Small Wars Journal

Is Armor Antithetical to Good COIN?

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 12:19pm
Is Armor Antithetical to Good COIN?

by Frank G. Hoffman

Download the Full Article: Is Armor Antithetical to Good COIN?

Undoubtedly everyone has seen the recent report in the Washington Post on the introduction of a company of Marine M1A1 tanks into unruly Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Given the rugged terrain and complex nature of the ongoing operation there, the Marines will certainly get a moral boost out of having some armor protected firepower. Surely the Taliban is not happy about this new development unless someone's really trying for the proverbial 72 virgin martyrdom. Taliban elements will not be trying to sneak up on any isolated outposts that have a pair of tanks at the gate either. Ambushes will be more circumspect anytime a tank is escorting a unit. While many a SOF operator will tell you that the drone of an AC-130 overhead is sweet to his ears, the grunts will tell you that there is nothing like the crack and reach of a 120mm gun to keep the wolves at bay.

Download the Full Article: Is Armor Antithetical to Good COIN?

The author is a retired Marine infantryman and national security analyst. He is on the board of advisors or editorial board at Small Wars Journal, Joint Force Quarterly and Prism. These views are his own and do not reflect the policy of the Department of Defense or any agency with which he has been affiliated.

About the Author(s)

Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine infantryman and veteran Pentagon policy and program analyst. The comments in his articles reflect his own positions and not those of the Department of Defense.


Uri (not verified)

Thu, 12/02/2010 - 6:14pm

hi ,

since 2007 the danes have together with the canadians and the brits tanks in use , at last some one who thinks logical ! from our view on the ground , they should have gotten them sooner !

you cant compare it with iraq or make it an all out tank war , ut together with more special forces and special forces capable units it will help ! and ditch those strykers , nothing is more jaw dropping for the locals then to see a 60 or 70 t tank going by , ... one taliban that got captured siad ' now its all over ' , ....

have a nice day

ps , some people should not even think about giving so called advise , if you have not been on the ground (local) one cant actually judge the placement of armor (!)


Thu, 12/02/2010 - 1:31am

If the deployment of tanks into AFG is a comment on the conduct of the COIN campaign to date, it may be an indictment of those who misunderstood and misapplied COIN 'doctrine' as something where being 'nice' dominates and who failed totally to grasp that COIN is as much about the application of force as another form of warfare - if it wasn't it'd be a law enforcement issue, not a military one...

MAJ Mark Battjes (not verified)

Wed, 12/01/2010 - 2:01pm

I largely agree with the point made by the author that armor, in and of itself, is not anti-thetical to good COIN. As Neil points out, armor is neither good nor bad, it is simply another tool to be used by the counterinsurgent forces. As a mechanized infantry company commander in Baghdad in 2007 and 2008, I employed my tank platoon in their M1s quite often. Deployed in sections they made extremely effective counter-IED patrols and during the Shi'a uprising of 2008 their unmatched firepower were used to support light infantry forces to good effect.

However, I do want to caution the author about his assertion that "bringing armor into theater is something the Taliban cannot match and will reinforce the perception that things can't go their way". As others have pointed out, the Soviets did use armor (maybe not effectively but that is a different question) so this is not something that will be entirely new to the Taliban. Furthermore, an M1 tank can be destroyed by insurgent forces. We found this out far too often on the streets of Baghdad. Honestly, I can think of very little that would produce a greater propaganda victory for the Taliban than a burning M1 tank somewhere in Afghanistan.

Finally, I question the logic that rests behind that statement. It seems reminiscent of the logic that was used to justify further escalation of the US effort during Vietnam. Sir Robert Thompson tells us that an "insurgency is a measure of both the success and of the failure of subversion". That is, armed conflict had to start because the insurgents couldn't accomplish their political objective solely through subversion. Similarly, we could see the introduction of tanks into Afghanistan by US forces as a measure of how unsuccessful our counterinsurgency efforts have been to date. If we need the protection, fire power, and overmatch that M1 tanks provide to confront the Taliban, it could be a symptom of a bigger problem.

Tanks are, like any other weapon system, a tool to be used judiciously during a COIN campaign. Their use is absolutely not anti-thetical to good COIN. However, they are also not a strategic information message that will force the Taliban from the field because they cannot counter them in a conventional way.

