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Tank Lessons from Gaza

January 19, 2009


Martin Sieff is back, once again singing the praises of the heavy tank, this time over Israel’s full-scale incursion into Gaza. The author is a steady advocate for applying last century armor techiques to modern threats, so he eagerly seizes on the vehicle’s presumed success over the Hamas terrorists. From the UPI:

The Israeli failure to crush Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006 strengthened the fashionable impression in the United States that counterinsurgency was now the cutting edge of war and that therefore investment in expensive ground forces, primarily main battle tanks and artillery, could be drastically curtailed.

However, the success of the Russian tank forces in conquering one-third of the mountainous and forested territory of Georgia in only five days revived the lesson — which should have been taught by the U.S.-led armor-mobile infantry drive to Baghdad in March-April 2003 — that the main battle tank does indeed remain the master of large-scale ground war. And the success of Israel’s initial incursion into Gaza over the past week has underlined that very elementary lesson.

The author however, misses his own “elementary lesson”. In places where modern anti-tank weapons or even primitive road-side bombs are prevalent, as during the Lebanon Crisis with Hezbollah in 2006, the tanks didn’t fair too well. This is the type of enemy the US and Western countries have justified the need to pour billions of dollars into advanced armor protection since the late-Cold War. In contrast, the only places modern tanks have worked well lately, as Sieff ironically points out, is within low-threat environments such as Georgia and the Gaza Strip where the defenders were mostly unprepared for a full-scale blitzkrieg.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 22, 2009 7:29 pm

    Like you I think the idea of an airborne tank is out the window. Never thought the old Sheridan would be missed!

    If we still needs some tanks around, how about placing a diesel engine in the Abrams, making it less a gas guzzler?

  2. January 22, 2009 9:28 am

    MCS and all other FCS AFVs won”t be C-130 compatible. That requirement was dropped years ago.

    We don’t have enough details about how the army wants to use the FCS (which is more important than the specs) to fully judge it – it’s obviously a medium tank family of vehicles with some other gadgetry in the program as well.

    There are several possible shortcomings of FCS visible:
    – why a mounted mortar and a mounted howitzer if both require the same base vehicle and have very much overlapping capabilities?
    – an apparent lack of air defense (not only against classic air threats, but also against smallish drones)
    – will the future army have enough dismount strength if it gets no new APC, just an IFV?
    – will situational awareness based on sensors instead of eyeballs work as advertised?
    – a tendency to increase firepower not in volume, but in precision only (poor for suppression)
    – do they have enough radio bandwidth in an ECM environment?

    The Abrams deserves a successor – it’s too poor in terms of maintenance, logistical requirements, MLC, MMP and thermal signature.
    Maybe the new ‘light’ (44 tons) Japanese tank would be a good model.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 21, 2009 8:52 am

    Ugh! Don’t get me started on the Bradley. The tracks and its mission gives it away, Smitty. “If it walks like a duck and acts like a duck…”

  4. B.Smitty permalink
    January 20, 2009 10:43 pm


    The MCS is just one of the FCS variants.

    Conceptually, it has more in common with the Stryker MGS than the M1. Think of it as a follow-on to the Bradley family, not the M1. It is meant to be C130 transportable (though this will not be the case for many variants), and have major logistics advantages over existing heavy forces.

    Passive protection only extends to 30mm AP across the frontal arc. The Quick Kill APS is unproven, and only offers protection vs ATGMs and RPGs. So any tank more modern than a T-34, firing sabots, can penetrate it from any angle.

    This does not sound like a tank to me, by the modern definition. It’s a mobile gun system, assault gun or tank destroyer. The distinction is important. It determines how it can be used.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 20, 2009 3:10 pm

    Smitty, I am looking at this and thinking, “yup, a tank”:

    I still say they are trying to reinvent the wheel here to keep a threatened weapon system around even as other systems, like the Stryker are beginning to replace it in many roles. As with naval fire support and the old battleships, you will never have a perfect replacement for the tank, but numerous vehicles will be available that are networked, effective and affordable to do the job at less cost and will far less a logistic chain to contend with.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    January 19, 2009 10:51 pm

    The Merkava IVs are still in production, IIRC. The heavy Namer APC is brand-new.

    The problem is, nowadays, we have a glut of Western tanks. The Germans are practically giving Leopard 2s away, and improvements are ongoing. At some point, the cost of zero-timing old chassis will become prohibitive and we will have to develop a new heavy system. When that is, and what form it will take, I don’t know. Maybe a compact, heavy UGV?

    The FCS isn’t a tank. It’s a family of medium-weight, armored vehicles, just like the Stryker. It will be interesting to see if the current economic climate ends the FCS program as anything more than a technology proving grounds.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 19, 2009 7:20 pm

    Oh, I agree and I’m not ready to scrap the tank entirely. Think it is still a good mobile artilery, but also that its days are numbered. It is the cost that will ultimately kill the reign of heavy armor. Proof is no one in the West is designing building new tanks, nobody, other than the US who is trying to reinvent the wheel with this FCS that will doubtless price in the hundreds of billions. But the Stryker (which isn’t a perfect replacement for the tank by any means, but good enough) went from concept to service in just a couple years. You just can’t overlook the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of off-the-shelf weapons.

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    January 19, 2009 4:38 pm

    Sure, Strykers save lives when compared to driving around in armored Hummers. Medium-weight, wheeled armor is certainly a valuable COIN asset. Having a combination of forces appears to be the best bet. One size does not fit all situations.

    Saddam had a lot of Fedayeen armed with RPGs. There were instances where tanks took a dozen or more hits. A Stryker, even with slat, would have been destroyed. Slat is only good for a few hits in the same general area. It is destroyed in the process. Once gone, the Stryker is only armored vs 14.5mm AP rounds.

    So it’s a lot easier to use massed ATGM or RPG fires against a Stryker than an M-1. And, to my knowledge no Stryker has been on the receiving end of an ATGM, so we have no data as to the value of slat there.

    Dismounted soldiers were killed in buildings and in the open by ATGMs in Lebanon too. So the real lesson is going against an opponent on their turf, who’s had years to prepare and has a lot of ATGMs is a dangerous proposition, regardless of the type of forces you have.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink
    January 19, 2009 3:06 pm

    Please tell what did Saddam have to appose our M-1s? Again we use first rate equipment against third rate adversaries and this justifies us bankrupting the budget.

    In Lebanon, the Israeli troops clung to the Merkava armor for protection (proper heavy tank tactics) and took heavy casualties. In Iraq, the Stryker crews dismounted and went after the terrorists who could kill the tanks if properly armed. The Stryker saves lives, especially in a Hybrid environment.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    January 19, 2009 2:15 pm

    Tanks worked well in Iraq too, especially during Thunder Runs through downtown Baghdad.

    I don’t think the failure in southern Lebanon was an indictment of heavy armor, per se. Replace the Merkavas with Strykers and they Israeli body count would’ve been far higher.

    It was a lesson in bad tactics and training.


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