Thursday, 24 October 2013

In defence of tanks

Cavalry has always been one of the most effective components on the battlefield. It is the combination of speed, shock, and firepower. That is why the tank has a morale-destroying effect.

I have seen it proclaimed that modern armies have no need for tanks. “Air power has made them obsolete,” so the arguments go. “We should switch to lighter, more mobile forces. Our modern conflicts have no need for heavy armour.” This sort of thinking goes up to the highest strategic levels, with suggestions in 2011 that defence cuts might leave Britain with only fifty tanks.

To this mentality I say, “Nonsense”. The statement “the tank is obsolete” deserves to be filed in the same folder as “the next war will be won by air power alone”, or “missile technology is so advanced that our new F-4 Phantom fighter doesn’t need an integral gun.” Fortunately, for once sanity seems to have prevailed in the Ministry of Defence and plans to scrap the tanks have been shelved. In this blog, I mean to demonstrate the continued utility of the main battle tank in modern warfare, both in conventional operations and counter-insurgency.

It’s often said that the tank has no place in modern, unconventional wars, of the sort the West faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, while everyone remembers the Iraq War to be one long slog of counter-insurgency, IEDs, and foot patrols through Baghdad and Basra, the fact remains that to get to this state, the West had to fight a conventional war first, and in this, the tank excelled. Armoured divisions spearheaded the coalition advance in the Gulf in 1993 and in Iraq in 2003. Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” would have been impossible without the superb mobility, firepower and protection afforded by main battle tanks. Equally impossible would have been the race to Baghdad in 2003. Tanks were both central and essential to the coalition’s plans in both conflicts.

At this it might be claimed that it was airpower that really won both those wars against Iraq: massive air campaigns were conducted against Iraqi forces before ground operations. However, it was not bombing that shattered Iraqi combat power. The U.S. Air Force claimed it had destroyed 40% of Iraq’s tanks in the 1991 bombing campaign, and 35% of the other armoured fighting vehicles present; however this claim was later judged to be too optimistic: U.S. Marines operating in Kuwait estimated that only 10-15% of AFVs had been destroyed from the air, while the U.S. Army estimated 15-20% in the western Iraqi desert. A Russian estimate suggests that out of 3,700 tanks present at the start of the air campaign, only three hundred were destroyed be aircraft, an appallingly low figure (Zaloga, T-72 vs. M1 Abrams, page 60). A study by the RAND Corporation suggests that an Iraqi armoured division suffered roughly 30% tank losses from airstrikes. Testimony from American tank crews in the Gulf suggests that 30 to 35% of tanks were destroyed during the air campaign, 50% destroyed during the ground campaign, and the remaining 15% destroyed by engineers. The difficulty of destroying tanks from the air is encapsulated by a comment from a tank battalion commander of Iraq’s Tawakalna Division; “When the air campaign started, I had 39 [T-72] tanks. After 38 days of the air battle, I had 32 tanks. After 20 minutes against them [the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment], I had zero tanks.” (Zaloga, T-72 vs. M1 Abrams, page 63)

The attack on Karbala on March 24th 2003 also demonstrates that the vulnerability of tanks to aircraft is overstated. The U.S. Army deployed 31 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to destroy the elite Republican Guard Medina Division. The expectation was that the destruction of one of Iraq’s best-equipped divisions would shatter Iraqi morale. Instead, dug in amid Karbala’s urban sprawl, the Medina Division’s 90 Lion of Babylon tanks were almost invisible, and the Apaches were subject to a withering barrage of anti-aircraft and small arms fire. American casualties were 1 Apache shot down, 29 damaged (2 beyond repair), and 1 crashed on takeoff. 2 pilots were also taken prisoner. Iraqi casualties were 12 tanks and 6 anti-aircraft guns lost in the initial SEAD phase. Thus, tanks dug in within an urban area, popularly-considered a non-traditional role for a tank, but one that we will consider later, are far from vulnerable to airpower.