Bill M.

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 11:03pm


I think you hit the nail on the head brother with this observation:

"In the end, outcome comes down to external support for the insurgent. The successful insurgents tended to have ample support and sanctuary available. The successful counter insurgents tended to be isolated geographically or politically"

We discussed this before when we discussed the situation in Sri Lanka, but it is worth surfacing again because it so important and too often simply ignored.

The counterinsurgent should strive to isolate the insurgent from both external and internal support (the war in the village is important to, but not as important as the war on the border, and the war on the village won't suceed if you don't sever external support), but external support is the game changer.

Please keep beating this drum with anyone you can influence.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 9:59pm


Bravo on your statement:

"In my view, it all comes down to availability of external support - monetary, physical, political, etc. Isolate the insurgent and he can't regenerate. One of the reasons Afghanistan is so difficult."

IMAO (in my amateur opinion) the support and sanctuary given Taliban and company by Pakistan is the critical factor in whether we win or the Taliban wins in Afghanistan. I can never understand why more people don't see that and express it as you have done.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 4:16pm

"The road to glory cannot be followed with much baggage."

I hope the Marines having an accurate direct fire cannon is worth the added logistical support baggage it will demand, and that the ROE don't diminish this platform's effectiveness in accurate fire support?

ADTS (not verified)

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 7:05am


Thanks for the comprehensive and thorough reply! Not to taunt you, but I composed my response to your reply, and then thought that you're right, the Comments section might not be the place to post it. I'd be happy to post what I've written, should you so choose, but for right now, I'll just thank you once more.


Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 7:05am


Thanks for the comprehensive and thorough reply! Not to taunt you, but I composed my response to your reply, and then thought that you're right, the Comments section might not be the place to post it. I'd be happy to post what I've written, should you so choose, but for right now, I'll just thank you once more.


Some of your questions I don't have well researched answers to because our essay was a critique of their argument vice a constructive paper. However, much of our criticism is based in other research we have done/published.

We criticized the methodology, not the math, and I used their paper as a good opportunity to take a swipe at how some have used the Ricks narrative from FIASCO to extrapolate things that the evidence doesn't support. But to answer your questions:

1) Education. Yes, all officers get generally the same <i>military</i> education, but the supplementary education could make the difference. Schools such as SAMS, a competitive graduate school, study abroad, fellowship, etc. may correlate with COIN success. Dr. Moyar's "A Question of Command" follows this thesis and extrapolates it to Myers-Briggs types. I agree to an extent. Again, a plausible alternative explanation in this case. I would say these benefits are relatively randomly spread across the branches. Another theory I have heard is that branch culture plays a factor, but this is harder to support. I would only observe that relative to its population Armor officers proved disproportionately innovative in OIF, leading some of the biggest successes. Also interesting much of the debate here on COIN is generated and sustained by the Armor community. I wouldn't venture a branch superiority argument, but would argue it undercuts Lyall/Wilson's thesis about Armor culture being poor at COIN.

2) Democracy vs. Insurgents. Actually I don't see insurgents are outperforming democracies over time, at least not significantly. Time scale consideration (including the 19th century) creates this artifact, if you examine only post-1945 cases it isn't so. In my opinion the 19th century had many successful "COIN" cases because international norms and information sharing were highly different.

I find the post-1945 period the most compelling because we have an organized theory of insurgency (Maoist) to start with and the global regime structure was fundamentally different. (I argue things change in 1991 as well, but there is a very small N of cases to study making statistical comparisons shaky at best)

For my graduate research I used RAND's post-1945 insurgency database. Bottom line it all comes down to the coding between win, lose, and draw. Unfortunately, statistical regression used in social sciences requires a linear variable. Therefore it is impossible to code win/lose/settlement. Lyall and Wilson treat settlement/political solutions as losses by the regime. I differ with that logic. Also, the coding is extremely subjective and introduces bias. For example, was N. Ireland a win or a settlement for the UK? UK in Kenya? El Salvador?

All social science suffers from some of this, but counting draws as losses stacks the deck because many settlements favor the regime in the end. In my work on post-1945 I eliminated the settlement cases and focused on clear wins/losses. Colonial and Anocratic (minority rule) regimes have high loss correlation post-1945. All other governments are relatively equal in the N=56 set. it's generally a 40/40/20 split between win/draw/lose though.

