One critic warns that the U.S. doesn’t even know how to use tanks anymore. Col. Gian Gentile laments in a Small Wars Journal essay that American armor skills have atrophied in favor of small-unit, infantry-centric COIN. “Over the last 9 years of doing irregular warfare, we have eviscerated the Armor Corps to the point of its extinction,” says Gentile, who claims the Army has armor NCOs who have never even qualified on an M-1 tank, and doesn’t conduct the sort of brigade-sized combined arms exercises that we used to practice when we thought Soviet tanks were going to blitz through the Fulda Gap. Instead of learning how to fight in a tank, armor crews are being taught how to make friends with the local population.
Gentile is one of the champions of the conventional warfare school of thought, which argues that the U.S. military needs to retain the capability to fight big-unit mechanized battles with all the trimmings, such as tanks and heavy artillery. Their foes are the counterinsurgency (COIN) school, which sees the Army’s traditional firepower fetish as a Cold War legacy unsuitable for small, light, and mobile infantry operations needed to chase insurgents and win hearts and minds in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq.
For now, the “COINistas” have a point. The U.S. doesn’t use tanks in Afghanistan (though the Canadians do use Leopards there), while light Humvee and MRAP vehicles handle much of the load in Iraq. Heavy armor like the Abrams tank and Bradley troop carrier are expensive to maintain, wear out their tracks after a couple of thousand miles on the road, and have limited mobility in rough terrain. In 1999, plans to send the 1st Armored Division from Germany to peacekeeping duties in Kosovo hit a snag when someone figured out that most Central European bridges couldn’t handle 70-ton tanks.
Gentile’s essay highlights the schizophrenic quandary that U.S. defense planning must confront. Is the future of warfare nothing more than an endless series of COIN infantry patrols and convoy escort by light armor? Or do we need heavy armor for potential battles against Iran, North Korea or even China?
Ironically, the answer may be found in Israel rather than the U.S. Israeli armor was roughly handled by Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War, partly because Israeli tactical prowess had been stunted by manning checkpoints in the West Bank. But Israeli sloppiness, overconfidence and a belief in shock-and-awe high technology (sound familiar?) were the real culprits, as was the unsuitability of southern Lebanon for mechanized operations. It’s also worth remembering that after similarly overconfident Israeli armor was decimated in the early days of the 1973 October War by Arab infantry armed with anti-tank missiles, many also pronounced the death of the tank. But those reports were greatly exaggerated, as was proven in subsequent conflicts like Desert Storm.
In an age of netcentric warfare and hunter-killer drones, there is something so very 20th Century about tanks. You can almost smell the grease and the engine fumes. With the scrapping of the Future Combat System, and the growing sophistication of robotic vehicles, it’s hard to predict the future of U.S. armor. But the original concept of the tank – as a platform that combines firepower, mobility and armored protection – is still valid. There is only so much a rifleman can carry on his back. There are always going to be situations where only a big gun and thick armor will do the trick. If tanks are going to stay around, then shouldn’t their crews be proficient in operating them?
The Taliban and Hezbollah would love it if the U.S. and Israel gave up all their high-tech weapons and fought mano-a-mano. But only a fool brings a rifle to a tank fight.