Tank Battles

I’m feeling poorly today, so here a “best of..” post from way back in the very early days of the blog.

I wrote earlier about bringing enough gun to the fight, but not too much. A prime example of this was the M-1 Abrams tank.

When this tank debuted, people were aghast at the cost. What they didn’t realize was it was acutally the result of an extreme cost cutting program. For 20 years, the Army had been cooperating with Germany to develop a sucessor to the M-60 series of tanks, but each iteration had become too complex and too costly. The Army finally decided that they would develop a tank using technology shared with the Germans rather than develop a tank to be used by both countries.

One of the sticking points was the main gun. The standard US tank gun was the 105mm M68. The Army thought this was sufficient to defeat current and projected Soviet armor (and were pretty much right).

The Germans had developed the excellent 120mm smoothbore, and wanted both countries tanks to use it. Our Army resisted for a couple of reasons. The biggest was cost. The new gun would have to be license produced here, with associated setup costs. Even more expensive would be providing stocks of ammunition for the gun. The Army had a huge stockpile of 105mm ammunition already. Buying an entirely new stockpile in the tight budgets of the 1970s wasn’t an attractive option.

In the end, the 105mm won-sort of. The decision was to place the M-1 into production with the 105mm, but make provision to add the 120mm in the future. As it turned out, for various reasons, this was a lot harder than anyone expected. Still, partly as a sop to our German allies, and partly over concern about the ability of the 105mm to defeat future Soviet armor, the 120mm was adopted for the M1A1 that entered service in 1988.

One disadvantage of the 120mm was a reduced ammo load. An M-1 with the 105mm carries 55 main gun rounds. An M-1A1 carries 40. As it turns out, however, few tanks will shoot their entire basic load in a single battle. In fact, not a single tank in Desert Storm fired its entire basic load.

Tankers, ever wonder why the coax on your tank has that massive 4000 round load? Because that’s where the designers originally wanted to put the 25mm M242. The only reason it didn’t make it into the final design was cost. Leaving the 25mm out saved about $100,000 just for the gun, and made the fire-control system simpler, and hence cheaper. 


You’ve seen the news about the Battle of Marjah in southern Afghanistan. And you’ve heard that one of the major challenges facing the Marines are mines and IEDs slowing their advance.  Well, one part of the toolkit for the Marines is a vehicle adapted from the M-1 Abrams tank especially to clear minefields. Behold, the Assault Breacher Vehicle, or ABV.

That “comb” on the front of the ABV is a plow to dislodge any landmines or IEDs buried along the ABV’s path. Now, ABVs don’t have a monopoly on plows. Often, one tank in each Abrams platoon (of 4 tanks) will have a plow.

The big boxes on the back of the ABV contain Mine Clearing Line Charges, or MICLICs. The MICLIC consists of a rocket that drags a tube of high explosives through the air then lays them along the intended path, across any suspected minefields. After the charge is emplaced, it is detonated, and the blast pressure from the explosion causes any mines nearby to sympathetically explode.


The Marines like their ABVs, and the Army, which has let its engineering vehicle capability slide, may purchase some as well.

South Korean Armor

We are hardly an expert on South Korea, having never been stationed there, and only visiting for a month for Exercise Team Spirit ’87, the annual joint US/South Korean wargames. Still, we found it a fascinating place, and a country that faces some interesting challenges, from a defense standpoint.

South Korea is on a peninsula. It’s only shared border is with its antagonistic neighbor, North Korea. North Korea invaded South Korea in July of 1950. After some truly harrowing fighting, US forces, rushed to the scene, managed to stem the tide, defeat the North Korean People’s Army, and regain lost ground. Disaster struck once again when massive Chinese forces entered the fight on the side of North Korea. Eventually, the lines were stabilized roughly along the 38th Parallel, the original border between North and South. In effect, we were right where we started. US forces have been present on South Korean soil ever since. Still, the South Koreans understand that, ultimately, their security rests on their shoulders. They have made enormous strides in becoming  a democratic nation, and a highly industrialized one at that. A large part of that effort has been devoted to their defense industry.