In the end, outcome comes down to external support for the insurgent. The successful insurgents tended to have ample support and sanctuary available. The successful counter insurgents tended to be isolated geographically or politically (Malaya, Philippines, Oman) In the few cases where insurgents lost their support or had none, they quickly folded (Greek Civil War being the most dramatic, see my paper on Sri Lanka as well)

Mackinlay's "The Insurgent Archipelago" highlights why the game has fundamentally changed post-cold war due to globalization of the external support. It's a great read on this subject.

All this really requires more depth than the comments section is suited for, but kind of answers your query. In my view, it all comes down to availability of external support - monetary, physical, political, etc. Isolate the insurgent and he can't regenerate. One of the reasons Afghanistan is so difficult.

Troufion (not verified)

Sun, 11/28/2010 - 10:10pm

The request for Armor by the Marines in Helmand stems from two things 1) the current armor, Canadian and Dane that is there is going to leave soon. 2) Armor is a valuable component of combined arms operations and has proven its worth in COIN many times. The call for this armor company is not an escalation, nor is it a reaction to new enemy activity. It is called for in an understanding that sometimes a tank is very useful. This fact has been proven time and again from Mogadishu to Falluja to Now Zad. However, a tank is only a tool not a panacea solution, they are only as good as the use they are put to. Tanks cannot hold a Jirga but they can clear an IED path blocking your way to one. One benefit of US Marine tanks arriving is that they may demonstrate,in an IO concept, more US determination and commitment.

Turkestani (not verified)

Sun, 11/28/2010 - 10:10am

The Danes has been using Leopard 2A5 tanks in Helmand the last three years or so.

A good example of this can be found at:

(click on "Afghanistan" tab and scroll down to the video titled "KAMPVOGNE I KRIG 10-11-2009". sorry the direct links does not seem to work.

In this video, a section of LeoII's supports an infantry squad advancing towards Taliban controlled compounds somewhere along the Helmand river. The squad advances, meets resistance, tanks move up and supports w/MG and main gun fire, squad advances further and 2 tanks follow. The main point of Taliban resistance is reached and an airstrike is called in (no explanation why tank fire was not sufficient to deal with it...).

One notes that there is no attempt to hold the seized ground, it's only in-and-out. Regardless, the tanks make the maneuver possible.

The above described use is fairly typical of the way Danish LeoII's have been used in Helmand - more as modern Assault Guns than as MBT's.

The Marines will probably have to follow that pattern, unless they bring along a lot more mine-ploughs than the Danes have down there.

ADTS (not verified)

Sun, 11/28/2010 - 8:40am


Whoops - I missed democratic *institutions* rather than the rise in democracy or democratization. Again, though, how would this account for the trends noted in RATM? Is it because democratic institutions constrain incumbents, to furnish one thought that popped into my head, or is it something else?


ADTS (not verified)

Sun, 11/28/2010 - 8:31am


You seem to suggest, in your critique of case studies built off of "Fiasco," that the educational experiences of leaders is a (I am not saying *the*) determinant of success at COIN. I realize you also make the argument that the Army homogenizes its officers in terms of education. But at the same time, you also note the advanced degrees held by certain officers, and seem to hold this as very important, if not crucial. Am I correct in this impression?

This is a question that is a bit off topic, and almost certainly requires a long answer, but to clarify, is your response to why insurgents have been "outperforming" incumbents over time:

"the spread of democratic institutions throughout the state system, the changing role of information in war and politics, and changing norms of international sovereignty and colonialism"?

I certainly can see how the latter two factors cause insurgents to win, i.e., the emancipation of former colonies can evolve simultaneously with nationalist sentiments, in which incumbent regimes have serious credibility (and perhaps more substantive) problems with their citizens. At the same time, if the first two factors are causal mechanisms for you, I'd be interested in how democracy leads for incumbents to have a declining "win" rate. Are you arguing that democracy, or democratization, creates a more favorable environment for insurgents? Last, could you specify more clearly how "the changing role of information in war and politics" contributed to the declining win rate?



Glad someone read the article! Am working on a non-scholarly version of it given the recent discussions along these lines.

