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Is the U.S. Army’s armor branch a fraud

Posted by John Reed on

“There’s been some thinking about our tanks. They’re not great in urban environments. They’re too imposing. They scare civilians.” Then, as calmly as he could, [Charlie Company Commander, 1/34 Armor Captain Pat] Chavez told them they would be going to Iraq without their tanks.
From page 99 of the 2008 book In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr.

Wherever it says tank, substitute Humvee

Among the subordinates he was speaking to was Lieutenant Todd Bryant, West Point Class of 2002. He had chosen armor for his branch at West Point. At West Point, your ability to get the branch you want depends on your class standing after four years of academics. (I graduated from West Point in 1968. I was going to choose armor as my branch my first year at West Point, but I was turned off completely at Fort Knox, the armor headquarters base, the summer before my sophomore year, when they told us for every hour they operated the then M-60 tanks, they had to perform ten hours of maintenance. I never liked working on cars and the armor branch suddenly sounded like you spend almost all of your time supervising soldier mechanics. I chose communications instead.)

After going through armor (tank) training and working long hours to get their tanks ready for Iraq, Bryant and his men were being told they were going to war without their 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks.

So what were they going to use instead of tanks?


Poof! You’re an infantryman

There is another branch of the Army called the infantry. Their traditional image is that they walk everywhere. But that’s no longer the case. They generally ride nowadays. In what? Humvees.

So by denying Lieutenant Bryant’s unit their tanks in Iraq, the U.S. Army turned 1/34 Armor into 1/34 Infantry (albeit without acknowledging that). This in spite of the fact that the men in 1/34 Armor had only the most minimal infantry training in basic training (e.g., learning how to shoot a rifle and how to maneuver as a ten-man squad in the woods) and in spite of the fact that billions were spent designing and building their tanks, training the men and officers in how to operate and maintain them, and training the armor officers in tank tactics.

Why have an armor branch if when you send them into combat you are going to designate them as infantry and force them to fight as untrained infantry?

IED protection

One of the virtues of an Abrams tank in Iraq is that if an IED goes off underneath it, the occupants probably will not be hurt. It would have to be a special IED called a shaped charge or EFP to penetrate a tank.

An IED did go off under Lt. Bryant’s Humvee. They never found his legs. After making incoherent sounds for a few seconds, he died.

At a West Point dinner in 2009, I sat at a table with a woman whose son was in Iraq. He had graduated from West Point recently. He wanted the armor branch but did not get it. Then, after the branch-choice night at West Point, he was told there some additional armor slots and asked if he wanted one. He did. He was thrilled. His mom was thrilled for him.

Tanks lite

He is now in Iraq with his armor unit. Do they have tanks? No. They are riding around in 30-ton M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

Is that a tank? No. It looks a little like a tank. It has treads and a turret and metal sides with no widows or doors. So why is it not a tank?

It has no cannon, just a 25mm 242 chain gun, a heavy machine gun or light cannon. Guns of this size were common in World War II aluminum fighter planes where they were used to shoot down other aluminum fighter planes. The Bradley also has TOW missiles, but it has to stop to shoot them. Infantrymen also have TOW missiles. It also has no armor except on the front. The strength of that armor is classified, probably because the Army is embarrassed at how lousy it is.

The hull base is aluminum. It is a scout vehicle, not a tank. Scout vehicles run around at fairly high speeds out in front of an Army unit looking for the enemy. Their job is not to fight the enemy. It is to locate them and report back. The only reason they even have any armor or weapons is simply to defend themselves in a dangerous part of the battlefield. Wikipedia says it provides “at least some armored protection.” That’s code for “barely any armored protection.”

Humvees also commonly have a .50 caliber machine gun, which is a little smaller than a 25mm. Humvees also have TOWs.

False sense of security

I am not an expert, but my impression from various sources is that the Bradley is not an armored vehicle. It is a faux armored vehicle which gives mainly a false sense of security to its occupants. The Bradley’s ammunition and fuel storage scares experts, but the empirical results from actual combat indicate surprising survivability. The movie The Pentagon Wars was about the fight within the military to try to remedy the Bradley’s many deficiencies.

