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 spursthis column.
Dad had seen a short video I shot in Iraq that featured my staffsection racing down Baghdad's "Route Irish" in an unarmored SUV. Dad askedabout the handling characteristics of SUVs and Humvees with "add-on"armor -- light vehicles that weren't designed to carry the extra weight. Hethen compared what I told him about steel plates and Kevlar panels to aKorean War "armor upgrade" to counter land mines: sandbags on a jeep'sfloorboard.
"Dad," I replied. "Sand bags on floorboards aren't out of date."
Army units began adding sand bags, Kevlar and steel plates totheir vehicles long before last year's press and political debate over thePentagon's failure to anticipate the need to "up-armor" Humvees and trucks.
The hot-button controversy flared in a bitterly partisanpolitical year. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld actually gave areasonable answer when he said an administration fights with the military ithas. Critics smacked Rumsfeld for "insensitivity" and excuse-mongering tocover his own lack of foresight. The fact is, in war surprise is acertainty, and winning requires adaptation and flexibility. Troops are oftenahead of the generals. After D-Day, tenacious German resistance inNormandy's hedgerows surprised Allied forces and frustrated the brass'invasion timetable. An American sergeant jury-rigged a "cutting plow" thatallowed U.S. tanks to bust through the bocage.
There are more fertile fields for critics of Rumsfeld and hisPentagon Whiz Kids' lack of foresight.
In early 2001, Rumsfeld overstated the case for "a generationalleap in military technology." I think Rumsfeld overstated technological andorganizational change intentionally. The military-industrial-Congresscomplex is intransigent, particularly when reputations, jobs and politicalpatronage are involved. Rumsfeld planned for a peacetime Washingtonpolitical 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 hitsfrom Whiz Kid supporters. Titled "Grunt Work," it argued for retaining asufficient mass of high quality infantry (see it ataustinbay.net/blog/index.php?p=69). The article drew on T.R. Fehrenbach'sKorean War classic "This Kind of War." One Beltway critic labeled me ahapless Luddite. Nope -- I believed then and now we never know the futureand, when it comes to maintaining U.S. security, all bets must be hedged. Ilove robots and smart bombs, but I suspected full-spectrum 21st century warwould 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'tthe only ones who thought the tank passe. An Army buddy tells the story of acould-be Democratic appointee he escorted through DOD briefings. Thepipe-smoking pontificator kept saying, "The tank's dead." My infantry palfinally turned to him and said: "Yes sir, the tank's a dinosaur, but it'sthe baddest dinosaur on the battlefield. You face one."
Iraq's war in the streets -- and yes, a new examination of1993's tragic street battle in Mogadishu, Somalia -- have put tanks back onthe Pentagon's agenda.
The May issue of Armed Forces Journal features a tough-mindedarticle by Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute. Goure notes "theconventional 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 iswrong. The overriding lesson of recent conflicts, both conventional wars andcounterinsurgency campaigns, is that some armor is good and more armor isbetter."
U.S. forces "are heavier than they were at the end of majorcombat operations in Iraq. A principle reason for this is ... uparmoring."
Goure argues that "the demands of survivability and tacticaleffectiveness are trumping the desire for strategic mobility."
I'm still for strategic mobility -- lighter units are part of afull-capability force. But "staying power" on deadly streets requires heavyfirepower and heavy armor protection. Common sense knew this, even if WhizKid wisdom didn't.