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The Futility of Armor

November 7, 2009

Don’t Blame the Strykers

The Stryker armored vehicles, made popular in Iraq and wildly successful there, are getting a bad rap in Afghanistan due to mounting casualties. Here is Robert Haddick at Foreign Policy.com with “Why Don’t Stryker Brigades Work in Afghanistan?”:

On July 5, the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade arrived in Kandahar province for a year-long tour of duty. The brigade was equipped with 350 Stryker combat vehicles, an eight-wheeled armored infantry carrier that has proven successful in Iraq and is popular with soldiers. It was the first time the Army had deployed Strykers to Afghanistan, but the country has proven unforgiving to the brigade. Thus far they have lost 21 of their Strykers to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), at a cost of two dozen killed and more than 70 wounded. On Oct. 27, seven soldiers died during the bombing of a single Stryker vehicle.

We don’t see the problem with the vehicle itself, many of which have taken terrific poundings before, far beyond what you might expect from a light armored vehicle. Instead, it is the nature of the beast, being road bound and the lack of available roads in the Afghan:

Iraq has a much more developed road network than Afghanistan. A denser road network provided U.S. mission planners with more routes to choose from, complicating the enemy’s roadside bombing effort. In Afghanistan by contrast, U.S. forces may be lucky to have one usable road to get from an assembly area to an objective. The standard counter-IED strategy is to constantly observe such roads for insurgent bomb-planting activity.

Pretty much all vehicles are at risk, including the equally successful MRAPs, special IED vehicles, and tanks. If you believe tanks would solve the problem in the Afghan, think again.

More Armor Equals More Casualties

Deploying more armor, including the powerful M-1 Abrams in place of Strykers would fail to solve the problem. While a tracked vehicle itself may not be road bound like wheeled vehicles, its logistic support is. Here is very interesting commentary on the logistics problem from James Lochbaum at Digital Bits Skeptic:

A clever opponent can neutralize the tank’s combat power by defeating its logistics footprint. How? The Abrams burns about 12 gallons of fuel an hour just with the engine idling. When moving, its gas mileage is measured in feet, not miles (3). For a company of tanks to conduct operations (that’s about 12 tanks), they must be supplied with at least 144 gallons of fuel per hour just to idle. Fuel must obviously be transported to the same place as the tanks…

The Abrams Main Battle Tank has incredibly tough armor, a powerful main gun (105/120mm), and sophisticated optics and gear that allows it to do all kinds of ridiculous things that would have made it a Soviet General’s nightmare. But, the ability to engage targets with a gyroscopically stabilized main gun while moving isn’t as effective when those targets are blending with the local population. This particular tank has severe limitations in the battle-spaces in which it’s currently employed. Yet, despite this, the U.S. Army deployed over 1,100 of the vehicles in Operation Iraqi Freedom (4).  This actually causes more casualties – vehicles must be used to transport supplies to the tanks, putting more troops in harm’s way.

Get the idea? More vehicles, more casualties, and less, not more mobility.

The Right Solutions

So is there any hope? Of course, there are always solutions and the two sources we sighted have good ones, we think:

  • FP-Watching for bomb-planters, avoiding unwatched roads, using helicopters, dispersing into more vehicles, and taking alternate routes across the country will all help with the IED problem. But the real solution lies with offensive action against the IED networks. This will require aggressive patrolling, raiding, and the interrogation of captured suspects, actions that hopefully are not yet out of fashion.
  •  DBS-Lighter, more mobile and longer range vehicles; a more streamlined logistics system (no more Pizza-Huts and Subways for starters), and equipment with smaller logistics foot-prints.

We like the idea of more helos and other air transport. Ultimately, it is all about bringing the Taliban to terms, our terms hopefully, and I am not sure what will do this short of completely wiping out their command network. Showing them we mean business and have no intention of abandoning our Afghan allies for a second time would go a long way in undermining the enemy’s support.

