Armor: December 21, 1999

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: Spain has decided to arm its 219 new Leopard-2A6 tanks with the new 55-caliber version of the 120mm smoothbore cannon, which is 1.3m longer than the 44-caliber cannons mounted on all previous Leopard-2s. The longer barrel means a higher muzzle velocity, and more penetration when the target is hit. The longer cannon is compatible with all 120mm ammunition, but there may later be new ammunition developed specifically to take advantage of the longer barrel. --Stephen V Cole

Congress has given the Marines $60.5 million to buy the first 24 of the 61 M88A2 tank retrievers (tow trucks for tanks) it needs. The Army has already started buying them. The previous M88A1 was designed to recover a wrecked M60, but could not recover the heavier M1A1. The Army and Marines have had to use two M88A1s to recover each disabled M1A1. The new M88A2, with a more powerful engine and winch, can recover an M1A1 by itself. --Stephen V Cole


December 19; Trackless in Battle: The US Army has decided to solve the problem of getting to trouble spots quickly by dumping many of their tracked vehicles (like the M-1 tank and Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.) Instead, LAVs (Light Armored Vehicles, on wheels instead of tracks) would be used. This is a bold move, but given the increasing number of hot spots in the world, and more frequent U.S. involvement, it makes some sense. But there is a serious downside. The M-1 tank is the best in the world and is invulnerable to the weapons of most likely opponents. Without the M-1, and the well armed and protected Bradley vehicle, American troops are more vulnerable. This has long been known. During World War II, billions of dollars were spent on forming hundreds of "tank destroyer" battalions. These units were equipped with lightly armored vehicles carrying large guns. The lack of protection proved to be a major liability, and the tank destroyer battalions were all disbanded after the war, never to return. 

But many in the army still thought the "lighter, faster" vehicles would be a successful addition to Americas battlefield arsenal. In 1988, such a unit was tried out at the National Training Center (the army's then new laser tag training battlefield.) The light force was stomped by the heavier armor of the enemy. The subject was shelved until recently, when the Chief of Staff of the Army proposed a wholesale adoption of lighter armored vehicles. The reason was because the most likely battles for the army were now in far off hot spots. Speed in getting the troops there was essential, and units with LAVs could get there faster than current ones with tanks and tracked infantry vehicles.
There is little doubt that these new LAV brigades would be at a disadvantage against more heavily equipped opponents. And a lot of potential hotspots contain much cold war era tanks and heavy weapons. Even in Somalia, the rag tag militias had many Soviet 14.5mm heavy machine-guns. These weapons can penetrate the armor of LAVs at 1,000 meters. There are also thousands of Russian made ATGMs out there that can make short work of LAVs are ranges of several thousand meters. And then there are millions of portable rocket launchers that can destroy an LAV at ranges of a hundred meters or so.

While the LAV brigades would move around faster on roads, most of the potential battlefields are short on roads. Unless the enemy is lightly armed and timid, the LAV equipped troops are going to take more casualties than if they had tanks. 

There are solutions to these problems. LAV forces have to advance against opposition more carefully. More firepower has to be put on the defender before the LAVs move out in the open. Thus LAVs will advance more slowly and cautiously. You can be bold when your attack is spearheaded by M-1 tanks, but not when LAVs are out front. Ideally, you should have more support from the air force, but the air force has steadily de-emphasized such support over the last decade. Moreover, army troops are always a little nervous when the air force jets are overhead, as the pilots often have an annoying tendency to confuse friendly and enemy vehicles. Without distinctive looking M-1s around to help identify the friendlies, more mistakes are likely. So the army prefers to use it's own artillery and attack helicopters to provide support. This stuff is heavy, but ammo can be moved by civilian air transports. 

The big bottleneck is the military airlifters that can carry LAVs, artillery and trucks. But the whole point of the LAV brigades is to get them there as quickly as possible. The air force transports can handle that, although increasingly the shortage of air freighters causes disputes between army and air force over who should go first. The air force believes that if they can get their bomber squadrons overseas first they can chop up any likely opposition before they get close to friendly bases and airfields. As insurance, the air force has increased infantry training for their support people. If air fields are sniped at or threatened by terrorists and guerillas, the air force expects to take care of itself if the army is not around. And the army expects to be out chasing the more heavily armed hostiles, not guarding air fields. 

Will the army figure out how to fight light before the new LAV brigades get sent into harm's way? That's a question mark at the moment. The new tactics are still being worked out. Things could get ugly if the air force agrees, but then reneges, on a return to the 1980s "AirLand Battle" tactics they worked out with the army, but gradually abandoned in the 1990s. The army will no doubt prepare for that eventuality, and the current system for commanding forces overseas gives the general in charge the ability to force reluctant army, navy and air force generals to do what he wants. This was shown (although not widely publicized) during Gulf War.

But the test is in the performance. No one can predict exactly how the LAV brigades will perform in combat until there is one. And things could get ugly.

 


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