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American’s Just Say No to Tanks

June 25, 2009

An interesting article at Strategypage concerning US troops in Afghanistan refusing to follow Canada’s example of using main battle tanks against the Taliban. First the pro-armor argument:

The Canadians have found tanks very useful while fighting the Taliban. In addition to being immune to enemy fire, the tanks can smash through the walls that surround the many family compounds that dot the Afghan countryside. There is also the fear factor. The Canadian tanks are scary, as well as deadly. When the Canadian troops have a tank along, the Taliban are usually very reluctant to fight…The Canadians have fewer helicopters, so they use the roads more often, and find having a tank along can, literally, be a lifesaver.

And the argument against the tracked behemoths:

The American commanders are reluctant to add the heavy logistical load even a few dozen tanks would impose. U.S. M-1 tanks have to be brought in one-at-a-time via C-17 transports, and consume enormous amounts of fuel. Moreover, many American commanders do not believe the tanks would be available for many missions. The American brigades will be operating over a wide swatch of territory, and have fewer opportunities to use the tanks.

I can see the merits for both arguments, but I do think it interesting the fact that the US troops feel they can do without the tanks for now, which doesn’t bode well for future armor production. There is no clear evidence that the tank is 100% obsolete or irrelevant for future warfare. Currently the main argument against is the cost, and that cheaper wheeled vehicles, as also proved by the Stryker in Iraq, can do many of the functions of a tank.

Still, we think the ones we have are good enough for the present, and for a replacement the Army might also consider reopening the M-1 production line for a thousand or two, keeping in line with our prediction that warfare off the shelf is with us to stay.

Read this for our previous thoughts on the Canadian Leopards.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. justbill permalink
    June 28, 2009 7:54 pm

    Sven,

    First off, please note one of my earlier responses. I’m not an “Abrams-happy Yank.” I’ve never been of the opinion that not made in America = inferiority. Far from it. Certainly the M-1 family has given my country excellent service in two wars but I’m not blind to its tremendous logistical tail and cost. In a perfect world of unlimited budgets I would love to see the Leopard 2’s power pack retrofitted to all Abrams in American inventory.

    But here we’re discussing armor for combat this side of a Russian invasion of Western Europe. The M-60A3 is plenty of tank for any foe we’re likely to oppose. It’s range is quite comparable to anything else fielded with a diesel engine and certainly an improvement for a logistics system used to the thirsty Abrams. Remove the standard cupola and useless M-85 MG, replace them with the lower profile Israeli Urdan cupola and a proper Ma Deuce and the M-60 loses about a foot in height. (Not that I think it’s as big an issue as some M-60 detractors make it out to be.) I will concede that main gun elevation leaves something to be desired. As for the issue of parts durability, can you provide an objective source that will substantiate your claim? With all due respect, I think it will be a difficult task. New does not automatically mean better. In fact, the reverse is often true.

  2. June 28, 2009 11:03 am

    @Justbill:
    I’m aware that Americans somehow like their M-60 and M-1 tanks, but they have really lot of issues that make them less than ideal.
    Both guzzle way too much fuel.
    M-60 is far too large (high).
    M-1 has too much nominal and mean maximum ground pressure for operation in Eastern Europe.
    Neither has a good maximum gun elevation (neither directly nor in combination with adjustable suspension as Korean tanks) for combat in hilly or mountainous terrain.
    Both use old components that are much less durable than modern parts of equal weight can be.

    I’m in favour of a new European tank generation – a clean slate, for a near-perfect compromise.

  3. justbill permalink
    June 27, 2009 8:08 pm

    Mike,

    You ask why use a tracked vehicle at all? Because wheeled vehicles don’t do as well over all types of terrain. They can’t carry as heavy a main battery. Of the very few that do carry a significant punch, they can’t carry a lot of ammunition. But most of all, I respectfully disagree current wheeled AFV’s are just as survivable as a tank. Which do you think stands a better chance against an old D-30 used in direct fire ambush, an updated M-60 or a Stryker MGS/AMX-10/BTR-90/etc.? Which would you choose if you faced one of the many T-55’s still prevalent throughout the Third World? How about against some of the monster IED’s seen in Iraq? In no sense are the wheeled vehicles as survivable as a true tank.

