What’s old is new again, the Armored Gun System and Mobile Protected Firepower.

Light forces lack firepower. Tis true. The light Infantry Brigade Combat Team has small arms, mortars, Javelin and TOW missiles, and a 105mm towed artillery battalion. What they don’t have is a heavy direct fire weapon. This is particularly stressing to the Airborne Brigade Combat Teams of the 82nd Airborne Division. Airborne forces can, by doctrine, expect to operate outside the reach of supporting arms of higher echelons. Yes, the can expect to receive plenty of close air support, but CAS takes time, and often is restricted due to ROE or concerns about friendly casualties. What they need is a rapid response heavy direct fire system to overmatch enemy light forces.

They used to have such a capability with the M551 Sheridan light Armored Reconnaissance/Airborne Assault Vehicle. But the 1960s era Sheridan was worn out by the time it was retired in the early 1990s. The Army actually developed a replacement for the Sheridan in the early 1990s, but the “peace dividend” of the end of the Cold War saw its cancellation due to budget cuts.

The Sheridan replacement was to be the M8 Buford Armored Gun System. Development was rapid, but very smooth, and the Army went through the complete development and trials process, and type classified it. Basically, it was evaluated and approved for service. It was everything the Army wanted in a vehicle to support the Airborne.

A fully tracked vehicle mounting an autoloading 105mm rifled main gun, the M8 was powered by a 550hp diesel engine. The three man crew serviced a vehicle that, in addition to the main gun, carried an M240 7.62mm coaxial gun and mounted a .50cal M2 machine gun on the commander’s cupola. The main gun autoloader held 21 rounds of ready ammunition and a reserve of 9 rounds, both HEAT and Sabot rounds being available. Both a day sight and a thermal night sight controlled the weapons. 150 gallons of diesel or JP8 gave it a range of about 280 miles. .

What the M8 most decidedly wasn’t was a tank. Sure, it looked like a tank. Fully tracked, turret, 105mm gun. What it didn’t have was a lot of armor. You see, the key defining requirement was that the M8 had to be capable of being airdropped via parachute from the C-130. And that limitation imposed hard limits on the weight and size of the vehicle. Basically, the design could be no more than 18 tons, and 100” high or less. That meant very little armor. The benchmark was the M8 had to be able to withstand 14.5mm machine gun fire and fragments from 155mm artillery rounds at 20 meters. That’s essentially the same level of protection that the original vanilla M2 Bradley had in 1983.

That’s pretty minimal protection for a vehicle on the battlefield. So the team at United Defense and the Army developed the “Level” system. While the basic armor was really light, additional bolt-on armor kits could be installed in the field to improve protection. For instance, the slightly heavier Level II bolt on kit would provide improved protection against mines. The M8 could not be airdropped in this configuration, but could still be carried inside a C-130. It would simply have to be airlanded, rather than dropped. The Level III kit gave the M8 a weight of about 25 tons. While that was too much for a C-130 to haul, three could fit in a C-17, or five in a C-5 Galaxy. The Level III configuration would provide decent protection from hand-held anti-armor weapons such as RPGs.

The concept was that Level I M8s would be airdropped onto the battlefield, and as quickly as possible, increased levels would be added. The three man crew could bolt on the additional protection in a couple hours with simple hand tools.

xm8 

All in all, the Army was very happy with the M8. The plan was to buy enough to equip the 82nd Airborne division with one battalion, and the (then “light”) 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment with about three squadrons worth. That was a pretty small production run planned, which given the development costs* drove up the unit price. And since we all know that in the mid-1990s there were no threats and no possible opponents, the program was cancelled to save money. The 82nd and the 2ACR would just have to get by with Humvees.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyZ3v_LQ6UM]

So we find ourselves in 2015 with light forces that, as ever, still lack heavy direct firepower. Sure, eventually our light forces can place artillery or air support on target. But many targets on the battlefield are fleeting. The key to winning the firefight is overmatching their fires rapidly. And that means having the firepower on the ground with the troops, right there, right then.

And so, the Army, particularly the Maneuver Center at Ft. Benning, home of the Infantry and Armor branches, is looking at a program called Mobile Protected Firepower. And after the disastrous, expensive and futile programs such as FCS and other stalled development programs, the Army was looking for something they could buy “off the shelf” at minimal cost. Development is expensive. Buying vehicles is, comparatively, not.

Lo and behold, BAE Systems, the successor to United Defense, just happens to have a vehicle that fits in pretty well with what the Army is looking for. It’s called, wait for it…. The M8!

A few updates would be necessary for the updated M8 to fit in with today’s Army. The original 6V92TIA diesel engine is out of production. The likely replacement would be the Bradley’s Cummins VTA903 600hp diesel that also powers the AAV-7, and the M109A7 gun, and its associated M992 ammo carrier.

It would also need integration of the FBCB2 digital command and control system, in a vehicle that’s already pretty tight inside, and likely with some serious weight and power constraints, all while not busting the weight limit for airdrop.

