March 1, 2013  

Armor: Key to the future fight

Mobility, protection and precision firepower are a winning combination

Increasing fiscal constraints, perceived changes in the character and capabilities of future adversaries, and the national strategic shift to the Asian-Pacific lead some to doubt the continuing usefulness of combined arms land forces.

Some argue that new technologies will enable the naval and air forces, in combination with special forces, to fight and win in future armed conflict without the commitment of significant Army or Marine forces. Others cite a decrease in conventional land armies and an increase in anti-access/area-denial technology and operations as reason to shrink the Army’s ready combined arms forces through various means such as transfers to reserve components or reduced commitments in regions such as South Korea.

These arguments undervalue the importance of the mobility, protection and precision firepower that combined arms armored formations provide in both decisive action and shaping operations. They underappreciate the value of such versatile formations, and oversimplify the problem of future armed conflict.

Key Attributes

To understand the enduring value of mobile protected precision firepower, it is worth examining each attribute in turn.

• Mobility: In all but the most restrictive terrain, armored forces — in particular, tracked armor and mechanized infantry — provide essential tactical mobility. Tracks distribute weight over a broad surface area, providing much greater cross-country mobility than wheels. Freed of dependence on roads and trails, the combined arms team gains options and becomes more unpredictable. This makes it easier to surprise the enemy and makes it more difficult for him to employ improvised explosive devices, mines, and complex ambushes.

This is no less true now than it was in World War I, when tanks helped break the stalemate of trench warfare; in World War II, where the German blitzkrieg and the U.S. Army’s breakout from Normandy reshaped warfare; in Vietnam, when armor was essential to security, offensive operations, and area and route reconnaissance; or twice in Iraq, when Operation Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom hinged on U.S. armored forces’ ability to maneuver quickly through open and restrictive terrain, survive no-notice encounters with enemies and overwhelm those enemies with precision firepower. More recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, this tactical mobility has been crucial in route and area security, counterambush, cordon and search, and quick-reaction missions.

One may also look to Operation Cast Lead, mounted by the Israeli Defense Force against Hamas in 2008. An Israeli tank battalion commander later recounted a countersniper operation into the Gaza Strip, where Hamas forces had set up defensive belts of modern anti-tank weapons. Intercepted Hamas communications revealed that the Israeli tanks were “moving too fast to be targeted,” the Israeli officer said. (This may also have reflected a disinclination to attack tanks. In his examination of Cast Lead, David Johnson observed that when confronted by IDF tanks, even Hamas fighters armed with anti-armor weapons had to decide whether to hide and live, or engage and become de facto suicide attackers.)

A brief word is necessary about strategic, rather than tactical mobility: Armored forces cannot match the strategic mobility of light forces, such as infantry brigade combat teams that can deploy within 96 hours. But such light forces are usually insufficient for success in major combat operations. Besides, armored forces are more responsive than many people believe. Army pre-positioned stocks afloat and fast sealift ships can move an entire armored brigade combat team within 15 days, a timeline that facilitated victory in operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.

When sealift is not fast enough, airlift can expedite the arrival of critical armored capabilities. For example, in 2003, elements of 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor deployed by air to Kurdistan during Operation Airborne Dragon. In 2005, the 1st Cavalry Division flew its tanks to Iraq after finding their motorized configuration insufficient for their mission. And in the following year, the Canadian Army stood up, trained and airlifted a 15-tank squadron to Afghanistan in six weeks.

Such mobility is a top Army priority. On Feb. 5, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said, “We must preserve and invest in the ability to rapidly deliver units anywhere in the world. Army forces must be tailored to local requirements and rapidly deployable from the lowest to the highest levels.”

• Protection: Modern armor allows soldiers and Marines to survive attacks by a wide range of weapons, including rockets, guided missiles, mines and IEDs readily available to “hybrid enemies” such as the mujahedeen fighters.

At the second Battle of Fallujah and operations Al Fajr and Phantom Fury in Iraq, the tanks of the 1st Marine Division endured multiple strikes by such weapons, yet not a single Marine tank crewman was lost. In Afghanistan, the Marines’ D Company, 1st Battalion tanks sustained 19 IED strikes over seven months, with only one minor injury. In all but two cases, company-level maintenance was sufficient to repair the damaged tanks.

Beyond purely physical battlegrounds, armor instills confidence in U.S. and allied forces and local populations and deters enemy action. After the Marines’ 1st Tank Battalion silenced Taliban attacks, Afghan road crews and their contracted security reported they accomplished more during the following three weeks than they had in the previous four months. The head contractor attributed his team’s productivity directly to the tanks’ presence.

• Precision firepower: The Abrams tank fires several kinds of precision rounds from its 120mm cannon to destroy targets more than two miles away: armored vehicles, hardened positions, obstacles and personnel. It also has .50-caliber and 7.62mm machine guns. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle has TOW anti-tank missiles, a powerful 25mm cannon and a 7.62mm machine gun. Both vehicles have a variety of sights and fire control systems that enable extraordinary precision under all conditions. Such precision firepower confers several advantages: destroying enemy forces from greater distances than light and Stryker forces; minimizing the collateral damage often caused by artillery, mortars or air strikes; and providing an alternative to escalation directly from a soldier’s rifle to Air Force bombs. Moreover, this precision firepower is available even when bad weather or air defenses hamper airstrikes, and its “time on station” is limited only by fuel and periodic maintenance requirements. When enemies engage armored forces with machine guns, the outcome of the fight is uniformly lopsided and rapid.

