A Future for Armor in an Era of Persistent Conflict

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.

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I was in Kandahar for the tail end of OP MEDUSA in Sep 06 - which saw a Canadian battalion team take on what was essentially a Taliban light battalion...very well dug in behind an obstacle belt of grape berms and IEDs. The Taliban were defeated (and never made this mistake again) but we (in my opinion) took unnecessary casualties fighting through the killing zone. As a result of this experience, the Canadians added a squadron (company) of Leopard 1 tanks (later Leo 2A6M) to the battalion team. These tanks were a major addition to our capabilities, providing:

- precision firepower (why use a 500 lb PGM when you can put a 120 HEAT into the target at 2 km plus?)
- extraordinary off-road/track (all heavily IEDed) desert mobility
- excellent breaching capability with plows and rollers (see the comment on grape berms)
- shock
- etc, etc

The tactics developed employing tanks and infantry (and armoured engineer vehciles) were unconventional but they worked. The Canadian tanks and M777 howitzers, with LAV infantry, were very effective in this time of fight and the tanks and howitzers were routinely in very high demand by our allies.

Mike

There's definitely a place for armor in counter insurgency environments. The US Army's challenge is we don't have Leopards and the M1 has a voracious appetite for fuel, the likely reason we haven't deployed more than one tank company. BTW, the one US tank company that was deployed went to the same region in Afghanistan. As you well know most terrain and infrastructure in Afghanistan is not suited for armor and small numbers appear adequate. That said the drawdown and the concern for collatoral damage has created an environment that makes armor a less likely tool because of COIN doctrine. Some folks are slaves to doctrine.

On the good side we have deployed the MGS (Strykers armed with a turret mounted 105mm gun).
http://rajivsrinivasan.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/game-changer-tanks-to-af...
http://www.dragoons.org/2010/11/22/1-2-scr-mgs-platoon-conducts-zeroing-...

The last organizational chart I saw had three MGS per infantry company that can be used as a platoon of three or farmed out to each platoon depending on the mission. BTW, one repeated issue I've heard from MGS crewman is the vehicle is excessively hot. They actually wear a cooling vest hooked up to the vehicles cooling system.

We've also had towed 155mm howitzers in country for years.

major.rod

I suspect in most cases the collateral damage risk from an armored vehicle is reduced compared to an Apache, A-10, or most other aircraft providing fire support. I'm sure there are drawbacks that need to be considered case by case, but if it is determined that it will give our guys an edge in combat then send them. Just because it gives you edge doesn't necessarily make it decisive, not does it mean there won't be incidents where the armor is defeated, but that doesn't change the fact that it gives our troops a relative advantage.

The Soviets used a lot of armor in Afghanistan mainly BMPs but usually where there were BMPs there was always a few MBTs. The Muj learned to avoid terrain where a MBT could maneuver - but there is plenty of that kind of terrain in Afghanistan. A lot of the roads could sustain BMP traffic but the MBTs would soon carve up culverts, fords, switch-backs etc which subsequently made lighter vehicles slow down to a crawl and thus more vulnerable to ambush.
RC

I guess there is a point here, though it isn't quite clear. There was plenty of terrain in Europe during WWII that was no go terrain for armor also, but armor still performed superbly in the terrain it could operate in. Armor can contribute in meaningful ways to defending the most populated and economically viable terrain in Afghanistan, which will be essential if the Afghan government is going to hold. The outlying terrain will remain a significant challenge for a long time, it has remained so for the last decade with all our air power and special operations, so don't anticipate that to change. Armies can't defend everything, but they can defend critical terrain and harass the enemy in their base areas. Not a strategy for winning militarily, but a method to avoid military defeat which may bring the opponents to the negotiation table after we leave. First they have realize they can't achieve their goals militarily.

For the Muj a MBT was an impossible target to destroy. The RPG-7 and 73mm recoil-less rifle struggled against the low profiled BMP even when it was static. The MBT was a strict no-no. The ones you may have seen knocked out were usually abandoned and destroyed/disabled by their crews - usually after a major mechanical failure. Currently, the few losses of MRAPs to direct fire ( a proverbial barn door of a target) would suggest the Taliban are unlikely to do better.

I imagine a garrison with a few tanks would be an enormous deterrent.
Maintenance and fuel would be less of a concern if they were just to patrol around the local area.

MILAN 1 ATGMs were introduced late in the game against the Soviets but for the Muj they proved too much of a technical challenge to maintain, deploy and operate. The question for the intro of MBTs into Af today is whether the Pak or Iran Army could resist deploying ATGMs using their own Special Forces as I doubt if the Talibs could field them effectively.

Mike C.

