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A Good Argument for Wheeled Armor

July 5, 2009

Always like to use critics’ own arguments concerning the limitations of off the shelf or low cost weapons against them, and here is a case in point. This DoD Buzz article detailing the merits and minuses of both wheeled and track armor had the following to say against the former:

The problem with wheeled vehicles is they fast reach an upper weight limit, around the 30 ton range, where performance goes completely out the window; wheels just offer far less footprint to spread the weight around than tracks.

I see the 30 ton weight limit as a plus, since it is an unsurmountable incentive to halt the dramatic rise in the size and cost of armored vehicles. Better armor and guns are fine but at some point it meets absurdity like the German giants of the late WW 2, where they were so heavy as to be increasingly immobile on the battlefield. A few large tanks didn’t matter anyway, since the Allies were swamping this with mass productions of vehicles like the Sherman and the T-34.

The 70 ton M-1 Abrams seems to be the limit for the tank, and the only way to go from here is smaller and lighter. But you don’t need some dramatic breakthrough in armor to reduce the size of tanks. We already have these with reactive armor like Chobham and active defenses like Trophy and also cage armor, plus even certain types of cloth! Where these can be fitted on the main battle tanks, likewise can they be equally effective on the armored cars like Stryker, and have been.

As with vehicle protection, the same might be said of its offensive armament. Now it isn’t so much the size of a vehicle guns, but what type of round the gun fires whether Sabot or HEAT. Some might do away with the gun altogether for the increasingly lethal anti-tank guided missile. 

Recently we posted on the American use of wheeled armor versus the Canadians use of Leopard tanks in Afghanistan. We thought it interesting the fact that the US troops could do without the tanks, as much as heavy armor proponents would still laud the use of tracked armor in such rough terrain. Considering the tremendous logistical baggage such a very heavy vehicle brings with it, our thinking that the continued miniaturization warfare might favor the smaller, more affordable off the shelf vehicles better.

We would keep some tracked vehicles around, which in prohibitive terrain might be needed to pull the Stryker out of the mud! Just as in civilian life, not every vehicle is a four wheel drive, in a combat situation every vehicle need not be of the tractor variety.

M-1 Abrams in Iraq

M-1 Abrams in Iraq

31 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2015 10:30 am

    Hi, just wanted to mention, I lovedd this blog post.
    It wass inspiring. Keep on posting!

  2. Defiant permalink
    July 8, 2009 6:52 am

    For an offensive strike against an enemy army, tracked heavy armored is the way to go as roads can easily be destroyed, mined, blocked. However our contemporary conficts do not provide an enemy using heavy vehicles and frontline tactics. The enemy can jump out of some bush, shoot at you and doesn’t really plan this engagement further than the first shot, usually losing the battle but by killing a soldier here and there they keep the morale and moral homeland support low. These countries have bad roads and bad roads get worse using tracked vehicles , not really because of weight alone but because of the steering mechanism being very abrasive.
    I think leaving a country with destroyed roads after eventually sometime getting rid of the regime is not really the way to go. You need a vehicle able to carry about 10 soldiers, with little width, protection all around against 14.5 (would 7.62 be enough?) , designed for (N)ERA tiles covering most of the flank and mine protection. A low centre of gravity would also be nice but doesn’t really add to mine protection.
    Maybe you could swap the era tiles with AMAP-ADS, which i think is the only aps suited for these kinds of conflicts, would give 2 or 3 tonnes.
    I do not know what these protection levels need in weight, maybe it’s possible with under 20 tonnes, the problem is the defense against MG calibers, is 14.5 really used often by the taliban or other guerilla groups?
    The Problem is that there is no vehicle built with these specications, the stryker is based on piranha, which itself is not that new of design and integration of modern defense solutions, modular armor and mine protection should be done from scratch not afterwards.
    The only vehicle easily adaptable for this protection is the Boxer, but 33 tonnes is overkill as much as its size, the 4.5 tonnes is not relly a lot of payload for modules either. (AND the price …)
    Maybe SEP will be a good solution, but without funding …

  3. solomon permalink
    July 7, 2009 7:54 pm

    Question is, are the wheeled armored vehicles adequate to take advantage of future operations outside of tanks? If all you need is mobility, the wheeled armor is good enough, and even able to move faster than the heavy armored divisions.

