Why America Needs An Army with Tanks
Leaders from the U.S. Army Armor School, Fort Benning, GA, explain why armored vehicles are anything but obsolete.
By BG Leopoldo Quintas and CPT Nicholas Simpson, U.S. Army Armor School
Recently, critics have argued that the tank is a relic of the Cold War era made obsolete by advanced aircraft and unmanned systems. This argument ignores the unique and necessary capabilities provided by mobile protected firepower. Even in a fiscally constrained environment, the main battle tank continues to play a critical role in maintaining peace and winning conflicts. As an integral member of the combined arms team, the tank serves as a component of the Army’s ability to gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and people. The tank’s enduring qualities of mobility, protection, and firepower provide versatility and tactical agility in both combined arms maneuver and wide area security environments.
The Army’s main battle tank, M1A2SEP, which has undergone significant technological advances over its lifetime, provides decisive overmatch against a variety of threats, from dismounted infantry to heavy armored vehicles, and serves as a deterrent to would be adversaries. As the U.S. shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, where armies collectively possess some 50,000 armored fighting vehicles, the tank will remain a vital element of America’s power on the world stage.
The Importance of Mobile Protected Firepower
The tank delivers qualitative tactical capabilities that cannot be underestimated or replaced. As Clint Ancker, the director of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, KS, observed, “Since the early days of recorded combat, there are three essential capabilities for land combat—the ability to move around the battlefield to gain a position of advantage (mobility), the ability to deliver a blow sufficient to kill or psychologically demoralize an enemy (shock or firepower), and the ability to defeat such blows by the enemy (protection).” The tank possesses the ability to terminate a long firefight by providing mobile protected firepower against enemy infantry, fortified positions, and armored vehicles. To illustrate this point, the Abrams platform is the most survivable ground combat platform in the Army’s inventory. Its unique ability to employ precise and discriminate lethal effects serves to simultaneously destroy enemy capabilities with limited collateral damage and to destroy the enemy’s will to fight.
The mobile protected firepower provided by the tank proved irreplaceable by other assets from the combined arms and joint team, and as one division commander stated, “No one wants to go downtown without tanks.”
The tank also plays a psychological role. It possesses an inherent deterrence factor useful for discouraging violent actions in stability and support operations. In combat situations, the tank’s physical presence forces an opponent to consider the platform’s survivability and ability to respond with lethal, precision fires. In counterinsurgency environments, the presence of armor causes insurgents to ponder whether an attack—and the near certainty of heavy casualties—is worth the effort. In short, the attacker must consider his own mortality. Marines deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2013 achieved this psychological advantage through the near continuous employment of tanks on the battlefield. Tanks effectively deterred enemy actions and served as a powerful reminder of the coalition’s presence and support of the Afghan National Security Forces.
A powerful armor component also allows tactical and operational commanders to adjust capabilities based on immediate circumstances across the range of military operations, to include operations in urban areas and as part of counterinsurgency. The Marine commanders in Fallujah, Iraq, understood the need for this type of flexibility and requested U.S. Army tank units to supplement their own armor formations. The mobile protected firepower provided by the tank proved irreplaceable by other assets from the combined arms and joint team, and as one division commander stated, “No one wants to go downtown without tanks.”
The Combined Arms Team
Armored forces are an essential component of a capable and flexible combined arms force. According to the Army’s Capstone Concept, “Army forces use combined arms maneuver to defeat enemy ground forces; to seize, occupy, and defend land areas; and to achieve physical, temporal, and psychological advantages over the enemy.” Combined arms maneuver is the Army’s ability to integrate all branches, each with distinct capabilities and lethality (examples include infantry, armor, field artillery, aviation, engineers, etc.) into a single operation. Effectively employing combined arms maneuver at both the operational and tactical levels provide commanders the ability to deter conflict, prevail in war, and succeed across a wide range of contingencies.
General Omar Bradley, the senior field commander of the U.S. ground forces that helped conquer Nazi Germany noted, “The air-armor team is a most powerful combination in the breakthrough and in exploitation,” adding, “the use of this coordinated force, in combat, should be habitual.” Years later the Army would reaffirm its faith in the armored combined arms team, following the successful 2003 march to Baghdad and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. At the time then Lieutenant General William Scott Wallace, the commander of V Corps, stated, “The ability to balance reconnaissance and fires and maneuver in the right balance and the right proportions [is] an unbeatable combination.” Although not alone in meeting the demands of war, the tank proved integral to victory across numerous battlefields.
In 1993, UN forces conducted security operations as part of the humanitarian relief efforts in the East African country of Somalia. Local warlords used military force to interfere with these operations, attacking UN Soldiers and indiscriminately killing civilians. The number of such incidents rose steadily between June and August. General Thomas Montgomery, serving as the Deputy UN Commander and the U.S. Forces Commander in Somalia, concerned about his capability to protect his force made a request for reinforcement by a Mechanized Task Force, an Air Cavalry Troop, and an increase in human intelligence capabilities. Montgomery’s request for additional assets was denied, since they might be construed as an escalation and send the wrong message to the populace.