I am suspicious as to whether the Bradley’s armor can stop a .50 cal. bullet. That is a common heavy machine gun used by most military and irregular military forces around the world. Sniper rifles are often .50 cal. nowadays.

Bottom line, the Bradley is not a tank. So much of the training and tactics taught to armor personnel do not apply to the Bradley.

Armor casualties in Vietnam

One of my West Point roommates was wounded twice in Vietnam. On one of those occasions, the driver next to him was killed by the burst of gunfire that wounded my roommate.

What branch did that roommate choose? Armor. Was he in a tank when he got wounded? Nope. Tanks were generally not usable in Vietnam because of the jungle. He was in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. That unit rode around in M113 APCs.

Were APCs tanks? Nope. Were they like Bradley Fighting Vehicles? No. They have no turret and only weight about one-third of what a Bradley weighs.

‘Armored’ Personnel Carriers

APC stands for Armored Personnel Carrier but the word “armored” is a joke. If you fired a .50 cal. bullet at an APC, it would go in one side of the APC and out the other. I know that because I was in the Army at the time. Like the Bradley, its “armor” is made of aluminum. One of its main design requirements was that it be light enough to be carried around by helicopters and C-130 airplanes. The phrase “aluminum armor” is a contradiction in terms. Aluminum is soft, as everyone knows, and it actually bursts into flames at high enough temperatures, like those generated by military warheads. Thermite grenades, which are used to burn through metal, use aluminum powder as one of the ingredients that burns when the grenade is set off.

Here is a comment from Wikipedia about its “tankness:”

Though it was never designed to serve as a light tank, the M113 was the most widely used armored vehicle of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, earning the nickname 'Green Dragon' among the Viet Cong, as well as APC and ACAV (armored cavalry assault vehicle) by the allied forces, as it was used to break through heavy thickets in the midst of the jungle to attack and overrun enemy positions.

Note also the phrase “personnel carrier.” A tank is a fighting machine. An APC is a battlefield passenger van. It is a merely a box with two benches in it to carry 11 passengers. It typically has a .50 cal. machine gun to protect itself, but its designed mission was to transport troops around the battlefield. What kind of troops? Infantrymen.

‘Tank’ sign

Between the world wars, the Army was short of money. The Great Depression was going on. So they held maneuvers in which they used trucks as tanks. They had white cardboard signs that said “Tank” on them. I have seen films of those maneuvers and the “tanks” on various cable TV channels. I have also seen old newsreel film of inflatable fake tanks that were used by the Allies during World War II in England to trick the Germans into thinking the D-Day invasion was going to be in the Pas de Calais area instead of the actual landing area: Normandy.

The high-ranking armor officers in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan should reprise those old “Tank” signs and put them on the Bradleys and Humvees that their “tankers” are riding around in—or the inflatable Sherman Tanks. Or maybe they could get fake tank tops to put over the Bradleys. You used to see Volkswagen bugs that had their front hoods (trunks) replaced by fiberglass imitation Rolls Royce grilles. Armor officers in Iraq could get fiberglass or Styrofoam Abrams covers for their Bradleys and thereby pretend that choosing the armor branch, going to armor school, and swaggering around in their tanker boots really had some connection to the reality of their lives as untrained mechanized infantry.

Freaking pathetic—and these are grown, middle-aged men playing these games—and getting young men killed in the process.

Capabilities and limitations

When I was cadet at West Point, we were often given briefings about the “capabilities and limitations” of various items of military equipment. What are they for the Abrams tank?

Although it is a whiz bang, amazing machine that often stars in Military Channel and History Channel documentaries about its capabilities, like firing accurately while moving at high speed over moguls, a chain is only a strong as its weakest link.

Generally, tanks are designed to operate in desert or other large fields with little vegetation. Their main job is to kill other tanks which is done high-noon, cowboy style by shooting the enemy tank on sight before he shoots you. Tank cannons use extremely high velocity ammunition (and loud!) so they only have to point at the enemy tank and shoot. No need to calculate distance and arc the fire on a parabolic trajectory like artillery.

