Examination of the expected characteristics of the US Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) by the Congressional Budget Office in early November 2012 has sparked a debate not only about what that vehicle should be reasonably expected to look like and perform, but also about what the needs for armor are as in the Army as a whole. Fears about what problems with the GCV program could entail for the Army’s remaining Heavy Brigade Combat Teams (HBCT) miss an important question: Should we be trying to preserve them at all?
The HBCT is the product of decades of lessons learned about the interaction between armor and the forces they are expected to support. After years of the doctrine expecting the differing types of vehicles and forces to work in concert, the HBCT introduced Combined Arms Battalions, where tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and their support elements were organized together from the start. Organized together, it was felt that units would have a better understanding of such combined arms operations, being able to train regularly and be otherwise familiar with each other. Unfortunately, it has made the organization less flexible overall.
In addition to being utilized in its traditional role, since the end of the Second World War, armor has been deployed to crises to provide important capabilities despite a lack of enemy armor or other threats armor might have been otherwise expected to engage. In 1958, when the US Army intervened in Lebanon, a small contingent of M48 tanks and M42 anti-aircraft vehicles were deployed with the force, never operating above platoon strength. During the conflict in Vietnam, M48 and M551 tanks assigned to three tank battalions and numerous armored cavalry units provided dispersed support to units across the country. They rarely operated as organized and in the face of institutional reticence toward their deployment. In fact, the organic companies of 1st Battalion, 77th Armor were so rarely under its operational control that the headquarters was used to control multi-company task forces, sometimes without any armor at all. In the twilight of the Cold War, a limited number of M551 tanks were again utilized during Operation Just Cause in Panama, where, like in Lebanon, they operated at platoon strength.
In spite of these historical examples, after a decade in Afghanistan, the Army has deployed no tanks or infantry fighting vehicles there. A common retort is, as expected, that such vehicles are not broadly useful in the Afghan terrain or for the type of fighting there. This, however, stands in stark contrast to the historical record, where small amounts of armor have been deployed to support similar contingencies and have been found to be useful as a specialized capability. It is as a specialized capability that the armor can best serve the Army. This is not a new concept either. For instance, during Operation Just Cause, Lieutenant General Carl W. Stiner, at the time commander of XVIII Airborne Corps and commander of Joint Task Force – South viewed the M551s available to him as a means of providing “surgical firepower,” just like the AH-64A helicopters available to the task force.
So what to do with the HBCT? Eliminating the HBCT would not mean eliminating armor. Armor, would, however, be more useful if General Stiner’s philosophy was taken to heart. Armor could be more rapidly tailored to real world contingencies if it was grouped together and treated like a specialized asset, akin to the Army’s Combat Aviation Brigades. A similar multi-functional organization to provide armor support, a sort of Armor Support Brigade, would allow tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers to be deployed as needed, where needed, with fewer numbers of them needed overall. While there are concerns about the ability of units to be familiar with working with armor, especially infantry operating from infantry fighting vehicles, it would appear these concerns are misplaced. Training programs to rapidly familiarize units with airmobile operations and operations using Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have not been shown to be overly arduous. In addition, the ability to deploy the entire brigade, and multiple such brigades, if needed to work in concert with other forces to counter a large near-peer conventional force would mean that the Army would not be vulnerable to the traditional threat.
As the face of armed conflict changes and expands, it is important to make sure the ability to deploy proportional military force and capabilities remains. The Army’s Chief of Staff General Raymond T. Odierno has himself been talking recently about the need to make the Army more scalable and tailorable to the wide variety of missions it is expected to be able to perform as it transitions from the Full Spectrum concept to the Unified Land Operations concept. Under the new doctrine, the Army is expected to engage in contingencies where a “hybrid threat” might be encountered, involving elements such as traditional armed forces, insurgents, and transnational terrorists and criminal actors. In order to keep armor relevant within such a doctrine it must indeed by highly tailorable and scalable to meet to the operational requirements. Replacing HBCTs with a common Infantry Brigade Combat Team and providing an Armor Support Brigade, equipped primarily with the M1 series of tanks and the proposed GCV, capable of carrying the current standard infantry squad, would allow for this while protecting against traditional conventional threats.