Friday, December 9, 2016

Don't Bring A Knife To A Knife Fight

To paraphrase the old saying, don’t bring a knife to a knife fight. 

This means don’t enter into a fight on equal terms.  Enter the fight with an overwhelming advantage.  Bring a 0.50 cal. machine gun to a knife fight.

Unfortunately, bringing a knife to a knife fight is exactly the path the Navy and Marines have embarked on (and the entire military in general).  Let’s take a closer look.

The Navy is currently building a class of 40-52 LCS that have no useful combat capability and, at best, in the future, may have a few anti-ship missiles.  That is the low end of the naval combat capability spectrum for that size vessel.  The Navy is giving its opponents a more than equal chance.

The Navy is steadily shrinking the carrier air wing.  From a Nimitz high of 90+ aircraft, the air wing has shrunk to around 65 and plans call for further reductions in squadron size as the F-35 enters service.  That’s giving the enemy a sporting chance.

The Marine Corps is shedding tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment.  At the time of Desert Storm, the Corps had three tank battalions, each with 70 M60A1 tanks and 72 armored M1045A2 Humvees mounting TOW anti-armor missiles (1).  Since Desert Storm, tank platoons have been reduced in size from five tanks to four and entire tank companies have been eliminated.  For example,

“Outlining the progression of decline in USMC tank inventories, Bodisch [Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Bodisch, 2nd Tank Battalion] remarked “overall since Desert Storm we had a 54% reduction in tanks and 88% for TOW anti-tank missile systems …” (1)

The situation is continuing to worsen.

“Next February, 2nd Tanks will likely deactivate another of its line companies, “this time Charlie Company, and it will happen about four months before I relinquish command of 2nd Tanks,” he added.

With the deactivation of half of 2nd Tank Battalion’s M1A1 inventory, the Marine Corps [will] be left with only one fully equipped active duty tank battalion, based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California. “Only 1st Tanks will have the full complement of 58 M1A1 tanks and 26 HMWWV mounted TOW systems, 2nd Tank Battalion will have 30 M1A1 tanks and zero TOW systems,” Bodisch lamented.” (1)

The Marines are moving to a light infantry, low firepower force.  That’s bringing a knife to a knife fight.  You’re giving the other side a sporting chance.  That’s not how to fight a war.  The whole aim of our military is to make a fight so one-sided that no one wants to fight us.  That’s deterrence!

By moving towards a light infantry force, we’re only encouraging our enemies to gear up in the belief that they can match us or exceed our capabilities.  Not that long ago, no enemy believed they had a chance of matching us.  Now, Russia, China, and, increasingly, Iran and NKorea believe they can match us.  China believes they can pass us.  Our willingness to merely bring a knife to the knife fight is emboldening our enemies.

Future wars against peer enemies will involve high end combat with heavy tanks, heavy armored vehicles, lots of artillery, etc. because that is what our potential enemies are developing on a daily basis.  They are not developing motor scooters to flit around the battlefield, like we are.

After WWII, we knew how to wage high end combat.  Since then, we’ve been bringing smaller and smaller weapons to the knife fight.  We had a temporary resurgence in Desert Storm where we brought a machine gun to the knife fight but we’ve since forgotten that lesson.  Now, we’ll be lucky to bring a Boy Scout pocket knife to the knife fight.  We need to stop making the future fight an equal one and start making it a lopsided, forgone conclusion.


(1)Tactical Defense Media website, “Delta Company’s Deactivation: What Does the Future Hold for USMC Tank Battalions?”, Josh Cohen, date unknown,


  1. It seems the US has oriented itself towards fighting Islamic Fundamentalist groups more than anything else.

    That said, the US does need a light tank for penetrations in maneuver warfare. That and a good quality APC (the US Army's much advertised Future Combat System was a technical failure).

    Oh, and US land artillery (mostly the M777 and the self-propelled M109) is arguably behind the competition.

    1. How do you reconcile the Army's use and ultimate rejection of a light tank in WWII with your call for one today?

    2. It really looks like there's two competing sets of ideas about American power.

      1. Super-rapid global deployment capability. These are the people who want LCS (presence mission), want light tanks, and advocate for the development and proliferation of lighter/'low-end' combatants, force structures, and equipment. This genuinely appears to have been the out-going administration's position, and it's, in my view, a pretty misguided understanding of how american power works and ought to be deployed/deployable.
      2. War-winning capability - emphasis on heavy units, high-end combatants and force structure, and, in the current/foreseeable budget environment, an absolute de-emphasis of low-end forces. If we need a minesweeper, okay, but i don't want that minesweeper to cost as much as a frigate with less overall capability. This is what I believe is the proper alignment of american forces, that best protects our interests.

