The Army still needs tanks

Top officers extol tanks’ virtues (subscription only)
Current operations affirm armor’s worth, leaders say

The transformation of the Army continues. It’s just that part of the transformation involves keeping the M-1 Abrams main battle tank production lines open for an extra eight years.

Fort KNOX, Ky. — The armor community is alive and well and the 70-ton Abrams tank has a bright future on the urban battlefield, even in a force moving increasingly toward lighter, more mobile fighting platforms, Army leaders said.

“Without tanks, we don’t have combined arms,” said Gen. B.B. Bell, commanding general of Eighth U.S. Army Korea, who spoke to a packed auditorium May 18 during this year’s Armor Warfighting Symposium about tank successes on the Iraq battlefield.

Bell emphasized the tank’s important role in a complicated fight, pointing to its decades-old lethality, ability to adapt to open terrain and urban settings, the survivability factor for crews, and the fact that a heavy-armor task force can be deployed in as little as 96 hours.

Bell points out that urban operations are nothing new for the Army, and that tanks are major part of our ability to be successful in the cities. Tanks led the way during the initial invasion and have been prominent weapons in nearly every major operation as well as important in the day-to-day mission.

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Richard Cody pointed out that the Army was not really prepared for modern warfare before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It was under-trained, under-equipped, and in a generally-poor state of maintenance. But war has changed that to a great extent, and the place of the tank in the new and improved US Army has been re-thought.

“The opportunity to invest came to fruition when we went to war,” [Col. Larry Hollingsworth, Heavy Brigade Combat Team project manager] said. “It became apparent to people that the risks you could assume with your force during a peacetime environment were very different from the risks you could assume during wartime.”

“If you’re not going to fight with tanks and Bradleys, you may not want to invest in them the same way as if you were going to have to roll them into Baghdad. I think that’s what our entire Army has seen,” Hollingsworth said.

Note the machine gun shield with ballistic glass in the pictured M1A1 (pic from DoD). This is a recent addition to the old warhorse which increases protection while maintaining vital sight lines for the man on the gun. Other improvements for the M1, collectively known as the TUSK program (“Tank Urban Survival Kit”), are in the pipeline to transform our tanks into even more lethal monsters on today’s battlefields, also known quaintly as “cities”. Many times “transformation” isn’t revolutionary but instead incremental.

It’s not been just tanks, either, that have had their worth re-evaluated lately. It’s also been the B-52 bomber, the A-10 attack plane, the 7.62x51mm rifle round, the M79 “blooper” grenade launcher, and many other systems, most of which are considered “old school” and had been slated for retirement. Some had already been put out to pasture but rushed back into service when the need arose. Sometimes it is because new gee-whiz gadgets don’t work as expected, and we could have worse problems than to learn that the systems we already have are the ones we need.

cross-posted to Defense Tech


  1. No weapon is ever truely obsolete. And there has been no new tactics since Sun Tzu, just changes in which where in acendance…

