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Toward an Armorless Army Pt 2

April 27, 2010

Tanks in retirement at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The principle rationale for the reluctance to reduce the emphasis on heavy forces in the standing army is the fear of being unprepared for a classical-style mechanized war.Over the years this line of reasoning has dominated the resistance to change. It pre-supposes an old-style enemy must be fought in the old way: mass on mass. But if the emergence of precision-guided weapons and networked sensors and communications has taught us anything at all, the lesson should be the bigger the old-style force, the harder it will fall to the new way of war. Many senior military leaders will acknowledge this, but entrenched habits of mind and institutional interests are highly resistant to change, even though the need for radical reform of the army is now urgent.

John Arquilla writing in “Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military

A tank with all its armor, and gee whiz sophisticated defense has a mindset that nothing can defeat it. It will knock down the door and all with follow. But any well armed and trained infantry can stand up to a tank, no matter how good the latter is. This has been proven in all wars, since the armored behemoth’s inception. Here’s Gregg Grant at DoD Buzz with more commentary from RAND analyst David Johnson (pdf) who thinks the US Army should adopt Israeli’s lessons from the 2006 Lebanon War:

The 2008 Gaza operation was intended largely to restore the credibility of the IDF as a deterrent, Johnson says, so there was enormous pressure to perform at a high level. Not surprisingly, they used their best units, backed by lots of artillery, attack helicopters and bombers.

My response after Gaza:

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 did’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… is within low-threat environments such as Georgia and the Gaza Strip where the defenders were mostly unprepared for a full-scale blitzkrieg.


Johnson wants a return for greater training in “combined arms”. I get the impression he means “the tank is still king”, and the IDF apparently agrees with this idea. Even though the Israel’s Merkava tank is still the world’s most powerful, keeping it that way will not be easy, and it is questionable if it is worth it all:

Heavy forces—based on tanks and infantry fighting vehicles—are key elements of any force that will fight hybrid enemies that have a modicum of training, organization, and advanced weapons (e.g., ATGMs and MANPADS). Light and medium forces can complement heavy forces, particularly in urban and other complex terrain, but they do not provide the survivability, lethality, or mobility inherent in heavy forces. Quite simply, heavy forces reduce operational risks and minimize friendly casualties.

A very expensive answer to a low tech problem, but there is a better way, and the American Military seems to have the answer, according to Greg Grant:

I had a recent conversation with a Pentagon official who told me of work he had been doing with the IDF on future south Lebanon scenarios. He urged IDF commanders to make greater use of helicopters and air-mobility for deep insertion to maneuver Hezbollah out of their entrenched positions along the border.

They were also offered the Stryker years ago, which has served the US so well in Iraq, but turned it down. The Israeli’s are determined to shape the new warfare in their own image:

The Israelis don’t want a large helicopter fleet, he said, they consider them too maintenance intensive. They want tanks and they want to do a frontal assault on Hezbollah. For the IDF, the tank is king. Which, in part, explains their eagerness to deploy the Trophy active-protection system on their Merkava main battle tanks.


Thankfully, the US Army has its own ideas on fighting Hybrid Wars, and they seem to be the correct plans. At the Center for Defense Studies, Tom Donnelly posts a recent visit with 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, on its way to Afghanistan. Well learned in the Army is the saying “train as you fight”:

But the regiment long ago traded its M1s and Bradleys, first for Humvees and now for Strykers — hardly a Thunder-Run-style ride.  And they were preparing for a counterinsurgency mission in southern Afghanistan rather than the clash of chariots with the 8th Guards Army.

The experience was a snapshot of an army in the throes of a real change of mission, not simply adapting to an unexpected contingency.  And the biggest change of all may not be the shift from a service dominated by tankers to a service dominated by light, heliborne and airborne infantry, but a service dominated by medium-weight, mounted-but-not heavy forces and concepts of operations.

The old LAVs are also readily adaptable to the new information warfare, without the need of “reinventing the wheel”, as was the planned Future Combat Systems, mercifully killed by Defense Secretary Gates:

Stryker units have been the first to employ the suite of “Land Warrior” gizmo’s, and though the first iterations of this gear have been heavy and unwieldy, that will improve.  Infantrymen are at last becoming equipped like fighter pilots, and considering that they are almost always the difference between defeat and victory, it’s about time.

