The US Army has a preference for large, heavily armored vehicles. A recent article published by MWI is correct in making that claim. The article is also correct that the US Army’s armored force faces several challenges. But the recommendations prescribed by Capt. Brandon Morgan, the article’s author—which center largely around transitioning to smaller tanks—are based on a misdiagnosis of some of the fundamental aspects of those challenges. In fact, those recommendations would create even more issues.
Morgan frames his argument within the context of the past few decades, arguing that while our heavy Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (and later, Strykers, as well) “twice devastated Saddam Hussein’s army and helped seize Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan,” those fights were characterized by very different conditions than the most likely battlefields of the future. He is correct when he asserts that multi-domain battlefields against a peer adversary will be different, but incorrectly concludes that we need to downgrade our own capabilities in response to modern challenges rather than adapt and overcome them. The historical case study to which we should be looking for guidance is the period just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Challenges to Armored Vehicles
Morgan emphasizes two particular problems with the heavy vehicles that fill our armored formations: maintenance and mobility. Maintenance, or more generally sustainment, is potentially the greatest weakness of any mechanized force, and the US Army—with the greatest vehicle-to-soldier ratio of any force in the world—is therefore arguably the most vulnerable. Speaking on the heavy maintenance requirements of the US Army’s armored platforms—the 70-ton Abrams and 30-ton Bradley—Morgan writes that this vulnerability will only increase “as maintenance decentralization becomes similarly required in the near future for the US Army.” However, such a requirement already exists and is addressed today. The modern combined arms battalion (CAB) is traditionally given operational control of a forward support company of sustainment assets that further assigns each line company a self-sufficient repair team complete with its own recovery vehicle and maintenance vehicle. In combat, these teams would move with the armored force. These teams handle the lion’s share of the maintenance requirements of any armored team, and only the most extreme maintenance issues will necessitate the evacuation of equipment to higher-echelon locations for repair. While US forces have relied on depot-level maintenance during FOB-centric operations during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Morgan points out, this is a deviation from doctrine and from how the armored force is currently trained. Furthermore, it is irrefutable that sustaining the armored force entails a massive cost in expertise and resources. However, that cost must always be weighed against the capabilities such an armored force represents.
The second problem Morgan discusses is that of mobility, arguing succinctly that “the heavier tanks become, the more difficult the mission to move them across the theatre of combat.” It would be beyond the scope of this response to examine the totality of the differences in doctrine and experience that led to the variances between in Western and Eastern armored vehicle design methodology. In general, Western vehicles tend to be more heavily armored and more technologically advanced than their nearest Eastern equivalents, and as a result heavier and more expensive. Ultimately this was a reflection of the greater economic ability, lower manpower reserves, and more defensive mindset of the Cold War West. American vehicles were heavily armored and technologically advanced because they had to be; every vehicle and man could not be easily replaced halfway across the world. They would be required to hold out and delay a larger force until reinforcements and anticipated superiority in the air and at sea could have a decisive effect. Correspondingly, Soviet vehicles of the time were effectively the opposite. They were cheap, just short of disposable, because forces on the offense were at a disadvantage and needed to compensate with numbers. During the Cold War, US and allied armored formations would be tasked to defend, trading time for space until REFORGER units could reinforce them. The same mission would be expected of any potential US or NATO force that would defend Baltic NATO members today. The only change is that the Fulda Gap is replaced by the Baltics as the epicenter of the defense planning scenario. The weight and size of US armored vehicles pose a massive challenge to any potential deployment, but the question that must be asked before we can realistically consider moving away from those platforms must be, can we accomplish the mission without them? The answer is no.
There is an axiom that the best thing to kill a tank is another tank. But frankly, that’s not true. The best way to kill any enemy platform is with a tool the enemy cannot defend against. That’s what makes helicopters, aircraft, and weapons systems such as smart munitions and anti-tank guided munitions so attractive against the type of adversaries we’ve faced in our recent wars. However, peer or near-peer adversaries will possess advanced air defense systems, as well as active and passive defenses that can potentially limit if not neutralize the effectiveness of those platforms. The tank is therefore not the best thing that can kill another tank; it is the only thing that can reliably kill another tank. That’s why the US Army needs tanks that are heavily armored and lethal, so they can survive long enough to delay adversaries until reinforcements can arrive. No matter how onerous the costs, instead of investing in smaller tanks, the United States and its allies should be investing in the infrastructure and systems that increase mobility of heavy vehicles.
Smaller Vehicles and Larger Formations?
Morgan’s article concludes with three broad recommendations: (1) introduce smaller armored platforms, (2) increase the size of tactical armored formations, and (3) enhance unmanned vehicle integration down to the platoon level. This third recommendation—based on recent trends pushing unmanned assets to increasingly lower units and ongoing technological advancements—will likely be reflected in future changes. But the first two warrant close scrutiny.
