Thursday, October 25, 2007

MRAPs and the Next Tank

There's an increasing debate on the viability of ordering so many Mine Resistant Vehicles, some 20,000 so far for the Army and Marine Corps, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might now be winding down. It's been especially heated over at Aviation Week, which reported this recently:

The same amount of money expected to be spent on MRAPs could have bought 10 Virginia-class submarines, three Ford-class aircraft carriers, half of the planned Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program or even 100 C-17 airlifters, he noted.

While there is broad agreement that the Army and Marine Corps fielded too few MRAPs earlier in the war, the risk now is that the Pentagon may produce far too many...

Better too many than not enough, right? What disturbs me about this way of thinking is the quick return to old ways of fighting, or business as usual. It seems after every war America fights, the ground troops do most of the work and the Air Force and Navy gets all the credit. That's a little exaggerated I know, but I hope we don't go back to our usual retrenchment and gutting of the Army, thinking we can ignore continental concerns, as is the impression I got from the Navy's latest Maritime Strategy.

Concerning the Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles, I don't think they should be discarded so easily. I believe $25 billion is a small price to pay compared to the $140 billion the Army originally expected to shell out for the Future Combat System, previously considered as its replacement for the tank and other armored vehicles. I think with the lessons learned from the Stryker, uparmored Humvees, and more recently these newer class of MRAPs, that the wheeled armored vehicles are the wave of the future. Back in 2004 I described what I considered to be the future of warfare:

The infantryman, with GPS and a laser range-finder, is the new "God of Battles". He can call in an air strike with a guided bomb, whether fired from land, sea, or air. This is the new warfare. All he needs is a ride and a little cover to hide behind. A main battle tank out in the open has no defense against a laser-guided bomb. He cannot maneuver well enough and no armor can save him...Landing troops will spread out into the countryside like swift Mongol cavalry in LAV's, similar to the recent assault on Baghdad.

This was before the Stryker LAVs and her smaller cousins became so essential to the urban combat we are now fighting. Such a scenario isn't all in my imagination, because a similar conflict was fought a few decades ago by the South Africans in their conflict with Cubans and Angolan Marxists. Thanks to the UN arms embargo during Apartheid, the South Africans were forced to produce their own armaments, and these included innovated and large armored wheeled vehicles able to combat tanks. They were used during the above mention Angolan Conflict successfully against Russian-built armor. Such weapons are equipped with a 105 mm cannon, standard armament for heavier tracked tanks. Wheeled vehicles were used for other missions as well, including personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery.

Already we see American thinking in this direction with the Stryker Mobile Gun System, with its own 105 mm gun. Such weapons are often too large to fit in the more numerous C-130 transports, but several can be fitted in a C-17, and even more on these fast catamaran vessels which the Army is now purchasing for resupplying the troops. The MRAP vehicles will thus be set for the future, as our new infantry fighting vehicle, not only for asymmetric duties, but conventional warfare as well.