We see in these small units, LAVs and Stryker’s the birth of a new era of warfare. While the tank has been with us for most of the last century, it has faced a continuous challenge from smaller weapons, man-portable or not, that threatened its survival, like guns, missiles, rockets, mortars, mines, and aerial bombs. We recall at Cambrai 1917, the first large scale use of tanks in warfare, yet mostly forgotten is the first use of anti-tank weapons and tactics in this battle, and also the future doom of mass armor which has been in urban warfare.

Though the track behemoths has mostly weathered these threats to its existence, the production of new vehicles has virtually ceased in the West, though older updated models will be around for some time.  Hopefully, future strategists might grasp the logic, that with the enormous expense and vast resources devoted to keep the tank viable in a new era, maybe this same new infantry and light armor is enough for all our needs, without the extreme costs, and massive logistics burden which last-century heavy mechanized warfare brings with it.


16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2010 6:51 pm

    Gents..not all terrain will be mountainous (Afghanistan)…not all terrain will be rural and constricted (Lebanon)…some of that terrain will be wide open…but regardless of the terrain, the Infantry needs tanks to survive and tanks need Infantry.

    What we’re really having is the great debate. By the discussion that we’re having now, we’re really talking about whether a highly competent force is all the US needs.

    If that’s the case then only SOCOM should exist and every other service should be disbanded. If you believe that an infantry force can defeat tanks then you’re only seeing a small part of the picture.

    Guys on the ground are called crunchies by tankers for a reason. They can be overwhelmed…think battle of the bulge. Think Thunder run in Iraq.

    Highly mobile Armor formation are a beast. If fortifications and ambush sites can be pre planned then yes, Infantry can make a great showing. If those positions are hasty then Infantry is going to have a bad day.

    But don’t take my word for it. Get a visitors pass and go to an Army or Marine Base and watch an exercise. Tanks are not my cup of tea but they are to be respected and they won’t fade from our inventory in my life time.

  2. April 27, 2010 3:46 pm

    MattR said “Look at how easily the Taliban move around Afghanistan on motorbikes and pickup trucks, compared to how ponderous MRAPs are. The Taliban flow, whilst we trundle.

    Between “Taliban” and “move” please insert “who know where all the IEDs are”. :)

    You are right though. Safer means heavier and this means fewer routes. I like the idea of using discrete track system like Matt Tracks to improve MRAP manoeuvrability or adopting a platform like the Serbian LAZAR.

  3. April 27, 2010 3:42 pm

    MattR said “[I’m so glad this is a virtual forum not a physical space, or right now I’d be putting on my running shoes and bolting ;o). If you don’t like my tank ramblings, I’ve also got some great ideas about strapping rockets to Cyotes on rollerskates.]”

    No way!! We all friends here. You said some interesting stuff.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 27, 2010 2:37 pm

    MatR wrote “I’m not going to be popular for this, but here goes!”

    On the contrary, your candor is much welcome!

  5. MatR permalink
    April 27, 2010 2:17 pm

    I’m not going to be popular for this, but here goes! –

    I’ve just been reading a book called ‘Armoured Fist’, and a few other books on armoured warfare (it made it easier that they had big, colourful pictures…). In WW2, Panzer pioneers Guderian and Rommel both seemed to think that the days of the tank were numbered once Germany moved to defensive warfare (if I wasn’t lazy, I’d dig out their quotes from the book).

    Once things went bad from ’43 onwards, it seemed that both men generally argued for defence in depth, swarming, multiple platforms (preferring the capability of ten anti-tank guns – together with their motorised carriages – to one tank that cost the same amount to produce and maintain), as well as early man portable anti-tank missiles. They did argue for tanks as mobile reserves, but on a much smaller scale. It was surprisingly ‘networked’ and fluid. Of course, Hitler didn’t let them have it, but when it came down to scarce resources, the great champions of tank warfare opted for dispursed, smaller, less expensive assets than tanks. I set great store by that.

    Tanks will survive, and they have uses, but I think that multiple assets have a quality all of their own. They can persist. They can hide more easily. They’re way cheaper. And with a smaller size and weight, they can operate in more varied terrain. I live in a small village in the middle of nowhere, and you simply couldn’t get a tank on any of the roads around here, or the hillsides. A Landrover or Cv90 would work fine, though (or one of the old Scimitars or Spartans). Look at how easily the Taliban move around Afghanistan on motorbikes and pickup trucks, compared to how ponderous MRAPs are. The Taliban flow, whilst we trundle.

