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Ten Years of Irrelevance


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The_Chieftain #1 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:15

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There have been a number of posts I’ve seen pop up this week on various fora about how this is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Hopefully this thread will be more successful at avoiding the politics debate than the Falklands one, but the anniversary is one of the triggers for this thought.

It has certainly been a while. I am not sure I took it too well when I got a note from my old platoon sergeant saying “hey, our ten year reunion is later this year.” As if the grey hairs weren’t bad enough reminder of my advancing age.

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What is probably of more interest, however, is how armour, and tanks specifically, have adjusted to the current fight. Ten years ago we had the desert engagements, and the famous Thunder Run. The tanks did great. Then, the opposition melted, and we started dealing with small-scale engagements against small groups of people armed with light weapons. Not suitable for tanks, apparently. Indeed, when my company showed up, we had brought more tanks with us than the entire 1st Infantry Division did. It wasn’t a tank war.

After a decade of this, the perception is that Armor Branch is all but fighting for its life. The most recent edition of Armor and Cavalry Journal, the branch's professional publication, was pretty much dedicated to treatises on how to keep Armor Branch relevant. As if it was about to be disbanded if people couldn’t find an excuse to keep it. (One suggestion was even to rename it Cavalry branch, given the percentage of cavalry to tankers, which I think wrong: IMHO Cavalry's a specific role set which the US Army doesn't even do so much of any more, while Armor is more a method or skill set)

I have a couple of problems with these thoughts.

Firstly, relevant to what? So what if tanks aren’t relevant to the current fight? They’re relevant to what happened ten years ago to get us to where we are now. Sure, there’s the comment that “Nobody would ever be stupid enough to engage us in another high-intensity conflict, the days of tank warfare with the US Army are done.” But that’s because we have such a good armour force that it is the deterrent from doing this to begin with. Get rid of the tanks, and what happens then?

Then there’s the perception that tanks aren’t relevant in the current fight anyway, and that Armor Branch are just trying desperately to shove the square peg of a 70-ton MBT into the round hole of the counter-insurgency role.

Failure to learn from others.

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The idea of using MBTs in peacekeeping certainly isn’t new. Pakistani M48s (No, not M60s as in the movie) were used in Somalia. Indian T-72s were there too. When the unpleasantness in Yugoslavia started, the intervention forces from countries such as Denmark and Germany brought their Leopards, the UK brought Challengers. Leopards again found early use in Afghanistan. There is something to be said for the idea of something really tough to kill which can kill you easily.

Certainly modifications had to be added to doctrine, the environment  creating unanticipated technological challenges. The Danes started putting coaxial spotlights on their tanks in former Yugoslavia. Who would have thought that we would be going back to obsolete technology? White light spotlights went the way of the dodo in new tank design in the 1960s. The whole point of the technology was to be able to see and kill without the enemy even knowing where you were. But in peacekeeping, or peace enforcement, deterrence has a value of its own, and deterrence only works if the other guy is deterred: The Leopard tracking the approaching trouble with the thermal imager is all well and good, but won’t warn the approachers. Flip the switch for the spotlight though once you’re aimed at them, and that sends a very clear message….

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Another annoyance of the modern battlefield which caused technological problems was the fact that when today’s modern tanks were designed, there was something of an assumption that people would turn out their lights. One would not be driving down a highway in a combat situation sharing the road with oncoming traffic which has its high-beams on. If your primary driver’s and commander’s vision system is image intensification, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the problem. The tank has to stop. (Or worse, as in my case, we went off a cliff. Yeah, that was a lesson learned). And engagements against a lit city skyline are a serious problem. Not sure if that is why the driver’s vision has been replaced by thermal imaging now, but it certainly helps.