From a strategic and operational standpoint, S. Korea faces a couple challenges. One, N. Korea has a massive army. It may not be particularly well equipped, but it is huge. And that army has a huge number of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Second, S. Korea isn’t that large a country. There isn’t a hell of a lot of room to maneuver on the strategic or operational scale (as contrasted to the tactical level, say, division and below).  For instance, the capitol, Seoul, is very near the border, in fact, within artillery range of N. Korea.  And being on a narrow peninsula, while it narrows the front you have to defend, and reduces the chances of flanking movements, it also allows the enemy to concentrate, and denies you the opportunity to use flanking movements in the counterattack.

One other thing. Korea is very mountainous. Like, really, really. So if you operate armored vehicles in that terrain, they better have a high horsepower to weight ratio, so they can make it up hills. There’s two ways to increase that ratio- increase the horsepower, or decrease the vehicles weight. Better yet, do both.

The Republic of Korea Army (or ROK Army) is organized along lines roughly similar to the US Army. For many years, it was equipped mostly with US weapons, but S. Korea has long worked at building its own defense industry, both to support its own army, and supply weapons to the international market. Most weapons, while not directly based on US systems, were roughly analogous. For instance, they built the K1 and K1A1 tanks, that bore a familiarity to the US M1 and M1A1 tanks.

As for armored personnel carriers, the ROK army has used a design based on the M113 since the 1980s. It is long been due for replacement. Finally, the Koreans have begun to field a new Infantry Fighting Vehicle, known as the K21 KNIFV (Korean Next-generation Infantry Fighting Vehicle).

One of the most interesting things about the K21 is how they saved weight. The K21 weighs about 26 tons.  In contrast, a Bradley weighs about 33 tons. They are similar size vehicles. How did they save the weight? Well, for one thing, they make the chassis out of fiberglass.  Yeah, fiberglass. Used in conjunction with ceramics and other materials, they can achieve good levels of protection for less weight. It will be interesting to see how it holds up to the stress of service.

As for armament, they’ve gone with a much larger weapon than a Bradley has. Instead of a 25mm autocannon, they’ve gone with a 40mm cannon. This provides a couple options that the 25mm doesn’t. First, most of the tanks it will face are older Soviet designs such as the T-55 and T-62. The APFSDS round of the 40mm can actually penetrate the side armor of these older tanks. Of course, it is fully capable of defeating armored personnel carriers. Also, with 40mm gun, you can have what are called “programmable rounds” where as the round leaves the muzzle the fire control computer sets the fuze of the round to either burst on impact, after a delay, or at a set distance from the muzzle. This is excellent for troops in the open, or for anti-aircraft fire.

The K21 also has a two-round anti-tank missile launcher, similar to the TOW launcher on a Bradley, but firing a domestically produced missile.


Behind the Iron Curtain

A lot of attention has been paid to the threat IEDs and EFPs pose to Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heavier armor, jamming of cell phone signals, the CROWS weapons mount and “Rhino” countermeasures have all worked to make Humvees more survivable in an IED environment.  Also, moving from Humvees to MRAPs for some missions has increased troop survivability.

Still, IEDs aren’t the only threat Humvees and similar vehicles face. One of the most common weapons on the battlefield is the RPG, or Rocket Propelled Grenade.  An RPG is a pretty simple weapon. It’s basically a HEAT warhead with  a rocket motor to push it along, all fired from a simple tube. Our guys use a similar weapon,  the AT-4, which is a disposable, one shot weapon. The RPG is reloadable.


The RPG is a real threat to light vehicles like Humvees, MRAPs, and even Strykers and Bradleys. Its HEAT warhead can penetrate the armor of just about any armored vehicle short of a main battle tank like the M-1. An RPG hit on a Humvee will often result in death or injury to the entire crew and a catastrophic loss of the vehicle.

So how do you defend a vehicle like the Humvee from RPGs? They are too small to carry explosive reactive armor or an anti-RPG cage. You can’t keep adding additional armor. The chassis just won’t take that much weight.