    Mobility is defined as being able to cross broken ground at speed. The hallmark of all vehicles in the US military is to be able to keep pace with an M1 Tank off road. Unfortunately the proponents of wheels over tracks fail to follow that standard. Instead they point to the utility of wheeled vehicles on pavement. During the cold war there was a movement inside the US Army to have ALL there vehicles tracked…to include logistical vehicles. Just like this movement to wheels it went too far but wheels will never have the mobility of tracks. Speed on pavement is another issue but thats another red herring. Your stating that after the initial invasion tanks had little utility is also a misnomer. That was a political decision made to placate the Iraqi’s in order to perpetrate the illusion that they were not being occupied. Many good men were injured because of that kind of stupidity. Unarmor a ship if you truly believe that lighter is better but lets leave it on our vehicles. As I’ve already noted, the M-ATV was designed because the previous vehicles weren’t mobile enough…They designed one with a better suspension, horsepower and drivetrain for the conditions in Iraq. Funny thing is that since we’re getting above 25 tons in wt, wheels are going to lose out to tracks again so the controversy can continue.

  4. Andy permalink
    July 7, 2009 2:27 pm


    Sadly thats only too true. What was that phrase…… Lions led by donkeys? Or words to that effect. The mind boggles at the numbers of young lives that must have been snuffed out by such thinking.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 7, 2009 1:58 pm

    Andy I think Monty suffered the same problem a few years later trying to take Caen without infantry support. No lessons learned.

  6. July 7, 2009 1:55 pm

    “when the Germans became less mobile because of lack of adequate armored vehicles (too many heavy tanks), lack of fuel, lack of friendly air cover and so on.”

    And due to lack of trucks. The truck production didn’t keep up with German losses EVER. The last huge gains in captured trucks was in 1940; army mobility went downhill afterwards.

    The Tiger tanks were about worth their cost and limited to dedicated heavy tank detachments (very rarely used in regular armor divisions), and the Panther tanks weren’t significantly more expensive than Pzkw IV.

    The German heavies of WW2 tell less about heavy tanks (even their MMP was great) than they tell us about the importance of reliability and of proper recovery vehicles.

  7. Andy permalink
    July 7, 2009 12:38 pm


    Quite correct. However, that was in open terrain such as North Africa and they were used in direct, not indirect fire. Essentially they were used a whacking huge anti tank rifles. The British tactics of charging straight at them and attempting to fire on the move with little or no combined arms support didn’t help either!

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 7, 2009 12:15 pm

    Very good Andy, but those German 88’s were rough on British armor.

  9. Andy permalink
    July 7, 2009 12:14 pm

    @ Mike,

    I remember from history lessons at school that the biggest killer of tanks during the second world war was the mine!

    Although artillery is very good at killing stuff, I’m also reminded of an old army saying: ” the continued existence of the tank is a testament to the inadequacy of indirect fire.”

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 7, 2009 9:36 am

    Solomon said “The idea that they’re forced to place tanks in storage is more an indication of poor planning and staffing problems and not a hint at their utility.”

    I disagree with that notion since heavy armored tanks haven’t proved as useful since as in the opening stages of the Iraq War, the Blitzkrieg on Baghdad. Even in rugged Afghanistan the US troops have been able to do without them. That said, we probably should still keep them around until we are sure of their obsolescence, as Distiller mentioned.

    Concerning the primary killer of tanks, historically I have read that artillery is the best tank killer, and I recall a formula from somewhere which listed the rule as “artillery kills tank, tank kills infantry, infantry kills artillery“. I know that the Israeli tank crews were especially adept at killing Arab tankers, but I also would point to the disparity in the quality of the two antagonists as far as training.

    Sven said “Infantry, engineers and artillery achieved the breakthrough.”

    Bringing up an interesting point. During the 1918 German operations on the Western front (Michael), the storm troops had all the elements of breakthrough available except the mobility to take advantage of the new tactics. Here is where the tanks proved so essential in the next World War, and later on General Patton and others adapted this for the Allies own use, interestingly when the Germans became less mobile because of lack of adequate armored vehicles (too many heavy tanks), lack of fuel, lack of friendly air cover and so on.

    Question is, are the wheeled armored vehicles adequate to take advantage of future operations outside of tanks? If all you need is mobility, the wheeled armor is good enough, and even able to move faster than the heavy armored divisions.

  11. July 7, 2009 9:07 am

    “Already back then (when things still were working) the enemy was cracked by Stukas, the tanks mostly doing blocking and cleaning.”

    Not really.
    Infantry, engineers and artillery achieved the breakthrough.
    Significant (mostly demoralizing) air support was desired, but available only for a few hours.

    The armour units were able to push quickly because they had already penetrated the enemy’s hard shell and were rather mixing up his soft intestines.