Flexibility for the Force

Ultimately, these three attributes — mobility, protection, precision firepower — exemplify the flexibility that the Israeli soldier-scholar Meir Finkel was talking about when he wrote, “The characteristics of flexible military organization and structure include: a balance between basic force elements, units and weapons, weapons redundancy designed to answer basic operational problems, and the technological versatility and changeability of the weapons.”

During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, commanders employed a mix of armored and wheeled vehicles, depending on the situation. In the first week of the Battle of Sadr City in 2008, the Jaish al-Mahdi militia force used IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons to destroy six Strykers. In response, the 1st Battalion and 68th Armor Battalion parked their wheeled vehicles, mounted their Abrams and Bradleys, and augmented the infantry and Stryker forces of the 3rd BCT, 4th Infantry Division. This changed the fight. The better-protected mix of armored and motorized forces provided the capabilities necessary to win.

A similar situation arose in 2011 in Diwaniyah. There, the 3rd Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment operated with wheeled vehicles until violence escalated, then used their Abrams and Bradleys to overwhelm the enemy.

The Danes and the U.S. Marine Corps have had similar experiences with combined arms teams balanced among light, medium and tank forces. Throughout Iraqi Freedom, and recently with the Marines’ 1st Tank Battalion in Afghanistan, armored forces provided precision firepower and cleared conventional and off-road routes while dismounted forces provided close-in security. Delta Company Abrams tanks identified soft targets for sniper teams and destroyed hardened targets impervious to small-arms fire.

By contrast, the absence of armor has contributed to avoidable losses. Examples include Task Force Smith at the outset of the Korean War and the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. attempts to provide protected mobility without armored forces saw mixed results. When IEDs began exacting a heavy toll on U.S. forces, DoD responded by fielding Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Although MRAPs have saved many lives, they sacrifice mobility for protection and struggle to maneuver off-road, and keep pace with further innovations in IED tactics and technology.

In southern Afghanistan, Canadian forces that deployed with wheeled armored personnel carriers found their 17-ton, wheeled vehicles nearly impossible to maneuver off-road. Their wheels had higher ground pressure than a 63-ton tank, and they also lacked needed firepower and survivability. The Canadians eventually deployed Leopard tanks and, in combination with their medium and light forces, became much more effective. For example, they used anti-mine devices on armored vehicles to protect dismounted forces and used the vehicles for close support to infantry when in contact with the enemy.

Ultimately, a string of battles in Sadr City, An Najaf, Nassiria, Fallujah, Tal Afar and Musa Qala — all fights in which light and motorized forces required armored forces’ mobility, protection and precision firepower to achieve victory at minimal cost — bear witness to the need to retain this critical capability.

In the words of Odierno: “We must be able to rapidly adjust our units and capabilities to meet the unique requirements of any situation, delivering precision results through the most capable, discriminate weapon system ever fielded — the American soldier.” The range of missions, environments, force structures and enemies the Army will encounter in the future demands a force that is equipped to combat the challenges of technological and doctrinal surprise with an appropriate mix of basic capabilities. While this is true throughout the world, the Army particularly requires a flexible force structure to support operations and engagements as our national strategic focus shifts to the Asian-Pacific region.

These capabilities include defense and offense, shock troops and enduring forces, mobility, protection and precision firepower. In the Army, the combination of light, Stryker and armored BCTs provides this balance. But while each type possesses strengths and limitations, the armored teams, equipped with Abrams tanks and Bradleys, are essential to developing the situation and overwhelming enemy forces in the close fight.

Several trends are increasing the vulnerability of U.S. forces, making armor more important, not less. Recent combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other conflicts around the world (e.g., the 2006 Lebanon War), show that capabilities and tactics previously associated only with nation-states are proliferating to nonstate actors. Those that enjoy state sponsorship, such as Hezbollah, have obtained long-range precision munitions (anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air defense systems), mortars, rockets, UAVs, commercial satellite imagery and communications, and GPS jamming. Even those that lack such direct sponsorship have demonstrated their ability to negate advantages in tactical mobility using mines and IEDs, and to negate advantages in intelligence and surveillance through traditional tactical countermeasures such as dispersion, concealment, deception and intermingling with civilian populations.

Finally, all signs — and national policy documents — point to a future in which the United States relies even more heavily on allies and partner nations to assure collective security.

Yet the mobile protected precision firepower of American armored forces does not exist elsewhere in like quantity or quality. In Europe, for example, where many NATO and non-NATO organizations have dramatically reduced their armor capabilities, U.S. combined arms forces are required to supplement NATO Article V requirements during contingency operations.

Now the U.S. will increase its efforts to build partnership capacity in the Asia-Western Pacific region. Already, the area is home to 11 of the 20 largest land armies in the world. Nineteen nations in the region field more than 51,000 armored vehicles. In nations with armored forces (e.g., India, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia, etc.), American armored forces serve with like forces. In other nations, the armored BCT provides forces our partners cannot field, creating a multinational force capable of deterring and defeating enemy organizations. Odierno noted that the efficiencies gained through these partnerships lead to greater stability in peacetime and greater effectiveness in war, all at costs far below what would be required for any one nation to attempt to operate alone.

Combined arms teams with armored forces satisfy the strategic requirement for effective deterrence when aligned regionally in multinational partnerships. These partnerships bolster the confidence of our allies and shape the broader security environment through the relationships they foster.

When armor is on the ground, foes understand that America is committed and means business.


COL. DAVID B. HAIGHT is the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School. COL. PAUL J. LAUGHLIN is the commandant of the U.S. Army Armor School, where CAPT. KYLE F. BERGNER is the operations officer.