Tanks are vulnerable to enemy soldiers that can creep up close to them. Civilians have disabled many tanks since they were invented in World War I by throwing Molotov cocktails on them. A Molotov cocktail is simply a glass bottle of kerosene with a cloth wick in the opening. The wick is set on fire then thrown on the tank where it breaks and sends flaming liquid all over the vehicle including into any openings.

I was impressed with the Army’s constant discussion of capabilities and limitations. That is sort of a theme of my book Succeeding which is about surveying your strengths and weaknesses and running your life accordingly. The problem is the military is not keeping that in mind with regard to tanks. There seems to be a mindset that tanks and armored divisions have no need to justify their existence and therefore there is no need to consider what they can do or cannot do. In fact, they are like some odd tool that you would buy at Brookstone. When you need it, it’s great to have, but you rarely need it. Military planners and officers need to create a revised list of the capabilities and limitations of tanks then revise the Army’s tank unit deployments, share of budget, size of units, training, and use in combat accordingly. If they don’t get to it quickly, heads should roll.

Only ‘disabled’

Oddly, Wikipedia makes the following point about Molotov cocktails:

Molotov cocktail thrown at a tank, particularly in the area of the engine block, can destroy the machine making enough heat to ignite the fuel reservoir and melt some connection pipes. It should be noted while Molotov cocktails may be a psychologically effective method of disabling tanks and armored vehicles by forcing the crew out or damaging external components, most modern tanks cannot be physically destroyed or rendered completely inoperable by Molotov cocktails; only "disabled".

I also recall reports from early in the Iraq war that the Abrams could be disabled easily by the enemy firing an RPG into its tail end (engine compartment) from some distance away. The tail end contains the jet turbine engine which needs to take in lots of air and expel lots of exhaust gasses thereby creating two Achilles heels.

Only “disabled?” Uh, what’s the difference between being destroyed and being disabled? That the guys in the tank get to live another few minutes?

To be effective, or just to keep its crew alive, a tank must be able to move, see, communicate with other U.S. forces, and shoot. If it loses any one of those abilities, it is all but useless to its army. Furthermore, if it loses any one of those abilities, its crew probably only has minutes to live. Once the tank is immobilized, or loses its ability to communicate or to see or to shoot, it cannot escape or call for help or defend itself.

Lilliputians versus tied-down Gulliver

Even the most unsophisticated civilian gang can set fires on the tank that kill the occupants with heat or by setting off fuel or ammunition within the tank. Enemy with access to military munitions or civilian chemicals can put thermite grenades on parts of the tank to burn through them. Normal explosives like hand grenades or rifles or mechanics tools can be used to destroy the engine, antennas, external machine gun and cannon barrels, periscopes by enemy standing on or next to the tank. If they have more time and it’s necessary, the enemy can even use cutting torches and other heavy duty demolition tools to open the tank. If other American units do not rescue it, the enemy can kill the occupants by cutting off their oxygen, water, or even food. If a body of water and heavy moving equipment are available, they can push the tank into water deep enough to submerge it. A big enough explosive charge can flip it over, blow the turret off, or crack it open.

A disabled tank is useless at best and almost certainly about to be fully destroyed.

Thick vegetation or urban environment

Enemy fighters can creep up close to the tank in thick vegetation or urban areas. Remember the line from the first paragraph of this article:

They’re not great in urban environments.

That’s a gross understatement. They are almost helpless in urban areas if even a single enemy has the courage to work their way close to them with a Molotov cocktail, RPG, thermite grenade or other simple weapon. Talk about asymmetric warfare: an Abrams tank costs $3.45 million; a Molotov cocktail, $1.

Multi-story buildings

Tanks are vulnerable to enemy shooting RPGs at them from second or higher stories of buildings because tanks have thinner armor on top than on their front and sides.

Soft ground

Tanks are extremely heavy. While their treads enable them to traverse varied ground that wheeled vehicles could not traverse, soft ground immobilizes tanks. Many disabled tanks in wars were disabled by soft ground. Many of those were then destroyed by the enemy.


Bridges are another mobility problem for tanks because of their weight. Each bridge can carry a certain amount of weight. If the tank exceeds it, it needs another stronger bridge built to cross the river or other body of water.