    3. @CNO

      It's not always about firepower and armor. It's about how you use them.

      During the Battle of France in 1940, the Germans had fewer tanks than the French and not only that, the tanks they had were light to medium, while the French had some very heavy tanks.

      The Germans still won due to maneuver warfare. That's the purpose of light tanks. They aren't there to fight heavy tanks. They are to exploit any penetrations the heavy tanks make. That's the whole point of Blitzkreig.

      It's not radically different than what the Mongolians have historically done.

    4. I will have to disagree with you on the army needing a light tank per say, what we need to do is upgrade the weapons we already have instead of introducing a new platform. Currently there is talks of upgrading the M1 & M2/3 with larger main guns and major redesigns, the AT4 might be getting replaced or at least substituted for the venerable Carl Gustav, and the M109 is undergoing testing with a Bradley chassis. Now if only they could upgrade the BGM-71 with a tandem warhead, we would have everything we need.

    5. "The Germans still won due to maneuver warfare. That's the purpose of light tanks."

      The Germans won the Battle of France due to superior operational planning, communications, and air power. In the instances where German armored formations clashed directly with French armor, the Germans fared poorly.

      During early WWII, light tanks actually possessed a speed/range advantage. Today, a MBT can go as fast as any vehicle. Range is still an issue. A lighter vehicle might be designed that could have significantly increased range.

      There is still no getting around the fact that on a modern battlefield with artillery and air power, a light tank is not sufficiently survivable.

      I'll repeat my question. How do you reconcile the Army's use and ultimate rejection of a light tank in WWII with your call for one today?

    6. @Andrew,

      An M1 will not be able to execute the kind of Blitzkrieg at the rate that I would like.

      Previously, I've attacked the M1 pretty aggressively for having a jet turbine rather than a diesel engine. It makes it much harder to use in Blitzkrieg style advances.

      - Apart from being flammable and emitting an immense amount of heat, they use way too much fuel. That means that the ratio of supply vehicles to tank is not going to be very favorable at all.

      - Compounding the problem, the M1 uses JP8, which means that there is no standardization. The majority of the rest of the army will use diesel. That makes it logistically demanding too.

      - Next, the fact that it emits so much heat is a drawback for two reasons. Supporting infantry cannot be near the tank (which also limits effectiveness in urban combat). It also makes it very easy to find.

      - Reliability is not that great either. In the Desert, the US had to frequently shut down the tank for 8 hours each day to change filters.

      - High temperatures in a gas turbine + JP8 make it very flammable to hits to the engine.

      IN a serious war, the tank might survive enemy fire, but it will have to be blown up to prevent enemy capture. That's what happened to the German Tiger tanks often during WW2 and Panther tanks.

      The other is (that as the insurgents in Iraq discovered), because the ratio of supply to tank is not favorable, it's much easier to attack the supply lines. That works in conventional war to. Because enemy forces are going to be strategically less mobile because they are dependent on supplies, move around them, let them pass into your territory, then hit their supply lines. Since a heavy tank uses so much fuel, that's a huge weak point.

    7. @CNO
      Yes, superior training and air superiority for sure. There was also the fact that they had 2 very brilliant commanders, Guderian, who ignored Hitler's orders and Manstein, who conceived of the whole plan.

      However, I maintain that the Battle of France type of victory would not be doable with heavy tanks.

      Several reasons:
      1. Ground pressure. The square cube law says that mass increases by the cube (ex: if I have a ship 2x the size in 3 dimensions, then it has 2x the length, 2x the width, and 2x the height).

      But the problem is that tracks are a square (length x width). You can get track extenders (which is maintenance intensive), but in soft soil, you'll get stuck.

      Then you'll have to be dug out.

      Otherwise your tank is forced to stay on roads, which makes them vulnerable. They are much more vulnerable to surprise attacks and they won't be able to achieve surprise themselves (because they are limited to roads for fear of getting stuck). This also means they are a lot more vulnerable to mines.

      2. In a fast moving battle, if you cannot be recovered, you'll have to blow up your tank, which the Germans were forced to do frequently during WW2.

      3. Achieving surprise. The problem is, not all the world has hard soil. If you can only attack in areas with hard soil and roads, then you lose surprise. The Germans burst through the Ardennes in France in 1940 and took them by surprise. It's much harder to do that with a heavy tank.