Both the statistics and the testimony of the opposition, therefore, credits tanks with being able to hold their own against airpower, even in this age of precision-guided munitions and missiles so precise they can be guided through a particular window. The Tawakalna Division battalion commander even specifically credited tanks as being the weapons that drove him from his position, not airpower. The U.S. Air Force’s overclaiming of tank kills can be explained by the difficulty of tallying strikes: the same target may be hit several times by different aircraft, and the speed and height of an aircraft may make it difficult to distinguish a tank from, for example, a truck. This is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1950 during the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force claimed to have destroyed 857 NKPA tanks, even though this was several times the number actually present (Zaloga, T-34-85 vs. M26 Pershing, page 75). The Gulf War air campaign was vital in devastating the Iraqis’ logistics infrastructure and shattering their morale, and undoubtedly it made the job of the ground force much easier, but had the ground force not gone in, the hard core of the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard would have remained in Kuwait, defying the air attacks. Airpower is a vital supporting arm, but it cannot be a war winner in its own right. Ground assaults will always be needed to deliver the final push to remove the enemy, and for this, one needs tanks.

I said earlier that urban terrain is popularly-considered a non-traditional area for armoured operations. Since our modern wars now mostly take the form of urban counter-insurgency, so the argument goes, we should reduce our reliance on tanks, since they are vulnerable to attack from any direction within cities.

I am utterly baffled by this argument: the tank has been at the forefront of urban fighting since the Second World War. Amid the rubble of Stalingrad, tanks were central to the Soviet defence. T-34s were dug in and heavily camouflaged, to the point of being invisible from more than a few yards away. They were all-but immune to artillery and next-to impossible for the German Stukas to hit. The only way to destroy them was with another tank. On the other side, Panzers were a vital component of German assaults, providing the necessary firepower to overcome heavily-fortified Soviet positions. Their firepower made up for the Sixth Army’s relatively low numbers of infantry (DiMarco, Concrete Hell, pages 40-44). In their four major assaults inside Stalingrad, the Germans always achieved major tactical success due to the large numbers of tanks they deployed, to the point of forcing the Russians back to a front that was just seventy yards from the west bank of the Volga at the end of their final assault (Beevor, Stalingrad, page 217).

The Battle of Aachen on the Western Front two years later again demonstrates the utility of tanks in urban combat. Like the Germans at Stalingrad, the Americans understood that firepower can be an efficient substitute for manpower, and the most effective method of delivering heavy, protected, mobile firepower is with a tank (DiMarco, Concrete Hell, page 63). From the end of World War II right through the Cold War, this paradigm was demonstrated time and again: At the Battle of Hue in 1968 during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Marines were heavily supported by M48 Patton tanks. As Kendall D. Gott put it;

“Tanks brought the traditional firepower and mobility to the battle with heavy enough armor to protect their crewmen from most of the NVA’s weapons. The M48 tanks in particular were able to absorb a huge amount of punishment and keep fighting. This ability to withstand damage allowed the M48 tanks to fight throughout the battle after makeshift repairs and rotating crews.” (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 41)

The Siege of Beirut in the 1982 Lebanon War provides a more modern example of the utility of tanks in urban fighting. The Israelis deployed M60 Patton, Centurion, and Merkava tanks against the PLO and Syrian forces, and took remarkably few losses considering the huge numbers of RPGs the opposing force had available (entire PLO squads were built around RPG operators) and the urban environment (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 52). The use of reactive armour of IDF tanks saved many: some took multiple hits and continued to fight, and not a single Merkava crewman was killed in the operation (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 65). Likewise, during the Israeli Operation Defensive Shield on the West Bank in 2002, the Golani Brigade found that the best tactic in Nablus was to overwatch combined arms teams with tanks. If a building was to be assaulted, it would be softened up by fire from the tank’s main gun before infantry were sent in (DiMarco, Concrete Hell, pages 175-6).

The Battle of Grozny in 1995 is emblematic of what tanks are popularly imagined to do in an urban battle: sit there as a slow, mobile coffin just waiting to take fire, unable to engage a fast, mobile enemy out of reach of its main gun, RPGs raining down on its thin top armour. However, a closer examination reveals that the disaster of the first Russian strike into Grozny was more about problems of execution and doctrine that it was about problems with the tanks themselves. The Russian Army lacked a doctrine for urban fighting: during the Cold War, Soviet planners assumed that NATO forces would abandon cities rather than see massive civilian casualties caused by street fighting, and it was thought that simply surrounding cities would be enough to induce them to surrender. Furthermore, the economic collapse that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union had left the Russian Army a pale shadow of its former self. Collective unit training was almost non-existent, and many soldiers barely knew how to handle their rifles. Both tank units and mechanised infantry battalions were hastily scraped together, and crews and soldiers barely knew each other (DiMarco, Concrete Hell, pages 155-7). Communications were made without encryption, allowing the Chechens to listen in. No regard was paid to the possibility of signals degrading amid urban high-rises. Almost no reconnaissance was made and not enough maps were available, which in any case were the wrong scale for urban operation (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 75).