Narrow twisting roads

In addition to being heavy, tanks are wide and the driver has poor visibility. During my tour in Vietnam, two guys in my units died. One was driving a self-propelled 8-inch howitzer. That is a tank with its turret removed and replaced by a huge open air cannon, sort of a convertible tank with the top down and a bigger gun. He could not see well at a particular stretch of road in Vietnam and the vehicle rolled over killing him. This happened in spite of the fact that the III Corps area of Vietnam where we were was generally as flat as a pool table.

During the Bosnia War, I recall reading that the allies had debilitating trouble using tanks in that mountainous area because of narrow roads and weak bridges.

Oceans and continents

Because they are so heavy, it is almost impossible to move significant numbers of them great distances rapidly. Accordingly, they have to be forward deployed around the world in advance—transported to those locations by ships and trains. And if the U.S. and its allies do not have air supremacy in the battle in question, our tanks will be wiped out within hours by enemy aircraft.

Top-secret map

There is probably a top-secret map of the world at the Fort Knox headquarters of the U.S. Army armor branch. I expect the map would show the surprisingly few open areas around the world where tanks can operate—deserts, plains, rolling hills with few trees. It would also show the bridges around the world that cannot accommodate a 70-ton Abrams tank. And it would show the narrow roads where tanks cannot go.

A tank route, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. A particular area of the world could be great tank country in general, but if there is a choke point where the tanks cannot get from one part of the theater to another because of a single weak bridge or narrow mountain road, then tanks are of little or no use there. The enemy can simply cross the bridge to the side without the tanks or walk up the twisty narrow road past the point that tanks cannot negotiate.

The map also shows all the urban areas where tanks would be too vulnerable. The enemy can easily neutralize tanks, as they have in Iraq, by simply retreating into urban areas where tanks dare not go.

Is this map top secret to keep our enemies from knowing what it says? Hell, no! They can easily, and probably already have, create the same map. It’s top secret to keep the Congress, the press, and the public from knowing how extremely limited tanks are—so limited that their existence in large numbers, along with the existence of a full armor branch, is dubious at best.

If you country is located in terrain that is ideal for tanks, like most of the Middle East, you might want to have some. But the A-10 Thunderbolt is still the superior way to kill enemy tanks. Tank-to-tank duels are more sporting, but war is not a sport.

Light Army versus heavy Army

Page 137 of the 2009 book The Gamble, which is about the 2006-2008 war in Iraq, has this telling discussion.

[Lt. Gen.] Dubik saw the entrance of the light Army, comprised nowadays of three divisions, the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne, and the 10th Mountain. Those light-infantry units, lacking tanks and much other armor, had been easier to deploy, and so were assigned the odd jobs of the Cold War, from peacekeeping in the Sinai and Somalia to hurricane relief in Florida.

The heavy Army, with its tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery pieces, and thousands of other pieces of gear, remained focused on the plains of Central Europe, where its mission was to be prepared to blunt the onslaught of a Red Army. “We were the window-doers throughout the Cold War,” said Dubik...“The ‘real Army’ didn’t do windows,” he said, until forced to do so in Bosnia in 1995. The heavy Army also led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, perhaps feeling it was its turn, after the Special Operations and light infantry had invaded Afghanistan two years earlier.

Note the phrase “remained focused on the Central Plains of Europe.” That was my sense when I was in the Army and has been since as I see media stories about the Army. You heard a lot of discussion about the Fulda Gap when I was in the Army. I do not know how ready the U.S. Army was to stop the Russians coming through the Fulda Gap, but the Russians would have been wise to attack anywhere else because the whole U.S. Army seemed to be designed to stop a Russian tank attack through that area.

The notion that the U.S. Army should be so designed is my complaint. “Doing windows” appears to be the fate of the U.S. Army for the foreseeable future. Tanks don’t “do windows.” The problem is what they do do barely exists.

Note also the phrase “...perhaps feeling it was its turn...” That is the sort of childish clamor for attention and getting in on the “fun” that governs much use of the various U.S. military forces. We need to stop indulging the desire of Army brass for expensive photogenic toys and getting “its turn” and focus on what the Army really needs to be equipped for and good at.

