Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tanks, But No Tanks Pt. 2

Remember the lone pro-democracy student who stood down Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square, a defiant image that was beamed around the world in 1989? Now imagine this fearless but tragic figure possessed with GPS and a cell phone, able to call down the destructive power of satellite guided, precision weapons from bombers and missiles, as US infantrymen can do on any given day. Such astonishingly accurate 21st Century weapons are able to rain destructive fire onto these last century vehicles of war, as America has consistently and dramatically proven in the Gulf Wars.

Despite this profound shift in the balance of power on land, Martin Sieff has written a seemingly endless series of articles for the UPI promoting the Main Battle Tank and the old tactics. In his repetitive arguments, he contends:

“The commitment of the Russian, Indian and Chinese militaries to
acquiring and maintaining very large tank forces in the 21st century bears
testament to the fact that they recognize this continuing truth. So does the
U.S. military. And for that matter, so do the Israeli, Syrian and Egyptian
armies -- all of which also continue to maintain large armored forces.”

The attitude is suspiciously like that of the old battleship advocates in the 1930’s, who continued to promote the construction of these vulnerable and budget-busting warships, even as newer and less costlier threats were multiplying to defeat them. For years after the US battle fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the arguments for the obsolete but much loved battlewagons held sway. The US didn’t cancel her plans for 17 new fast battleships until 1943 (10 were actually built) including the building of the largest ever, the 60,000 ton Montana! In 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was forced to veto a Royal Navy post-war plan that still considered such discredited weapons of war as the core of the fleet, even as airpower was clearly the dominate force in every battle on land and sea.

Getting back to the tanks, what armor advocates like Sieff fail to take in account, is that Western armies have totally ceased production of new battle tanks, save for updating older models, or producing them for their allies. Only Russia and China continue to manufacture these armored behemoths in any numbers, but these too are only slightly improved versions of their Cold War ancestors. With ever heavier armor protection and costlier and more complicated engines required to move these overweight monsters, completely new tanks are now priced beyond the range of the superpowers.

In stark and revealing contrast, travel on any major highway or interstate on the east coast, and you’re likely to see a new Mine Resistant, Armor Protected Vehicle (MRAP)on a trailer or train, decked out in desert colors and headed to the Middle East. Such wheeled armored cars have gone from concept to the battlefield in just a couple years, while the tankers are forced to make due with 25-30 year old tracked vehicles.

Major orders for MRAP vehicles for the US Military began in early 2007, and one year later some 1500 is expected in Iraq and Afghanistan. A total of 20,000 are on order by the Army and Marines, all of which are expected in service by 2009! Such weapons are based on proven South African designs who used armored cars in their various wars against communist rebels in the last century. Their unique “V” shaped hulls are an ideal counter to the IED infested Iraq Theater, proving themselves extremely survivable.

The first of the wheeled combat cars for the new century was the Stryker, based on a similar design already in service with the US Marine Corps since the 1980s. They were first ordered by the maverick General Eric Shinseki in 2000, a brigade of which was in the Iraq theater by 2003, just as the conflict was entering into its insurgency stage. Much maligned for their lack of armor, their speed and inherent toughness proved them well suited for the urban battlefield.

Out of the $160 billion Future Combat System, America hopes to field its new Main Battle Tank. Plans are for a futuristic armored hull with lightweight composite armor which can reduce the size of the vehicle, allowing it to deploy on USAF C-130 transport planes. With looming military cuts in the aftermath of the Iraq War (as happens in all our wars), however, budget cuts for all services can be expected, especially if a Democrat is elected to the White House. Armor advocates like Martin Sieff might continue to pine for the good ole days when armor reigned supreme, but economic and military reality is starting to intervene.

Also read-from Popular Mechanics "Stryker Crews in Iraq Rally to Defend Their Rides: Field Report".