Since victory in World War II, the United States Army has leveraged the nation’s economic prowess to invest in increasingly heavy, technologically complex combat platforms. Our appetite for armor is clear, and comes from the belief that maximum protection, firepower, and technology, combined with the cognitive skill of the all-volunteer force, will produce the most supreme mechanized units on the battlefield. During Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, and portions of Operation Enduring Freedom, this concept proved valid, as American Abrams tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and later Stryker armored fighting vehicles twice devastated Saddam Hussein’s army and helped seize Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. These campaigns, though, will likely be markedly different than the multi-domain battlefield against a peer adversary the Army anticipates in the twenty-first century. Rather, the struggle for temporary periods of supremacy in air, sea, land, cyber, and space, coupled with the increasing vulnerability of battlefield supply lines, will prove increasingly challenging for our current armored formations, requiring a fundamental shift in the acquisition, training, and employment of our mechanized forces.
The Challenges with Heavy Armor
The US Army’s appetite for large and heavily armored combat platforms inevitably brings with it the burden of sharply increased maintenance demands. On top of these increased demands, maintenance personnel are challenged further by the increasing complexity of highly technical systems within modern armored platforms. Much like the way in which, during campaigns against Poland and France in 1939 and 1940, the German Army was able to sustain its maintenance program with spare parts and available skilled labor due to low overall demand, only to struggle keeping up its maintenance as the war continued, the US Army may find itself in a state of relative complacency given our ability to maintain our armored vehicles during recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Germany’s highly centralized and ordered maintenance program during the campaigns of 1939–1940 was thrown into chaos and disarray by the ferocity of the campaigns against the Soviet Union in late 1941 and 1942. This led to systematic decentralization of maintenance personnel, where expertise had to be scattered throughout the battlefield and as close to the front line as possible. As maintenance decentralization becomes similarly required in the near future for the US Army, our 70-ton Abrams tanks and 30-ton Bradley fighting vehicles, will put in place markedly heavier maintenance demands than the 50-ton Russian T-90 tank or 20-ton BMP-3 combat platforms. The idea of the Abrams main battle tank, with the most advanced technology and heaviest armor of any combat vehicle on the planet, makes sense on a battlefield where the United States remains uncontested in every domain; however, this is not likely to be the case in future high-intensity conflict.
The United States continues to face the particular challenge, compared to potential adversaries like Russia and China, of needing to travel enormous distances in order to be politically and militarily relevant in strategically important regions like Eastern Europe and Asia. For Europe in particular, unlike in the Cold War, the US military does not maintain multiple Army corps ready for frontline action. The mobility of rotational and stateside armored assets and other combat platforms will prove key to bringing US military power to bear in future competition. The heavier tanks become, the more difficult the mission to move them across the theatre of combat. The Suwalki Corridor, 100 kilometers of key terrain that separates Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave from Belarus remains a choke point for NATO forces reinforcing our Baltic NATO allies in the event of a crisis and could prove a unique challenge for moving US armored forces in a rapid defensive mission. Should mechanized forces choose to conduct a road march, there are only two supply routes leading into Lithuania, with only one currently capable of supporting fully combat-loaded Abrams or Bradley vehicles. Even if they could conduct a road march, sustaining an Abrams tank, which requires refueling every eight hours during operations, would severely challenge US logisticians and place logistics assets at significant risk to observation and both direct and indirect fires.
Moving armored assets via rail would prove equally challenging due to the difference between the European-standard gauges used across in Poland and the Soviet-built railways of a different gauge connecting Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. While the challenge of re-engineering to the European gauge is a collective challenge for NATO, the propensity of the United States military to build larger and heavier armored combat platforms, and insist that the twenty-nine–nation alliance keep pace with subsequent upgrades to its roads, bridges, and rail platforms exacerbates the problem. Russian forces, in comparison, enjoy a marked mobility advantage by combining expert railway operations, geographical proximity, and lighter and less fuel-consuming platforms, which results in a rapid delivery of massed combat power, ready for high-intensity conflict at what amounts to a moment’s notice, as demonstrated by the 2017 Zapad exercises.
Water crossings are another major challenge for US armored platforms. Neither the Stryker, Bradley, Abrams, nor the Humvee are amphibious, meaning they rely on a limited supply of engineering vehicles, soldiers, and capabilities in order to conduct a river crossing. This may not have posed a problem in Iraq or Afghanistan, where US military domain dominance was always assured. However, when all domains are heavily contested, US reliance on specialty soldiers and equipment, who will become key targets for the enemy and are subject to their own extensive maintenance requirements, may prove highly detrimental to future US Army mobility in a peer fight.
