Can we bank on the tank?

In an age of Pentagon budget austerity, it is common to play down the need for armored, tracked vehicles.

Top Army officials, including Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, have said the military has more than enough. And many military strategists predict that future warfare will involve smaller forces, meaning that the threat of large-scale tank battles is remote.

“The nature of warfare has changed. In the past we had large force formations, and they went up against large formations,” said John Urias, the president of Oshkosh Defense. “Now, we have an asymmetric threat, and the enemy can come from anywhere.”

But among defense hawks, this view is dead wrong. They counter that this prediction assumes that America’s next war will mimic the decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq; and charge those who disagree with them with undervaluing the tank’s strategic advantages.

“We have to plan on facing future adversaries that have real capabilities, the kinds of capabilities that involve high-end conventional warfare,” argued retired Col. Douglas MacGregor, who in the Gulf War led tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in the Battle of 73 Easting, the largest tank battle since World War II. “I’m just afraid that we bet that the future looks like the recent past, and that will be a disaster.”

For tank-boosters, the strategic advantages of the armored, tracked vehicle are obvious. Size, armor, fire power and mobility for large forces continue to be relevant, they argue, and technology hasn’t altered the fundamentals.

“The physics really haven’t changed,” said James Carafano, vice president for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Light vehicles may be faster, but they’re vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs); attack helicopters might be swift but they can’t stay in position for long without returning to base to refuel.

In addition, those supportive of a large strategic role for tanks also argue that they can be very useful in urban warfare.

“You don’t want to go into a heavy, built-up environment ... without the biggest gun,” said Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tanks were heavily employed by the military during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, Donnelly said, and would have been extremely helpful during the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia.

“In many cases, the advantage of the tank is you can punch a hole in the wall ... saving the lives of infantrymen that are running through alleys,” added Peter Keating, a spokesman for General Dynamics, which produces the M1 Abrams, the United States’ main battle tank.

Perhaps illustrative is the kind of development the military is doing on the tank.

Rather than focusing primarily on the fundamentals of the tank’s armor or tracks or its gun, an Army-funded program is being implemented to create improved electronics, faster network capabilities, and lighter data cables for the interior of the tank, Keating said.

Oshkosh Defense, which is competing to produce a light armored vehicle to replace the Humvee, argues that the line between armored wheeled vehicles and tanks is being blurred. Its offering has “protection, mobility and transportability — all at [the government’s] aggressive cost targets,” the contractor claims.

General Dynamics, which produces the Army’s main battle tank, sees it differently.

“Any nation that can afford them has tanks. You only find small guerilla movements, paramilitary or terrorist groups [who don’t],” Keating said. “The tank is the premier mobile, protected firepower system on the battlefield. … You cannot afford to do without it.”

There are between 2,500 and 3,000 main battle tanks in the active force, MacGregor estimates. In recent years, Congress has continued appropriating money for tanks even though senior military leaders have said they have enough.

This is largely due to political considerations, particularly for politicians who represent constituents in Lima, Ohio, where a large government-owned tank plant resides. This has drawn the ire of the outside group Citizens Against Government Waste, whose president, Tom Schatz, calls it a “parochial pork issue.”

“This is a fairly obvious example of something that almost anyone can see is not needed,” Schatz said. “It’s congressional interference.”

Even with some congressional support, the future looks bleak for the tank. As the Pentagon considers how to manage drastic budget cuts, tracked armored vehicles will soon be vulnerable to the chopping block.

“People think that these are outmoded vehicles,” Donnelly bemoaned. “Cuts will probably disproportionately fall on the armored forces and it’s a terrible idea.”