armored or Mech infantry have to be there to support the behemoth, else it falls to the hoardes armed with pointy sticks or RPGs…

    QV Panzerjager Elefant in first engagement on Eastern front and subsequent engagemnts retrofitted with a hull MG.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 13, 2008 12:17 pm

    Thanks West! The infantry is king again.

  5. west_rhino permalink
    March 12, 2008 6:51 pm

    The age of the cataphracts passed, but heavy cav wearing a cuirass persists even if it is Dragon Skin these days.

    The grunt, be it peasant levy with a pointy stick, a Redcoat carrying Brown Bess with fixed bayonet or Willie and Joe with bayontes fixed on their Garands, persists.

  6. CuriousGeorge permalink
    March 10, 2008 9:03 pm


    While I agree that using insurgent tactics one can bog down a superior enemy who is attempting to occupy an area I don’t believe an example exists in which such tactics are successfully used to conquer territory. This is crucial because a cornerstone of a superpower’s foreign policy is the threat of invasion. Thus the US or any other advanced power can never abandon its heavy forces.

    Second I don’t believe there is no place for MRAPs or Strikers and am quite impressed by their success. They are a vast step up from patrolling in HMMWVs in a situation such as Iraq but I’m unconvinced of their survivability against a peer who utilizes precision weapons and not IEDs. I fully expect our replacement for the HMMWV will incorporate features from the MRAP such v shaped hulls which will improve their survivability. The fact that the USMC’s new EFV incorporates no lessons from IEDs in Iraq is absurd and a mistake. It must be noted that by introducing these more survivable features in vehicles such as the HMMWV replacement and M35 & M1078 replacement you are increasing the vehicles weight, something you railed against in tanks. Furthermore, I don’t believe in a battle of attrition that light vehicles along the MRAP and Striker mold will be more survivable than their heavier counterparts so the army will always need heavy forces.

    What do you believe that the future operating model for robotics will be? Will it be similar to predator where we have an operator sitting on another continent directing one or multiple vehicles? If not, what will the model be? If we follow the predator model, we will be forced to drastically increase the amount of bandwidth available due to increasing amounts of sensor data which must be relayed. By stationing the operators closer to the operating theater we can avoid the use of satellites lowering costs the cost of the bandwidth but it does not eliminate the need for it.

    Finally, why do you believe a force operating robotics will be cheaper and logistically simpler than a manned one? Because we will accept they are truly expendable and give them extremely little armor to keep weight down? Will they be cheaper because a lack of personnel costs because they are unmanned? Or will costs be lowered for some other reason? Who will do maintenance on these robots in the field?

    Thanks for your replies.

    Also do you know why I would not be able to post comments in Firefox due to the character verification image not appearing and must rely on IE?

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 10, 2008 1:09 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Regular readers of this blog, George, know that I’m against most of our Industrial Age style weapons of war, in which only a few can be afforded, and often new and cheaper technology, like the precision weapons you mentioned, can do it at least as good and far less costly. This is why Third World insurgents often give the superpowers a rough time in combat, because they aren’t encumbered by our last century tactics, and take advantage of new technology given to us by the microchip.

    Concerning the so-called vulnerability of the MRAPs, this is the same excuse we heard going into the Iraq War with the Strykers, that such thin-skinned wheeled vehicles would be massacred by our enemies. This wasn’t the final outcome and such less costly, more mobile weapons have proven very popular with the troops and much feared by the enemy.

    I’m not exactly sure how the next conventional slugfest will transpire, except that the MBT, with is hugely expensive and vulnerable logistics tail will increasingly play a smaller part. The blitzkrieg will never go away, I am sure. It will only be led by new, cheaper, and perhaps robotic weaponry, including affordable and quicker to construct wheeled vehicles.

  8. CuriousGeorge permalink
    March 9, 2008 11:50 pm

    The United States has not built any new tanks as a result of the peace dividends of the 90s. There has been a general slowing of all US military purchases which has not been limited to tanks. Just look at the number of ships built since 1990 and the resulting decline in the number of ships in the US Navy or the number of new types of planes introduced compared to during the Cold War. However, the army is currently looking to recapitalize it’s forces through the FCS program. Furthermore, tanks which undergo the Reset program are effectively new tanks making purchasing new tanks unnecessary at the current time. Finally, due to the downsizing of the US Army there were surplus M1s lying around meaning they did not need to be replaced as quickly.

    We have only bought 0 B1B’s since 1988, the last of 21 B2S (which are so rare they are named) was delivered in 1996 while the USAF retired b52s and is now down to 94 out of the 744 produced. This argument that heavy bombers must be obsolete due to the US’s lack of procurement is patently false due to the expansion of precision weapons has made them much more valuable than they ever have been before. Thus to make the argument that the Tank is dead because we aren’t buying any new ones is false because the same argument could be made of the heavy bomber. Instead you must look at the context to determine why no new tanks have been procured. There are also plans to give precision weapons to tanks in the form of guided missiles such as the Israeli Lahat and Russian AT-11 which are more likely to be successful than the ill fated Shillelagh missile due to advances in electronics.