    Infantry and AT troops were moved in to block enemy movement, to take prisoners and to finish off pockets.

    The assault gun (tactic) only became relevant when offensives slowed down and when armour divisions were too depleted to be used in their original role. Much of the assault gun detachment’s work was ambushing tanks anyway.

    We wouldn’t push through the defensive positions with infantry today. We would either seek and exploit gaps or we would breakthrough directly with heavy forces.

    The RMA ‘deploy sensors and pick them one after one with precision munitions’ idea would be awfully slow and foiled by camouflage, concealment and deception.

  12. Distiller permalink
    July 7, 2009 2:33 am

    People focus way too much on tank vs tank combat. That scenario is of only limited likelyhood these days. In any conflict between half decent enemies before any of their MBTs would face the other side’s MBT it would have to go through attack aircraft dropped smart anti-tank ammo, battle planes, rocket and tube artillery launched smart anti-tank ammo, battle helicopters, and finally heavy infantry with ATGMs like Spike. So usually MBTs are used more like assault guns, the Stryker MGS being only a logical consequence of that.

    The MBT is an insurance in case the battlespace information domination is lost and the fog of war is creeping back. Then everything reverts back to Rommel style (hopefully, but maybe even lower) and the MBTs will again form the backbone of the force. But back to Rommel and the German blitz: Already back then (when things still were working) the enemy was cracked by Stukas, the tanks mostly doing blocking and cleaning.

    Regarding wheel vs track I think a fighting force intended to go up against a mech enemy should be tracked, since 8-wheelers above 15 tonnes (not 30!) are roadbound, with all the negative consequences. The light vehicles for constabulary missions and colonial wars can be wheeled, which also has the benefit of making them air portable, amphib and reducing logistic burden.

  13. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 10:57 pm

    The British military is in the midst of a melt down. At every turn they’ve gone the wrong way. Point number one. This FRES contract. Point number two. Failure to piggyback on the M-ATV program and to go with the woefully inadequate Jackal and Cougar vehicles. Point number three, the re-engineering of the Force Protection Cougar into the Mastiff. The idea that they’re forced to place tanks in storage is more an indication of poor planning and staffing problems and not a hint at their utility. Reports are also out that the EU rapid deployment force is kaput too. The European nations are a powerful economic force but have yet to take the stage as a military power. The UK is simply following the lead of the mainland. Besides, outside of Germany, their are few innovators when it comes to armor on the European continent and they definitely haven’t (UK) established any trends.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 6, 2009 9:00 pm

    This just in:
    Taliban war pushes tanks into storage

  15. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 8:35 pm

    Nope can’t even go with that. The winner of the M-ATV, the offering from Oshkosh comes in at about 16 1/4 tons. Thats inline with the wt of MRAPs currently in service in Iraq. It continues the trend of wheeled vehicles increasing in wt.

    The award announcement…

    The stats on the vehicle…

    No new MBT’s have been developed because the ones in service are so effective. The Japanese example is irrelevant because they are a self defense force with their arms tailored to southeast asia. The lessening in combat wt is a good thing there but against modern MBT’s they’d be crushed. A better example of the trend toward increasing wts in future MBT’s is the TUSK upgrade on the M1. Urban combat has led to uparmoring of already heavily armored vehicles. Even the Styker is getting reactive armor tiles and the Piranha V (for the UK’s FRES competition…won but is being rebid) is coming in at between 25 to 30 tons a far cry from the USMC LAV-25 (LAV 1) that has a wt of 12.8 tons fully loaded.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 6, 2009 7:47 pm

    You have to admit though Solomon that the MRAPs and armored Humvees were bought in a hurry, with little time for getting weights settled, armor often added as an afterthought. Now that things are settling down a bit, cooler heads are looking at vehicles with less weight, and maneuverability. I’ll concede it is a constant battle trying to balance size and capability, but I still insist that technology is favoring the smaller wheeled vehicles. The lack of new construction of any sort of MBT in Western countries should be clear where the armor strategists are focused. More here:

  17. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 7:21 pm

    I’m glad you put the ground pressure rule in there Sven because thats one of the great strengths of the Leopard family of tanks. Mobility. And even with the birth of the first modern MBT (I go with the WW2 Panther but some like the T-34) that has been the hallmark of tracked vehicles. I find it funny that everyone points to the Stryker as a resounding success. Funny because the M-ATV was designed to operate in Afghanistan. If the Stryker was the revolutionary vehicle many contend it would have been sent over there instead. Additionally the Stryker itself is an evolutionary vehicle that has grown in wt. Generation 1 LAV’s like the LAV-25 are much lighter in wt than the Generation 3 Stryker. So again the argument is blown out the water. ONLY if the ARMY had gone with a lighter wt generation 1 LAV would this discussion have merit. They didn’t.