Tanks versus aircraft

In World War II, they had a number of ways to kill enemy tanks, namely:

• bazookas
• artillery
• anti-tank guns
• other tank guns
• aircraft bombs or rockets

Which was most effective? Aircraft. What defenses does the Abrams have against aircraft? Not much. Wikipedia says,

It also fires HEAT shaped charge [anti-armor] rounds such as the M830, the latest version of which (M830A1) incorporates a sophisticated multi-mode electronic sensing fuse and more fragmentation which allows it to be used effectively against armored vehicles, personnel, and low-flying aircraft.

They also have very limited capability to generate smoke or chaff (aluminum foil strips shot into the air like confetti). Smoke hides the tank briefly if there’s little wind and chaff hopes to confuses radar guidance systems until it falls to the ground within seconds of being shot into the air.

As far as I know, no tank has ever shot down an enemy aircraft.

Defenseless against aircraft

But as I said, the main killer of tanks in World War II was fighter planes dropping bombs, firing 37mm cannons, or firing rockets. Those were dumb bombs and dumb rockets. Current military aircraft can kill tanks almost at will, especially, the A-10 Warthog U.S. jet that was designed specifically to kill enemy tanks. It has a Gatling gun that shoots spent uranium (the most dense metal) 30mm bullets that go right through tank armor and destroy the crew and inside with sheer force and the heat generated.

Bombers can also destroy or disable tanks with plain old high-explosive smart (e.g., or dumb bombs, as can accurate artillery. See

Helicopters can also easily destroy tanks with rockets and anti-tank cannons.

Here is an interesting line from the Wikipedia article on anti-tank warfare:

Anti-tank missiles were first used in a helicopter-borne role by the French in the late 1950s, when they mounted SS.11 wire-guided missiles to Alouette II helicopters. While initially, there were many teething problems, the possibilities were clear, such as providing the ability to attack the more lightly armored top of the tank. Some claimed that the tank was essentially obsolete at that stage.

That is my tentative conclusion as well, only I am drawing that conclusion in 2009, not the late 1950s. I have seen on TV some sort of bomb that explodes in the air and sends individual anti-tank bomblets at a bunch of tanks on the ground homing in on each individual tank and destroying it. One shot; a dozen or more tank kills.


Billy Mitchell analogy

I recently read and reviewed the book A Question of Loyalty about Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell. He was court martialed and forced out of the Army for saying more or less what I am saying here about the vast superiority of air power over a big, complex, venerable weapons system. Only his fight was with the navy over the fact that a plane could sink a battleship. Navy brass were outraged, but they were none too eager to agree to a test.

Mitchell raised enough hell that Congress demanded a test. The Navy tried to rig the rules, but Mitchell and his men sank the left-over World War I German battleship anyway. The navy still had their beloved battleships when World War II started, but they were pretty much a joke by the end of the war. They had a brief renaissance beating up on third-world countries like Vietnam and Lebanon, but they have since become museum pieces literally.

Would the Army be interested in similarly testing whether its tanks can stand up to any sort of enemy aircraft? I expect they would readily admit they would not have a chance. Sooooo, please explain again why do we have 7,000 of them?

If they are so strong, why do they need so much protection?

Tanks raise a question that has been asked about aircraft carriers. Doctrine in the armor branch calls for tanks to operate in teams and preferably with mechanized infantry. Part of the reason is combined arms team enhanced offensive effectiveness and all that. But much of it is to protect the damn tanks because they are so valuable and vulnerable. Similarly, aircraft carrier “battle groups” are a mob of other ships around aircraft carriers to protect them from enemy aircraft, ships, and submarines.

If aircraft carriers and tanks need so much damned protection, why don’t we just leave them home?

I wrote another article similar to this one in which I wonder if navy surface ships are not also anachronistic sitting ducks.

Desert Storm tank success?