These are major problems that will require long-term solutions. But it is vital that the Army starts to think through these solutions today. Here’s where to begin:
1. Smaller platforms
As the US military looks to build new armored combat platforms, it must consider how to achieve decisive lethality while maximizing ease of production, maintenance, and mobility. Reducing the tank crew team size to three, or even two, by introducing an autoloading feature, and having the tank commander also serve as the gunner and backup loader will generate many benefits critical for success on the multi-domain battlefield. First, a smaller platform reduces the maintenance requirements, fuel consumption, and overall target signature. Secondly, a drastic cut in overall weight increases the platform’s mobility, allows for the possibility of amphibious crossings, increases bridge-crossing capability, and facilitates movement by rail.
2. Larger combat formations
Smaller crews would allow US forces to experiment with new formations, with the possibility of either increasing the size of the tank platoon (e.g., to six or eight platforms), or adding a fourth organic platoon to the tank company formation. Regardless of what is the right answer, the decrease in crew size must be accompanied with units conducting internal training experiments to determine proper task organization for maximum battlefield lethality.
3. Increase unmanned vehicle utilization at platoon level
In addition to reducing crew size and enlarging armored formations, an important step would be increasing the use of unmanned ground and aerial vehicles, capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations far from the company headquarters. Currently, unmanned aerial vehicles reside at the company level, with limited ability to conduct ISR missions at the platoon and section level. As the multi-domain battlefield becomes more dispersed and lethal, there will continue to be increasing requirements for immediate information regarding the composition of nearby enemy forces and terrain. Should the tank platoon or company grow in size, task organizing unmanned aerial and ground platforms to the platoon and section level will enable small units to make quick decisions to rapidly outmaneuver the enemy—a key component of the Army’s emerging multi-domain operational concept.
There are, to be sure, challenges and drawbacks to decreasing armored vehicle size. Lighter platforms may struggle to maintain the same firepower and protection of a modern Abrams. The first and foremost question of the future platform, however, should be what are the needs of the multi-domain battlefield of tomorrow? Regarding firepower, if an increased number of platforms per platoon, coupled with increasing weapons technology, is more lethal tomorrow than the 120-millimeter cannon of today, then the solution is straightforward. And regarding protection, if smaller, more dispersed platforms, with more sister platforms covering each vehicle’s flanks, is more capable of surviving the battlefield of tomorrow than the gigantic Abrams of today, again the solution is straightforward. Training for this new concept of decisive lethality, to include more numerous, lighter platforms with increased unmanned vehicle incorporation, must be extensive, requiring updates and revisions to doctrine.
As the US military looks to upgrade its armored combat vehicles and formations, enemy and terrain considerations of the multi-domain battlefield must take foremost consideration. Continuing to rely on large, heavy vehicles that assume Desert Storm–like domain dominance, combined with an implicit but unproven assumption that the next war will allow total economic mobilization akin to that of World War II, is a recipe for military irrelevance on the future multi-domain battlefield. Rather, the US military must consider acquiring and training on lighter vehicles, with smaller crews, allowing for larger tactical formations at the platoon and company level, augmented with increased unmanned vehicle integration at the platoon level. This will decrease maintenance requirements, while boosting mobility, lethality, and overall ability to fight and win on the battlefield of tomorrow.
Image credit: Charles Rosemond, US Army
Quantity has a quality all of it's own- Stalin
Rarely will a war, rather than a battle, be determined by the material extant at the outbreak of hostilities; especially if t hy e doctrine of the enemy is to execute an initial decisive blow. Ease of mobilizing production requires secure sealanes, industrial capacity and adequate raw materials, that is an ability to re- equip and rearm.
The odd fixation with a so-called Suwalki Gap must be discarded as militarily irrelevant in the event of conflict in the region. The so-called "gap" is a political one only, between political boundaries only. The physical geography on both sides of these international borders is the same and in military geographic terms, there is no 'gap' in terms of a higher speed avenue of approach and a mobility corridor that is constrained (thereby constraining application of combat power) which is implied by the term "gap" in military discussions. The idea that NATO would continue to respect the political sovereign territory of Russia, specifically the Kaliningrad Oblast, while reinforcing the Baltic states, NATO members, who are being invaded by Russia is completely ridiculous. Kaliningrad must be held at risk in any and all NATO military planning, something Russia stands to lose as soon as it conducts acts of war against Baltic state NATO members. Given the likelihood of Russian military assets based in Belarus being employed or transiting Belarus via air and ground, it is also doubtful that Belarusian sovereign borders will or should be respected either.
When people look to the future, they are wise to first review the past, because "where do we go from here?" should be second question answered, after "how did we get here?" Sadly, Captain Morgan writes about tanks like a non-tanker who doesn't understand why tanks are how they are, so his suggestions of how they should look in future are hit and miss.
Never assume that we will develop a magic technology our enemies will never have, so expect everybody's vehicles to take shape more or less the same. Substantial differences tend to be born of doctrine and culture, not technology. Soviet/Russian armor is lighter than Western armor because reduced weight, size, and cost are priorities–above things like ergonomics, vehicle protection, and crew survival. If the Soviet designers of the mid-Cold War had cared about their tank crews, the modern Russian tank would have evolved to look a lot more like an Abrams, Challenger, or Leopard.