Armor in and of itself has no inherent goodness or badness, only effects from its use, which all depends on contextual factors.

That said, We thought the RATM thesis was fatally flawed and led to poor policy, so Dr. Toronto and I felt compelled to respond.

carl (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 8:54pm

There is a very interesting article over at Foreign Policy written by an Army Special Forces Major regarding the use of armor in Afghanistan.…

In spite of the title, the article is primarily about MRAPs and MATVs in Afghanistan and how command mandating the use of these vehicles (in groups of four) is badly hurting our efforts. These two sentences really struck me.

"Many people fail to realize that causing casualties is only a side benefit of the IED. The true prize for the insurgent commander is separating the Coalition and Afghan security forces from the population."

Those sentences jumped out at me because we are supposed to separate the population from the insurgents, not the other way around. The author argues that the big "wheeled tanks" can't get to where many of the people live and if command mandates that our forces only go where the big vehicles can go, the insurgents have separated us from those people. I thought the article interesting and related to this discussion in that perhaps we shouldn't be focusing so much on a handful of tanks, but rather the flocks and herds of MRAPs and MATVs.

I note that the author operated in the mountain area, not where the Marines are.

ADTS (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 8:38pm

I think the argument against mechanization in COIN was made by Isaiah Wilson III and Jason Lyall in their International Organization article, Rage Against the Machines (63, Winter 2009). The puzzle the authors confront is the declining rate of success of incumbents versus insurgents. A (very, very) brief summary of their argument, if Im not mangling it (which I probably am), is that modern armies dont have to forage for food and sustenance like their predecessors. The foraging process provided information about insurgents - hard to find, easy to kill, to quote Kilcullen, I think - and similarly and/or concurrently, mechanized forces are deprived of information in the same ways as are modern armies.

SWJs Cav Guy, writing under his real name in Small Wars and Insurgencies (21:3), argues that foraging does not supply superior information to a self-supplied (sic - my term) army, and also takes on some methodological problems with the RATM article: spurious correlation (mechanization was not the only factor over time that may have accounted for differential outcomes in COIN) and also, Lyall and Wilsons paired comparison in RATM of the 4th ID and the 101st AA.

For what its worth, in the spirit of positive feedback, I think all authors deserve credit for specifying, causal mechanisms, and how they do or do not lead to the results posited. I also am quite happy to yield the floor to others who know the articles better than I.


Jobu (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 7:25pm

I have no doubt the Marines will put the armor to good use in ways that the Russians didn't 20-some years ago....especially since they will enjoy the ability to employ it in a combined arms fashion since Stinger missiles aren't a factor. That said, no amount of good TTPs are going to take away some of armor's liabilities...they are logistical pigs to name just one.

I no longer have an air of superiority over the Soviets with regard to centralized C2...especially in this day of COPs, BFT, Predator feeds, etc. I'm sure their C2 was bad...but, as we know, they faced a very capable, and well-resourced, enemy. There are lots of variables to consider...ultimately the question is whether the tanks offer a competitive advantage or not. I think there's plenty to argue that they will in this case (I'm not convinced yet, but let's say they will)...regardless, this COA comes with costs that should be fair game for debate.

The fundamental need is about combat superiority and protecting Marines in AF. There is typically more than one COA to meet a need...each coming with its own set of costs and benefits. Could we have met the need with something that the enemy will have more difficulty countering?

We have a lot of stuff in our arsenal that isn't getting rolled into the fight for one reason or another. Throwing something on the battlefield just because we have it, doesn't really make sense.

But I'm not naive...we do that all the time. ISR is probably the best example of this. If it's a 50% solution...we put it in the fight. But you can't really compare the presence of an ISR asset to that of a tank. The deployment (and the NEED) of the latter should be held to a great deal more scrutiny.

Gerald (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 5:45pm

This is not a baseball game. If we have assets that the enemy doesn`t we shouldn`t tie one hand behind our backs in the interest of "fair play". The Russians used their tanks as their main weapon. Our tanks will be used according to traditional American combined arms tactics.

Please correct me if I'm wrong as my memory - I worked the AF issue in the mid-80's for CENTCOM - may be deceiving me - but the Soviet use of armor was not exactly "text book good tactics".