Mission execution was also atrocious: the Russians entered Grozny in column formations more suited to the parade ground than urban fighting, and they moved slowly and deliberately to avoid losing control of poorly-trained units. The infantry stayed in their personnel carriers rather than disembark to cover the tanks’ advance, so the Chechens were able to strike from the rooftops with impunity, destroying the lead and tail vehicles with RPGs and trapping the column, and from there dealing with the rest of the vehicles at a more leisurely pace. Tank crews found that their guns could not depress low enough to engage enemies firing from basement windows, or elevate high enough to engage the upper stories (DiMarco, Concrete Hell, pages 159-61). In the first three days of the Battle of Grozny, over two thousand Russians became casualties, and an estimated 105 of the 120 tanks sent into the city were lost (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 80).

All this gives a pretty dismal picture of the utility of tanks in cities. One might conclude that tanks are overly-vulnerable to RPG strikes on their thin top armour and lack the fields of fire to engage all enemies in the three-dimensional urban battlefield. However, it is worth nothing that much the same was true in Beirut: the main guns and secondary machine guns of Israeli M60s and Merkavas lacked sufficient elevation to engage the upper floors of buildings. The relatively low Israeli tank losses in Beirut compared to the high Russian losses on the first day in Grozny can be explained by superior Israeli skill in combined arms warfare: Israeli tanks were always covered by dismounted infantry as they moved, and they tended to overwatch infantry as they advanced down streets making sure buildings and rooftops were clear, rather than form the spearhead of the advance themselves. Furthermore, anti-aircraft guns, which did have the elevation to engage rooftops, were brought up in support. 20mm Vulcan autocannons mounted on M113 armoured personnel carriers, with a rate of fire of over 2000 rounds per minute, were particularly effective (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 65-6).

As the Battle of Grozny progressed, the Russians gradually adopted similar tactics. Dismounted infantry led future assaults with the tanks remaining behind in support. ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft guns were brought up to suppress and reduce ambush positions. Makeshift slat armour was applied to tanks to defeat RPGs (to their credit, Russian T-80s and T-72s were able to absorb multiple RPG hits before being disabled). And of course, the area before the attack was liberally prepared with that traditional Russian weapon, artillery (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 80) (DiMarco, Concrete Hell, page 166). While over 200 tanks and other AFVs were lost, over half of these losses occurred in the first three days of the fifty-day battle. From then one, losses were far more spread out, reflecting Russian tactical development as time went on.

The antithesis of the Russian attack into Grozny was the U.S. Army’s “Thunder Run” into Baghdad in 2003. Like the Russians, the Americans went in using tanks as their primary assaulting arm. Unlike the Russians, they were well-trained with superior communications, situational awareness, unit cohesion, and √©lan. Baghdad demonstrates that tanks can indeed be battle-winning weapons in cities, provided they are deployed correctly.

The Thunder Runs of April 5th and 7th, 2003, stand out somewhat in comparison to the other approaches to urban warfare shown here. All the other offensives were relatively slow, with tanks operating in support of infantry to minimise tank casualties. In the one offensive where tanks were used as the spearhead, Grozny, they took appalling losses. The Battle of Baghdad turned that paradigm on its head: in planning the operation, the brigade commander, Colonel David Perkins, worked on the principle that if he rapidly broke through the Iraqi defences around the capital and got into their rear, the Iraqis would find it enormously difficult to reorient themselves and create new defences.

After an initial run on April 5th, on April 7th, the M1 Abrams of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division raced through Baghdad to the gates of Saddam Hussein’s palace, shrugging off hits and inflicting, in one day alone, over two thousand Iraqi casualties. In the whole three days of operations, only one tank became a total loss, and another suffered a firepower kill after its main gun was destroyed in a collision with a concrete bridge abutment (Zucchino, Thunder Run, page 40). In both cases there were no crew casualties. The success of the Thunder Runs was brought about by the superior protection of the American tanks and their superior command and control.

