The Pentagon, the Congress, and the future of the tank
It was February of 1991, and six weeks of brutal aerial bombardment were still no match for Saddam Hussein’s hubris. His continued refusal to evacuate Kuwait had triggered a coalition ground invasion along a 350-mile front that ran northwest to southeast from the marshes of Hawr al-Hammar to the Persian Gulf. In the east, two divisions of U.S. Marines supported — without much drama — a largely Muslim and Arab army in the liberation of everything south of Kuwait City. In the west, the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps ambled unimpeded through the Euphrates Valley.
The relatively untroubled flanks of the advance helped etch into our collective memories that the invasion was a cakewalk. But in the middle was VII Corps, under the peg-legged visionary Lieutenant General Frederick M. Franks, who was tasked with the utter destruction of the Republican Guard. VII Corps’s order of battle constituted the most powerful mechanized force of its kind ever fielded. During the Cold War, VII Corps was tasked with holding the ground between Frankfurt and the Czechoslovak border against a Warsaw Pact invasion. The repurposed VII Corps was home to the distilled essence of America’s heavy-maneuver formations. A normal corps featured three divisions and supporting units. VII Corps had five heavily mechanized and armored divisions as well as the scouting force of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) — a tip-of-the-spear outfit composed of tanks and fighting vehicles that could match any full division in speed and lethality.
Although Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf would get the glory for Desert Storm, Franks led the main attack. In his center, Franks sent the Second ACR to lead the U.S. Third Armored Division and the Big Red One into the breach they had created in Iraqi defenses along the Saudi border. Protected by French light infantry on their left flank and British armor on their right, this strike force broke out into the Iraqi desert and swung east in the famed “Hail Mary” that would cut off the Iraqi retreat and dismantle the world’s fifth- or sixth-largest standing army in less than 100 hours.
Their biggest obstacle was Hussein’s Tawakalna Division, “the jewel of the Republican Guard.” In a 1997 study, military historian Stephen M. Bourque described the ensuing battle:
The Tawakalna was probably the best division in the Iraqi Army. It had fought with distinction during the war with Iran and was one of the lead divisions in Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Its two mechanized brigades and one armored brigade were equipped with the most advanced equipment available in the Iraqi Army, including 220 T-72 tanks and 278 infantry fighting vehicles. On 25 February it had moved into a blocking position west of the Iraq Petroleum Saudi Arabia (IPSA) pipeline about 80 miles from Kuwait city. In spite of the air campaign, most of this division was in position and ready to fight when the US 7th Corps arrived on 26 February 1991.
. . . Using US spot reports, situation reports, and analysis of destroyed Iraqi equipment, [we conclude that the attack on the Tawakalna] consisted of several distinct, but integrated actions. Those included attacks on the security zone, the central zone, each of the Tawakalna’s flanks, and against its rear area. The surprising shock of this massive attack from several directions ensured that the Tawakalna division had little opportunity to do anything but either surrender or fight and die in place. They chose the latter course.
Initially, the American cavalry was to engage the Tawakalna just enough to determine its disposition and its vigor, before establishing a north–south line and allowing heavier elements of the First Infantry Division to “pass through” and finish the job. But at 5:22 a.m. on February 26, Franks ordered Corps Fragmentary Plan 7, which expanded the Second ACR’s zone of responsibility, authorizing a more aggressive attack on the enemy so that the Tawakalna could not slip the noose before the rest of the American force arrived.
Attack the Second ACR did, rendering the jewel of the Republican Guard ineffective as a fighting force in just hours, despite being outnumbered and outgunned by a supposedly crack force dug into prepared positions. The most intense fighting took place between demarcation lines 70 and 73 Easting. There, the Second ACR’s Eagle Troop — consisting of about nine M1 Abrams tanks, a dozen M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, and about 120 soldiers — destroyed more than 75 enemy vehicles in 23 minutes while taking no casualties.
The Battle of 73 Easting became a textbook example of a successful mechanized assault and would even get its own episode of the Military Channel’s Greatest Tank Battles. Yet if VII Corps’s destruction of the Tawakalna was a great tank battle, it might well be the last.
The battle for the future of American armor is being played out between Capitol Hill and the Pentagon — a pitched fight between appropriators looking to protect their districts’ lifeblood and Army brass trying to rebuild a fighting force on a shoestring budget after a decade of war. The conflict has put Congress in the position of forcing cash into the Army’s hands for tanks the generals say they no longer want.
