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December 1, 2022

Part 2 Battle Cruisers, Tank Destroyers, and Armored Cars

This section examines the evolution of the IBCT through some of its historical precedents: battle cruiser, tank destroyers, World War II Cavalry Groups of World War II, and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (Light). While there is no direct relationship between these organizations and the medium brigade, they all share features and it is instructive to look at the IBCT through historical eyes.

These seemingly disparate groups all have one thing in common: they were designed to fulfill a scouting or defense function and to allow the concentration of other forces for the main effort.

Battle Cruisers and Battle Ships

Admiral John "Jackie" Fischer invented both battle cruisers and the dreadnought or modern battleship giving the British Navy a significant advantage at the beginning of the twentieth century. The dreadnaught was a radical departure from earlier battleships because it concentrated on having a large single caliber main gun battery as opposed to several guns of mixed caliber.

The battle cruiser was designed to function independently, carried battleship armament and was faster then the battleship through increased power plants and lighter armor. Its job was to out gun, out run, and absorb hits from smaller vessels such as heavy cruisers, while evading other capital ships.

Figure 2.
USS Alaska Battle Cruiser

Tragically, the idea, which looked good on paper, did not fare so well in the real world. Germany quickly built its own battle cruisers with more armor and less speed and firepower, negating the British ships.

As a counter, the British formed their ships into squadrons and in this role; they functioned as scouts for the battle fleet. Once the enemy fleet was located, they would engage enemy battle cruisers in a fleet action or use their speed to engage the enemy battleships in conjunction with the friendly battle line.

This philosophy proved to be tragically flawed as shown at the Battle of Jutland   where no less than three out of the five British battle cruisers were sunk with catastrophic explosions and the loss all but a handful of crewman while a fourth was severely damaged. Almost as Admiral Hood, commanding the Invincible, was killed, the HMS Hood was nearing the end of its construction.

The Hood of course, suffered from the same weaknesses of all battle cruisers, and was sunk by the Prinz Eugen or Bismark in the early days of World War II.

US Tank Destroyers in World War II

Tank Destroyers (TD) are rooted to the initial use of field artillery as anti-tank guns in World War I.   The US developed TDs as a defensive measure in a very offensively minded army, perhaps dooming it to failure from the start against the rampage of the German panzers in the opening stages of World War II.

Colonel (later General) Andrew D. Bruce (who also commanded the very successful 77th Infantry Division in the Pacific) founded the US tank destroyer force. Initially, tank destroyers were to be employed in anti-tank platoons in infantry battalions, companies in infantry regiments, and independent battalions at the divisional level.   Although initially successful in wargames in the US, their combat performance never quite lived up to the "live simulations" of the pre war years.

Figure 3.
Tank Destroyer Battalion

The US planned to employ TDs offensively, for this reason, like battle cruisers, they had big guns to kill enemy tanks and were fast with only light, open topped armor to allow them to concentrate.

The 1943 Self-propelled Tank Destroyer battalion was organized as shown in Figure 3. It was armed with the M10 (Sherman based with a 3 inch gun in an open turret), the M18 (a smaller, purpose built TD, with a high velocity 76mm gun), or the M36 (another Sherman variant with a 90mm gun – essentially identical to the M26 Pershing’s). The units were not to "slug it out with enemy tanks," instead, their cavalry units would find the enemy and guide the TD’s onto the enemy flanks, while their security detachments protected them from enemy infantry.

Tank destroyer were supposed to be employed in groups and even brigades to mass and defeat large groups of enemy armor, but by the time the US entered ground combat in World War II, the Germans seldom presented such large groups of tanks. Instead, they were usually attached out to divisions in small units. In the one or two instances when large groups of enemy tanks presented themselves, the TDs were unable to concentrate due to the poor communications of the period and the time it took to assemble.

They were useful as indirect fire artillery, direct fire artillery (knocking out bunkers or AT positions in support of infantry and armor attacks), and as reinforcements to tank platoons, able to deal with the heavily armored Panther and Tiger tanks.

Mechanized Cavalry In World War II

Mechanized cavalry evolved from the Army’s horse cavalry regiments between the two world wars and during the early years of World War II. Intended as a reconnaissance and security organization, it initially relied on stealth for its success. However, early failures in North Africa showed that cavalry doctrine and organization, with few weapons and dismounts, was flawed at the start.

After its initial use in combat, mechanized cavalry evolved into a combat arm as opposed to a purely reconnaissance arm. Results were successful, but costly, because cavalry units were not equipped with the heavy armor of tank units and had far fewer scouts for dismounted work than an armored infantry battalion.

