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On Point

Armor Amour -- Suddenly The Beltway Loves Tanks


by Austin Bay
May 11, 2005

Like Mark Twain's death, the demise of the tank has been "greatly exaggerated."

A weekend conversation with my WWII and Korea vet father spurs this column.

Dad had seen a short video I shot in Iraq that featured my staff section racing down Baghdad's "Route Irish" in an unarmored SUV. Dad asked about the handling characteristics of SUVs and Humvees with "add-on" armor -- light vehicles that weren't designed to carry the extra weight. He then compared what I told him about steel plates and Kevlar panels to a Korean War "armor upgrade" to counter land mines: sandbags on a jeep's floorboard.

"Dad," I replied. "Sand bags on floorboards aren't out of date."

Army units began adding sand bags, Kevlar and steel plates to their vehicles long before last year's press and political debate over the Pentagon's failure to anticipate the need to "up-armor" Humvees and trucks.

The hot-button controversy flared in a bitterly partisan political year. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld actually gave a reasonable answer when he said an administration fights with the military it has. Critics smacked Rumsfeld for "insensitivity" and excuse-mongering to cover his own lack of foresight. The fact is, in war surprise is a certainty, and winning requires adaptation and flexibility. Troops are often ahead of the generals. After D-Day, tenacious German resistance in Normandy's hedgerows surprised Allied forces and frustrated the brass' invasion timetable. An American sergeant jury-rigged a "cutting plow" that allowed U.S. tanks to bust through the bocage.

There are more fertile fields for critics of Rumsfeld and his Pentagon Whiz Kids' lack of foresight.

In early 2001, Rumsfeld overstated the case for "a generational leap in military technology." I think Rumsfeld overstated technological and organizational change intentionally. The military-industrial-Congress complex is intransigent, particularly when reputations, jobs and political patronage are involved. Rumsfeld planned for a peacetime Washington political slugfest where military modernization would be a tough sell.

Sept. 11 damned peacetime plans.

An article I wrote in August 2001 -- pre-9/11 -- took some hits from Whiz Kid supporters. Titled "Grunt Work," it argued for retaining a sufficient mass of high quality infantry (see it at austinbay.net/blog/index.php?p=69). The article drew on T.R. Fehrenbach's Korean War classic "This Kind of War." One Beltway critic labeled me a hapless Luddite. Nope -- I believed then and now we never know the future and, when it comes to maintaining U.S. security, all bets must be hedged. I love robots and smart bombs, but I suspected full-spectrum 21st century war would also require bayonets and police batons.

In the original Rumsfeld program, heavy armor, like the M1 tank, was a "legacy system" -- an archaic technology. Rumsfeld's Whiz Kids weren't the only ones who thought the tank passe. An Army buddy tells the story of a could-be Democratic appointee he escorted through DOD briefings. The pipe-smoking pontificator kept saying, "The tank's dead." My infantry pal finally turned to him and said: "Yes sir, the tank's a dinosaur, but it's the baddest dinosaur on the battlefield. You face one."

Iraq's war in the streets -- and yes, a new examination of 1993's tragic street battle in Mogadishu, Somalia -- have put tanks back on the Pentagon's agenda.

The May issue of Armed Forces Journal features a tough-minded article by Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute. Goure notes "the conventional wisdom" assumed that a "small ground contingent" would wield "decisive power" by deploying promptly and maneuvering rapidly.

"On reflection, it now appears that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The overriding lesson of recent conflicts, both conventional wars and counterinsurgency campaigns, is that some armor is good and more armor is better."

U.S. forces "are heavier than they were at the end of major combat operations in Iraq. A principle reason for this is ... uparmoring."

Goure argues that "the demands of survivability and tactical effectiveness are trumping the desire for strategic mobility."

I'm still for strategic mobility -- lighter units are part of a full-capability force. But "staying power" on deadly streets requires heavy firepower and heavy armor protection. Common sense knew this, even if Whiz Kid wisdom didn't.

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