Toward an Armorless Army Pt 1
Gregg Grant at DoD Buzz, provides details of a report from RAND analyst David Johnson titled “Military Capabilities for the Hybrid War: Insight from the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon and Gaza” (pdf). The piece sums up the IDF’s own conclusions why her armor failed in the 2006 Lebanon War with the terrorist oragnization Hezbollah:
Before summer 2006, the IDF believed its future was fighting Palestinian terrorists, so, big cuts were made in funding for combined arms training, particularly in the heavy armored units. Air Force forward air controllers were removed from ground brigades. Counterterror operations in the West Bank and Gaza were highly centralized affairs, with the active involvement of Israeli leaders at the highest levels, which over the years had a stifling effect on small unit initiative.
I personally believe this is the wrong conclusion. Though Israel may have increased her anti-terrorism operations, she was still essentially an army married to the old way of warfare, meaning heavy armor tactics. During the crisis with Hezbollah, she sent her tanks ahead of the infantry, much as she did in 1967, and again in 1973. Since this was the first enemy since 1973 who really stood up to her previously invincible armor, it took a long time to remind themselves of this inconvenient fact.
Most experts contend the 1973 October War, fought during the Jewish Holiday of Yom Kippur, is a turning point in warfare. Introducing the guided missile for the first time in a major way, I would go further to say it spelled the death knell of the armored tank and the manned jet fighter.
Nearly 40 years later, how can I make such a claim, since the tank, the fighter jet are still with us, used constantly in warfare, and seem as powerful as ever? Well, some things take a long time to die, and the fact is there has been no peer on peer conflict, that the Soviet Union vanished without war between the superpowers, plus that most of our enemies since then, those of Israel and the West, have been low tech Insurgents, terrorists and suicide bombers.
Yom Kippur doomed the tank and the jet by forcing those weapons to become heavier, with extremely complicated defensive equipment and tactics. Today, it isn’t enough for a fighter to fly over enemy territory and drop its bombs. It must be preceded by specialized EW planes, anti-radar missiles, guided overhead by AWACS planes, often preceded by new unmanned aerial vehicles as the Israelis used over the Beqaa Valley and Operation Desert Storm. America also builds extremely costly and complicated stealth jets, prohibitive to most nations and even the Navy and Marine Corps, which has effected her own operating forces severely. In the last 20 years the USAF has built only about 200 new fighter jets, despite being in consistent and often major combat, certainly a self-induced obsolescence for a global military .
The tank today is an armored giant, with tons of armor, reducing its mobility, and the places it can traverse. If this wasn’t enough, very expensive add-ons are required such as active and reactive armor, also Chobham whose exact makings are a closely guarded state secret. Newer defenses such as Trophy active armor use sophisticated radar and “buckshot” pellets to protect the tank in close confined population centers. Specifically, protecting the tank is stretching the scientific and industrial capacity of world militaries, while its usefulness is waning.
Put bluntly, even though these weapons are still being used, they are now so expensive, hard to build, nearly impossible to replace, they are no more practical. At the same time are cheaper, more practical weapons, being used, bought in sizable numbers, and used more and more in place of the older platforms. These are the UAVs mentioned, plus new light armored vehicles useful in major combat and especially COIN warfare. Powerful man-portable anti-tank weapons are continually being developed, putting the armor at greater risk, but also an alternative to the tank’s heavy gun for blasting through strongholds.
Admittedly, all platforms are at risk from the same missile weapons that is forcing obsolescence on the tank and fighter. Yet, the smaller weapons are just a little more maneuverable, a little faster, not enough to run from the missile but to stay out of harm’s way from whomever is firing the man-portable weapons. Even better, they can be built in sizable numbers, offering many targets for an attacker contend with. Quantity then increases the survivability, but also the likelihood the intended target can hit back.
Having been so successful contending with numerous foes, as she was fighting for her life constantly since 1948, Israel still struggles with the less well-armed enemy insurgents, dedicated to her destruction. When she was fighting the conventional forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, the IAF was unbeatable, and inspired the world with her courage and ingenuity. Today, she is mired in Lebanon, in the West Bank, still looking to similar conventional tactics and armament to save her.
The presumed need to relearn basic armor skills becomes instead an excuse for “let’s continue doing the same tactics, only more of them”. Better had it been if the Israelis had chosen the Stryker vehicles, which is even less survivable in a stand up fight with missiles. No, that last sentence is not a misprint because the beauty of Stryker is you naturally think “I’d better deploy my infantry ahead of me or I’m going to die”. It is a mindset that there must be codependency between the platforms and the soldiers. In other words, the combined arms mindset comes naturally.
After all the hard won lessons the American troops have fought and died for in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army really should ignore the Johnson report, whether Israel stays the course or not. As Tom Ricks points out commenting on the same report:
“I do think that this piece is something the Army wants to hear…”
” the tendency of the U.S. Army is to lean too much toward conventional capabilities”
Tomorrow-Learning the right lessons.