    And, in any kind of manouver warfare, air power generally trumps armoured vehicles. The US implicitly recognised this when it designed the A10. At best, aircraft severely restrict tanks’ abilities to move and operate – just as the Typhoons and Thunderbolts did in Europe in ’44 and ’45, where they decimated Panzers. Today, one fighter bomber or CAS aircraft can shred a good part of an armoured column, if it uses pgms, cannon or cluster munitions. The fighter’s expensive, but the overall effect is cheap because it works so well. Yes, tanks were useful in the Gulf Wars of ’91 and ’03, but airpower did the real damage. It wasn’t tanks that caused the horrific carnage to retreating Iraqi columns as they left Kuwait, and it wasn’t tanks that broke the back of the Iraqi army.

    I’d go even further, by arguing that air power is increasingly morphing into cheap-to-produce, cheap-to-use drones, smart missiles and other types of PGM. Multiple assets that get carried around on, and launched from, cheap trucks and four wheel drive vehicles. With technology like the Israeli Jumper missile or Javelin missile being so cheap for the effect they achieve – or the Switchblade UAV/Munition etc – I think tanks look pretty vulnerable. With small exceptions, a tank can only kill what it sees, line of sight (I know some have mortars and wire-guided missiles). The best weapons today don’t need to get line of sight from the launching platform to achieve a kill, so they have at least that advantage over a tank.

    I’d say that, in general, smaller, multiple assets are the way to go, almost inevitably.

    [I’m so glad this is a virtual forum not a physical space, or right now I’d be putting on my running shoes and bolting ;o). If you don’t like my tank ramblings, I’ve also got some great ideas about strapping rockets to Cyotes on rollerskates.]

  6. April 27, 2010 2:11 pm

    One last thing. Have you read the book “Thunder Run” about US amour in the assault on Baghdad?

  7. April 27, 2010 2:06 pm

    Think Defence said “Whilst the crew might have been sitting inside with a brew (cup of tea) ”

    “If in danger or if in doubt get the brew can out!”

  8. April 27, 2010 2:00 pm

    “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 did’t fair too well.”

    Oh come on!!!!! I don’t have the figures on this computer but I think IDF tank (and armour) losses to ATGM and mine were about a dozen or so.

    And did Hezbollah really win? The Israelis went were they wanted and did what they wanted un impeded. Hezbollah’s idea of victory is still being able to make a YouTube video the day after the shooting stops. Now I will admit that the IDF performance wasn’t spectacular, but it was far from poor. Imagine the headlines if the IDF flattened village after village????

    This reminds of that piece the BBC did showing Hezbollah fighters back from the fighting. And they were all pot bellied blokes in their late forties and older who looked like they would struggle to walk to the shops let alone spend a week in the field against one of the world’s best armies whose soldiers have an average age of 20.

  9. Jed permalink
    April 27, 2010 11:32 am

    Mike said: “The fact is, an infantry army in Lebanon stood up to the tank in 2006. Why should we fear having to do the same in the future? ”

    Erm, because in most peoples reckoning, in the end it failed ! (the “infantry army’ that is).

    Mike also said: “Why bankrupt ourselves and strain our resources to the breaking point for something that we may no longer need?”

    Mmm’ your contradicting your self, you pointed out in an earlier argument that the US or UK have not bought any NEW MBT’s in years ! Also you say MAY no longer, need, but there again we MAY indeed need them for so called ‘brush fire wars’ – thus ThinkDefence’s comments about quite imaginative use by the British in Basra, the heavy use by the US Army and US Marines in various cities in norther Iraq, and the current use by the Danes and others in Afghanistan.

    Again, I am not dismissing all of your comments / arguments, I am saying choose the right tool for the right job, and the MBT is still a tool that should be in your tool box !!

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 27, 2010 11:11 am

    Think Defence-Sure the tanks will be around a while longer, but again tell me how many tanks have the UK and US purchased in the last decade as compared to LAVs?

    Solomon, I hear what you are saying but notice that every point you brought up was either supposition, opinion, or fear of what “might” happen. The fact is, an infantry army in Lebanon stood up to the tank in 2006. Why should we fear having to do the same in the future? Why bankrupt ourselves and strain our resources to the breaking point for something that we may no longer need?

    Finally, I just can’t see all the funds we are spending upgrading the defenses of the tank, then say they are needed in Brush Fire wars against suicide bombers. It makes no sense in a practical or economical sense. We will survive.