But we were learning this as we went. There were certain ‘fundamental truths’ which we knew when we started which we then rethought. Firstly, simply the utility of the tank in patrolling. We would run with a track on the soft shoulder in the hope of detonating mines. Tank would be immobilized, and we’d have to spend some time fixing it, but better the tank hit it than a HMMWV. (This was back in the days when our two HMMWVs had steel plate bolted to them), and quite handy when a Route Clearing Package isn’t around. We actually had a very boring tour, after the first week when the opposition realized that we were bringing tanks along, they proved not to be so stupid as to deliberately engage us. The noise of the tracks could be heard coming from some distance away, so much like the siren of a police car, once the opposition figured out we were coming, they’d break contact before our arrival. Lots of happy infantrymen for our having stopped the fight, but we never got to even see the opposition, let alone engage them.

As a general rule, wherever we went, it was quiet. Tanks are great at peacekeeping!

Eventually we were relocated to Mosul and attached to a Stryker unit up there, which wanted something a bit meaner than an 8x8 truck. As a tanker, I was not particularly happy about this. I was well versed with the concept that tanks and cities tend not to mix. How foolish I was, and how easily I was willing to disregard decades of experience on the subject learned by others. Of course tanks are useful in cities: They provide exactly the same advantages in the city as they do in the open. Their vulnerabilities are emphasized differently, but their advantages are the same.

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Eventually we came to realize this, and had a most pleasant time commuting around in the tanks.


Nowadays, as noted elsewhere, the Marines finally decided to bring their M1 tanks to Afghanistan with them, in similar areas to those which the Danes and Canadians have been using their Leopards for years.

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Where is this lack of relevance that people are worried about? The tanks are relevant in high intensity warfare, they’re relevant in low intensity warfare. No other system currently has the combination of firepower, armour and staying power that a tank does, all three assets are useful in whatever fight one finds themselves in. I’ve never had anyone come to me in the past and say “Gee, nice of you to show up with your tank platoon, but I really wish you had brought M-ATVs or Strykers”. Not dissing the Stryker lads, they have their purposes, but a tank’s job isn’t one of them.

The question of relevance isn’t tactical. It’s political. And I hate that.

icoleman #2 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:20

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Agreed.

Daigensui #3 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:21

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Only those who don't know war say tanks are irrelevant.

icoleman #4 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:22

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View PostKankou, on Mar 23 2013 - 15:21, said:

Only those who don't know war say tanks are irrelevant.
Guess they havent seen the success of blitzkrieg then.

SeanPwnery #5 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:31

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I think what's going on is tanks in general have come full-circle. A couple generations ago, tanking doctrine had a concept of "the right AFV for the job" and had lights, mediums, and heavies. Today we're more or less trying to fit it all into the "MBT" swiss army knife rather than the individual blades. Obviously something large and 70 ton lumbers about in urban enviornments, but who's to say it'll always be this way?

The only excuse government, or contractors or designers should be looking for is scale. Scimitars worked in Serbia because they were small, fast and nimble and held up fairly against infantry units. Who's to say the smaller tank doesn't make a small comeback?

A_UselessReptile #6 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:34

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As always a wonderful read and a great example of what journalism should be; that being said i feel your pain. I am only a JROTC cadet atm but I do remember speaking with the Recruiter that visited our high-school back in 2010. I had a nice conversation with him; enjoyed attempting the pull-up bar challenge but was really disheartened when i mentioned i was interested in Armor. Basically he told me its a dying breed and that i should focus on more "modern" units. I assume he was referring to the fast moving stryker or MRAP units that are effective when stopping IEDs more so than T-72 series tanks.


P.S forgot to add this : An error occurred
You have reached your quota of positive votes for the day

Edited by Spartan96, Mar 23 2013 - 15:36.


Magick #7 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:36

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View PostThe_Chieftain, on Mar 23 2013 - 15:15, said:


Eventually we came to realize this, and had a most pleasant time commuting around in the tanks.



Chief...why do I suddenly suspect you were a holy terror to traffic?