    How do you imagine land battles against future peer competitors will be fought if without tanks? Solely through precision fires? How will enemy strongholds be cleared? Do you believe that wheeled vehicles or MRAPs are somehow more survivable against precision weapons than MBTS or heavy IFV such as the Israeli Namer? Additionally, it is naive to think that since the US achieved impressive capabilities with precision weapons that other states will not turn to tanks to settle their conflicts.

    As far as the logistical difficulties involved in tanks there are two things the US can do to overcome them. First, recognize that the most likely enemy is not based just over the border as it was during the cold war and convert M1s to diesel engines to improve their fuel economy reducing their logistical tail. Second, the US has long recognized how long it takes and how hard it is to move large amounts of men and materials as shown by things such as Reforger and Brightstar. By continuing to forward base equipment the US can avoid some of the logistical problems involved in transporting heavy forces. However, this does not mean the US does not direly need to increase both its strategic airlift and sealift.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    March 9, 2008 10:10 pm

    Blah, blah, blah! Heard it all before. If everything you say is true, why aren’t we building more heavy tanks? We can’t afford them and the weight, and logistics limits of these last century behemoth have finally become more than we can manage. Oh, they’ll be around for years fighting these poorly armed Taliban types, but you won’t ever see us fight a mass armored battle against a peer competitor. It would be suicidal against laser guided weapons.

  10. CuriousGeorge permalink
    March 9, 2008 8:47 pm

    Mr. Burleson,

    While you may be trumpeting the death of the MBT I feel you are ignoring several recent lessons which demonstrate that while MBT are not invulnerable their need on the battlefield remains.

    Point 1 would be the US’s initial invasion of Iraq. Despite all of the tools the US has, it relied on armored spearheads to accomplish its objectives quickly and with less bloodshed. Do you propose that vehicles such as Strikers and MRAPs could have accomplished feats such as Thunder Run? While advances to surveillance techniques (Satellites, Aircraft, UAVs) and precision weapons have limited the survivability of heavy armored vehicles they are still more survivable and therefore effective than light armored vehicles. This is the reason that programs such as the US Army’s FCS is unable to meet previous low weight goals due to the recognition that mass is required to survive on the modern battlefield.

    Point 2 would be the Canadians experience in Afghanistan, an area where insurgents are currently employing tactics such as RPG and IED attacks frequently. Canada had planned on retiring all of their tanks with the end of the Cold War and relying on vehicles similar to the MGS. However, its experience in Afghanistan convinced it of the need for tanks so the Canadians send 15 Leopard 1s in late 2006. Furthermore, in an effort to improve their armored capabilities the Canadians have chosen to lease 20 Leopard 2s from the Germans which would replace the Leopard 1s currently in Afghanistan and planned to purchase 100 Leopard 2s from the Dutch (I say planned because I have heard no recent developments as to whether the tanks were delivered on time).

    Point 3 would be the Israeli’s experience in the 2006 Lebanon War. It is true that Hezbollah was able to slow the Israeli advance and cause several casualties with anti-tank missiles such as the RPG-29, AT-5, AT-13 and AT-14 due to their use of tandem warheads. However, the same conflict demonstrated that Israeli airpower and advanced surveillance techniques alone are not enough to win a conflict because such activities do not actually capture ground like an armored force can. Infantry supported by tanks, combat engineers and precision fires using specialized tactics can be successful against tactics employed by Hezbollah.

    Point 4 is various Active Defense systems which are currently being developed by the Russians (Drozd & Arena), Israelis (Trophy & Iron Fist), and US. Such systems will be able to mitigate but not eliminate the threat of anti-tank missiles allowing tanks to continue to be effective in the short term. It must be noted that in the long term the emergence of technology such as rail guns and lasers may change the calculus but that day is not today.

    Point 5 is the difficulty the US had in Kosovo in destroying an armored force from the air. Despite the US’s advanced technology through the use of human ingenuity the Serbians were largely able to keep their armored forces intact during the duration of the air campaign. Four years of advances to surveillance technology did not help to defeat human ingenuity as shown by AC-130’s failure to see Taliban fighters at Takur Ghar during Operation Anaconda which led to a pair of Chinooks being shot down and several casualties.

    Thus while we must recognize that MBT’s are not invulnerable they are still invaluable in support of the infantry. Advanced technology can deny access to areas but an armored force is required to actually capture land and end a war.

    A Believer in Constructive Criticism

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