  2. I’m sorry General Bell, but rapid deployment is not a strong point of the M1A1 tank. Indeed, it has been its death knell. You fit one on a C-5 and squeeze one onto a C-17. They are too heavy to be shipped via rail in much of the world because bridges aren’t strong enough. Until the military gets more high speed sea lift, you are generally talking several weeks, not 96 hours, to get any significant number of them deployed. Even with high speed sea lift, they are generally loaded onto rail cars, delivered that way to a port, loaded onto a ship, sailed for weeks to a destination, unloaded at an improved port already secured by other forces or in friendly hands, and then driven, with a long supply line to its destination. Furthermore, an M1 tank has a long supply line, because its gas turbine engines with about 0.5 mpg, need lots of vulnerable fuel shipments (a key factor that impacted perilous convoy demands early in the Iraq War). They are also ill suited for combat in mountainous terrain to the point that troops serving in Kosovo uses fewer of them than planned, and have serious limitations in many urban roles — for example, in narrow streets, and until TUSK came along, in not providing protection for secondary gunners. The M1 tank was designed to fight other tanks during the Cold War in the open plains of the Fulda Gap against a Soviet invasion, possibly with non-conventional weapons, where there were clear front lines and the tanks were deployed well in advance of the conflict. The engineers did an excellent job of fulfilling this requirement. But, in the Gulf War and Iraq War, Bradleys with TOWs killed more Iraqi tanks than the M1, and a significant number of Iraqi tanks were also killed by the overperforming A-10 with Maverick missiles, and by the AH-64 with Hellfire Missiles (although the Apache underperformed). A 100 pound missile can kill a 70 ton tank, and tactics oriented around reality have been used in some of the wars with Israel. This isn’t to say that the M1 doesn’t do a good job of killing enemy tanks in open terrain. It does. But, it isn’t the only game in town for that mission, indeed, did a surprisingly small share of that job in the two wars in Iraq, and the M1s would have been in trouble had the U.S. and its allies not first secured air power dominance. And, while many of the 120mm round are optimal for killing enemy tanks, and efforts have been made to develop new ammunition choices to use against other targets, for troops in Iraq a 120mm is really more punch than desired which can cause collateral damage. The Army doesn’t believe General Bell either. It wants fewer tanks and fewer artillery and it is right in that desire. It isn’t that there isn’t a niche for the worlds heaviest most lethal tank. It is simply that the niche is far narrower in light of developments in the world military situation like the end of the Cold War, than planners initially expected that it would be. The U.S. military has far more main battle tanks than it needs right now, about 4,800 give or take. For example, there are about 650 in Iraq now, even though far more than a sixth of the Army is there.

  3. Bullshit. ‘the Army was not really prepared for modern warfare before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It was under-trained, under-equipped, and in a generally-poor state of maintenance. ‘ Bullshit. Sounds like the decepticons are still playing ‘pin the blame on Clinton.’ An honest person would have been: ‘the army was not really prepared for large scale Counterinsurgancy, and particularly urban counter-insurgency before the Iraq invasion in 2003. It was under-manned, under-trained, and under-equipped.’ But when a bunch of incompetants are in charge, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you could have changed it into with 2 1/2 years of lead time. And Dumbsfeld…lets remember what he meant by ‘faster and lighter’ meant- he meant less armor, more airpower. Of course he’s an idiot. Armor is a vital component in a ground unit as ever. Just look at the Isrealis…

  4. Bullshit. ‘the Army was not really prepared for modern warfare before the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It was under-trained, under-equipped, and in a generally-poor state of maintenance. ‘ Bullshit.‘ You’re saying that the Army WAS ‘really prepared for modern warfare before the 9/11 attacks in 2001’? So the Army that ‘Dumbsfeld’ couldn’t get ready in 2 1/2 years was ready 2 /12 years before the invasion of Iraq. Do you have any idea why it’s hard to take your comments seriously?

  5. Jdams and gps. The digital battlefield. Those came into force under Clinton. Before Iraq, ‘modern warfare’ did not include a significant counter insurgency aspect. Bush changed that. Suddenly our army that was ready, was not. Our army, capable of defeating any foe, suddenly was not. Simple enough for you?

  6. Right wrong or indifferent, maybe your view on the Iraq conflict, but IMO the Iraq conflict saved the military from itself. Without the reality test of actual combat – the army would of gone whole hog down the path of ‘transformation’ – basically replacing their heavy armor with light vehicals with sistuational awarness armor. Without the reality test of actual combat, the airforce may gotten its way and tossed the A-10, and gained control of the ‘UAV’s’ thus damning them to narrow roles of little use or being confined to endless R&D trails. Without the reality test of actual combat, the Navy…. well nah they are still having their collective heads wedged deep somewhere the sun does not shine. At least the demands of war is limiting the Navy’s access to funds. At least the damage is mitigated. Random factoid – The price of 1 DD(X) is roughly the value of the DD(X) if the DD(X) was made of solid silver.