A Revolutionary Asset

Where see the Stryker as vital in helping to push the Army away from a mindset that heavy armor was the final answer to current land wars. In this role, the smaller vehicle has been very capable, coming just in time for the the War on Terror, as the service was grasping with the problems of COIN, it at least had the right tools for the new mission. Not perfect, but not bad, and it was certainly a start. Strategypage has more:

The Strykers are faster, and quieter, than tracked armored vehicles. This still turns out to be a battlefield advantage, something American troops had forgotten about. The last large scale use of wheeled armored vehicles by American troops was in World War II. Some of the details of how those vehicles could be used had apparently been forgotten. A wheeled armored vehicle can more quickly move out of an ambush, or any other kind of trouble. Wheeled armored vehicles also make a lot less noise. The “track laying system” is inherently noisy, wheel’s are not. Strykers can sneak up on the bad guys, an M-2 Bradley or M-1 tank cannot. But the anti-vehicle mines on dirt roads are a wheeled vehicles worst nightmare, and requires lots of sharp eyes, and new thinking, to deal with.

The Afghan is just a brutal conflict, and it has been for countless armies who have fought there over the countless ages. The American military and NATO have actually been more successful than most, so we would hope the hard fighting there would not stray us from the indispensable role played by the Stryker in preparing us for the Hybrid Wars where heavy armor has less a place, but agile yet tough forces are an essential asset.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Heretic permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:54 pm

    The Costs of Shipping Fuel to War Zones

    The heavier you are … the more fuel you need to burn …

    $45 per gallon in a war zone.
    22 gallons per soldier per day
    = $990 per soldier per day just in fuel costs alone

    Since upward of 70 percent of the tonnage required to put the U.S. Army on the battlefield today is fuel …

    Our beasts grow thirstier, even as our troops grow leaner and their machines get heavier.

  2. SapperK9 permalink
    November 10, 2009 3:49 am

    Wheels instead of tracks; A bridge too far…

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 4:04 pm

    “the Army (and USAF) has gone as “heavy” as possible everywhere it can ”

    Yeah, i thought we were mostly in agreement. Concerning airborne tanks, i don’t feel this was a disaster that the Stryker failed in this requirement. How did they get pass that, since it was a primary selling point initially? Lucky for the US Army they did.

  4. Heretic permalink
    November 9, 2009 3:58 pm

    Well … you did … and you didn’t, Mike. You *almost* said it, but not quite.

    The simple fact of the matter is that the US Army is mechanized in a way which presumes that there is a modern transportation infrastructure anywhere they might happen to be deployed … such as the Fulda Gap, or Iraq, or … well … anywhere. Kinda like how the USAF just assumes that they’ll always be operating out of gigantic huge airbases with a couple miles of concrete runway … regardless of where the enemy to attack might actually be. Because of that underlying assumption, the Army (and USAF) has gone as “heavy” as possible everywhere it can … because it can. As you cite, Mike, the logistical tail for doing this is actually a weakness which can be exploited when your logistical tail extends beyond (and not just through) regions you control (with impunity).

    That’s why all of the requirements for new mechanized kit are always approached from a “what can we squeeze into the box!” standpoint … rather than from a logistical tail standpoint where you place austerity limits on what you can get into theater, and build your machines based on THAT limit. It’s why requirements such as “need to airlift this into theater” sorts of weight limits get blown past faster than any other parameter so as to make everything heavier … at which point the program planners just shrug, and keep laying on the pounds (and capabilities). That’s because mechanized procurement is all about what you can “get” as opposed to what you can “afford” to support when operating out in the styx with nothing but dirt roads, dry riverbeds, and an elusive enemy behind every bit of terrain (including the ground you’re driving on).

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 3:02 pm

    Heretic said “Wheels are great for urbanized environments … and places with lots of roads.
    Tracks are needed for rural environments … which lack transportation infrastructure.”

    I thought I said that? maybe not. Anyway you’re right!

  6. Heretic permalink
    November 9, 2009 12:40 pm

    Mike, you’re pointing at the wrong requirement with your line of argument.

    Wheels are great for urbanized environments … and places with lots of roads.
    Tracks are needed for rural environments … which lack transportation infrastructure.

    The real question that should be getting asked about mobility in A-stan, for infantry purposes, is what ground pressure (tons/m^2) can the unimproved ground of A-stan sustain for off-road operations? You then need to have vehicles able to perform without crossing that threshold of ground pressure.