I really think your example is what the author was getting at. The backlash against his idea is rooted in legacy thinking based on yesteryear's doctrine. To answer some of the concerns below I see no reason armor still can't be something centralized for training and maintenance, but that doesn't preclude parsing it out to various Task Forces as needed to conduct operations. Much appreciate your example, and I suspect there are others from other nations who don't embrace doctrine as the holy grail.

Hi Bill M.

I started life as a light infantryman and was commissioned into armour (in Canada armour and cav are the same)at the height of the Cold War - but since I have served around the world. So much for my bona fides - but I say this merely to show that I have no dog in the fight (and as an aside our M777 battery of six guns proved to be utterly deadly). In any case, I have no desire but to save our soldiers lives while decisively defeating the enemy.

In my strong opinion, tanks worked very well in counter-insurgency (or at least they did in Afghanistan) - be it as squadrons/companies, troops/platoons or even as individual vehicles. Our junior leaders and soldiers are frikkin' brilliant and they will figure out a way to make the "conventional" work in "unconventional" situations.

Doctrine is not dogma - it is only guidance to be used by the bold commander as he or she sees fit.

Mike

I concur, our soldiers and "junior" leaders are brilliant and will adapt the tools they have in an effective manner. It is the seniors who are indoctrinated who oppose this adaption that worry me.

This article is a very good teaser to an intriguing concept, which deserves further in-depth research and analysis. The capability to deploy massed armored formations is certainly valuable, but the idea of using tanks and/or armored vehicles "surgically" in the same manner as an AWT certainly deserves some consideration. Having the protection and precision of an armored vehicle with a large caliber gun could certainly be useful to a company commander, not to mention the asset would presumably have a much longer station time with teh supported unit. Even if the main gun is never fired, the very sight and presence of a tank is a psychological advantage over any foe. Tactically it seems feasible, but administrativley and logistically there may be some significant hurdles to overcome.

The author makes several significant errors in his analysis.

Assuming it’s not too difficult to train infantry to operate from IFV’s isn’t a huge hurdle because of the MRAP program shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the different roles of the MRAP and the IFV. It also ignores the fact that the enemy we have been facing is overmatched by MRAPs. The same cannot be assumed of the next battlefield. Planning to fight the next war like the last ones seems to be a mistake we can’t seem to avoid.

The approach to separate BN’s of armored vehicles along CAB type organization adopts a Marine like approach to combined arms operation. A reading of the Operation AL FAJR: A Study in Army and Marine Corps Joint Operations by Matthews and House to House by Bellavia highlight some of the issues Marines suffered through when working with their own armored units that they did not have a habitual relationship with.

I believe the organic Tank and Infantry units at the BN level do both skill sets a disservice as the skills for each specialty now have to be served by the same sized staff that focused on each separately before the reorganization and have to share a field grade officer who does not have the background of an officer brought up in the Infantry or armor schoolhouse. (This problem is aggravated by the relatively recent joining of the Infantry Officer and Armored Officer Courses as well as the Advanced NCO course into a joint course that must serve the needs of both branches.) As we refocus the Army past COIN focused ops I predict we will see how difficult it is to maintain both skill sets at their highest competency with half the staff and half the focus/background of the assigned leaders. Based on our appropriate focus on the Infantry side over the last decade I suspect the tankers will get the shorter end of the stick.

Comparisons of the limited but effective use of Sheridans in Panama does not make the case for the effective or appropriate use of armor in the decade long IED rich environment of Afghanistan not even addressing we have nothing like the Sheridan today. BTW, the Marines have deployed all of ONE company (14 tanks) for the 10,000 or so marines they have in country. That tank company largely sits idle at Camp Leatherneck though when select conditions arise the Marines have used them as extremely effective mobile pillboxes followed not far behind by a HEMMT tanker along the extremely limited road networks.

That and the Soviet experience of armor in Afghanistan is a telling lesson.

Don’t take me wrong as a former light and heavy Infantryman and graduate from the defunct Armor Officer Advanced Course I firmly believe we need an armored force. Mechanized infantry must “live” with its IFVs and tanks remain the best weapon against any armored force and are an effective combat multiplier in almost any conflict but applying them inappropriately puts them at great risk and also risks learning the wrong lessons from their employment.

Major Rod and I have had a long-standing argument about Fort Benning's plot to destroy the Armor Force once and for all, and so this article will go into the evidentiary portofolio for the prosecution. No matter how you dress this up, it is a frontal attack on combined arms as we in the Army have understood it since the Second World War. It explicitly subordinates the heavy force to light infantry, and deprives the Armor/Cavalry branch of the dignity of being one of the three primary combat arms ? Am I done yet ? No.