    All your points are solved by recycling old M-60’s or similar MBT’s. They were paid-off decades ago. Their core systems are well known, so there are no bugs to work out. New builds with drawn-out and expensive development periods simply aren’t an issue. You can add any type of reactive plates you’d like. Trophy? Slats? Extra Kevlar/Spectra/ceramic liners? No problem. All the while fielding a big honkin’ main gun, multiple MG’s, lots of ammo, shoot-on-the-move accuracy, cross country maneuverability and plenty of thick steel armor.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 27, 2009 2:55 pm

    Bill, these days isn’t it more about the active and reactive defenses on the tank that counts as much if not more than the armor? Few if any armor can stand up to the new precision ATGM being proliferated, but put some reactive armor or the Israeli Trophy and any tank, like the old M-60 becomes a supertank.

    But then you get into the question Why have tanks at all if a wheeled fighting vehicles can load the same type of new defenses? In a sense it becomes just as survivable, certainly more affordable, and as we proved in Iraq, can be built quickly without decades long procurement cycles.

    So it isn’t so much whether it carries the most advanced armor, biggest gun, or superior propulsion, just can we build them when we need them and is it good enough for our troops.

  5. justbill permalink
    June 27, 2009 1:47 pm

    I agree with the comments on diesel vs. av gas fuel supply. It’s one of the reasons why I believe the Leopard 2 is a better tank overall than the Abrams. But for the current GWOT (fight the power!), former USMC ERA-equipped M-60A1’s would be just fine.

    On a related matter, I disagree that the M-60 was “badly outclassed” compared to contemporary Soviet designs.* The T-64 had significant reliability problems according to unclassified Western sources. All the technological strides made in the T-64 compared to earlier Soviet tanks would be moot if an army couldn’t field its full complement due to breakdowns. Conversely, the M-60 was quite reliable. The T-72 is considered a death trap by any impartial source. This has been consistently proven on the battlefield. The M-60 series also had the considerable advantage of carrying about 50% more main gun rounds than either the T-64 or -72. In combat the M-60 series generally outperformed all Soviet Bloc designs faced during the Yom Kippur War, Lebanon and Kuwait. A great deal of credit goes to the quality of Israeli and American crews compared to their enemies. But no matter how good they were, if their M-60’s truly were “badly outclassed” by the opposing Soviet designs they would not have regularly prevailed as history proves.

    *By contemporary I mean the T-62/64/72. The T-80 is really more comparable to the M1 Abrams.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 26, 2009 4:21 pm

    I wonder if any studies have been done considering replacing the M-1’s gas turbine with traditional diesels. If the production line was reopened, this should take serious consideration.

  7. June 26, 2009 3:41 pm

    The tank as deterrent and assault gun works, but substitutes are available.

    The tank is indispensable for rapid, offensive ground maneuver against well-equipped and determined enemies, though. There’s no such thing in Afghanistan, so different tactical approaches are feasible there.

    Another factor is likely that an Abrams guzzles almost twice as much gas a a Leopard2.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 26, 2009 11:29 am

    I can’t credit your facts much since the M-1s have regularly made mincemeat of such weapons during both Gulf Wars. I would also put it down to crew training, and thanks to the Nation training Center at Ft Irwin, the US tankers are just superb.

  9. UltimaRatioRegis permalink
    June 26, 2009 9:19 am

    The M-1 Abrams is a battle changer on a high-intensity battlefield. The M-60 had long passed its maximum potential and was badly outclassed by the T-64, T-72, and T-80s in so many WP inventories.

    If we are to maintain dominance across the spectrum, at the high end the M-1 Abrams is the currency of success against a conventional opponent.

  10. justbill permalink
    June 26, 2009 6:29 am

    If Kim is foolish enough to ever cross the Korean DMZ, ask this question again after a week or so of fighting. Just because the enemies we’re fighting today don’t have an armor capability doesn’t mean the one tomorrow doesn’t. Even at that, a direct fire-capable 120mm HE round would be awfully comforting to have in your column as you travel Afghan bandit country.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 25, 2009 3:53 pm

    I miss the M-60 too, West. Considering the caliber of our enemies of late, it would never have mattered had we not built the M-1, though we had to build something I guess!

  12. west_rhino permalink
    June 25, 2009 1:43 pm

    M-60A3 seems a better fit, IMHO, though I suspect Putin might offer T-72s…

  13. Distiller permalink
    June 25, 2009 1:15 pm

    That’s a bit to binary for my taste. There is a world between no armor and 70 tonnes of it! Like the BvS10 or the CV90. The Tribesmen are also scared of the CV90 it is said. You don’t need no MBT for colonial warfare.

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  1. A Good Argument for Wheeled Armor « New Wars

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