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.
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.
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.
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.”