Still, adding the firepower and mobility of a battalion of M8s to the light Infantry and Airborne Brigade Combat Teams would be a significant boost at minimal costs.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPQjHLYx954]

BAE called this the Expeditionary Light Tank, which, to my thinking is a bad idea. If you fight the M8 as a tank, you’re going to die. It simply will never have the armor to withstand fighting like a tank. It can kill tanks easily enough. It just can’t go toe to toe against them without being lit up like a Christmas tree.

But really, while General John Buford was a fine cavalry officer, they really, really need to rethink the name.

*It was a remarkably smooth development. In spite of a sophisticated hydropnuematic suspension and the complex but reliable autoloader, development was quite rapid, and testing was very successful. Program managers would be well advised to study the program. The single biggest key to success in the program was the limitation of “creep” in requirements.  The absolute hard limit on being able to airdrop a combat ready vehicle proved a very good firewall against the “good idea fairy.”

More on Exercise Swift Response 15.

Our man on the scene sent some pics and words.

The US Army is conducting the largest multinational airborne exercise in recent history, Exercise Swift Response 15, in which a multinational Task Force formed and led by the First  (Devil) Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division is conducting a Joint Forcible Entry (JFE) into the notional country of Atropia at the Hohenfels Training Area’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center.  The Task Force includes airborne infantry battalions from the United States (Task Force Geronimo), Italy (Task Force Folgare) and Germany (Task Force Cerberus) and attached platoons and companies from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, and Poland.  The jump today by portions of TF Devil was preceded by elements of Task Force Bayonet, from the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the remainder of TF Devil jumping into Romania and Bulgaria.  Elements of Task Force Ranger have used the previous nights to destroy simulated air defense threats to open a corridor to allow the JFE to occur within a permissive environment.  For the next several days, TF Devil will fight Violent Atropian Separatists (disloyal members of the armed forces of the friendly nation of Atropia) as well as elements of the Shahid Brigade, which is a transnational terrorist organization.  In the course of their mission, they will be also be tasked to conduct two Noncombat Evacuation Operations (NEO) in conjunction with the state department.

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Pretty complex. The Army sees a future war where they’re simultaneously fighting organized military elements, and insurgent terrorist organizations. They have to both conduct maneuver warfare, and provide stability in wide areas. To say  that it requires a good deal of mental agility to be able to conduct both is and understatement. To do both simultaneously is a great challenge.

Let’s add to that the fact that airborne operations bear inherent risk. Of about 900 troops dropped yesterday, thirty-seven were injured. Most injuries were of a very minor nature, with the troops expected to return to duty within a day or two. Interestingly, about 2/3 of the injuries were to our allied airborne partners. Why the smaller allied units had more injuries, we don’t know.

What we do know is, that’s very much in line with the historical norm for injuries in airborne operations. Kind of makes me glad I was a leg.

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Spartan Pegasus- Airborne Ops in the Great White North

Of my basic training platoon at Ft. Benning, maybe half of us received orders overseas. About half of those went to Germany. The rest of us were split fairly evenly between Hawaii (where I went) and Alaska.

I remember laughing at one fellow receiving orders to Alaska, and was a tad surprised to learn he was delighted with the orders. Me? I don’t do well with cold. But some folks do.

Since World War II, the US Army has mantained a significant presence in Alaska. Among the nice things about it, there is plenty of space for training. Of course, the weather and terrain means that the units there are somewhat uniquely equipped.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlVq5wpwdsg]

I’m guessing the troops are from 3-509PIR, but I don’t know that for sure. The funny looking little vehicle in the heavy drop is an M973 Small Unit Support Vehicle, basically a BV206.

Air Force Weapons School invades Nevada

The Air Force Weapons School is actually something of a combination schoolhouse and think tank.

It’s the capstone course for the tactical employment of various platforms (with tracks for each, such as fighters, bombers, and in this case airlift).

But more than simply teaching tactics, it also uses its exercises to develop new tactics to defeat emerging threats.

The days of massed airdrops on a divisional scale may well be over. But the threat of an airdrop on a somewhat smaller scale is still  a useful option, and may indeed be called upon again, especially in a relatively benign air defense environment.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRMQNADssCM]

In this instance, the paratroopers of the 82nd are pretty much a token force, about one rifle company in size, but one suspects there was enough leadership present to bring back to home station the current thinking on planning and executing such a mission.

Book review: The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots

The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots is the autobiography of Philip Hannan.  I’m not sure that a Protestant would find it as fascinating as I did, but most of it is interesting for the sheer amount of history in it.  Anecdotes range from standing outside the Patterson house to catch a glimpse of Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh in 1927 to giving the homily for John F. Kennedy’s funeral to personal letters from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Hannan attended the North American College seminary in Rome in the late 1930’s, when Mussolini was in power.  While touring Europe on summer break in August 1939, he was warned by a woman to go west, because the German trains were full of troops.  They sent all the American seminarians home in the summer of 1940 on the S.S. Manhattan, where a Nazi sub trailed them all the way to American waters.