    After all, it has been proven that it is possible to design a tracked vehicle (for war!) with a ground pressure of lower than a human foot. This was done as a way to counter pressure activated land mines. I forget off the top of my head what the name of that tank was though.

  7. west_rhino permalink
    November 9, 2009 11:38 am

    re: IEDs Again thank you CNN, very much for spilling what the queers (VAQs) were doing in Iraq. Is it possible for IED victims and survivors to pursue the media for tort injuries and wrongful death thanks to loose lips sinking ships? Just askin’

  8. November 9, 2009 7:34 am

    Mike I agree that it APPEARS that the tank has reached a limit but I believe that its a plateau, not an end state. The future is not as the US Army envisioned. Before you put aside the Israeli experience, understand that they were offered Strykers before they committed to the NAMER. The Stryker in their simulations, even with Trophy anti-missile systems was too vulnerable. They have been proven right. Once systems like Trophy are able to defeat heavy anti-tank missiles reliably then we can move the wt of the MBT down, until then we’re stuck at the minimum 50 ton wt (LeClerc/type 10/K1). Also remember that the Stryker came along when the Army was thinking that we would be performing mostly peacekeeping type duties and they needed a vehicle that could fight a medium wt opponent yet arrive in theater quickly by C-130. If high intensity combat had been forseen then the Stryker would have remained on the dealership floor. The US Army has never in its history used wheeled vehicles as part of its main formations. The one experiment they did perform with the 9th Motorized Infantry Division was quickly canceled when it was realized how vulnerable they were to conventional infantry or armored formations.

    The tank is here to stay and the M1A3 will probably see a compact turbo diesel fitted along with elements of the failed FCS program. I personally would luv to see a low profile turret and the addition of a couple of RWS mounts but I don’t think it’ll happen.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 9, 2009 5:56 am

    I agree we need to get out, but we can’t be seen as giving in to the Taliban. I think we will ultimately win, but in some other place, like a well aimed missile into a certain cave in Waziristan.

  10. Distiller permalink
    November 9, 2009 4:48 am

    Get out of that Pashtun War! Nation Building. Pah! What nation? What’s the goal? Nothing to gain in poppyland. That Karzai clown can’t even consolidate Kabul. Best divide that country and give it to Pakistan, Persia, and Uzbekistan.

    Back on topic: The culprit in Afghanistan is of course doctrines and tactics. This whole driving-around-in-trucks-etc business. This whole patrol-and-return-to-base-in-the-evening business. To dominate that region the Western forces would themselves have to become a tribe there, living there for a whole service life instead of rotating in for a couple of month and then be gone again. Or pay another tribe to fight against the Pashtuns – hard to find, though, as nobody around is crazy enough. Special Forces (plus mercenaries), airborne ISR, CAS and some PGM artillery – everyone else OUT! It’s not a technical question – wheels vs tracks and such. It’s an unanswered strategic question.

    It’s already winter there. Let’s see if McChrystals idea to continue fighting in winter leads to anything. Otherwise next spring might well be the last season of Western presence there …

  11. SapperK9 permalink
    November 9, 2009 12:26 am

    “The agency — the Joint IED Defeat Organization — received $16 billion in funding from Congress this year to address the IED threat and continue coordinating efforts throughout the military.”

    From: http://www.themonitor.com/articles/military-32388-oct-ieds.html

    I lied, my guestimate was W R O N G!

    I’m imagining just how many trained “off leash” dog teams I could employ for that sort of money….

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 8, 2009 8:16 pm

    Solomon said “Just because you see militaries around the world buying a particular system doesn’t mean it works.”

    Can we add the large deck aircraft carrier to this list? I know, off topic.

    Thats fine that Israel is going with Namer and Canada with the Leopard 2. But I think these nations are still more dedicated to land conventional warfare and will suffer down the road. Here is where the Americans are doing things right, having suffered terribly the lessons of Iraq, and taken them to heart.

    Note the second author didn’t say armor was bad, and neither are we. Just there must come a limit, and I think tank armor has reached this. We just can’t build them any bigger and expect them to be mobile, as Sapper pointed out about the M-1. There has to be a balance between armor, speed, and gunpower. If you could use technology to reduce the armor, and precision for gunpower, why need heavy armor at all?