Often used in mountainous and other constrained terrain, not usually used as a maneuver element in synchronized conjunction with infantry and other manuever elements and supporting arms, and not fielding the newest models of the T-series (at least in actual combat and as a mainstay of their maneuver force) I remember thinking what a waste...

Again, I could be wrong, but even if I am at least over 50% right I do not think a blind belief that our current use of armor even approaches a worthwhile comparison to the Soviet experience - excepting maybe the Taliban adapting their tactics - well - no sh**. The terrain the Marines will operate armor on is suitable for tanks and I place more trust in our Marines and Soldiers in the ability to adjust quickly at the tactical level than the centralized C2 Soviet Army of the 1980's.

Dave D.


Fri, 11/26/2010 - 3:56pm

Good point re more smaller airfields...possibly there should also be a greater push for re-introduction of aircraft that are more specific to that environment and can which can operate for extended period from rough fields...did someone say OA-X?

Jobu (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 3:29pm

I think the jury will be out for a while on this. Afghan insurgents have seen tanks before and found a way to cope with their addition to the battlefield. I doubt this will be a game-changer.

It will be critical to watch how the Taliban adapt to this. We'll add another dimension to their tactical problem, sure, but I doubt the sight of an M-1 will have them fleeing Helmand in droves. Yes, the tank has some advantages over airpower in this environment, but it has one large disadvantage...more often than not, they'll know when it's coming.

If we want to increase our lethal capacity in Afghanistan, the best way to do it is to add more airfields. Not super bases like Kandahar, but smaller FOBs that can support small detachments of fixed wing aircraft and UAVs...even Air Force fighters. Add that element along with an armor capability, and the Taliban will have a much bigger dilemma.

Mike F (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 3:18pm

It amazes me that so many otherwise intelligent observers and commentators so completely and so commonly misunderstand the nature of COIN. The conventional wisdom in the press--and, depressingly, in too many milblogs and among those who should know better--seems to be that "COIN = non-lethal / soft operations." Or at the very least, if it's not that way in reality, it SHOULD be that way in theory, or if "done correctly."

Of course the problem is if that were true, then it could be adequately handled by civilian police forces and social service workers, there would be no need for a military presence at all, and the entire concept of COIN collapses before it even starts. A true insurgency, by definition, exceeds the capability of the civilian security and social services to suppress it, and requires the intervention of military forces to establish or re-assert the authority of the legitimate government. Once that point is reached, it's a simple matter of selecting the appropriate tools for the job: Fallujah '04 requires one kind of tool, Baghdad '09 or Helmand '10 may require something else.

So Hoffman gets it right in my opinion. Tanks are no more antithetical to COIN than is an infantryman or his rifle.


Fri, 11/26/2010 - 2:42pm

I think that Frank Hoffman has it pretty right. Unlike some of its contemporary publications, FM 3-24 is not adverse to the use of force where necessary - key words, 'where necessary'. We should remember that, in the campaign that is held up as the paragon of COIN, Malaya, the British quite happily and regularly used heavy bombers against insurgent forces...

It's also interesting to note that not only was Canada the first nation to deploy tanks to AFG but it did so very soon after deciding doctrinally that there was no place for MBTs in the Canadian Army of the 21st Century - I believe that Australia was considering following a similar approach as its Leopard Is came up for replacement - the Aussie Army now operates a fleet of M1s. although has not yet deployed them.

We should remember though that while they often great firepower and mobility in the right terrain and conditions, tanks are not invulnerable in irregular warfare and we should probably expect to see another iteration in the armour v explosive IED arms race.

While it is correct that the main gun on the M1 will bring a higher degree of accuracy for heavy kinetic effects over artillery, the flat trajectory does also bring an increased possibility of downrange collateral damage over munitions that arrived vertically.

Bottom Line: the Marines should be applauded for doing what needs to be done and not pandering to the bleatings of those (e.g. @ The Atlantic Monthly) who don't 'get' the contemporary environment...

Nym (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 2:32pm

One other thing they bring is reach. There is also a high precision capacity too. While UAV's are quite useful, they have a highly constrained weapons capacity. Tanks can fire at things they can spot all day long.

JJP (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 1:11pm

You could ask the Canadians. They were the first to deploy armour.