Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Tank Meets the Mule-Updated

Updated and Bumped. See below.

I don't buy into the notion that because the Canadians have decided to purchase 100 used Leopard 2 tanks from Holland, rather than update their armored forces with new-build Strykers, that the Main Battle Tank (MBT) still is King of the Battlefield. Certain types of track vehicles might always be required for specialized operations in difficult terrain, but with no one in the West currently building new MBTs, save for updating older models, how long will even these tired warriors be in frontline service?

The fact is the enemies of the MBT has made the giant behemoth so costly to defend that it has outlived its usefulness in this age of precision guided weapons. As we have discovered in recent years, fast and easy to produce armored cars like the Stryker and even new MRAP vehicles can perform many of the missions once thought the domain of the tank at far less the expense.

During World War 2, after Britain and America had completely mechanized their armies, it was soon discovered that over tough, mountainous terrain, the recently disposed of cavalry might still be useful. Especially during the Italian Campaign, army mules were considered vital to load ammo and essential supplies before the Allies could seize more favorable ground for the armored divisions. This strategy brought its own set of difficulties as "each division needed 300-500 mules, also, the food, shoes, nails, packs, etc, for them. This in turn led to frantic searches for veterinarians, harness makers, blacksmiths and mule skinners to manage the beasts!"

In certain limited conditions then, the tank still is essential, especially against any Third World adversary,as we have seen since 1991. On roadless landscape, as we may find in Afghanistan where the Taliban reside, or in undeveloped nations as in Africa, the archaic giants are still intimidating and effective. Yet, against such poorly armed foes do we still need to sink our national treasure into developing $150 billion Future Combat Systems, or will older models as the Canadians are using be good enough?

Against any future peer antagonist, in which precision weapons are involved, today's most powerful land ships are no more useful than the Japanese battleships at the Battle of Midway. Such weapons have returned the initiative in land war to the "poor bloody infantry". As for armored vehicles, all that is required of them today is as "battle taxis", providing the foot soldier with a ride where his new arsenal of portable anti-tank missiles plus his ability to reign down fire from above by calling on precision air or guided artillery support has effectively doomed the Main Battle Tank.

Update-Just came across this editorial in the Toronto Sun by Peter Worthington, concerning the new Canadian Leopards which adds validity to my thoughts above:

My problem is that having been to Afghanistan and seen some of
the ravages of war, what stands out in memory is the countryside littered with
burned and destroyed Soviet tanks. My question: If Russian armour was vulnerable
and destroyable in Afghanistan, why is Canadian armour considered invulnerable
and effective? Or is it?
I know the Americans' mighty 70-ton Abrams tanks
and Bradley fighting vehicles have proved somewhat of a mixed blessing in the
mountains. The big guns in the tanks have limited elevation and in mountains
cannot shoot at high ridges where the enemy lurks. Nor is the Abrams
satisfactory in urban guerrilla warfare in Iraq, where it is vulnerable to
ambush -- especially with anti-tank weaponry coming from Iran.

The same applies to 60-ton Canadian Leopards in
Afghanistan, where roadside explosives devices are lethal. In flat country,
these tanks with the 122-mm and 120-mm guns can be devastating at routing the
Wheeled armoured vehicles are vulnerable to powerful roadside
explosive devices; 25-mm guns are not as lethal as tank guns. Increasingly
mine-resistance ambush- protected vehicles (MRAPs) are necessary, with special
armour and V-shaped hulls to deflect explosions.

I remember being in Eritrea in 1988 when fighters of the
Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) ambushed an Ethiopian armoured brigade
on a mountain road. The Eritreans knocked out the lead tank and the last tank,
thus trapping the whole brigade, and then picked off those in the middle at
leisure. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
So helpless were the
Ethiopians that their own air force bombed the trapped brigade to destroy their
own equipment and ensure the Eritreans couldn't use it.

Without incurring one casualty, the EPLF annihilated the
brigade, and then went on to destroy a division, subsequently winning the war
and their own independence. (At the time I took photos of Canadian wheat flour
intended for refugees, being used in army kitchens -- which CIDA ignored or
denied when this eyewitness account was published).
Eritrea was a country of
three million that, with little outside military aid, defeated a country of 44
million that (excluding South Africa) boasted the most modern army in Africa,
supplied by the U.S. and then the Soviets.

So perhaps it's understandable why I and others are uneasy
about the use of tanks in a mountainous country like Afghanistan, where a
resourceful "enemy" is nervy and adept at innovation.
There's no reason to
suppose they can't, or won't, do to our precious tanks what they did to Soviet

Thought this very interesting and relevent, especially coming from someone who's actually been to the warzone, observing the environment there first hand.