This decision ignored the deterrent effect of armored combat organizations. Moreover, it ensured that American tanks were not in place to relieve Rangers and Special Operations elements when they became locked in a now-infamous firefight with local militia in Mogadishu in October 1993 during the execution of Operation Gothic Serpent. Efforts to secure a UN armored relief force required extensive negotiation and time, during which the casualty toll among the American Soldiers rose. Afterwards, President Clinton decided to double the U.S. ground force in Somalia and rectify what the military viewed as basic flaws in its the existing force composition. The new force included some 15,000 joint personnel and 100 armored vehicles. Senior officials indicated their intent to retain an unambiguously directed and powerful force until the mission in Somalia ended.
Montgomery later testified to Congress that the addition of the M1A1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles that he had requested almost certainly would have reduced the time it took to rescue troops to reach the Rangers and increase their firepower capability. These events demonstrate the importance of commanders having the mission flexibility enabled by the tank, even during peacekeeping or humanitarian operations.
The flexibility of a tank enables lighter forces to sustain the momentum of offensive action and regain the initiative. During the battle of Karbala, Iraq, in April 2003, light infantry units attempted to clear Saddam’s military and paramilitary forces from the city. Heavy resistance prevented an American advance. With the arrival of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles working as part of the combined arms team, American forces were able to overpower the resistance. Armored vehicles breached 12-foot walls and barriers, allowing dismounted infantry to clear house after house. The armored force conducted the cordon of the area, providing the light forces with increased protection.
As David Johnson and co-authors emphasized in their recent study of the 2008 Battle of Sadr City, “Heavy armored forces have enduring utility in counterinsurgency and urban operations.” Their presence prevented the U.S. from paying a heavy price in lives.
The unique capabilities of armored forces provided similar support in subsequent operations through Operation Iraqi Freedom, particularly in Baghdad, Sadr City, An Najaf, Fallujah, and Tal Afar. As David Johnson and co-authors emphasized in their recent study of the 2008 Battle of Sadr City, “Heavy armored forces have enduring utility in counterinsurgency and urban operations.” Their presence prevented the U.S. from paying a heavy price in lives.
Tanks on the World Stage
In addition to providing joint commanders and regional partners with critical capabilities, the tank also serves as a power projection platform. Our nation is at a turning point concerning foreign policy, as we begin to shift focus from over a decade of persistent conflict in South Asia and the Middle East to the Western Pacific. During this transition, our Army cannot sacrifice armored strength for short-sighted economic reasons. With potential threats in the form of a recalcitrant Iran, an unpredictable North Korea, and a rising China, not to mention the more recent conflict involving Russia and Ukraine, democratic nations will continue to look to the U.S. for leadership, reassurance, and security. The potential repercussions of a reduced U.S. Army armored force may lead to our allies, faced with unacceptable security dilemmas, to take actions not in our common interests—to accept Chinese hegemony, to initiate a second non-aligned movement, or to potentially strike out on their own. As a world power and democratic leader, it is necessary that this country continues to maintain armored capabilities to reassure our allies, provide stability through deterrence, and, when necessary, defeat adversaries.
Other armies have proven that a strong and capable armored capability can stabilize tumultuous regions. For example, the 2006 Israeli operation in Lebanon proved that relying solely on standoff attacks, mainly by air, could not achieve success without a dedicated and lethal ground force. This spurred a renewed appreciation for ground combat among Israeli political and military leaders, manifested by the Israeli Army training extensively on high intensity conflict skills specifically focused on the application of combined arms maneuver. The Israel Defense Forces’ efforts were validated during the successful Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-2009), where the IDF destroyed Hamas forces before agreeing to an Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The rapid and lethal three-week engagement confirmed to the world that once again Israel had a competent military, able and willing to project all elements of combat power, including their heavy armored forces, to achieve strategic success.
Another example occurred during the 2008 invasion of Georgia by Russian forces. Russia deployed ground forces, which included armored formations. The armored forces massed effects on Georgian brigades, resulting in a crushing defeat after only five days of conflict. These highlights demonstrate that the lasting utility of an armored capability, and such capabilities will only continue to advance technologically and increase in size.
Still A Crucial Component
The main battle tank provides enduring mobility, protection, and firepower as well as versatility across various environments, even against a dynamic enemy. As they have in the past, commanders will continue to employ tanks as part of large-scale combined arms maneuver (Desert Storm), as a deterrent (Bosnia), and in support of counterinsurgency operations (Iraq and Afghanistan). Tanks will be air dropped into battle (Panama 1989) or airlifted into combat zones to make an immediate impact (Northern Iraq). Tank-provided direct fires have unmatched lethality, and skillful employment of tanks provides discriminate and scalable options that limit collateral damage associated with other means of engaging the enemy, including precision guided munitions.
The U.S. Army remains the world’s preeminent land force, unmatched at preventing war, and when necessary, of winning under any conditions. The Abrams main battle tank remains a critical component of our decisive land power—with its technological, physical, and psychological advantages against our enemies. Our commanders gain an asymmetric advantage against our enemies, while reducing both strategic and tactical risk to discourage adversaries. America’s Army must maintain tanks as a critical component of our combined arms formations to continue to meet demands of the battlefields of today and tomorrow.
Top photo caption: An M1 Abrams tank maneuvers through the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA, while an AH-64 Apache helicopter provides air support. (Spc. Randis Monroe)