The survivability of modern Western armour is the stuff of legend among tank enthusiasts. The tank that was lost on the April 5th Thunder Run, Cojone Eh?, was disabled after a lucky hit punctured a fuel cell and started a fire. Despite efforts to extinguish the blaze, the crews’ fire extinguishers were depleted and the tank had to be abandoned lest the brigade lose its momentum (Zucchino, Thunder Run, page 22-27). Despite cutting fuel lines, exposing ammunition, thoroughly dousing the tank in lubricating oil, setting it ablaze with thermite grenades, shooting it with a 120mm HEAT round, and finally attacking it with a Maverick missile to deny it to the Iraqis, the tank’s external hull still appeared remarkably intact. The tank’s nickname was still visible on the gun tube the next day (Zucchino, Thunder Run, page 73).  Such is the Abrams’ levels of protection that the Americans reportedly lost more tanks to friendly fire in the Gulf War than they did to Iraqi fire. The British Army has famously never lost a Challenger 2 in combat with the enemy. At the Battle of Basra in 2003, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards did not lose a single tank. The sole Challenger 2 to be completely destroyed on operations was lost to a blue-on-blue incident in 2003 in Basra. Even after a HESH strike from another Challenger caused the sympathetic detonation of the tank’s ammunition, rather like Cojone Eh?, its hull still appeared mostly intact. Anecdotal evidence points to a Challenger in Basra surviving hits from seventy insurgent RPGs. Another Challenger of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards was ambushed and was hit by fourteen RPGs from close range and a MILAN anti-tank missile. The worst damage was to the sighting system and it was back in operation eight hours later.

In addition to armour protection, and in contrast to the atrociously poor Russian communications and planning in Grozny, American command and control in Baghdad was at the bleeding edge. Colonel Perkins said of the attack; "in the process, you want to create as much chaos as possible out here. Why is that? In the end, my forces can deal with chaos better than theirs can." This was no exaggeration. The American use of the Blue Force Tracker (BFT) system allowed for superb situational awareness and made commanders aware of the exact locations of friendly units, thus giving them an excellent understanding of the entire battlefield. This reduced the risk of fratricide. Contract this to the Battle of Grozny, where with poor maps and communications, the Russians could be attacked by their own side, or by the Chechens when they exposed a flank when they advanced, as other units were not in positions to provide support (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 80). Furthermore, use of the Tactical Satellite Radio (TACSAT) added situational understanding to the situational awareness provided by the BFT: voice communications completed the picture being painted by the blue icons on the BFT display. The icons only represented locations, while the voice communications allowed commanders to communicate details of their casualty and ammunition state and tactical situation. Superior communications also allowed for close coordination between arms: both rocket artillery and 155mm howitzers were called in to support the brigade’s advance, in the latter’s case, being fired at interchanges along the highway so that fire arrived precisely ten minutes before the brigade arrived at each overpass (Zucchino, Thunder Run, pages 103-4). In addition, both the BFT and the TACSAT made use of satellite links, thus avoiding the risk of line-of-sight communications degrading within cities, an affliction that had paralysed the Russians at Grozny. Because of this, both systems did not need complex, vulnerable networks of repeater stations. In contrast, Russian operations in Grozny were endlessly frustrated by Chechens deliberately targeting Russian radio operators. (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 81)

Baghdad, therefore, demonstrates that with appropriate communications, tanks can by a battle-winning weapon in cities. As noted before, the Baghdad Thunder Runs stand out somewhat in comparison to other examples of tanks in city fighting: the Thunder Runs were rapid and aggressive in contrast to the others being cautious and slow. The Second Battle of Fallujah in late 2004 provides an example of both doctrines being used together. The U.S. Marines tended to deploy their tanks in the traditional fashion, preferring to keep them in a supporting role to their infantry. The U.S. Army forces in Fallujah, however, tended to be liberal in their use of ammunition and led the assault with their armour, allowing the infantry to advance swiftly and utterly unhinge the Iraqi insurgents (Gott, Breaking the Mold, pages 104-6).

Conversely, Operation Vigilant Resolve, the U.S. Marines’ first strike into Fallujah in April 2004, involved limited use of tanks, perhaps in the hope of reducing collateral damage. After just five days of heavy fighting, the Marine force force of 2,200 withdrew with twenty-seven killed and over ninety wounded. It was remarked that casualties may well have been fewer with heavier use of tanks. In his article “Lack of Heavy Armor Constrains Urban Operations in Iraq,” David Wood claimed, “The Marines...are using only 16 tanks in Iraq of their inventory of 403, and have deployed 39 of their 1,057 assault amphibian vehicles that provide protection against small arms but not rocket-propelled grenades.” (Matthews, Operation AL FAJR, page 10)

The Second Battle of Fallujah, launched later in the year, involved much heavier use of tanks from both the U.S. Army and the Marines. An Army officer remarked of Fallujah:

“If they were taking heavy fire or RPG fire from a house, [the Marines] would call on our tanks. Our guys would open up on the house with 120mm main gun or .50 [calibre machine gun]. After five minutes of suppression fire, then the Marines would go into the building and clear it. There was rarely anyone left alive by that point. The problem is that we couldn’t be there to do that for all the Marines, and when we couldn’t and they had to clear the building without our help, they took heavy casualties because the insurgents didn’t stop firing until the Marines got into the building and killed them.” ('M-1 Abrams tank proves useful, vulnerable in Iraq', Washington Times)

Once again, the superb protection of the M1 Abrams give lie to the claim that tanks are exceedingly vulnerable in cities. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant awarded the Silver Star described an RPG hit that "left only a black mark on the tank’s armor that could be wiped off with a wet rag." After 46 days of bitter fighting, which was described as some of the heaviest urban combat faced by the U.S. Marines since the Battle of Hue, only two Abrams tanks were totally destroyed (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 105). As with Baghdad, careful coordination, facilitated by excellent communications, was required to prevent a repeat of Grozny: to overcome the limited elevations of their guns, tanks operated in pairs with one keeping a short distance behind the other as it moved to provide support (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 105). If a tank was immobilised, this buddy system also allowed it to be towed away by its partner. Thermal imaging and night vision equipment aboard the Abrams also enhanced the target acquisition capabilities of men fighting in the city (Chang, The Battle of Fallujah, page 35). All of these incidents suggest that in modern urban combat, it’s better to have more tanks.

But these conflicts are now all past. What of our current war, the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan? Surely in this era where the guiding principle of our operations is Hearts and Minds, a huge, intimidating armoured box on tracks can be of little use? Furthermore, when our enemies are highly mobile and live within civilian populations, can the heavy firepower of the tank really be of much use? I believe it can.

In the words of Lieutenant Colonel John Gordon IV of the U.S. Army, writing after the invasion of Iraq, “tanks got respect”. The shock effect of the appearance of a tank caused many Iraqi fighters on the road to Baghdad (and indeed, in Afghanistan) to break and run. A senior Marine officer recalled an intense firefight at a bridge in Nasiriyah on March 24th 2003. The decibel level of the firefight was “about 90.” When two U.S. Marine tanks arrived the bridge, the volume of enemy firing "immediately went to about a 20." In January 2008 in Afghanistan, a force of Danish Leopard 2s halted a Taliban flanking movement on British troops at the Helmand River. The Ministry of Defence even described their role as “decisive” in the recapture of the Nadi Ali District in December 2008. In the words of the Commanding Officer of the Light Dragoons in Afghanistan; "The physical presence, target suppression, neutralisation and compound breaching capability was immense and important…There is much to be said for the persistent loitering menace of a main battle tank sitting in over-watch; it intimidates insurgents and reassures both coalition forces and local nationals." Small wonder, then, that Lieutenant Colonel Gordon titles his article "Everybody Wanted Tanks".

Even when tanks were not forcing their way into Baghdad or Fallujah, they were still useful in other, less obvious counter-insurgency roles, for example, the defence of checkpoints and the protection of supply routes. Even as the Iraq campaign wound down, tanks still found use in Basra: On Operation TELIC 11, B Squadron, The Royal Dragoon Guards, deployed on more than 100 occasions. As well as the obvious role of strike operations and infantry support, their presence in the city was also a deterrent, and their other duties included providing security of supply routes, the protection of convoys, and countering indirect fire.

Another less obvious role for the tank in counter-insurgency is that of surveillance and reconnaissance. Modern tanks mounted sophisticated night vision and infrared imaging systems, as well as the protection and mobility to bring them to bear against the enemy. Abrams and Challengers were used in this role in the rural areas of Iraq, and when situational awareness was poor, M1 Abrams would routinely lead the advance, relying on their heavy armour for protection while gathering information. If they came under contact, they could respond instantly with overwhelming firepower.

It might be tempting to argue that that these roles of target intimidation and suppression, reconnaissance and infantry support could be more cheaply conducted with lighter, more mobile forces. The U.S. Army’s Stryker, for instance, was designed with precisely this in mind after an embarrassing incident in 1999 when the tank-heavy Task Force Hawk, earmarked for the intervention in Kosovo, took so long to prepare for airlift that the war was over before it could deploy (Rottman, Stryker Combat Vehicles, page 9). With the threat of a Soviet advance across Europe gone, the focus now seemed to be low-intensity conflicts that could spring up anywhere around the globe. Heavy, difficult-to-deploy tanks seemed to be irrelevant for this new sort of war.