      Wheeled vehicles do worse off-road, especially the heavy ones because the tip of the wheel is the only thing touching rather than a long caterpillar track.

      4. Another problem is in the water. To ford or make trips across streams, it's easier to set up for a light tank. Again, you would need fewer engineers per tank. That also makes it hard to get across quickly to achieve surprise.

      Heavy tanks are often too heavy to cross civilian bridges, especially in the third world. That means that you are going to have to send in more combat engineers to fix this.

      5. Strategic mobility. There have been cases in war where troops have been forced to use Humvees because their tanks were too heavy to deploy. One example I recall was Bosnia (they couldn't cross the bridges there).

      The other is that to ship a large number of tanks to the destination is much harder. All of the tanks were sent in by cargo ship. Desert Storm took months to build up. You won't always have that luxury in war. Only small numbers of M1s can be flown by aircraft and they cannot be airdropped.

      A light tank, while less mobile than a Humvee strategically is still capable of better off road (it's a tracked vehicle) and a bit better protected (especially against IEDs). MRAPs now offer decent wheeled protection against IEDs and mines, but would be hardpressed to go off-road. The ideal would be a tracked V-shaped hull vehicle. That would offer mine resistance and off road performance.

      Not saying heavy tanks are not needed (they are for the initial breakthrough and in urban warfare), but they are not the best choice for everything. They also excel at defense ... provided they are in the right spot, during an enemy attack. Building an all heavy tank force would be like building an all battleship force. You still need your cruisers and destroyers I'm afraid. They do serve a purpose.

      You will take casualties with light tanks. The problem is, if you try to duel it out heavy vs heavy without flanking with lighter armor, you will find yourself losing even more in conventional war.

      Air superiority does remain a prerequisite for light tanks, but if you move fast enough, you'll be able to reach their rear and take out their artillery before they get off too many shots at your tanks.

    8. Alt, that's a nice piece of writing, however, you've constructed a very narrow scenario in which to justify your position. You've assumed a scenario perfectly suited to light tanks: an enemy that is unaware of your presence, a battlefield that is impassable to heavy vehicles, a battlefield "barricaded" by rivers, an absence of enemy air power or artillery (tied in with the assumption of total unawareness), and no enemy infantry/anti-tank forces.

      Is it possible to conceptualize a scenario in which light tanks are the preferred solution? Sure, you just did.

      Rather than recite a litany of scenarios in which light tanks will just get destroyed, I'll repeat my question for the third (and last) time, how do you reconcile the Army's use and ultimate rejection of a light tank in WWII with your call for one today?

      If your analysis is correct, the Army should have abandoned heavy (well, medium in the case of the Sherman) tanks in WWII - but they didn't.

      The history of German tank development was heavier armed and armored, not lighter. How do you reconcile that?

      The US military, fighting a world war, abandoned light tanks and yet you propose returning to them. That's a lot of bloody experience and lessons that you're proposing ignoring.

      How do you reconcile the Army's use and ultimate rejection of a light tank in WWII with your call for one today?

    9. The Army didn't fully reject the light tank in WWII. The Army reorganized their armor divisions moving away from divisions built around light armor, but light tank companies were retained as part of armor and reconnaissance battalions. In addition, the army employed about 5,000 lightly armed tank destroyers that relied on speed and cover for protection.

      In the late 1990's, the Army was set to field the M8 light tank that featured a 105-mm gun with an auto-loader reducing the crew size to 3. These were, in part, meant to replace the M551 Sheridans in the 82nd Airborne. Unfortunately, budget cuts cancelled the program.

      But, the light tank seems to have found new life as the Army recently asked for industry input for its Mobile Protected Firepower program. The Army intends to field a company of 14 MPF's per brigade.

      Protection for light armor vehicles can be augmented with the addition of modular armor plates and explosive reactive armor to defeat anti-tank rounds. Though this usually comes at the expense of speed and mobility.

    10. "An M1 will not be able to execute the kind of Blitzkrieg at the rate that I would like."

      I'm not sure what rate you would like but setting that aside, the M1 did execute a blitzkrieg during Desert Storm with the "left-hook" maneuver and movements covering many, many miles per day. The M1 had the speed to advance at an amazing rate and the firepower and armor to destroy whatever was it its way. We managed, if barely, to keep the vehicles fueled and supplied.

    11. Setting all other discussion aside, what gun, armor, and weight do you envision your light tank having?

    12. Sherman Tanks had several problems, particularly the lack of a high velocity gun. They were also very high profile (easy to spot). They were however much more reliable than German tanks. That's extremely important considering how many tanks the Germans had to blow up.