What about the last big tank battle in Desert Storm? The armor branch would point to that as evidence of how great the armor equipment and their men were. Seems to me that U.S. and allied aircraft including helicopters and jets could have easily and quickly destroyed all the Iraqi tanks, and damned near all the Iraqi troops, with no casualties and no friendly-fire incidents. Why didn’t they? I suspect that they were held back by Army armor advocates who wanted to use the battle to justify their existence and gather some career-building glory.

Why is there no friendly-fire problem, especially when most U.S. tank casualties were caused by friendly fire from U.S. aircraft? Because if you do not use the tanks at all, they are not there to be hit by friendly U.S. aircraft. Some allied vehicles in Desert Storm were hit by friendly vehicles shooting at them. And as far as I know, no U.S. aircraft has ever accidentally shot down another friendly aircraft with an anti-tank weapon.

Kids’ game

Make sure you understand what I am saying. It appears that U.S. armor were used, and some of the men in them were wounded or died, in Desert Storm, not because they were needed, but because they did not want to be left out of the fun. As if it were all some sort of kids’ game complete with sibling rivalries (Army armor branch versus Army helicopters versus Navy, Air Force, and Marine aircraft) for the attention of the parents (Pentagon).

Actually, I feel that way about almost the entire Desert Storm ground war in Iraq and Kuwait. Aircraft could have, and should have, done the whole thing with regard to enemy troops in the open. American ground troops were killed and wounded, mostly by friendly fire, in a sort of sham ground war against hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops who either wanted to surrender or who were defenseless against allied aircraft. Not only would the war have cost far less in terms of blood. it would also have been far cheaper in terms of money if we had left most of the Army and Marines home, notwithstanding the old shibboleth that air power alone is not enough; you need ground troops.

Not if the stupid sons of bitches go out in the desert and sit in trenches and/or tanks like the Iraqis did in Desert Storm. Norman Schwarzkopf and his Army and Marine underlings were “playing Army,” like some sort of Battle of El Alamein war reenactors.


You can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys. It would appear that tanks are a very expensive, anachronistic toy for armor officers. They still have a limited role to play. The refusal of the Clinton Administration to send armor to Somalia reportedly exacerbated the Blackhawk Down incident. 18 American Rangers and Delta Force soldiers died. We had to borrow a U.N. (Pakistani) tank to extract the survivors. On the other hand, Mogadishu is one of those tightly-packed, narrow streets urban areas where tanks are vulnerable to attacks from up close that can disable them.

The problem is we have about 7,000 Abrams tanks so that we can fight a battle like the huge Battle of Kursk between the Nazis and the Soviets in 1943. But I read somewhere that no other country, including Russia, any longer has such great numbers of tanks. So the battle we have spent billions getting ready for cannot possibly take place because no enemy of comparable tank size exists, not to mention finding a place to hold it.

The U.S. Army appears to be afraid to send tanks to Iraq. As of March, 2005, 80 Abrams tanks had been knocked out of action by the enemy there according to the Wikipedia Abrams tank article. If we are afraid to expose the Abrams to the enemy other than in desert battles that seem unlikely to ever happen, and which we can easily win with aircraft, why are we spending hundreds of millions on tanks, tank training, and tank personnel?

It reminds me of what I said about the airborne (paratroop) divisions. There has not been a significant combat parachute jump since Operation Varsity in 1945 in Germany. There were only a relatively few significant size parachute drops of infantry in all of World War II. Arguably, they were all disasters and the general behind-closed-doors consensus was not to do them any more.

Yet every weekday with nice weather at Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, and Fort Benning, you can see huge parachute drops. These cost billions over time and are almost a total waste of time. Apparently, airborne divisions only exist so that young men can brag about being paratroopers and so that officers con be assigned to those units as evidence of their crown prince status on the career ladder. General David Petraeus, for example, was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul before he became Iraq then Centcom Commander. (I was in the 101st for a month in July 1966 and in the 82nd for four months before I went to Vietnam in 1969.)