  13. SapperK9 permalink
    November 8, 2009 8:15 pm

    The IDF have used Centurion hulls as the basis of carriage/deployment of Combat Engineers for two decades. The Namer is its natural outgrowth from a nation constantly at war who follow not any pro-forma, but intelligently analyse and apply a philosophy of victory.

    I forget who, but one Israeli general was heard to comment before 1991, that he could win any war, but never an occupation…

  14. November 8, 2009 8:01 pm

    Mike,

    Just because you see militaries around the world buying a particular system doesn’t mean it works. Additionally many of those nations use those vehicles on internal security missions. Not Combat. The Stryker is out of its element in the current fight and the 5th is getting mauled in Afghanistan. As far as the future of vehicles is concerned, have you noticed that the US Army has not committed to a wheeled follow on to the FCS???? Have you noticed Israel is going with a HEAVY IFV, the Namer? Have you noticed that the Chinese and the Russians are following suit by converting MBT’s into IFV’s???? Wheels have a place but to think that the Stryker concept is working is to overlook some of its glaring deficiencies ….

  15. SapperK9 permalink
    November 8, 2009 7:29 pm

    The M1 is at best a joke, even with its mods, and to employ in AStan would be comedic. It has a sound and energy signature of a taxiing FA18, notwithstanding its logistic infrastructure demands.

    I recall that Hobart had the Canadians rip the turrets from Shermans etc, called them Kangaroos, and used them as personnel carriers. I guess the Namer is the contemporary expression of this philosophy.

    Is what is required is a base vehicle, tracked because of lack of sealed roads, and belly and sponson armour (which Australia developed and fitted to its M113A1s in Vietnam) ballistic shaped belly, with ROWS, and a larger field workshop system “in country” for local modification/adaptation to local environment and the additional support that tracks demand? An uprated ballistic protected M113A1 takes a lot of beating, for price, mobility and off the shelf support giving reliability. FMC would be very happy to oblige I’m sure.

    However, is a simpler solution to remember that in South Vietnam, by its conclusion, each enemy KIA could be costed at over a million dollars. Had we in 1962 just given the that total sum of X billions across each man, woman and child in South Vietnam, the South could have bought the North and they’d all have been on our side. But I do get that Bell and many vested interests would have gone under…

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 8, 2009 4:26 pm

    Jed said, “Mike, your guilty of oversimplifying this issue – and badly at that !”

    I do think the issue is black and white. It is the government procurement system which makes things so difficult. Before the Stryker, i was a big proponent of the armored gun system, a light armored tracked vehicle intended for the airborne forces. It is obvious considering the caliber of enemies we most always contended with in the post Cold War world was of the light variety. Even those armed with tanks could easily be dealt with due to the poor training issue of some countries.

    The Army prematurely canceled AGS to free up funds for M-1 improvements. A far seeing commanding general practically rammed the “good enough” Stryker down their throats, against howls of impending disaster, just in time for our present COIN conflicts. A decade into this decision and the first problems we hear the howls return. The Strykers problem may be bad but it is far from Sherman tanks in the hedgerows bad.

    Over the decades the tanks built to cross trenches in the plains of Europe were also deployed to the treacherous desert sands, the cold wastes of Russia, and even the muddy jungles of Asia. Surely, as the heavy armored tank becomes too prohibitive cost-wise (according to the statistics mentioned earlier), with all our ingenuity we can make do with the wheeled vehicles, backed up by some tracked light vehicles as well for all our future needs.

  17. November 8, 2009 3:13 pm

    Without wishing to drag up the M113vStryker argument (all together collective groan.) A lot of people seem very attached to using wheels in A-stan and then complain about the IEDs. Also there are a lot of instance of British tracked vehicles (Vikings) etc being destroyed then labelled as death traps because once again they are stuck to known routes.

    I have suggested in other places that perhaps the MRAP designs need to be coupled to discrete track systems like the US Mattrack system; similar systems are found on some tractors (search quad track.) There is some Mattrack footage on YouTube.

    To my mind this system offers the best of both worlds. From tracks we have lowered ground pressures and improved off road capability. From wheels we have articulation and redundancy of multi-wheels (or tracks.)

    An interesting vehicle to consider is the Serbia Lazar 8×8 MRAP.