Unlike tank destroyers units, cavalry groups actually commanded their squadrons, instead of having them routinely detached out to other units. The cavalry group, however, was comparatively weak, only consisting of two squadrons. It therefore had to put all its combat power in the line or only retain a small reserve. Also unlike tank destroyers, there were divisional cavalry squadrons. As such, the role and employment of cavalry has remained fairly steady up to the present day.

The 1943 cavalry squadron was organized much like today’s cavalry squadrons, with a headquarters troop, three cavalry troops, a tank company, and a howitzer battery. The cavalry troops had three reconnaissance platoons, as shown in Figure 4. This organization was stealthy enough to gain information without fighting and heavy enough to fight to gain information.

Figure 4.
Mechanized Cavalry Squadron

Key to the tactical success of the cavalry squadron was the Jeep, small, quiet, and nimble, it could get the cavalrymen out of trouble as quickly as it got him into it. Together with the dedicated 60mm mortars and high proportion of automatic weapons, and backed up with the M-8 Armored Car (a tank destroyer cast off), supported by the tank company and the assault gun battery, the squadron could also defend and attack, as well as carry out traditional cavalry missions.

USMC Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion

The LAR Battalion (Figure 5) arose with the USMC’s realization that they were too light for contingencies in places like the Middle East, where nearly every country had large numbers of armored vehicles.

Figure 5.
Marine Corps LAR Battalion

Although it was conceived of as a reconnaissance organization, the battalion was initially named the light armored infantry battalion. It has a similar organization to the Army’s proposed medium infantry battalions, consisting of 4 companies, each with three platoons of LAV-25, 4 LAV-Anti-tank TOW vehicles (wheeled versions of the M901 ITV), and 2 LAV-Mortar (81mm Mortars), plus assorted support vehicles. The battalion suffers from a lack of Anti-tank fires (no Javelin or Dragons) and only has four dismounts per carrier. It therefore requires augmentation from infantry, tank, and Assault Amphibian battalions for many missions. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it operates as part of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), and as such, has an lethal air component to call upon for support.

The LAR battalion’s main roles are reconnaissance and security. Because the LAV is not armored to protect against anything larger than 7.62mm machine gun fire or 152mm artillery bursts at ranges of greater than 50 feet, it relies on its speed and stealth to avoid decisive engagement, just like battle cruisers, tank destroyers, and cavalry groups.

The LAR is at a severe disadvantage in offensive or defensive operations where the enemy has mobility equal to or greater than its own. Again, these faults are compensated for by the awesome combined arms power of the MAGTF.

LAR battalions performed well in the Gulf War, although one battalion suffered severely due to friendly fire. It has also performed well in large scale exercises in the southwestern United States.

The Light Armored Cavalry Regiment

The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment is the army’s "light" cavalry regiment and is descended from the 9th Infantry Division (Motorized) and the 199th Separate Infantry Brigade (Motorized) – themselves orphan’s of the high technology test bed division.

Its squadrons are organized much as a standard ACR (Figure 6), except armed with HMMWVs equipped with machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, and TOW missiles instead of fighting vehicles and main battle tanks. It has a large amount of anti-tank weapons in the form of its TOWs and Javelins, but has virtually no armor protection. The HMMWVs were intended to be surrogate vehicles for more advanced vehicles to be developed, notably the M8 Armored Gun System, but these were all cancelled, and the result is an organization with high strategic mobility, poor armor protection, that is more dependent on stealth than its heavier brother.

Figure 6.
 2nd ACR

The 2nd ACR could be characterized as a combination and evolution of World War II Tank Destroyer units (with its heavy hitting TOWs instead of tank destroyers) and the mechanized cavalry groups (with their HMMWVs instead of jeeps.)

The 2nd ACR has not been tested in combat, but has faired well in peacekeeping operations; however, it has not proved as successful as its heavy counterparts at the National Training Center. It is more fit for low intensity warfare and peacekeeping than high or medium intensity combat.

Historical Lessons Learned

  • Speed, stealth, and firepower are no substitute for protection
  • If it looks like a tank (battleship), it will get used like a tank (battleship).
  • Dismounted scouts or infantry are necessary for successful combat / reconnaissance operations.
  • If there is flawed doctrine, the troops will invent their own ways of employing a system.
  • Surrogate vehicles tend to become permanent.

Part 3 The Medium Battalion


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