The invasion phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were not altogether dissimilar to their 1991 antecedent. The strategy was textbook maneuver warfare: avoid frontal, attrition-driven confrontations and instead use superior intelligence, mobility, firepower, and air–ground coordination to isolate and destroy enemy strongpoints along the full depth of the battlefield — cutting off the head to render the body useless. What the military calls “network-centric warfare,” predicated on digital, real-time information-sharing at every level of command, was starting to work its way into U.S. strategy in 2001, but it wasn’t all the way there yet.
As Bing West described it in Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute in 2004, Iraqi Freedom brought maneuver warfare, which had been deployed at the commander-in-chief and corps levels, down to field commanders. “Desert Storm in 1991 was described as the ‘generals’ war’ because on the open desert, the generals were at the head of their intact divisions, deciding on each objective,” West wrote. “Iraqi Freedom was a ‘colonels’ war’; the regimental and battalion commanders were the key decision makers.”
After the dust settled and the statues fell in Iraq and Afghanistan, the coalition armor and mechanized infantry that had been critical to the initial invasion receded, and the conflicts largely became “Humvee wars.” Later, when Humvees proved devastatingly susceptible to IEDs, they became “Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected” (MRAP) vehicle wars.
The change reflected the situation on the ground. Chess-like maneuvers on vast expanses of desert were replaced by drawn-out battles in cities and towns against a determined insurgency. (Ironically, Colonel and later Brigadier General H. R. McMaster, who commanded Eagle Troop during the Battle of 73 Easting, helped develop and deploy the coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy.)
The shift mirrored a change in the Pentagon’s strategic thinking. The M1 Abramses and M2 Bradleys that were the backbone of both Iraq invasions are peerlessly lethal. The Abrams features reactive armor that redirects the kinetic force of explosions away from the crew, protecting them from even catastrophic impacts, and its 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon is spec’ed for both high-explosive shells and giant armor-piercing, depleted-uranium needles called sabot rounds. The Bradley is a jack-of-all trades, armed with a 25-millimeter cannon, machine guns, and tank-killing missiles. Each Bradley can also transport a squad of seven soldiers to a variety of objectives. But these killing machines are also technologically and logistically complex, not to mention heavy and thus difficult to transport to a war zone. This was not a problem when a few thousand of them were permanently parked on the windward side of the Iron Curtain or when there was ample build-up time, as during Desert Shield. But as the military reimagined itself in the Aughts as a lighter, nimbler, power-projecting force, it brought online a family of Canadian-designed light-armored vehicles called Strykers, which are wheeled instead of tracked; cheaper to operate; easier to transport by land, air, and sea; and pairable with a variety of platforms, including cannon, mortars, and missiles. They were also, by everyone’s estimation, a stopgap that was no true replacement for American heavy armor.
The Pentagon’s long-term plan was the $87 billion Future Combat Systems (FCS) modernization program, a top-down approach that was intended to produce designs and prototypes for a fleet of high-tech vehicles and drones geared toward network-centric warfare. But FCS was nixed in 2009, in favor of an explicitly piecemeal approach to mechanized modernization, which included an R&D component for a new panacea ground-combat vehicle designed to replace the Abramses, Bradleys, and Strykers. Yet that program has been delayed indefinitely, a casualty of the sequester era, and is outright canceled in President Obama’s latest budget proposal.
Despite this, as the Washington Post reported, the Army remains committed to a path that deemphasizes both the Abrams and the Bradley, a path that could mean mothballing the facilities — and the experts — that make these fighting vehicles.
A BAE Systems factory in York, Pa., produced the Bradleys that led the Second Armored Cav’s fight against the Tawakalna, but, as the Post lays out, that factory stopped producing new Bradleys years ago. It thrived for a time repairing damaged vehicles returning from the early stages of Iraq and Afghanistan and survives as an upgrade and refurbishment facility.
“The reality of it is we’ve already started shutting down,” one BAE executive told the Post. “There’s also some frustration from management and my engineering staff as we see the skills erode, because we know one day we’re going to be asked to bring these back, and it’s going to be very difficult.” Likewise, the General Dynamics plant in Lima, Ohio, that maintains and upgrades Abrams tanks is caught in a spiral of downsizing. It was to play a major role in Future Combat Systems before that project was nixed. Now it is facing further layoffs and uncertainty, with plant manager Keith Deters telling a local paper he expects production to ramp down from about ten tanks a month to one to three tanks a month by 2015, an “unprecedented” slowdown.