      Actually, the common myth about poorly armored Sherman is not entirely correct, not for later variants. Some of the later variants of the Sherman tanks had as much armor as a Tiger I tank, particularly after the M4A3E8 "Easy Eight" variant.

      The big flaw though was that they were not all like Sherman Fireflies, which had a high velocity gun. True, it would have taken some major production retooling, but the result would have been worth it. Actually, if you consider that most German Tanks were Panzer IVs, the Sherman doesn't compare too badly and is arguably superior. The Panzer V Panther and Panzer VI Tiger both had serious reliability issues so your odds of facing one were not that high.

      US doctrine at the time was that tanks were supposed to support infantry and that there were dedicated tank destroyers. For their part, one problem with German tanks had been the lack of good HE shells for supporting infantry; partly why the Stug was invented.

    13. Will create a new thread for my tank proposal.

    14. Actually one other point. The majority of Sherman tanks never actually fought a Panzer after DDay.

      What is needed is a high velocity gun was dual purpose; AP rounds vs tanks and a good infantry support weapon too.

  2. There have been good discussions about how armor is quickly becoming problematic due to the proliferation of anti-tank systems. The Marines appear to have a long-term mission-view problem in leadership/@ Navy and/or the Pentagon. I hope good things will come soon.

    1. Do you agree or disagree with the "problematic armor"? Why or why not?

    2. Disagree because there are going to be countermeasures. The Israeli Trophy is an example. A far bigger problem would be the proliferation of reconciles rifles, for which there are fewer solutions, but they have drawbacks too.

      Tanks will always have countermeasures, but they were never the unstoppable beasts they seemed. Side, rear, top, and bottom armor are never as good as front armor.

    3. Your assertion that armor is problematic belays am understanding of the real issue. Crew survive multiple vehicle losses in heavy tanks. Anything less and the crew dies

      The ability to maintain crews while losing heavy tanks is what makes their use necessary. I've known people to go the 3 tanks per tour but never lose a crew member.

      Probamatic, please get a reality check. Armor saves lives and unlike our tanks most ships have no armor to protect crews.

  3. @CNO

    Uh, it's not narrow. There's a lot of soft soil throughout the world and a lot of rivers to cross. Also, most bridges cannot take a >70 ton tank, especially not with Third World infrastructure. There is also the difficulty of fighting in mountain warfare.

    There are a lot of places that would be a "no go" for a heavy tank like the M1. Even here in North America in the wilderness, there are places you simply cannot deploy an M1 without it getting stuck.

    As far as a light tank:
    - Aim for around 25-35 tons
    - Wide tracks for low ground pressure (wide tracks + low mass means excellent ground pressure)
    - Diesel engine (probably no more than 1000 hp; maybe less); could consider hybrid electric

    - Probably a 75mm gun high velocity; won't win in a straight up vs a heavy; but it can still knock one out with hits to the rear and side; could consider lower calibre for more rounds available)
    - At least 70 rounds of ammo (note that existing 120mm guns store only around 40 rounds)
    - Need good machine guns (Very, very important. In a shooting war, without good MGs, tanks will be slaughtered by infantry).
    - Perhaps 2x 5.56mm machine guns and a 7.62mm coax (could also consider 12.7mm MG, but fewer rounds)

    - Modest front armor; could use composite armor
    - Side armor, rear, and top just need to resist a 12.7mm MG
    - Maybe armor modules for up to a 20mm cannon (but would exceed 35tons if that happened, which is why they should be removable)
    - Add skirts and slat armor if needed for additional RPG protection
    - Something like the Israeli Trophy RPGs and ATGMs
    - Explosive reactive armor all around (and on top) - could also pair with NxRA (non-explosive reactive armor)
    - V-Shaped Hull might be worth looking into (to prevent mines)
    - Engine in front (like Merkava)
    - Anti-spall liner
    - Ensure hydraulics are not flammable
    - Self-sealing tanks
    - May want to consider not putting ammo in turret and into water bath (to prevent a cook off)

    1. Other design decisions:
      - Enough fuel for 2 days of warfare
      - Turret would likely look like Merkava low profile turret
      - Need good button down visibility and a design for fighting when the hatch is open
      - A very important part of this design is that it must be easy to repair in the field (M1 tanks I think have to often be shipped to the continental US, which will not do in a nation state war against a competent opponent)

      - Need to test hydraulics (they can burn)
      - Test ammo storage to ensure that ammo doesn't cook off
      - Test reliability (breakdowns per x hundred miles advanced) of drivetrain
      - Also test reliability of MGs in rough conditions
      - Ensure no smoke from engine
      - Turret traverse has to be good and if a manual loader, loading has to be rapid (another reason to choose a lower calibre gun)

      I'm on the fence about autoloaders right now. It's a design decision that is open for debate.

