Armor: November 24, 1999

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: The US Army may move the LOSAT (Line Of Sight, Anti-Tank) missile from the back burner to the front of the stove. LOSAT is a hyper-velocity missile, traveling at 1,500m per second and smashing through any known tank by its speed alone. This would be the first missile to have a "drive back" capability, that is, the physical and moral ability to force tanks to retreat. Slow-firing wire-guided missiles such as TOW do not have this capability (they cannot reload fast enough), but tank cannons do. Fired from a modified Humvee, the LOSAT missiles could provide Shinseki's light wheeled brigades with a major tank-killing weapon without a 70-ton armored box to carry it around. While the range of LOSAT is a closely-guarded secret, it is reputed to be "twice that of most tank cannons". --Stephen V Cole

The US Army plans to design and produce the Common Modular Missile to replace TOW for both ground vehicles and helicopters. This will be the first time since the 1970s that a single missile is developed for both air and ground use. --Stephen V Cole

November 23; The UAE continues to receive the 136 special armored personnel carriers (variants of the FNSS Armored Combat Vehicle) from Turkey. The order includes 53 Engineer Squad Vehicles (which have extensive external stowage for equipment that doubles as stand-off armor), eight repair-recovery vehicles, and 75 forward artillery observer vehicles (with mast-mounted sights). The vehicles have five road wheels and a 350hp engine. The gunner can fire the 12.7mm machinegun from under armor.--Stephen V Cole

November 21; The Trackless Wilderness of Armor Doctrine: The new Army chief of staff, general Shinseki, first proposed, than rapidly implanted a plan to eliminate heavy armored vehicles. The M-1 tank, which the U.S. had over 7,000 of, was the principal target. Too heavy for rapid movement to potential overseas hot spots, the M-1 and the hefty infantry fighting vehicles are to be replaced by wheeled armed vehicles. Two brigades are already being formed to test which vehicles to use and to develop new tactics. 

This new approach, pushed by a forceful and energetic chief of staff, is not without precedent. The U.S. army has used wheeled armored vehicles in the past. Mainly because they are lighter, faster on roads and much easier to maintain. Tracked vehicles, like the M-1, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery, are maintenance nightmares. The track laying system is not as robust as it appears to be. But tracks are needed to carry a lot of armor and big weapons. During the last sixty years, this has proved to be a winning combination on the battlefield. It was last demonstrated during the Gulf War, when the nearly invulnerable M-1s, blasted their way through those Iraqi tanks foolish enough to resist. The M-1's 120mm cannon could hit targets several thousand meters away, and the desert battlefield provided ample opportunity to do this. Thus there is much resistance to Shinseki in the army, for even if you get there first with wheeled armored vehicles, your options are limited if you face enemy tanks, or even determined enemy infantry.

Most likely, if Shinseki has his way, we will end up with several of these light (wheeled) armored divisions, plus several more with the M-1 tanks. This will happen if the army takes a look at its own history with light armored vehicles, and the practical aspects of armored warfare. The most important lessons to recall are those from World War II. Early in World War II, the U.S. army decided to create a large number of anti-tank units equipped with "tank destroyers." These were lightly armored vehicles, some with wheels, most with tracks, carrying a large gun. In some cases the tank destroyers (TDs) were armed with larger guns than American tanks. A lot of effort was put into this project, and 222 battalions were planned. But less than half that number of battalions were actually organized before the war ended. Reports from the front indicated that, in practice, tank destroyers didn't work out so well. If caught by an enemy tank, or anti-tank gun, the TDs were toast. While useful in the defense, they were too vulnerable when moving around a battlefield. When the war ended, so did the TDs, which promptly disappeared from the army inventory. 

The concept did not disappear. When anti-tank missiles came along in the 1970s, it was found useful to put the launchers on infantry armored vehicles. But the tanks still led the way when attacking, the infantry had the missiles to protect themselves from tanks when friendly armor was not around. But some things have disappeared, mainly any practical experience with armored warfare outside of a desert. Except for some limited tank versus infantry action in Vietnam, all the tank battles since World War II have been in deserts. But most likely hot spots are not deserts. It's possible that the army has forgotten how vulnerable armored vehicles are when they have not got miles of flat, open terrain all around them. During World War II, it was found that the average maximum range of tank battles was 500 meters. In terrain covered with forests and buildings, there are lots of places for enemy infantry and tanks to hide. To attack in that kind of environment, you need a tank that can take hits and keep on going. The M-1 can do this, light armored vehicles, can't, they are just targets. Speed is useful, but it won't outrun what a tank gun can dish out. 

Not to worry, for several decades out of touch with reality brings forth splendid solutions. There are a lot more anti-tank weapons these days. During World War II, the U.S. believed that the tank was the best anti-tank weapon. But that was largely because we lacked anything else that was as effective. The artillery now has computer controlled bomblets (SADARM) that pop out of a shell or rocket and penetrate the thinner top armor of tanks. The artillery can also put thousands of small "track (or tire) buster" mines in front of an any enemy tank unit. And then there are the anti-tank missiles, which have proved themselves in combat. The air force can also drop the mines and SADARM, although they prefer not to do it right over the battlefield. But none of this is much use when the enemy is defending and you want to get past him.

The new light armor doctrine is based on the theory that most of the opposition will be lightly armed and poorly trained. Peacekeeping missions. In these cases, getting their first with something is more important than getting there eventually with unstoppable M-1 tanks. But if you have to fight, if you have to advance, light armor won't cut it. Never has. But maybe it will.
The next chapter in this adventure will consist of arguments settled via computerized wargames. That's how the army decides what will work in a future battle. Unfortunately, the wargames are only an estimate of what the future battles will be like. The opposition is usually not as resourceful or deadly as they are in real life. There is also the temptation to rig the tests. The people running the wargames know who they work for and can subtly change various items in the wargame to insure that the desired result is achieved.

General Shinsekis idea of easy to transport brigades equipped with wheeled armored vehicles is a good one. But let us not forget that the kind of battles the M-1 was designed to fight are still out there in the future. Send light armor to do the M-1s job and all you'll have to show for it is a repeat of the World War II tank destroyer fiasco. 

 


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