Well, for a couple decades, the armies of the world have been exploring “active defense” against RPGs (and similar HEAT warheads). Using a radar sensor to detect an incoming round, the active defense would instantly and automatically react to fire a projectile to impact with the warhead.  Two big problems have always existed with this. One, the sensors and controls just haven’t been practical until the recent improvements in electronics. Secondly, having a vehicle that routinely has troops (and innocent bystanders) nearby suddenly start shooting off explosives is kinda unsafe.  Recently, Artis LLC, in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) came up with a system called Iron Curtain that uses a combination of advanced sensors, downward firing countermeasures, and special explosives and projectiles to field a system that can defeat RPG rounds without posing a great risk to dismounted personnel.


The system probably won’t be ready for service for another year or so, but can potentially be a great aid in saving the lives of troops.

Joint Air Attack Team

We’ve talked before about how the post-Vietnam era Army found itself facing down an enormous Soviet Group of Forces in East Germany, and struggling to find a  way to deter them from rolling over NATO forces.

The standard Soviet tactic was the echelon attack. A US brigade might find itself under attack by a full Soviet Motor-Rifle Division. Fair enough. As a rule of thumb, units in the defense are expected to be able to handle an attack by a force up to three times their size. The problem came when the second echelon of Soviet forces would slam into our US brigade, before they have had time to reset after the first attack. And if the second echelon didn’t break through, there was a third echelon behind that. Sooner or later, our US brigade would be overwhelmed.

The key to defeating the echelon attack was  to disrupt the follow-on second and third echelons. We’ve discussed the Cobra and Apache attack helicopters in the deep strike role. And the Air Force would do its part by performing interdiction missions, dropping bridges, disrupting supply and fuel depots.

But there was another tactic, designed to compliment the strenghts and minimize the weaknesses of attack helicopters and close air support aircraft like the A-10. That was the Joint Air Attack Team, or JAAT. Utilizing artillery, scout and attack helicopters, Airborne Forward Air Controllers, and close air support aircraft like the A-10, a JAAT could overwhelm the air defenses of a Soviet unit and pound it into the dirt. Even if the unit wasn’t destroyed, it would be so disrupted that it couldn’t keep to its schedule. This would buy our defending ground brigade time to reset from the first echelon and prepare for its attack.

Here’s a training film from either the late 70’s or early 80’s showing the basic concept.


With the exception of the A-10, all the platforms shown have been replaced. The M-60 tanks have been replaced by M-1s, the OH-58 scouts by updated OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, the AH-1Qs by AH-64s, and the OV-10 by modified OA-10A’s.  Still, the basic concept is still a viable one.

There were a couple of real challenges to making a JAAT work. First, airspace management. It can be a real challenge making sure artillery rounds and airplanes don’t occupy the same airspace. For obvious reasons, the aviators, both Army and Air Force are kinda picky about that. There’s also the challenge of making sure the helicopters and fixed wing air know where each other are, to avoid collisions.

The other challenge was timeliness. It takes some time to put a JAAT together. If the JAAT takes too long to assemble, it can miss its chance to catch the follow on echelon. But if units have trained together before, and have worked out the kinks, it can be put together much more quickly.

Here’s a little more “Boom” for you.

It’s a mashup of some footage from Iraq. Most of this looks to be from 2004 or early 2005. There’s some small arms, Bradleys, TOWs, Javelins, AT-4s and 500lb bombs. Interestingly, there’s a brief bit of Blackwater MD530 helicopters.


H/T: Military Videos.

Bob Gates and the future Army.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came out last month with his proposed cuts in various acquisition programs throughout the DoD. The biggest impact this had on the Army was cutting the vehicle procurement portion of the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) and moving to put most of the networking portion of it on the back burner.

The FCS program was originally designed with two major goals in mind:

First,  to both bring all of the army’s combat brigades into network-centric warfare, where using networks to link all combat elements would speed the flow of information, enhance the mental agility of units, reduce the fog of war, and allow our units to out think and outfight enemies large and small.