Our armored and airborne divisions’ equipment should be mothballed. A small cadre of soldiers should be kept on active airborne status and some small tank units should be spread around the Army like heavy artillery units are. The U.S. military and its civilian supervisors need to stop making decisions about the make up of the Army on the basis of letting military officers have expensive, but rarely useful toys to play with. We also need to stop buying expensive equipment mainly because it lets Congress take credit for jobs in their district. Soldiers need, but do not have, more unmanned drone aircraft, armored humvees, robots, better body armor, and so on. But those are small, not photogenic, and do not create as many jobs as tanks and ships and fighter planes. So the Army goes without them. But the object of the entire enterprise is supposed to be to accomplish the U.S.’s military missions and protect its troops, not to amuse officers and let Congress use the military budget to buy votes.

The current size and use of armored equipment and personnel appears to be an outrage and a fraud on the American people and on low-level American enlisted men and officers. They choose armor branch, spend months or years learning how to operate, maintain, and employ them tactically, only to be sent at the last minute to fight and die as untrained mechanized infantry. The main role of the tank—to kill other tanks—has long since passed to manned and unmanned aircraft which do it far more efficiently.

Anticipating some criticism I answer as follows:

Possible criticism

My answer

I am a great guy. I work on Abrams tanks at Anniston. I do a great job. I want to keep my job. The part I install works great. Therefore your article is wrong.

All irrelevant. I did not write about any of that other than to say the Abrams is a whiz bang machine. The issue is whether its weak links and Achilles’ heels render it useless or near useless in too many situations.

Tens of thousands of great soldiers have soldiers have served honorably in tanks in battle and many of them died doing so.

I agree. Too many of them died because of poor design, weak spots in the designs and inappropriate or unnecessary use of tanks. I did not comment on the bravery of tank crews in the article. I think it takes some extra bravery just to be in the armor branch even in peacetime because heavy equipment is dangerous in the best of conditions. But that’s not what the article is about.

You’d be terrified if a tank was coming at you.

At Fort Knox when my West Point class was going through armor training, I was an extra man once. I had to ride in a jeep in front of the company of tanks that was attacking over a hill behind me. At one point, I turned to look back at the tanks. That was one scary sight. I particularly remember the sand boiling out of the tops of the treads and the turrets swinging back and forth like some malevolent, angry, giant insects looking for someone to sting. Very scary, sir, but can they survive a Molotov cocktail or an RPG to the engine compartment?

The Abrams can shoot a Coke can out of someone’s hand while moving from 3 km away.

Impressive! And if that is what I need done and your tank can get to within 3KM of that Coke drinker, I will call you. But If I am fighting in Baghdad, I will probably not have any use for a 3km cannon.

Secretary of Defense Gates says a similar thing on 4/7/09

I posted this article first around 4/4/09. On 4/7/09, the Wall Street Journal had a front page story saying Secretary of Defense Gates unveiled a sweeping overhaul of weapons priorities to reorient the U.S. military to winning unconventional wars, like Iraq, rather than preparing to fight China or Russia. One of the items in Gates’s new plan was cutting back on “the Army’s next generation of armored vehicles.” That doesn’t go far enough. They need to cut back on the last generation of armored vehicles and reassign and retrain the vast majority of existing tank personnel to infantry or mechanized infantry units.

I have condemned too much time and money and personnel being devoted to the following:

• tanks
• surface ships
• manned fighter planes
• paratroopers

Gates predicted, accurately I believe, that Congressmen who benefit politically, and companies that benefit financially, from the overly expensive, unneeded weapons programs will fight the cuts tooth and nail for their own selfish reasons. I predict the bad guys will win. They always have. And our new anti-war commander in chief doesn’t have the moral courage or integrity to stop them this time either any more than he stopped the earmarks he promised would end if he was elected. The “leaders” who are responsible for making our national defense as strong as possible have no interest in doing so. Both the generals and the civilians in question are only interested in using the national defense budget to feather their own nests, in spite of the fact that U.S. servicemen die as a result.

On 3/26/10, I saw a Soviet general interviewed about the Soviet war in Afghanistan on a Military Channel program called “Fields of Armor.” The Soviet said Afghanistan revealed that the days of armor were over. That Soviet Afghan war ended in 1989—almost 20 years ago.

