Sunday, March 09, 2008

Tanks But No Tanks

An iconic photo from the early Afghan campaign shows a group of US Army Rangers calling down precision air strikes against the Taliban while astride horses. Don’t expect a return of the four-footed cavalry just yet, but this a prime example of how modern technology has changed the nature of 21st Century warfare. GPS satellites, smart bombs, robot weapons, and cruise missiles added to such basic platforms are leaving our ancient and worn out Industrial Age weapons in the dust.

Yet, Martin Sieff, in an expansive series of article for UPI recently argued for the relevancy of 20th Century arms, specifically the Main Battle Tank:

“U.S. military planners have been increasingly criticized in the
specialist media for their continued commitment to maintaining a large -- and
expensive --- force of Abrams M1A2 Main Battle Tanks. But they are by no means
alone in this commitment. The military planners of India, China and Russia -- as
we have previously noted in these columns -- remain committed to the strategic
doctrine that their armies may have to fight large-scale land wars in the
foreseeable future. And in each case they are still trusting in tanks to be the
backbone of their main land forces.”

Like many such armor advocates, Sieff uses history as his guide in his well thought out articles, but fails to grasp the significant change brought on by 21st century digital weapons. Specifically, the threats against the Main Battle Tank has become greater than their usefulness in combat. Over the decades the tank has grown enormously in cost and size, while increasing only marginally in fighting power. The types of ammunition carried has changed dramatically, but such advanced arms need no longer be housed in an expensive and highly visible platform, while its old-style cannon armament is out-ranged by modern rockets and missiles.

Proponents of such hi tech behemoths claim these legacy weapons must be maintained for some future Great Power conflict, as we fought in World War 2, yet the opposite should be the case. Third World guerillas have already used inexpensive anti tank rockets and mines, plus cruise missiles and UAVs against the world’s greatest land powers: Israel in Lebanon and the US in Iraq. Why then can’t the same hit and run, swarming tactics be studied to fight America’s peer enemies?

Wheeled vehicles have also proved their utility and survivability on the modern battlefield. Light armored vehicles like the Stryker and MRAPs generally cost a few hundred thousand up to $3 million each. Such weapons, especially geared for the urban battlefield, have gone from concept to construction in just a few years. Contrast this to the 20 or so years required to finally field an M-60 MBT replacement, the M-1 Abrams tank.

Where an MBT relies on its heavy and expensive armor to defeat modern anti-tank weapons, easier to build and afford light armored vehicles are forced to use speed, stealth, maneuverability and special tactics to defeat such threats. Removable slat or cage armor is carried on the Stryker to defeat rocket propelled grenades. MRAP vehicles rely on its “V” shaped hull design to deflect much of the explosion from a roadside mine.

Satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft missiles, smart sub munitions, and primitive land mines are all combining to end the reign of the tank in land warfare. Add to this advanced sensors now being carried on aircraft, which leave the tank dangerously exposed on the modern battle field. While the 90 year old tracked warrior might still be popular with the major land powers, the less affluent Third World is taking notice of cheaper and more effective means to circumvent our Industrial Age superiority, as we continue to see with each new battle against the insurgents in the Middle East.