The second goal was to replace the Army’s legacy fleet of heavy armored vehicles, such as the M1 Abrams, the M2 Bradley and the M109 howitzer, with fleets of much lighter vehicles that would be easier to transport to the theater of operations, and more agile on the battlefield. An overriding goal of this part of the program was to use a single common set of components for all the vehicles in the fleet.

There are a couple problems with this holistic approach to re-equipping the Army. One, it is technologically very ambitious. Any part of the program that lags behind the anticipated timeline causes almost the whole program to be delayed. And in a program like this, time isn’t just money. It’s a LOT of money.  Second, when the FCS program was started, the Army had one vision of what future missions would likely look like. The primary outlook was one of short duration operations against nation/state actors such as Iraq. To say Desert Storm was the model they were working from would be an oversimplification, but it certainly had a large influence. But events since then have shown some of the limitations of that outlook. The vulnerability of lighter armored vehicles to IED attack took the Army somewhat by surprise. Not totally, mind you, but somewhat. In a war of maneuver against a state level enemy, you might expect to lose some forces to mines and other demolitions, but maneuver would mostly allow you to avoid mines, and your agility on the battlefield would prevent the enemy from having enough advance notice of your movements to emplace very many ambushes. That obviously isn’t the case in a counter-insurgency such as Iraq, and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan.  When you have to drive through the same neighborhoods on a regular basis, even a fairly dim enemy can figure out where to put mines and IEDs. And given that the FCS goal was for no vehicle heavier than 27 tons,  there was no way to provide enough protection against any but the smallest mines and IEDs.

As a means of testing this concept of a happy middle ground between the heavy Abrams/Bradley force, and light infantry/artillery team, the Army conceived the Interim Brigade Combat Teams.  These are better known as Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, since they are mounted on Stryker vehicles.  The Stryker is a modified version of  a Canadian designed Light Armored Vehicle, but a key part of the vehicle and brigade design is the integration of its networking capabilities.  And it has been quite successful in Iraq. It isn’t invulnerable to IEDs or mines, but the crew survivability is pretty good, and combination of speed, armor and firepower is pretty close to what the Army had hoped for. But even supported by the Mobile Gun System, the Stryker Brigade is a little too light to go on the offense against an armored enemy.

But the attempt to force several different types of vehicles, from tanks to artillery, to infantry carriers to share a common basis has not been successful. The challenges, from keeping weight down, to providing enough armor, to finding a powerful, but lightweight engine, are just too much to form a successful program.

With the demise of the common family of vehicles from the FCS program, the Army will have to stretch the life of its core fleet of Abrams and Bradley vehicles. They are already somewhat old, most of them having been bought in the 1980s, but with proper funding to reset/upgrade their mechanical components and continued improvement of their sensors and networking capabilities, there’s probably enough life left in them to stave off mass obsolescence. And several parts of the FCS program will be integrated into the Army in the future, such as its great emphasis on UAVs, unmanned ground sensors, and perhaps even unmanned ground vehicles.  Certainly, the demand for much greater bandwidth at the tactical level isn’t going to go away, in spite of mounting challenges there (there is only so much of the radio spectrum available). Some technologies, such as the Non-Line of Sight- Launch System are well on their way to being fielded with the Army (and the Navy’s LCS ships will use it as well).


HEAT Rounds and Sabots redux

I don’t know why I spent all that time typing about HEAT rounds and sabots when National Geo covered pretty much all the high points in just over two minutes.


H/T: From my position…

Stupid is as stupid does

Boredom, even in a combat zone, is a real problem in the service. In fact, especially in a combat zone. And while the Army and the rest of our services are highly trained and very competent, they are still mostly a collection of young men and women, who, not surprisingly, act like young men and women. I’m a little hesitant about posting this video, because some of the accidents are real, and people really were hurt, but the bad comes with the good. Not all the incidents are our troops. There’s a few from our allies, and even some showing our adversaries.