On November 19, 2010, the Marines said they were sending a company of tanks to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. A company is typically about 120 men. I do not know how many tanks. I expect most of the men in the company are maintenance guys because tanks take something like ten hours of maintenance for every hour of operation. I expect those tanks will never get out of Afghanistan. They must have had to FedEx them to get them in there. Afghanistan is landlocked and almost surrounded by hostile to the U.S. countries.

A reader sent me this link: It basically says the new vehicle to replace the Bradley Fighting vehicle weighs more than an Abrams tank. Unbelievable! Apparently its main function is to create jobs in the districts of various congressman. Now how do you transport it to, say, Iran? How many of the world’s bridges will permit an 84-ton tank to go over them safely? I surmise this it to survive IEDs. A more sensible solution would be to not drive around in repetitive patterns so IEDs can be used against you. In other words, do not occupy hostile countries.

Here is a story about how the Army wants no more tanks but Congress insists. It’s a jobs program, not for national defense. Like I said, a fraud.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

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  • Eric – you are absolutely right. That is why we were trained to NEVER drive a tank through an urban area. And with the M1 series, you don’t need to do that. You can level the entire town from 1500 – 2000 meters away with main gun, and then blast any survivors with the M2HB and M240 from 800 – 1200 meters away. Failure to adhere to training born from lessons learned in WWII and Korea is what causes moronic commanders to get their tanks caught in sticky situations and places American lives in unnecessary risk.

    Jeff on
  • Regarding your description of tanks in “urban environments,” I am reminded of the scenes of the tank fights between the Shermans and Tigers in the film “Kelly’s Heroes.” Granted it is a movie, but some of the issues depicted seem plausible (e.g., the tank’s turret being unable to rotate in a narrow street due to obstructions and resulting in it getting killed by armor, or other enemy weapons, from the rear; not to mention a tank [Sherman] being disabled by mechanical issues).

    Eric on
  • As an ex-tanker, I understand the merits of our Armor branch, to include the benefits of being in possession of the most lethal land combat vehicle in the world. Say what you want about the Leopard II Mk. VI, the M1A2, IMHO, beats it hands down. Same gun, you say? Why is it, then, that we can shoot German ammo out of our tanks and the Germans can’t shoot American ammo out of theirs? Why did the Germans need to extend the length of their Rheinmetall guns in an effort to match the A2’s muzzle velocity? But I digress.

    Jack’s opening lines in this article would have amazed me – if I had not already heard this ridiculous explanation before. “Intimidate the populace?” Uh, YEAH, that’s what a tank is MADE FOR. INTIMIDATE and DESTROY the s**t out of the populace, combatant or otherwise. Like the Indians using war elephants. Or the Macedonians putting meatgrinders on the wheels of their chariots. Or the Roman Legions marching in unison clad in 20 pounds of armor hidden behind 4-foot-high shields. INTIMIDATE your enemy. DESTROY your enemy. Wipe out their abilities to make/continue war. Raze their lands to the ground. Sound like a novel concept? Read “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Sun would have LOVED the M1A2 tank – and would have used it, too!

    The big question I have is why the Army would invest billions upon billions of dollars into the R&D and deployment of the most lethal, intimidating land combat system in the world – and then mothball it, stating that it is not “politically correct.” Of course, knowing what I do about the US Army, it is kind of puerile to ask such a question, being as pretty much everything about that organization is an exercise in narcissistic idiocy.

    So, if you DON’T want to intimidate and destroy your enemies, get rid of the tanks and Armor branch as a whole. If you DO see some merit in the concept of tank warfare/enemy annihilation, but not on such a grand scale, put together two tank or Cavalry Regiments/Brigades, keep them around as a “special force,” and deploy them in “special” situations as need be. Either one or the other. And DON’T think that you’re going to take tankers or cav scouts, give them a few weeks’ extra training, and turn them into instant infantrymen. They neither need nor WANT to be infantryman – hence the reason they enlisted as tankers or cav scouts, NOT as grunts.

    PS: tanks are NOT good in urban warfare in terms of driving down a congested street and making themselves blatant targets for mines and/or snipers. They are FANTASTIC in urban warfare in terms of leveling entire towns and killing all of the enemy occupants located therein. Make up your mind . . . and stop wasting innocent American lives.

    Jeff on

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