  7. I’m not convinced that Strykers are really the right thing for urban combat either. They certainly have their role, but I don’t think they’re very good combat vehicles as such. Not enough protection and not enough firepower, and they barely solve the mobility problems of the Abrams, since their turning circle is rather large. I bet Buckethead would like what I would propose as an urban combat vehicle – a heavily armoured remote-controlled tank with a largish (say 80mm) cannon with an autoloader containing HE and beehive rounds, a coaxial 20mm/25mm cannon and a 7.62 or 12.7mm machine gun. All operated by remote control from inside an armoured vehicle nearby. Perhaps one per squad of infantry, fighting alongside them. It would be much smaller than an M1, so more maneuverable and less fuel-hungry, armament better suited for an urban environment, since they’re smaller and cheaper you can have more of them in order to face multiple threats, and since they’re unmanned IEDs and RPGs are not much of a threat, other than a financial one.

  8. I would definately disagree with our army being ‘under-trained, under-equipped’ prior to 9/11 part. I don’t see it as being under trained so much as not being trained-in and being not-perfectly-equipped to fight an urban conflict. I still believe that if we had used the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force we would not be having this discussion today. That aside, history shows that the US(and other countries as well) has been illprepared for most of it’s conflicts but somehow makes due. As for tanks, I would say that they are indeed useful in urban warfare and has lots of uses. First off, from a psychological point of view it’s a monster. More practically though, it is a moving fortress. While it is true you can destroy one, you can destroy almost any other ground vehicle easier. I would be interested in seeing the number of direct-hit IED attacks on various vehicles with the number of vehicles destroyed(as a percentage of course). Second, as for the 120mm gun being more firepower than needed. In most cases I would agree. But air strikes are still called in a lot. So with a tank there you have an instantaneous heavy weapon that can strike, survey the damage, and strike again with minimal wait time. But most of our ascertians are just ideas and things WE, the arm-chair(keyboard?) general, believe to be true. I would be interested in a poll or survey of the troops on the ground to see how they like and/or make(or not make) best use of the tank in an urban environment.

  9. I would disagree with the remote controlled urban tank. Remote can be jammed or spoofed. Plus it leaves the vehical open to computer virus attack. I would prefer an armored tank with a (2) man armored crew capsul. The crew would view the outside world through helmet controled 360 multi-spectral imagers. For urban combat 75 or 88 mm main gun sounds right + 12.7 secondary Toss in a 16 barrel metal storm 40mm launcher and light 60mm auto- morter.

  10. Computer virus attack? Dude you’ve watched Indepdendence Day one too many times. It could be jammed, but if you use multiple channels, have frequency hopping, and have line-of-sight/cable back-ups, it should be pretty reliable. The type of enemies being fought in fourth generational warfare are lucky to be able to work out how to detonate an IED. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell they’ll work out how to jam the signals unless a major country is backing them. And I’m confidence that’s one arms race the US could stay in front of. Signal processing is one of the US’s strong suits. Still, your ideas have merit.

  11. Nicholas Maybe you should watch independence day… Wireless networks are the most vulnerable of computer systems. I would hate to have a system the relies on the opponent to be computer stupid. ‘On July 30, 2001, in recognitino of the exploitable vulnerabilities that wireless devices introduced to Pentagon area facilities and networks, a moratorium was placed upon the installation of telecommunications network infrastructure to support wireless services. This moratorium continues in effect until security vulnerabilities are fully assessed, a wireless design for the Pentagon is developed, and appropriate policies and procedures are established to support the responsible introduction of wireless technologies in Pentagon and swing space facilities and common IT networks… John P Stenbit – Assistant Secretary of Defense’

  12. I was reading something interesting about the next military radios. Apparently using digital technology you can send part of a radio wave… a fraction of one of those oscilations. And the next part you would send on a different frequency. and to anyone listening, its just random static. Unless you have the timing chip, which lets you pick the right bits off the air to make a message unit. Then you could run the message through your sim card (like in your cell phone) to actually decrypt it. I think we can make a hacker proof system. Not a spy proof system, but a hacker proof system. Radio jamming though might be able to render it useless, but if we have air superiority a radio jammer is a great target.. Clearly Iraq wont present that level of challenge. An invasion of china might… prior to the invasion, each unit gets issued new sim cards…

  13. Aaron, this time you are right… almost. When in the military, I have learned that US is already using this kind of radios, which are changing the frequency very fast, so you cannot track or triangulate the emitter. There are other techniques that compress the message (like the zip), and send it in an extremely short period of time. If you do not have the adequate equipment to decompress this message, you do not understand anything. It seems that the British submarine that sunk the Argentinian battleship used this system, to inform London and ask for attack permission. All the radio communication lasted only few seconds. As everybody knows, it is crucial for an attack submarine to remain silent. So it seems this kind of radio is not new, is at least 25 years old.

