May 25, 2012 — It's spring, and 70-ton Marine Corps M1 tanks rumble through the flowers in southern Afghanistan (pictured above), while at home, both chambers of Congress are adding funds for armored vehicles to the Pentagon spending bill.
It may seem counter-intuitive that a nation shifting from hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency to "AirSea Battle" in the Pacific would need intimidating land juggernauts for either style of operations. It doesn't hurt that armored vehicle construction is one of the last vestiges of highly skilled, highly paid blue-collar jobs in the US economy. But there are solid strategic arguments for armoras well as political ones.
The current upsurge of support in Congress is largely to protect the industrial base, which is already facing layoffs at both the tank plant in Lima, Ohio and BAE's M2 Bradley troop carrier plant in York, Pennsylvania. The Army had planned to idle the production lines starting in 2013, although there was some hope they might limp along on foreign orders, for example from Iraq, which is buying M1s to rebuild its army.Then, a few years later, the Army planned to revive the lines to build the Bradley's better-armored and higher-tech replacement, the Ground Combat Vehicle. But General Dynamics and BAE are still developing their proposed GCV designs, with prototypes not expected until 2014 and actual production until 2018 -- assuming no further slippage in a program that's already been delayed. Given the highly specialized skills involved in building a tank, many doubted the Army could put the workforce back together once it dispersed.
"The path that we're on is going to put these guys out of business," said Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, who describes himself as "the world's foremost treadhead." "It's not like the auto industry," Donnelly went on. "I would love to have a 120-millimeter main gun and a turret on my station wagon, but that would require some substantial reengineering of the vehicle," he laughed. "It's exotic materials science, it's laminates and ceramics [for the armor]. You can't pimp your ride and have a tank."
The House passed a defense bill that added $181 million to the president's budget for upgrading M1 Abrams tanks, $140 million for upgrading M2 Bradleys, and $62 million for the M88A2 Hercules recovery vehicle, basically a tow truck for tanks, the only vehicle with both the horsepower and the armor to tow a broken-down or damaged M1 Abrams while under enemy fire. The Senate Armed Services Committee announced yesterday it had added $91 million for M1 upgrades and $123 million for the Hercules, but SASC staff confirmed to AOL Defense they did not add money for Bradleys. Both panels also fully funded research and development on the Ground Combat Vehicle, despite calls from more than one thinktank to further delay it. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill in June or July, after which the two chambers will have to reconcile their differences in conference. But the details of how many millions go to which specific program are less important than the resounding congressional support for armored vehicles.
Meanwhile, one of Washington's most influential thinktanks, the Center for a New American Security, just came out with a reportsaying that the Army should not only delay the future Ground Combat Vehicle but cut its current armored force by transferring a quarter of its Heavy Brigade Combat Teams from active duty to the reserve. The experts at CNAS, and many others, see heavy ground vehicles as less relevant to the administration's announced strategy of emphasizing air and naval operations in the Pacific and "low footprint" advisory missions elsewhere.
It's true that battles between huge fleets of tanks -- like Kursk in World War II or Operation Desert Storm in 1991 -- are hard to imagine. But an army doesn't need tanks only to fight other tanks. American tanks played an important role as mobile pillboxes against Chinese foot soldiers in the Korea War and would repeat the role if war broke out in the peninsula again. More recently, both the US, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israel, in Lebanon and Gaza, have found armored vehicles immensely useful against guerrillas, who may lack tanks of their own but who can turn civilian buildings into fortresses that foot troops cannot easily storm without tanks in support.
"It turns out that if you're going into downtown Falluja, there's something to be said for having 70 tons of armor strapped on you and a cannon that blow away anything," said Donnelly. In Falluja in 2004, in Baghdad in 2008, and even in southern Afghanistan, "we've been using these things all the time -- not to sail across the plains of Central Europe or the deserts, but in close urban combat," Donnelly said. "It's not the centerpiece of the force, but it's still a critical component."