Consider the direct lessons of history. No major tank design since World War II has combined the duties of commander and gunner, as the author suggests, because it seriously impeded the efficiency of the crew. The leading edge of design is exactly the opposite: expect a modern tank to have independent sights both the commander and gunner to maximize searching assets and minimize time to locate and engage targets.
Consider the concepts of history. Before the practicalities of modern warfare centralized armor designs into a "universal tank"–the main battle tank–and a limited variety infantry carriers, there were a perfusion of concepts in the interwar period and World War II, including light tanks, medium tanks, heavy tanks, tank destroyers, assault guns, and a variety of truck- and halftrack-mounted weapons. Some were superseded in every regard, but others were simply abandoned as the preferred ways of war changed–should the tactical paradigm change back, some old ideas might be useful anew.
From an ops point of view, if everything works right, this sounds like goodness. From a logistics point of view, I struggle to see it getting better. Even as a non-tanker, I'm aware that the crew does the daily checks and quite a bit of the minor maintenance…dropping this onto two or three guys vice four isn't going to improve operational availability. And unmanned systems, even if autonomous in operation (which most aren't yet — the man simply isn't on the platform), no one's invented unmanned maintenance…proliferating anything but the simplest throwaway systems down to platoon simply gives the platoon more to carry around and fix…or leave back in the FOB in various states of disrepair.
Warlock, in my experience 3-man Bradley crews typically conducted all the operator-level maintenance required for their assigned vehicles without significant degradation of 'operational availability'.
Informative discussion. As a senior citizen with zero military experience I worry most about the potential economic as well as strategic disadvantages the United States faces against potential future adversaries whether Russia or China. These include not only distance challenges of potential theaters of conflict, It includes means of conflict such as cyber or large, widely dispersed missile attacks on our Navy. I expect we will never be up against a military like Saddam Hussein’s again. Due to my ignorance I have no suggestions to make.
I gotta say, at one point this looked like it might as well say "replicate the Russians", which means much more expendable people, let alone platform. That is not a course of action that we really want to go again, of course the Sherman model of tanks, great for infantry support, not great against superior armor. Of course the US would like to shrink the weight, and that is much closer today than in the past. Metal Foam, new ceramics, liquid armors, and it will probably take a combo of all of them. It would frankly happen if the Army would try and push to get the same funding as the insane amounts the Air Force gets for this. Otherwise, it's always small incremental steps. Otherwise, the changes they can make are probably smaller in nature. The changes will probably be off-set with heavier armor anyway and other additions like the APS. If they went to a 140 mm gun, or an ETC gun like the xm291, that will just balance out on weight. the xm360 could be used as well, it's an improvement in performance (20%) and half the weight, but will it be enough gun for ten years out? We keep hearing the 120 mm will kill anything, but how do we know? We either steal legit docs that say that from Russia or a t14 or t90 itself from say "Green Men" in Ukraine or if they were "tested" it Syria but that's about it. Hate to say it as well, you could have Abrams facing off against Leopards in the middle east. If one of our Gulf Allies did the same as Iraq, and lost a large amount of Leopards by say running like hell against an Iranian incursion, you will have to fight them, and win. So it's really designing the tank to kill any tank, and how to drop the weight in some fashion. IMHO, you will get some more titanium in the parts, more ceramics, suspension, but the cannon could get larger and stay weight neutral, the new lost weight offset by more APS and passive PS, and added armor to top and side, with a new engine that may not be any lighter but hopefully more powerful. Not sure how the autoloader would lower weight either, you take out a 200 pound man with whatever that weight is, probably in excess of 200 pounds. Net net, 75 ton Abrams still. 20 years before a new tank, but still the best one in the world, Leopard apology aside in advance…
Every Century has shown a significant shift in weapons capability that has shifted dominance and/or military outcomes of combat. While not a person with military background, I have been a student of history and am a technologist by training and career. The paradigm needs to shift from direct human involvement in ground vehicle combat. Instead look to replace the majority of human tank combat to one that does not need humans to be in the armored vehicle. This eliminates many size and protection constraints.
A robotic tank can subsequently be smaller, faster, more agile and deadly (and less costly?). Couple this with AI coordination of entire tank movement and tactics, along with drone capabilities can allow for both rapid strike and deadly force in sophisticated ways. The Human element will always be needed. Either as strategic and operational command and control of a robotic fleet, but also as an agile combat force that can more quickly react to battle field situations soldier/civilian interactions, intelligence, and changes in battlefield strategy.
When you can improve strategic and absolute force while minimizing human toll as part of the equation tips the balance of dominance in the field of battle. To be sure material technology to protect these robotic field force assets is critical. Equally critical is replacing size to house humans with lethal and agile capabilities. The faster a battle can be executed will create dominance and optimal outcomes.