  18. November 8, 2009 2:44 pm

    BTRs are fast. But you wouldn’t want to go to war in one. You are right though right tool for the job is always the best route.

  19. Jed permalink
    November 8, 2009 11:47 am

    Mike, your guilty of oversimplifying this issue – and badly at that !

    “If you believe tanks would solve the problem in the Afghan, think again.”

    Depends what the problem is. Google for some articles on the use of Leopard II’s in the green zone by the Danes.

    But basically it depends what you want your vehicle to do. Parts of Afghanistan have terrain which most people would consider to be similar to the moon – not a place for wheels, or if you must, then they must be very lightweight wheeled vehicles not MRAP’s or even Strykers.

    You said “But they are working (meaning wheels). Just look at the numbers, which I mentioned in the earlier post, 3000 Strykers plus tens of thousands of MRAPs and Humvees. And this is ongoing in all armies not just the US, even in Russia who also have tanks in production.”

    Yes but what for ? Famously the Russians beat the British to that airfield in Kosovo because their wheeled BTR series vehicles were faster on a major road. OK in that tactical situation wheels won. Wheels did OK in Iraq where the road network was good enough, and off road terrain not that bad. Wheels are failing badly in ‘the Stan’. So, ever heard the saying “right tool for the right job” ?

    There is no one size fits all solution to any strategic or tactical mobility problem. Any army should have a well balanced force of light, medium and heavy (armoured) vehicles, wheeled and tracked, and helicopters too !

  20. SapperK9 permalink
    November 8, 2009 8:58 am

    John Monash…

    http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWmonash.htm

    When he died in 1931 and Australia’s population was but 5 million across a continent, some 300,000 people attended his funeral. Quite a man, and not a pro-forma product of any standard officer academy.

    I do believe that our (Allied?) equipping is the product of constituencies and officers without dirt under their nails. Until our systems cease the bribery of bright young people with a free degree, we shall continue to suffer as our equipment is necessarily based on their personalities. Their falling for the bribery of a free degree indicates they, like our politicians, have a price.

    The IED and “asymmetric” war have ever been with us, its just that we have invented new nomenclature. Yes, they will continue, and we must be prepared, I am a little cynical about the intellect of those we employ to develop and employ our materiel preparedness.

    Our continued use of a “parade” ground as a base of training and the “Yes Sir” world of the military scares me. I note that in Hebrew there is no word for “Sir.” The validity of practising the tactics of Wellesley three centuries later is dissonant. Wasted time that is better applied to the practice of drills for the modern battlefield, but our generals like it, NCOs ape it, and politicians expect it.

    I am ever aware of:

    “Pace is protection, rapidity means surprise…Increased mobility and range entails great calls not only on endurance…but on intelligence and initiative in all ranks…A new sort of discipline is required. The ‘You’re not required to think’ variety is obsolete.”

    Then (ex RE) LtCol Percy Hobart, KBE CB DSO MC, the Royal Tank Corps tactics lecturer. Quetta – 1926 in ‘Light Division of the Future.’

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 8, 2009 8:27 am

    We have our faults but are making some progress. The Army is in better shape, but historically in a post-war period we always get on the wrong track and say “that will never happen again”. That said, I think these Hybrid Wars are here to stay, of Third World powers with First World weapons, Great Powers being afraid of nuking one another, they will look for others to do their fighting.

    I notice that Russia seems intent on attacking her weaker neighbors more, where conventional arms look attractive. But as in Chechnya, this is becoming more of a chore, and I expect that these states can follow the Arab example of using advanced missile weapons, SAMs, ATGW to even the odds more. Fear will drive this. Sure the tanks can come in, but are you willing to pay the price of a long war? Will your economy and population support this?

    I haven’t read much on Monash but Percy Hobart is our idol.

  22. SapperK9 permalink
    November 8, 2009 7:56 am

    Is the “we” the USA? If so, then its time you deployed Trophy, as have the Israelis. How many families must suffer grief before the Pentagon catches up in its effort to improve that that is extant?

    The Australian Bushmaster seems to answer the MRAP need well, as also judged by the Dutch, but the war business in the USA sees not its practical application. No, just like Trophy, prevaricate, procrastinate, and militarily masturbate, and do not buy it, just continue to practice USAcentrism (Pentocentrism?).

