Tanks in the A-stan

Well, the Marines asked for, and received, permission to deploy a company of M1A1 tanks to support their units in Southern Afghanistan. And according the the Army times, the US Army hasn’t totally discounted the idea:

Army Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges finished a yearlong deployment in November as director of operations for NATO’s Regional Command-South. He said he had not heard discussions of bringing tanks to RC-South, the regional command adjacent to RC-Southwest, which is where the Marines tanks are headed.

“We did not discuss in any detail the use of [U.S. Army] tanks,” Hodges said. However, he didn’t rule it out and said tanks have a proven place in Afghanistan. The Canadian army first sent a tank squadron — about 15 tanks, equivalent to a U.S. Army tank company — in October 2006. The Danish army followed suit and sent a similar-sized unit in 2007.

Army tank companies could deploy within a brigade combat team or be attached to Marine or coalition units, as happened in Iraq. The tanks would then spread out in pairs and provide support to units across the region, said David Johnson, a researcher at the Rand Corp., where he studies tank operations.

Deploying tanks could save soldiers’ lives as they prove to be more effective at pushing back assaults than some other weapon systems. Once an enemy penetrates an artillery gun’s range fan, it is useless, Johnson said. Not so for a tank. “It sure would have been nice to have an M1A2 Abrams tank at the Battle of Wanat or [Combat Outpost] Keating,” he said.

I’ll leave it to Esli, the resident tanker in our little commentariat here, to wax philosophical on where and how tanks can contribute to the fight in Afghanistan. But if the Army does decide to follow the Marines example, I hope they’ll go read what Donn Starry wrote about armor in a COIN environment.

7 thoughts on “Tanks in the A-stan”

  1. Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but… I’ll throw in my two cents.
    It is interesting that the USMC led with their tanks. They were the first unit to deploy armor into Vietnam, bringing them in early in the fight with their lead battalions on the basis that it is better to have and not need, than to need and not have. My personal opinion is, anywhere that you can get level enough ground to fire the main gun, you have potential tank operations, but once you get in the highlands it becomes limited. The Marines tend to view the tank as more of an infantry support platform than does the army, and is therefore willing to break them up and push them lower. My opinion is that if you do that in limited terrain, you wind up with static pillboxes. Certainly a tank can serve well in that role with about 10k 7.62mm rounds and about 900 .50 cal in the basic load, as well as the APERS 120mm round. However, parceling tanks out becomes a maintenance nightmare as your mechanics and support guys will rapidly get spread thin. Then there are the downsides: mobility sucks, whether moving on the ground or by Heavy Expanded Truck (HET) and certainly very limited on intratheater air movement (C17s only); fuel usage is through the roof, as a tank burns almost the same amount stationary as when running (requireing twice-daily refueling); all associated support requirements are a burden and require spare parts (Mean Time Between Failures on the engine and transmission, anyone?), POL products (and associated tanker trucks), and increased personnel. Additionally, the shock effect wears off soon enough, and the enemy realizes that tanks have limitations afterall. That said, I would be willing to put a couple of army tank companies with associated support into Afghanistan for the same reason that the Marines took M48s into Vietnam. It is better to have and not need than to need and not have. I would not create mobile pillboxes. I would use them for a ljmited QRF capability, secure major infrastructure (provided the terrain supported mobility), and use them in platoons or larger to accompany major operations (again provided the terrain supported mobility). Okay that turned from 2 cents to a nickel, so that is the end.

  2. Yes, but the area they are deploying those tracks to is in the southwestern parts of the country. Where the land is a bit more conducive to mechanized warfare. The thought of using armor there is not new to the Army. The topic came up in 2004-5, but there were more cons than pros.

    1. Craig,
      Roger, I am all for tanks, as long as the terrain is suitable. I’ve got no problem with it; just know that it is not as simple as “sending a tank.” There are a whole slew of potential problems associated with it.

  3. “However, parceling tanks out becomes a maintenance nightmare as your mechanics and support guys will rapidly get spread thin. Then there are the downsides: mobility sucks, whether moving on the ground or by Heavy Expanded Truck (HET) and certainly very limited on intratheater air movement (C17s only); fuel usage is through the roof, as a tank burns almost the same amount stationary as when running (requireing twice-daily refueling); all associated support requirements are a burden and require spare parts (Mean Time Between Failures on the engine and transmission, anyone?), POL products (and associated tanker trucks), and increased personnel”

    damn straight Esli…without support and logistics all armor does is sit in one place and look threatening…

    a long time ago the Army toyed with the idea of an Armored Gun System (AGS) that basically put a 105mm low recoil gun on some type of platform for infantry support where tanks would be overkill. I thought it was being looked at again with the Stryker at some one point but have lost focus on such things since retiring. That would be ideal over there though.

  4. Huey, the Stryker MGS is getting a workout. I’ve got clips of them in Iraq, but haven’t seen any from them in A-stan. They’re there, I just haven’t found the clips. But I have clips of the MGS here, and here.

    But while the MGS doesn’t have some of the logistical issues a tank would, it ALSO doesn’t have the same firepower nor anywhere NEAR the armor of an Abrams.

  5. In my tanker time, I served in Korea. There we worked the M60s and M1s up and around some very difficult terrain. Every place the ground was flat enough and stable enough to support a tank, someone had a house. Sort of a double down – mountains and urban. To some degree, tactics in Korea were “throw out the book and what you learned in Germany or Ft. Hood and improvise.” Often I’ve heard folks respond, “we don’t need tanks stationed in Korea.” Well the fellow on the other side of the line had a bunch, and he planned to use them.

    I didn’t have my CVC on when I was in Afghanistan, and thus can’t speak directly to the situation. However, if we compare Korea to Afghn, the big difference is the logistic/maint support you mention.

  6. I think Esli pretty much nails it. Logistics is pretty much a nightmare as it is. While I can see the desire for a Tank, the Stryker MGS would probably serve the Army as well, even if it lacks the armor the Abrams has. Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, however, have nothing else.

    Tanks didn’t do much in Vietnam, and in Korea, they allowed Walker to bypass a lot of stuff he should not have bypassed (MacArthur was going to relieve him if Walker hadn’t been so tacky as to get himself killed). The Red Chinks came boiling out of those places he bypassed and rocked us on our heels. While Tanks are mobile, a goodly part of their “armor” if you will, is their mobility and speed. Speed is part of what makes an Armored Spearhead important in conventional all up warfare.

    Esli is certainly right about the Marines tactical doctrine and the manner in which it demands they employ Armor. The type of combat the USMC trains for has caused problems in joint operations. Look at the aftermath of Saipan whcih got the 27th divisions CG relieved by Holland Smith, and then Smith moved out of combat to the CO of the Fleet Marine Force Pacific as a result of the interservice politcal battle (Holland was probably right to relive the man, for the most part, but a goodly bit was the differing style of fighting between the USMC and Army).

    Frankly, if the USMC is going to fighting the type of war we are fighting in AF, they probably need to acquire some Strykers themselves, even if the Army has to buy them and hold them for use by the Marines. I doubt the M-1 will work that well in AF, for logistical reasons if nothing else.

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