  11. Hudson permalink
    April 27, 2010 10:29 am

    Once the IDF decided to send troops and armor into Lebanon in 2006, the path of attack was well known to them and to Hezbollah, because of the shape of Lebanon. It’s true that some tank units became separated from infantry and took multiple hits from ambush teams in the mountains. Overall though, Israel suffered far fewer tank losses in ’06 than in the Sinai in ’73.

    What Israel should have done was to strike just south of the Litani River in a air-sea operation, as MacArthur did at Inchon, and drive south, crushing Hezbollah in a classic pincer movement. It lacked either the resources or the imagination to do such a thing. Still, the IDF inflicted heavy losses on Hezbollah and did considerable damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure. Lebanon today is occupied by UNIFIL forces. When Israel struck back at Hamas in Gaza in 08-09, Hezbollah offered its apologies to Hamas, saying that its hands were tied.

  12. Joe K. permalink
    April 27, 2010 9:20 am

    Mike, your last comment about the lack of production for new tanks is deceptive and misleading. The reason the U.S. hasn’t consistently built more M1 tanks is because the losses haven’t justified new purchases. And it’s not because the U.S. military doesn’t like the M1; it’s because the M1 has done so well.

    Don’t you think you should praise the U.S. military for designing a weapon that is so capable and reliable that they don’t need to keep on buying more and more and more?

  13. Jed permalink
    April 27, 2010 9:07 am

    I think the famous Challenger 2 incident is a good one to point out, but I think it took two ‘Sagger’ wire guided missiles, not Milan’s. Point being, it was stuck in bad terrain, it had no modern ‘urban upgrade kit’ as applied to some US M1A1’s, so it lost its might sights and optics, and I believe its main armament was damaged by one of those wire guided missiles, and its co-ax and commanders MG’s damanged by RPG hits, etc and yet not a single round penetrated it’s armour, and although from the documentary I watched about this, I don’t think the crew were calmly brewing a ‘cuppa’ – they were indeed rescued completely unscathed.

    The answer to this is to add protective armour covers to optics, to add ‘rear’ view CCD camera’s with night vision (because that’s how they got stuck and shed the track) and to enhance the vehicles in other ways (like the Merkava’s 60mm mortar perhaps) NOT to ditch the modern MBT in favour of wheeled vehicles with ‘paper thin’ armour ! Use the right vehicle for the right job.

    By the way, the Israeli’s might have got burnt by Hezbollah last time, but the Israeli army is not stupid by a long way, if they think Merkeva Mk4 and the heavy APC’s based on it are the way to go, then they should not be dismissed for not being ‘trendy’.

  14. April 27, 2010 8:21 am

    People have been predicting the tanks demise since it first rolled over the trenches.

    Nothing else compares to its firepower, mobility and survivability. The UK used them in Basra in what you might have described as an asymmetric conflict. not everyday, not everywhere but with precision. A Challenger 2 that threw a track (I think) took 9 RPG7 and a couple of Milan hits and before it was recovered and repaired. Whilst the crew might have been sitting inside with a brew (cup of tea) and worrying about the laundry bill the fact is they walked away. Compare the cost in terms of training, welfare, medical etc of 4 crew that walked away with 4 killed or badly injured crew.

    Looks like value for money to me

    There is no doubt that there is less of a need for MBT’s now and in the near future with a modification in doctrine and some sensible force reduction could be accepted but if you really know what is going to happen in the future can I have next weeks lottery numbers please !!

  15. April 27, 2010 7:53 am

    Strykers have no off road mobility, will be stuck on MSR and will be channeled and killed relatively easily.

    The issue with the West’s way of war is that we seek to minimize civilian casualties. The tank is effective in our limited approach to warfare as in Infantry Support Vehicle. But the day will come when unrestricted warfare will require large forces of heavily armored vehicles leading the way.

    Also remember this. The Israelis’ suffered from a series of complex ambushes with tanks absorbing as many as 10 hits from anti-tank weapons and still surviving to be placed back into service.

    If a Stryker is hit with an anti-tank missile, then its destruction is assured….add the cost of the Service Mans Group Life insurance to the cost of the vehicle and one Stryker destroyed is equal to about 3 Abrams main battle tanks.

    The tank will survive.


  1. Byzantine Lessons in Hybrid War Pt 2 « New Wars

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