Morgan suggests introducing autoloaders as part of an effort to reduce the size of a tank crew and facilitate smaller platforms. Autoloaders were first examined for service in potential US Army tank designs as early as 1951, and even in 1980, a prototype with an unmanned turret and autoloader based on an Abrams chassis was tested. Integration of an autoloader enabled Soviet designers to reduce crew size, to three, and decrease the overall size of their vehicles. The cost was a reduction of manpower to conduct maintenance, loss of situational awareness for platforms, and lowered ability to sustain operations for extended durations. These tradeoffs would be acceptable for Soviet formations designed for high attrition rates, manned by conscripts, and intended to operate in mass. But they would be crippling for US armored forces fighting under current US doctrine. Besides doing his or her specified job, the loader allows the tank crew additional manpower to conduct maintenance, pull security, and prepare for future operations.
Morgan’s notion of having tank commanders do double duties as gunners is not a new innovation, either. It is a combat-tested idea, most notably in the Soviet armored force circa 1941, where thousands of Russian tanks were lost to German tanks in the first months of Operation Barbarossa. The Soviets found to their chagrin that tank commanders could not be expected to simultaneously control their formations, maneuver their own vehicles, and engage targets; they quickly moved to designs with separate loader and gunner positions.
If smaller, lighter platforms with high firepower and lower sustainment requirements were superior, the easiest solution would be to retire the Abrams and replace it with an up-gunned Bradley with a Javelin launcher replacing the current TOW anti-tank system. Such a vehicle would provide all the benefits Morgan highlights—but it would still lack the staying power and lethality of a true tank platform.
Smaller crews, Morgan argues in his article, would allow the Army to pursue his second recommendation: larger formations with more platforms, up to six or eight per platoon instead of the four in a current platoon. The US Army does field armored formations with platoons of six armored vehicles in the armored reconnaissance squadron. These platoons operate on a wide frontage, at the section level, to provide reaction time and maneuver space to the armored brigade combat team (ABCT) commander. They are also often given tactical control of the company’s unmanned assets (in line with Morgan’s third recommendation) and are highly successful at their jobs. Their role on the battlefield, however, is entirely different than what would be expected of a tank or mechanized infantry platoon of only four vehicles. A tank or mechanized infantry platoon leader will be expected to maneuver the platoon, report to the company commander, serve as the tank commander for his or her own vehicle, and employ indirect fires (among many other duties in combat). Even with the aid of his or her platoon sergeant and section sergeants, that likely represents the limits of the young lieutenant’s span of control. In the CAB, we fight at the company level, and it is the role of the company commander to set the conditions for platoons’ success by resourcing the information and support needed. To this end, it is also the first echelon where the commander has a staff or executive officer, first sergeant, fire support officer, and master gunner. Growing the size of a platoon and adding additional assets would create a cumbersome element unable to properly utilize the capabilities at hand because it lacks the proper personnel and resources to do so.
Instead of adjusting the platoon, the Army would be better off turning its attention to the company and battalion levels for potential changes. The US Army brigade combat team is supposed to be a self-sufficient, modular maneuver force, able to deploy and operate as a tactically sound and capable element. However, with only three CABs, the ABCT commander is effectively forced to adopt a severely limited repertoire of tactical options. Returning to an ABCT with four instead of the current three line companies in a CAB and adding a fourth CAB to the ABCT would be an excellent start to rectifying that problem. By adding, in effect, an extra seven maneuver companies, the ABCT gains the ability to truly operate as a self-sufficient maneuver element and provides the ABCT commander the tactical freedom to maneuver and defend over a wide area.
Undoubtedly, today’s armored force must adapt to changing circumstances. But we must be wary of giving up capability for dubious returns. Moving unilaterally to lighter, more numerous vehicles without understanding why the opposite tradeoffs were made in the first place means we are in danger of not only repeating the mistakes of the past but also suffering severe consequences. It is increasingly clear that the battlefield of the near future is immensely more complex and potentially dangerous than those of our most recent wars, and arguably more so than those faced by our predecessors during World War II and even the Cold War. The rise of smart weapons, drones, satellites, and other technologies means that we can expect coming conflicts to only increase in the amount of destruction that can be caused in less and less time. Morgan is right when he states that future platforms need to answer a critical question: “What are the needs of the multi-domain battlefield of tomorrow?” Fighting in that type of environment will require platforms that balance lethality and mobility with survivability.
In the medium- to long-term future, the US military must indeed consider what changes it needs to make to succeed in an ever-developing battlefield characterized by increased technology and domain convergence. To be sure, some of Morgan’s recommendations might come to fruition—advancements in artificial intelligence and unmanned vehicles might make larger platoons a reality, while developments in active protection systems and explosive reactive armor might provide future vehicles comparable survivability at much lower weights. However, while it is incumbent on the US Army to forecast these trends as best is possible and prepare for the future, however uncertain it is, it must also do so in a way that soberly reflects on and incorporates the hard-won lessons and experiences of the past.
Capt. Kevin Zhang is an active duty Army armor officer. He commissioned from the United States Military Academy in May 2012. He served as a scout platoon leader and troop executive officer with 4-10 CAV, 3rd ABCT, 4ID, and deployed to Jordan in support of Operation Spartan Shield. He later and deployed to Korea with 1-8 CAV, 2nd ABCT, where he served as the battalion assistant S-3. He now serves as the commander for Battle Company, 1-8 CAV, 2nd ABCT.
Image credit: Pfc. Christina Westfall, US Army