No, because even bad ideas have a a grain of value. While slinging around tank companies across brigade lines is, frankly, a step too far, there is nothing wrong with attaching tank battalions to support light infantry brigades in the brigade-centric operational concept we have built up. But here again, the combined arms concept we hold enables mutual cross attachment - not subordinated reinforcement - of tank and infantry companies and platoons to battalions and companies, respectively. We've done this for years, and there is no reason to fix what really isn't broke.

Major Rod and I disagree on a number of issues associated with tank-infantry cooperation and IFV requirements, but I suspect we are in agreement on this subject.

“this article will go into the evidentiary portofolio for the prosecution.”

VP, you have a paranoid phobia when it comes to Benning. FYI, the writer has nothing to do with the Infantry School, Ft. Benning or even the Army. From his bio it appears he’s an academic. Then there’s the fact that the Armor school is now at Benning.

“there is nothing wrong with attaching tank battalions to support light infantry brigades in the brigade-centric operational concept we have built up.”

The problem is we aren’t doing that VP. You are misinformed. We no longer have “tank battalions” they are all organic combined arms formations with armor and infantry companies in the same BN.

My final point is that the merging of the two skills in BNs and in the advanced courses for company grade and senior NCOs is detrimental to both branches.

Where do we agree exactly?

Major Rod raises an interesting question and makes a comment that I - sort of - agree with. The first point has to do with the structure of the combined arms battalion. To me this is a distinction without much of a difference. Operationally, we have been cross attaching for years now, so the only question I would have is whether organizing as CABs erases cross attachment from doctrine, when a "balanced task force" does not fit METT-TC, etc. As long as you have battalions with four companies, the options are a 3-1 and a 2-2 mix. You might even - Heavens to Betsy - recreate "pure" battalions if the situation calls for it. Why get all hot and bothered about this ? What doctrinal changes are implied ? If the Army hardens the doctrine too much, can we not expect the field to take matters into their own hands to do what's right ? I would assume and hope so.

As far as merging skills, I see this as a one-way street. What Major Rod says may be correct, but there is no excuse for combat arms officers who cannot do their jobs. Armor officers need to be able to handle infantry, and infantry officers need to be able to handle - not "use" tanks as if they were just a tool, an adjunct to what they already do. You command a combined arms team - all arms are part of your team. Period. I think the intention of merging professional officer development courses was to move in that direction, but the bottom line is that we tend to learn our trade in the field, not in the schoolhouse. That is especially true in that assembly line Building 4 environment that is Fort Benning. What we are really talking about here is an acceptance of mediocrity, a disregard for professional military education, and the continued stamping out of local unit and branch traditions in favor of Big Army bureaucracy.

(facepalm) Your anti-Benning/Infantry bias really hurts your credibility. I’ve been through courses at Benning, Knox & Leavenworth. The quality and style of instruction was identical and Armor officers are just as guilty of misusing Infantry as Infantrymen misuse tanks.

Even though we must on occasion practice OJT we should avoid it. It wastes at worst lives and at best resources which are going to become even more limited. The field is a great place to perfect one’s skills but the LD shouldn’t be the first time one has to learn how to conduct a zone recon or air assault. The schoolhouse has been a key factor in the Army’s professionalism and competence.

Because CABs are organic I can see commanders having a tendency to conduct task organization analysis less or wait till subordinate unit commanders asked for more assets instead of being proactive.

Where CABs definitely suffer is in the train up of different elements. It’s obvious that the same size staff that used to be responsible for resourcing, planning, supervising, evaluating etc. pure battalions can do the same for a mixed BN without losing something somewhere. Gunnery for a tank company and a Bradley company have differences. Armor BNs don’t need to be competent in Air Assaults and Infantry BNs don’t require competency in Tank centric type skills. There’s a reason we don’t organically attach helicopters, MPs, Linguists, Intelligence assets to BN formations and that is because they de require a level of centralization out of the field to maintain their core competencies.

Joseph,

Thanks for posting this think piece on the SWJ Blog. We had a previous debate about the potential value of armor in Afghanistan (and small wars in general) when the Marines deployed M1's to Afghanistan. I think your post captures my thinking on the topic to a tee. We may not need large armor formations in the future (though no one can predict that with a high degree of confidence), but we will definitely need armor. One argument is our future foes won't have tanks, so why do we need them? As GEN Powell said, "I'm not looking for a fair fight, I'm not a professional boxer." Amen, if the enemy doesn't have tanks and we do that gives us an asymmetrical edge whether fighting in Falujah, or escorting a convoy in Afghanistan, or a host of other potential operations in the future. I can even see the value of integrating platoon size armor elements with SOF for some missions. You captured it when you said tailorable and scalable to address hybrid threats. Will the Army support this?