Army chief of staff General Ray Odierno, facing the reality of sequester, told Congress in 2012 and the AP in 2013 that he would rather spend the money dedicated to refurbishing heavy armor on other priorities. But Congress, convinced by the advocacy of the vehicles’ general contractors and their suppliers, who warn that shuttering the facilities would lead to major skill erosion, has appropriated more than $300 million over what the Army requested to keep the Abrams and Bradley programs running.
So who is right? The conservative spidey-sense is keen to detect pork. Government contracts and manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania — and, for Pete’s sake, Ohio — are not easily vanquished in the U.S. Congress. This might explain why known budget hawks such as Representative Jim Jordan and Senator Rob Portman, Buckeyes both, are the programs’ biggest defenders.
The Army says savings from the refit programs could be reinvested, for instance, in the manufacture of the next generation of fighting vehicles set to begin in 2017 — if it doesn’t suffer its predecessors’ fate. Against the defense industry’s worries about capacity and skill erosion, the Army wields a study from an outside consulting firm that concludes that only a handful of specialized firms are vulnerable to closure. (Here, I should disclose that I currently work for a different consulting firm that has dealings in the defense sector.)
This may well be true, but it is worth bearing in mind that, as the slogan says, defense is different. The American fighting vehicle came into its own during World War II. But the story of America’s World War II production miracle and the arsenal of democracy it built is largely one of repurposing existing expertise. To grossly oversimplify, the fact that the squat Sherman tank was basically a backhoe strapped to a howitzer made it the technological and tactical inferior of the German panzers, but it also meant that companies ranging from Ford Motors to American Locomotive and Pullman-Standard could manufacture them in such great numbers that they could choke the Wehrmacht like a swarm of gnats — on both fronts. In fact, Sherman production was so prolific that the U.S. sent more than 4,000 Shermans to the Soviets under Lend-Lease. When the Red Army rolled into Budapest, where it spent the next 45 years, it rode in on tanks manufactured in Flint, Mich.
In the world that emerged from the ashes of World War II, the constitutional duty to provide for the common defense all but implies the sort of “military-industrial complex” Ike decried. That means both preserving the good of the world-beating technological and engineering know-how that keeps us safe from all enemies and tolerating the bad of the inefficiencies and incest of government contracting. To wit, the U.S. government actually owns the General Dynamics facility that manufactures the Abrams, meaning that mothballing it would mean fallow government land in addition to brain drift.
It would be one thing if American armor were in some irreversible twilight, as it is faddish in some circles to suppose. But as RAND analyst David E. Johnson pointed out in a 2011 paper on the future of American armor, the fact that U.S. heavy formations “trained for irregular warfare and employed few, if any, of their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery during operations” in the Iraq War is no argument against armor, since with a mere “shift in training emphasis, [heavy mechanized forces] could have scaled up to confront more-capable hybrid or state adversaries.”
But while armored units can trade in their tank treads for boots in situations that call for, e.g., counterinsurgency operations, the inverse — transforming light-infantry units designed to fight the next Afghanistan into armored formations capable of large-scale maneuver warfare — is much trickier.
In other words, armor is superfluous only until the next time the United States needs to meet a well-provisioned nation-state in a shooting match. This is where the slogan that “generals always fight the last war,” a century-old warning that keeps Pentagon futurists up anight, meets the even older maxim that there is nothing new under the sun. If you don’t think the United States will ever need to be prepared to fight another Desert Storm — that is, to expel an ambitious strongman from a sovereign territory occupied under flimsy pretense — than you ought to watch a few minutes of Russia Today sometime.
This is not to say that armored doctrine should be frozen in place or resist innovation. It is only to say that, come what may of technological and geopolitical developments, something like armor likely will be necessary for a long, long time. Or as Forbes defense blogger Michael Peck puts it: “In the end, tanks are as much concept as technology: the belief that combining firepower, protection and mobility creates a uniquely powerful system on the battlefield. Perhaps someday, powered armor from Starship Troopers . . . will replace tanks. On the other hand, whatever a man can carry or shoot, a vehicle should be able to carry or shoot more of.”
Perhaps Congress’s calculus — that a few hundred million dollars in the overall defense budget is a worthwhile investment to prevent American tank production from stopping altogether for the first time since World War II — will prove a deft maneuver.
– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.