  18. July 6, 2009 6:18 pm

    To be fair to Mike, a trend and orthodox opinion does NOT prove that an unorthodox opinion is wrong.

    There are even exceptions to the rule, like the newest Japanese tank that weights about 44 tons to avoid some mobility restrictions (most likely bridge limits).

    The extremely poor experience of the FCS (USA) and FRES (UK) provide much better arguments against medium-weight combat vehicles of less than 40 tons in full kit.

    The MRAPs (light to medium wheeled AFVs) proved to be mostly adequate to today’s road march security missions in occupation warfare. The additional requirements for a full spectrum capability (DPICM roof protection, modern shaped charge protection, autocannon and cannon KE protection, strong vehicle armament like 35mm autocannon or 120mm gun, 90% terrain mobility) add up to too much weight, though.
    The 30 ton limit gets easily busted because every kg of additional protection and armament adds engine, suspension and fuel weight as well.

    Finally, wheeled vehicles get too easily stuck off-road in all but vehicle-friendly terrain. It’s not like every vehicle got stuck, but if one vehicle per company gets stuck on average every two or three km of offroad march – well, then the CO will simply keep them on roads.
    MBTs get into similar but less frequent problems at weights of more than about 55 tons (rule of thumb; the real border is defined by mean maximum pressure, not weight itself).

  19. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 5:04 pm

    One more thing young jedi. What about the Israeli and Russian example of very heavy APC’s??? Namera anyone? And the Russians are doing the same with their T-72 chassis.

  20. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 3:35 pm

    We were posting at the same time. You ignore the point. Wheeled vehicles have gone steadily up in wt. Undeniable. MBT might lose wt in the future due to reduced profile(ie. low profile turrets)…but armoring will remain heavy. Smaller and lighter when applicable is a good idea but to base design around that assumption will lead to more FCS fiasco’s.

  21. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 3:32 pm

    Oh and lets not even add anti-tank missiles to the mix. If you’re a grunt you’re stuck with a Javelin that while fire and forget, doesn’t lose any wt and is just as short ranged as its predecessor. Wanna talk about vehicle mounted missiles? Then you’re talking about either Tow-2 or Hellfire (if you’re one of the few users of the ground launched versions)….you’re still outranged by a MBT’s main gun, they more then likely have optics as good or more likely superior to what you’re using and what’s the future??? The still born Line of Sight Anti-tank Missile. Fast missile but huge and very unwieldy. Ultimately it was canceled…why?? Because we have the world’s finest battle proven MBT. For all the talk about the MGS, its an Infantry Support weapon to be used against bunkers, in the assault etc…it was never intended to duke it out with the opposing forces armor. Yeah paradigm shift alright….next century. Smaller, lighter and faster deploying is for a few forces to achieve. The 82nd Airborne, MEU’s and maybe the 101st. Otherwise lets keep our Army for what it was designed for…to win wars.

  22. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 6, 2009 3:31 pm

    Solomon said “in every instance those vehicles have gotten larger and heavier”

    At what point then does the vehicle become Too large and Too heavy? Even the Germans learned this too late to save themselves. After WW 2 the large tanks shrunk some to become mediums, but now the mediums are the heavy tanks. What would you have replace them, an 80 or 100 ton tank? No, we go back to basics, and the Stryker is a good example of this though not the only one.

  23. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2009 2:34 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Now it isn’t so much the size of a vehicle guns, but what type of round the gun fires whether Sabot or HEAT.”

    Just grabbed my copy of the (not-necessarily-reliable) 2008 Edition of Jane’s Ammunition Handbook.

    Took a look at the armor penetration of the most powerful 105mm APFSDS round currently available (MECAR M1060CV for the new Cockerill 105mm HP CV gun) : 560mm LOS @ 2,000 meters.

    Then suddenly remembered (from another life) that was more or less the same performance that could be expected from the *old* 120mm DM33 APFSDS with the L/44 gun, back in 1987.

    Finally had a quick glimpse at potential OPFOR’s MBTs and was shocked to see that the bad guys didn’t have the good taste to design the newest mods with less armor protection.

    Came to the conclusion that, once all is said and done, size does matter nowadays just like it did matter back in the old days.