VRMoran #8 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:36

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View PostSeanPwnery, on Mar 23 2013 - 15:31, said:

The only excuse government, or contractors or designers should be looking for is scale. Scimitars worked in Serbia because they were small, fast and nimble and held up fairly against infantry units. Who's to say the smaller tank doesn't make a small comeback?

Didn't they try this? I don't remember what t was called, but it was some smaller tank the US was working on a while (like last decade or two) in order to supplement the M1 Abrams. If I recall, it was designed with the idea that it should be compatable for future upgrades while being smaller and lighter than the Abrams [an econo-tank, if you will]. The project was scrapped, but I don't remember why or what it was called...

I have however noticed such tanks never quite seem to work out, and there have been more than a few attempts. Seems it's a little difficult to fill the gap between "Well armed IFV" and "Main Battle Tank".

Enaris #9 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:39

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Pundits will always declare the "death" of something, (and sometimes they are even right, but generally not).  They've been declaring the death of tanks, but even more commonly, they've been declaring the death of air superiority fighters When was the last time a US Fighter was in a dogfight?

The biggest issue is that we are in a 1914/1939 sort of situation.  While there have been lots of wars over the years, the number of wars where both nations had fully modern, fully trained armies in that period is fairly low.  (You can argue 73 Suez is the last one, and even that is nearly 30 years ago).   The constant growth of technology has changed the shape of everything.  How will the modern battlefield work?  How will things work at the operational level?  Much as was seen in 1914 and 1939, the theorists have lots of ideas, and there are some hints from the wars of the last 30 years (even if they were not against forces who had the full mix of modern technology).  Yet, there are going to be surprises and unforseen results.

It's an odd thing.  One part of me looks with a deep curiousity, wondering how the shape of the battlefield will change.  Most of me hopes we won't have to find out (though I know mankind better than to expect that.)

Fettuccini0 #10 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:43

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View PostVRMoran, on Mar 23 2013 - 15:36, said:

Didn't they try this? I don't remember what t was called, but it was some smaller tank the US was working on a while (like last decade or two) in order to supplement the M1 Abrams. If I recall, it was designed with the idea that it should be compatable for future upgrades while being smaller and lighter than the Abrams [an econo-tank, if you will]. The project was scrapped, but I don't remember why or what it was called...

I have however noticed such tanks never quite seem to work out, and there have been more than a few attempts. Seems it's a little difficult to fill the gap between "Well armed IFV" and "Main Battle Tank".

Are you referring to this?

http://en.wikipedia....ored_Gun_System

Edited by Fettuccini0, Mar 23 2013 - 15:44.


cRommels #11 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 15:57

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Speaking of T-72's vs RPG's.

http://www.liveleak....=c56_1363981215

JebediahS #12 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:00

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I feel your pain.  I have spent the last 12 years of my life helping to design and improve the best fighter aircraft in the world.  Over and over I hear, the F22 has never been used in combat in these wars.  Well, it's never been needed, but that does not mean it never will be needed or could be needed.   Usually the people that make that statement the most are not those concerned with defense of our country or any country, they just want to use the money for other things (buying more votes in some cases).   Hopefully we will always have enough politicians and leaders with enough sense to keep these types of items in our inventory so they are available when needed.   As you state, there are a lot of cases where it is worthwhile to be able to bring the heat, and be very hard to hurt in return.

BlackSunRising #13 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:03

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Just watched  a big story on the news about Iraqi freedom. lol  Everyone who decided not to join the coalition is so happy they didnt now days cause of the embarrassment of the bogus bush admin reports and blatant lies about WMD to get ppl to help destabilize that country. They called it the 60 billion dollar invasion that turned into a 10 year 2 trillion dollar invasion the biggest political/ military blunder of modern times. Props to the soldiers for doing their jobs though. Ill never say anything bad towards them.  Remember how the nazis got germany to want to wage war on Poland? Tell a lie and show some sketchy evidence  and everyone will follow you.  What was the difference in this case?
Iraqi freedom and the Afghanistan follow up  just turned the whole middle east world even more against the west and especially the states. The way Iraq is now is worse than it was before for utilities and infrastructure.. but at least Saddam is gone and now the middle east will run on US currency instead of the new gold standard that Saddam wanted.