While there will always be a need for light, mobile armoured vehicles, they can never replace tanks. Consider the example given above of tanks being used to conduct a reconnaissance in force when the enemy’s dispositions are unknown. While the Stryker has a dedicated recce variant, the M1127 Reconnaissance Vehicle, with no weapon heavier than a Mk.19 40mm grenade launcher, it cannot hope to put down the same overwhelming fire as a tank if it is contacted (Rottman, Stryker Combat Vehicles, page 21). At least one “house from hell” at the Second Battle of Fallujah was reportedly proof against multiple hits from 40mm grenades and .50 BMG. One shudders to think at how effective a Stryker would be in neutralising this. Additionally, with lighter armour, it cannot hope to sustain the same punishment.

Efforts to develop lighter vehicles that can supplant the tank have been dogged with difficulty. Consider the example of the M1128 Mobile Gun System, intended to provide direct fire support to infantry. It carries a smaller-calibre gun than a tank, with far less armour. Additionally, it is excessively heavy and tall, meaning that it cannot fulfil the original design goal of being easily transportable by a C-130 cargo aircraft, meaning that (like a larger tank), it has to be carried in the larger C-17 (Rottman, Stryker Combat Vehicles, page 14). Until modifications were made to the MGS, it had to be substituted with the M1134 Anti-tank Guided Missile Vehicle, which has its own height issues, and must make use of bunker-busting TOW missiles in place of shells to provide fire support (Rottman, Stryker Combat Vehicles, page 33). The Unit Replacement Cost of TOW missile is $180,000, compared to a cost of slightly over $5,000 for a 120mm tank shell. Thus, these two vehicles utterly defeat the purpose of a “cheaper, lighter” force. They cannot be transported more easily than tanks, and if the unit tries to travel without them, they lose their most potent sources of firepower. Furthermore, each shot made by the ATGM vehicle is vastly more expensive than a tank shell. If one cannot build a vehicle that is more mobile and cheaper than a tank while still being less capable than it, then why not just build a tank?

Plans in Canada to replace their entire fleet of tanks with Stryker MGSs have since fallen through after the experience of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the experience with light vehicles in the past suggests that they are incapable of handling the same intense combat that tanks can. Despite mounting a potent armament of six 106mm recoilless rifles, the U.S. Army’s M50 Ontos vehicles deployed in Hue were badly vulnerable to anything heavier than small arms fire. A hit from an NVA B-40 rocket would easily disable them and render the crew casualties (Gott, Breaking the Mold, pages 42). To their credit, however, the small size of the M50 allowed it to manoeuvre down any street (Gott, Breaking the Mold, page 34). Additionally, the Israelis in Beirut found their M113 armoured personnel carriers to be badly vulnerable to Palestinian and Syrian tank and RPG fire, and they refrained from committing them to close combat (Gott, Breaking the Mold, pages 50-51).

In conclusion, the tank is far from obsolete. If their roles in modern, unconventional conflicts are limited, then they excel in the conventional wars that must be fought before an insurgency can develop, as was the case in Iraq.

In urban counter-insurgency, the tank is needed more than ever. Any urban offensive requires heavy firepower to support infantry against heavily fortified enemy positions. The source of firepower must also be heavily protected to ensure that it can continue to operate. Finally, firepower must mobile so it can be “on-call” for infantry at any time as they advance, and can be rapidly repositioned to reinforce a particular section or quickly exploit success. Only a tank can provide all three of these. Even in counter-insurgency outside cities, the tank provides valuable physical and moral support. In all three scenarios – conventional war, urban insurgency, and rural insurgency – the tank provides firepower, protection and mobility that cannot be supplied by a lighter force.

Britain tends to become involved in wars at a rate of once a decade. When nations outside Europe are expanding their tank fleets, when nations like Russia, China and Iran are exporting their own advanced tank designs, and when unstable countries like Syria and Pakistan have over two thousand tanks each, it is the height of foolishness to dismiss the tank as a relic of a bygone age. Whatever wars we fight in future, the tank will play a central role.

Works consulted

Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad


Louis A. DiMarco, Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq



Gordon L. Rottman, Stryker Combat Vehicles

Stephen Zaloga, T-72 vs. M1 Abrams: Gulf War 1991

Stephen Zaloga, T-34-85 vs. M26 Pershing: Korea 1950

David Zucchino, Thunder Run: Three Days in the Battle for Baghdad

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