    Thought Mike B. would be interested to know (or maybe not)…

  24. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 2:23 pm

    Not only that Scott but if you’ve been keeping up with armored development then you already see the German Boxer wheeled APC hitting the 30 ton barrier, the latest incarnation of the LAV-III getting close (27-28tons) so the idea that these vehicles can get smaller and lighter is ridiculous.

  25. Scott B. permalink
    July 6, 2009 1:58 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “I see the 30 ton weight limit as a plus, since it is an unsurmountable incentive to halt the dramatic rise in the size and cost of armored vehicles.”

    You’re proposing to run the exact same FUBAR software that lead to the über-expensive, über-inadequate FCS fiasco :

    You’re hoping that merely re-booting the system will cause the bugs to disappear, which isn’t a realistic assumption.

    You’re simply going to spend more money (read billions) and still get the same mediocre result in the end…

  26. solomon permalink
    July 6, 2009 1:04 pm

    Mike your argument is flawed. You’re attempting to push your idea for simpler and smaller onto all branches of the military and now you’ve done it in regards to the wheeled vs. tracked debate. Problem is, YOU”RE WRONG! Lets look at the wheeled vehicles and their replacements historically.

    *M151 Jeep…replaced by Hummer
    *Hummer…replaced by JLTV
    *5ton truck…replaced by MTVR

    in every instance those vehicles have gotten larger and heavier…lets continue…

    LAV-25…to be replaced by Marine Personnel Carrier
    M113…replaced by Stryker (LAV III)

    now lets look at tanks…

    Leopard 1…replaced by Leopard 2 then Leopard 2A5 then by Leopard 2A6…each instance larger than those before…

    M-47…replaced by M-48 then M-60 then M1, M1A1, then M1A2

    how about the Brits

    Centurion, then Cheiftan then Challenger 1 and then Challenger 2

    the French…

    AMX-13, AMX-30 and now the LeClerc

    there is no set piece design for the production of armored vehicles…even the latest MRAP designed for use in Afghanistan is a larger, heavier vehicle than the HUMVEES they’ll replace.

  27. Defiant permalink
    July 6, 2009 4:35 am

    the smaller and lighter vehicles are ok behind the lines, the problem is that there isn’t a real frontline in the ongoing conflicts. with smaller and lighter vehicles you will have more casualties, questions will rise wheather enough protection is given to the troops, but moving all troops with vehicles at mbt weight isn’t really affordable as well.
    Reactive armor seems to be the only solution available atm, but in increases the weight even more, planning from the start with era would have reduced the weight of the stryker considerably. The slat armor or cloth solutions arent really good, as they increase the vehicles dimensions considerably.
    Chobham is not reactive armor, it’s passive composite armor.

  28. July 5, 2009 7:27 pm

    The common wisdom is that the optimum balance that you cited would in fact be heavier than FCS (about 30 tons, canceled for being not good enough) and much lighter than the heaviest MBTs (almost 70 tons, criticized for being too restricted by weight).

    In fact, it’s likely at about 45-55 tons (judging by actual line of sight combat vehicle procurement and armour expert statements).

    The German Puma IFV has even in its design stage up to 43 tons weight in its highest protection setting – it’s a brand-new AFV with unmanned turret, lightweight armament and only 300x 30mm cartridges.

    Vehicles of less than 30 tons are extremely rarely considered to be line of sight combat vehicles. They can be optimized for mine threat and 14.5mm AP bullets, but aren’t able to provide much off-road mobility, firepower, modern ATGM protection and autocannon protection at the same time.

    Such light vehicles are accepted as recce and (NLOS) support vehicles.

    Again, I suspect that a (your) subjective preference for “smaller, lighter” is overriding objective arguments.

  29. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 5, 2009 6:48 pm

    Too much weight and your plane doesn’t fly or your tank sinks in the sand. New computer technology should allow us to take the best advantage of smaller vehicles, planes, and ships. Precision armament means less ammo. Computers doing more work means smaller crews. There should always be a balance in weight, ammunition, protection, cargo ect. When you get too big to be much good and a drain on other important warfighting resources, a back to basics is in order.

  30. July 5, 2009 6:24 pm

    “I see the 30 ton weight limit as a plus, since it is an unsurmountable incentive to halt the dramatic rise in the size and cost of armored vehicles.”

    The high price of Stryker runs counter to this argument.

    Vehicle equipment is a most important cost factor – not vehicle weight.
    It’s exactly the same as with aircraft and ships.


  1. Toward an Armorless Army Pt 1 « New Wars

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