Hannan joined the Army as a chaplain in 1942.  (**waves at Padre Harvey**)  He went to Harvard for the military chaplaincy training then was assigned to a training center in Miami.  I was amused by his story of trying to prevent  hasty marriages by making soldiers fill out the form to request permission to marry in triplicate but without carbon paper.  If the soldier misspelled his fiancee’s name or forgot her address in any of the three attempts, permission was denied.  Hannan kept applying for an overseas post and was finally sent to England.  From there, he went to France in July 1944 and ended up with the 82nd Airborne where, in a convoluted series of events, he was nearly shot for wearing a trench coat.

My favorite story of Chaplain Hannan was that if he was going to be in the 82nd Airborne, he should be jump-qualified.  No training at Fort Benning for him, just load up, fly over war-torn Germany and jump.  Since he was an officer, he needed to be the first to jump.  Even better, for his second jump, the C.O. gave him a field promotion to jumpmaster as a “morale boost” for the men.  “What fool thought up this command?” went through his mind at one point.  Now jump-qualified, it was back to tending the wounded and dying, using the hood of a Jeep as an altar when necessary, and trying to help the survivors of the war, especially from the Wöbbelin concentration camp.

There’s a lot more in the book – dealing with racial integration in the Catholic schools, secretly advising President Kennedy, taking part in the Second Vatican Council (where he eloquently argued that possession of nuclear weapons should not be forbidden if used as a deterrent for war), and helping New Orleans recover from Hurricane Betsy in 1965.  (That part was more than a little frustrating, reading, “The Ninth Ward was under eight feet of water”, knowing that they rebuilt for Hurricane Katrina to come along 40 years later and flood them again, and would rebuild yet again.  MOVE to higher ground!)    There’s some interesting behind-the-scenes stories about what’s involved in a papal visit and perhaps a little jealousy that he was never promoted to Cardinal.

It is indeed a “memoir of an extraordinary life.”

Flying Tanks (yes, really)(well, sorta)

No, we aren’t going to drop a 70-ton M-1A1 tank using parachutes. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had airborne tanks. I wouldn’t call any of them huge successes, but our main topic today, the M551 Sheridan wasn’t a complete flop, either.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50cpPAVoxJQ]

Airborne forces got their start in WWII. We’ve all seen the movies of paratroopers jumping into Normandy. One problem they had was a shortage of ways to defeat German armor and take out targets like bunkers and pillboxes. The bazooka went a ways toward this, but a tank would help a lot. The US and the British developed a very light tank called the M22 Locust that could be landed by glider or transported by plane. Arriving in service too late to see combat in WWII, it was also badly undergunned.

After WWII, the Army still tried to come up with lightweight tank for the airborne forces, but had little success. To have any success defeating armor meant a bigger gun. A bigger gun meant a heavier vehicle, and heavier vehicles couldn’t be airdropped. That was pretty much the state of affairs until missile technology entered the picture.

Instead of using a solid shot to penetrate enemy armor, the plan was to use High Explosive Anti Tank (HEAT) rounds. These use a warhead that focuses the explosion to “burn through” enemy armor. The velocity of the round doesn’t matter to the penetration. The effectiveness of a HEAT round is directly related to the diamater of the warhead. The larger the better. But that takes us back to the problem of weight. The solution was to sacrifice muzzle velocity and accept a slow flying round, since the velocity on impact didn’t matter. This made the gun effective at short ranges. Unfortunately, the problem of long range defense against tanks was still there. The Army solved this by using the same gun as a launcher for a guided missle. After a protracted (and not terribly successful) development, the gun and missile combination was finalized. The gun was a 152mm bore (about 6″) that could fire HEAT rounds for short ranges, and the MGM-51 Shillelagh guided missile.

The gun/missile combination was mated to a lightweight, aluminum hull (or chassis, if you will) that was capable of both being airdropped from a C-130 and of swimming. Production started in 1966 and vehicles soon began to equip the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, and other units soon thereafter.

While the system worked to some extent, most of the users weren’t very happy with it. The aluminum armor was easily penetrated, and vulnerable to mines. The Sheridan was also prone to breakdowns. By the mid-70s, most Cavalry units had phased it out. The 82nd Airborne Division, however, had nothing to replace it and so held on to theirs until 1996. The 82nd actually airdropped eight of them during the invasion of Panama, and deployed 51 of them to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

By the late 1970s, the Army had several hundred relatively new, but obsolete Sheridans on its hands. It had also just opened the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, near Barstow, CA, and needed lots of armor to simulate a Soviet regiment attacking across Western Europe. Many Sheridans were modified with sheet metal and fiberglass to give them a distinctive, somewhat Soviet look to play this part. They served very honorably in this role until 2003 when they were replaced by highly modified M-113s.

Update:

Because there were few enemy tanks in Vietnam, and the recoil of HEAT rounds tended to damage electronics on board, Sheridans deployed to Vietnam had their missile guidance packages removed. In addition to the HEAT round, they carried a cannister anti personnel round. You’ve seen a shotgun shell before. Now imagine one six inches across and about 2 1/2 feet long. This was a fearsome weapon when the VC or NVA attacked Sheridan units.