  14. While I’m confident in our radio-type technology, I am not sure that in the short term we could make a really good remote tank. (Five years.) On the other hand, we couldn’t make a new manned tank in five years, so I guess its a moot point. I read recently a book by John Birmingham, called Designated Targets. Its a sequel to Weapons of Choice, and the middle of a trilogy where a US-led battlegroup from 2021 gets thrown back to 1941, right in the middle of, uh, Midway. Highly recommended, btw. Anyways, in the 2nd book, he features an M1A3, an urban-combat modified Abrams. Basically, the turret is heavily modified. There’s a shorter main gun that can fire a wide variety of highly effective anti-personnel weapons. Like hyper-velocity grapeshot, and so on. Also, there is a superfluity of secondary weapons – Metalstorm pods, grenade launchers, caseless ammo machine guns, etc. These are controlled from within the tank. Also, its tied into more evolved tacnets for better C3ISR. Finally, I believe it also had defensive capabilities to protect against mortars, RPGs, and so on. They weren’t described in the book much, but fifteen years of development would probably yield something like that. An urban combat tank would need less in the way of speed and more in the way of firepower – and many kinds of firepower. I think that going that route could be useful – and it needn’t be the M1. Brads, Strykers, or almost any platform could be the starting point for something like this. And eventually, we have Bolos.

  15. And I forgot to mention that I was struck by how close Nicholas’ and Birmingham’s ideas were. And yes, I do like the idea of robot tanks. However, a remote controlled tank is not as inherently fearsome as an autonomous killing machine controlled by a computer. Just think back to the ED-29 from Robocop: ED-29: ‘Drop your weapon.’ Muj: ED-29: ‘Drop your weapon.’ Muj: ‘I dropped it!’ ED-29: ‘Drop your weapon.’ Muj: ‘Aaaaagh’ ED-29: Muj: A friend of mine also suggested that we deploy ED-29s to the southern border.

  16. Okay, fourth comment: I put some text in angle brackets, and it disappeared. The first Muj comment was ‘Drops gun’ After the Muj says, ‘Aaaaagh’, the next Ed-29 line was ‘Fires all weapons.’ The last line was left intentionally blank.

  17. Nicholas, there are much better movie examples of computer viruses in control of complex machines doing harm to people than Independence Day, an alien invasion movie. ‘Wargames’, ‘Stealth’, ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, and all three of the Terminator movies, come immediately to mind.

  18. While I’m confident in our radio-type technology, I am not sure that in the short term we could make a really good remote tank. (Five years.) On the other hand, we couldn’t make a new manned tank in five years, so I guess its a moot point’ Personally I would be eternally grateful if the procurement system could produce anything of significance in five years. Lets start with something relatively low tech – say a combat rifle? Then let go for something really fancy like a programable cell phone.

  19. The funny thing about GEN B. B. Bell was that he was the Armor School commander in the late Clinton/Shinseki days and was leading the charge of Stryker-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else crowd. He made a rather notorious decision to take the funds from the anti-fratricide program to fund more Stryker research when it was dismally failing all its Operational Tests against tracked vehicles. There is a place for the Stryker on the battlefield, and one for the M-1 as well. With a resurgent Russia, an ever-expanding China and a less than friendly Arab world with lots of first class tanks, we will need the M-1 again. Feel like fighting M-1A2s with Stryker AGs if we have to fight for some oil fields? Not me. The Stryker is an excellent LIC platform. The problem was that the original concept of Stryker forces defeating conventional heavy forces (as proposed by Shinseki) called for too many things that don’t occur on the battlefield. It assumed we would have 100% air superiority, 100% battlefield intelligence, 100% logistics support and, most laughably of all, an Air Force with the aircraft and the commitment to provide the airlift for several brigades of Strykers. Believe in those and I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn for a very reasonable price. I’ll even throw in the fast cars and pretty girls who cross it.