panzerlancer #14 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:06

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Chietain, your discussion reminds me of the one that occurred over the removal of guns and dogfighting training from fighter aircraft in favor of missiles. And everyone now knows how that worked out in the Viet Nam war with the F-4 Phantom. It's always some one who doesn't actually put his life on the line with a weapon system that makes the decision to remove it without replacing it with something proven to be more effective.

Nymous #15 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:07

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I think a lot of people forget the "holy shit" aura a tank has. You see something that big with a gun that big pointing at you and you tend to have second thoughts.

Spiley_Craw #16 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:10

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You're right, it's political.
It's all about budget infighting, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the (undiminished) effectiveness of armor.

Many politicians want to cut the military budget, and many more believe the bullshit doctrine of "less is more",
or "fight smarter, not harder". In the US, the military is not just a warfighting organization, it's also a political bureaucracy. This
has it's ups and downs.
-Kle.

bat21zing #17 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:12

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It's funny how the argument of the "relevance of armour" keeps coming up. If you read Panzer Leader the same arguments were made before WW2. It's utter nonsense. Until such time we invent something better (and we haven't) armour will continue to be the dominate factor on the battlefield. Much of the "concern about armour" comes from the crazy over estimates of effectiveness of air, missiles and arty against tanks. They completely disregard combined arms ability to suppress defensive firepower. The same old same old claims that are consistently disproved on the battlefield. I seen a paper from our military (Canadian) suggesting that tanks were obsolete. The reality was that the second we got into high threat environments we ran out and bought Leo 2's.

It's really worth reading the prewar section of "Panzer Leader" to see how the same exact arguments keep popping up and how Guderian's counter to it still applies today! Some of these armchair generals really need to crack some books. They could learn a lot from history.

Edited by bat21zing, Mar 23 2013 - 16:12.


Lorenzo_Ruiz #18 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:12

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A tank is much like an armed guard fully kitted out, a pistol on his hip and an M4 in patrol carry. It will tell any baddie that this area is safe, and if you decide to do anything, you're not gonna go home.

Which then gets mired in political red tape.

I agree with a lot of people here, although civillian control of the military is something we hold dear, there are times where that so-called experts who are nothing more than political shrills start making stupid decisions.

IamJohnGalt #19 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:15

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No, sorry, I cant agree.  I love tanks, but sadly, like the battleship (and very shortly, the aircraft carrier)before it, they have passed into the good night.  

I agree with you in that they scare away the enemy....but itsnt the point of war to find and destroy the enemy?  Putting down an insurgeancy, once it has started, means finding them and killing them.   Scareing them away only makes the confict longer and more costly.

Add to this, man portable ATGMs are cheap (compared to a tank) and they are everywhere, and they work!  Doesnt matter who made them...they all good and all tanks can be killed by them.  Dont forget drones either....they are the future....they are just plain old..cheaper, faster, better..and they also can carry anti-tank missiles.  Soon, everyone will have them.

  No, sadly, the tanks days are fast ending.  There will be a need for an armored vehicles...but it will be lighter (air transportable) faster, and cheaper...and we wont need whole divisons of them.   The days of huge formations of troops and tanks has also passed.  Outdated like the last war.

There will never be another world war 2.....if there is another world war, none of will be around to argue over wheather tanks are still useful or not!!


Like I said, I love tanks...but I cant agree that they are needed still in the modern era.  Just my opinion, for whats its worth.

GALT

Edited by IamJohnGalt, Mar 23 2013 - 16:21.


Dominatus #20 Posted Mar 23 2013 - 16:15

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So, how well do Abrams do in low-intensity conflicts without HE shells loaded?




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