    I apologise if I sound negative about the USA, but my history and life are paved with the impacts of those that have not served as a Sapper at the sharp end. My only aim is to see our soldiers best equipped, in spite of the products of our pro-forma officer factories. My models of preference are Gens Percy Hobart and John Monash. Far from conformists…

  23. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 8, 2009 7:24 am

    Solomon said “Wheels are nice but they don’t work. ”

    But they are working. Just look at the numbers, which I mentioned in the earlier post, 3000 Strykers plus tens of thousands of MRAPs and Humvees. And this is ongoing in all armies not just the US, even in Russia who also have tanks in production.

    It isn’t about the vehicles capabilities so much as is practicality. Put an armored car beside an M-1 and of course there is no comparison. But the costs and speed of construction plus ease of maintenance, the wheels are more practical.

    But the same defenses, cage armor, the Trophy system which we are developing to protect the armored tank can also defend these light armored vehicles. It just makes sense for more wheels or light track, else you get a transport that is too overloaded to move.

  24. SapperK9 permalink
    November 7, 2009 10:09 pm

    The fuel consumption of the M1 is not news, fairly ancient history. By comparison to Challenger, Merkava and Leopard it is more inefficient by a factor of three. How about the US procures more efficient tanks? One designed for the 80s against the soviets is bound to be an encumbrance.

    Notwithstanding the Israeli Namer Heavy APC (HAPC) which is a tool used in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, a method used by the Brits in Aden prior to their decamping half a century ago was to seal all roads and tracks. Outcome, any excavation immediately evident.

    But what intrigues me most is the failure to optimise biology, primarily dogs. The Israeli Oketz unit is a fine model that optimises this tool. It appears western militaries have a fixation with hardware and a function button. This given that the olfactory sensitivity of a dog has been crudely indicated as three molecules in an Olympic swimming pool!

    I’ve read somewhere of the Joint IED Organisation consuming three billion dollars over the past two years in the USA alone. I can only imagine what sort of a K9 effort that that might mobilise to save lives and limbs. Or does my old sapper cynicism see that this might take funds from a workshop floor (and hence ‘industry’) and place it in the hands of animal trainers and Detection Dog Handlers?

    Have we yet tried birds as observers? Anything, especially forgotten biology and not just technology, must be on the table and trialled. Our Diggers (I’m Australian) and their families and loved ones deserve no less, but it would appear that our generals lack imagination and the will and capacity to think outside of the envelope.

    Perhaps the “system” that produces them is more to blame than the personalities…

    “I don’t care a damn for your loyal service when you think I am right; when I really want it most is when you think I am wrong!” General Sir John Monash

  25. November 7, 2009 7:28 pm

    Still some unfinished business. The procurement of the Stryker was criminal. Those involved need to be investigated for fraud.

    Armor still has its place. The rush up to and through Baghdad in 2003 would have been a bloodbath without the Brad and the Abrams.

  26. November 7, 2009 5:06 pm

    You had it right in your first paragraph. Road bound. If you’re traveling up and down MSR’s all day then you’re going to get nailed. Try and conduct operations from those same roads and you’re asking for trouble. The problem with the Stryker Brigades is that they’ve caused the Army to lose focus on traditional Infantry formations.

    Afghanistan is an Infantry war. Not Mechanized or Motorized Infantry but Infantry.

    Your issue with the Abrams is misplaced too. APU’s have solved the idle issue to a degree and an even better solution is the re-engine concept being pushed by many to get the German MTU compact diesel engine installed. Same horsepower but in a relatively economically viable engine.

    There is nothing magical, transformational or cutting edge about Motorized Infantry…its a reversion to a type of operations that was discredited by the Army in the 1950’s. Wheels are nice but they don’t work. Remember the Army’s experiments from the 80’s???? They tried all this with the 9th Infantry Division already.

  27. Mrs. Davis permalink
    November 7, 2009 3:40 pm

    Rumsfeld had Afghanistan right. What he had wrong was not declaring victory and withdrawing after Tora Bora. Our war now makes as much sense as invading the United States through West Virginia. Just be sure to let them know on the way out that we’ll be back again if necessary, but not as Mr. Niceguy.

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