      Another matter with heavy tanks. You say that they are as fast as light tanks. That's maximum burst speed we are talking about. I want a tank that is designed for high average speed. A heavy tank cannot sustain that burst speed for very long ... not without running out of fuel quickly anyways, especially for the gas turbine M1.

      I'd also propose a medium tank as well. Remember, you can build a lot more medium tanks, perhaps 3x as many versus 1 heavy tank.

    2. Like any tank as well, you'd want the standard equipment like laser warning scatterers, smoke grenades for self defense, etc.

      That said, I would be very interested to see what electronics are excessive.

    3. The turboshaft engine in the M1 Abrams can run on diesel, kerosene, and a number of the JPs. it doesnt have the fuel economy at idle that a diesel has but is of course much quieter at full power and can accelerate more quickly, its easier to change a power pack and in desert regions dust is less of a problem.

    4. Diesel engines can also accept mixed fuels, so it isn't really an advantage.

      The problem with fueling the M1 with diesel or any other fuel though is that there is reduced performance compared to jet fuel, JP8.

      The other problem with using mixed fuels is that it requires running the filters more frequently (so the tank will be down for maintenance).

      Anecdotally (and I won't be able to cite a source for this one because I got this speaking to former tankers), when the M1 was first fielded, I have heard that the M1 could operate for 1 day on their fuel. The M60s could go for as many as 3-4 days on their fuel.

    5. The M1 needs 3 fill ups a day during offensive operations.

    6. Agree.

      Advancing rapidly will require much more fuel ... and that leaves the logistics much more vulnerable to enemy attack.

  4. The Marines were never intended to be an armor heavy force and never will be. But, one tank battalion per infantry division, something the Army used to do, is not enough firepower. Besides, tanks are often parsed out to individual infantry regiments and battalions further reducing the capability of the tank battalion.

    I suggest the Marines add an armor regiment to each division. The new armor regiment would have 2 tank and 1 infantry battalion. Each tank battalion would have 44 tanks (3 companies of 14 tanks plus 2 for the BN headquarters) and a reconnaissance company with 24 TOW mounted Humvees (3 platoons of 8 TOW launchers each.)

    At the Marine Corp level, create an independed tank battalion to provide tanks to the numbered MEUs and to reinforce the infantry divisions.

    1. The Marines are tasked with amphibious assault and a huge chunk of naval shipping is dedicated to that. Given that the entire thrust of the WWII Pacific assault evolution was towards getting more firepower ashore in the initial wave, how do you reconcile your ideas with that trend - especially in light of the complete lack of initial wave tank transport capability?

  5. This heavy tank vs light tank kind of reminds me of the discussion of the battleship vs the Burke

    However depending on the utilization and doctrine the tanks or ships are used under would dictate the type of equipment that is used

    Aka a heavy tank is useful in flat or urban warfare but in the jungle or mountains weight is an issue that makes their user impractical

    Just like the LCS is relatively useless in an open ocean fight.

    No one screw gets the job done and neither will one ship out tank type suffice for all situations. However well trained crews will overcome a lot of equipment shortcomings

    Fyi the XM8 was sidelined due to budget or peace dividends issues. They are still in storage and we're requested for Afghanistan. Again politics got in front of their use so we'll never know if they were effective or not.

    Medium tanks overall are the most useful in all situations but are under armored for most confrontations. Heavy tanks just take punishment better but still we suffered hundreds of losses in Iraq of the m1. Keep that in mind concerning the limited war we fought there. Imagine the loss rate vs a real enemy equipped for armored warfare... The same pattern will develop in the next navy war

    1. I'm actually calling for a mixed force.

      Light tanks would not do very well in urban combat at all. Their purpose is to advance deeply into enemy territory in a Blitzkrieg-like and to take out the enemy command.

      But ... heavy tanks are expensive to operate and their sustained speed cannot match a lighter tank. Nor can they go into soft soil.

      The other consideration is numbers. For every heavy, you could probably field 2-3 medium tanks; maybe more. They would surely win against the heavy. That would be a serious consideration in a nation state warfare.


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