Wednesday, September 13, 2017

We Didn't Bring The Tanks

I’ve been waiting for this one for a while, now, and it’s finally happened.  The Marines are deploying a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) without any tanks.  Perhaps it’s happened before and I just didn’t notice.  As noted in the May 2017 issue of Proceedings,

“Despite the maneuverability, lethality, and survivability that tanks provide, the 15th MEU will deploy without its battalion landing team’s (BLT’s) M1A1s.  The unit will embark on the USS America (LHA-6), the USS San Diego (LPD-22), and the USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52);  these ships lack adequate space for the unit’s equipment, driving the decision to deploy without the tanks.”

The article’s author goes on to note that, in addition to the obvious benefits of armor, firepower, infantry support, and survivability, tanks also offer a great deal of flexibility due to their dozer blades and mine plows which allow the tanks to create and remove obstacles, clear safe paths through mine fields, provide breeching capability under fire, etc.

The point of this post is not to analyze or extol the value of tanks but, rather, to note the insanely stupid decisions that have led to not having enough room for the MEU’s equipment and the highly questionable choice to leave the tanks behind.

Let’s start with the decision to remove the well deck from the LHA America.  Without a well deck and LCAC, there’s no point loading a tank since you can’t unload it.

“To that end, its commanders [Col. Joseph Clearfield, commander of the 15th MEU] say, the 15th MEU/ARG remains a highly-capability and perhaps more flexible force. The lack of a well deck, often cited by critics in recent years, won’t diminish its combat and operational might, they said.” (1)

Losing the MEU’s entire tank platoon doesn’t diminish the MEU’s combat capability?  Spin is one thing, lies are another.

Nope - Didn't Bring 'Em

There’s another aspect to all this and that is the Navy/Marine’s obsession with disaggregated Amphibious Ready Groups wherein the individual ships go their separate ways on deployment.  What happens when the USS America, with no well deck and no connector craft, has to conduct a solo operation?  If it requires nothing more than light infantry, they’ll be fine.  If it requires a bit of heavy support, they won’t have any.  In any single ship, contested operation, the aircraft will be largely tied up defending the ship and will be unavailable for ground support.

The Marines are supposed to be a medium weight force.  Leaving the tanks behind and using an LHA without a well deck is just another step on the path to a pure light infantry force.  Light infantry are not survivable on the modern battlefield.

If this MEU has to conduct a contested amphibious operation and the troops are being pounded and screaming for armored firepower, someone is going to have to tell the troops, “We didn’t bring the tanks.”


(1)USNI News website, “Navy, Marines to Test, Stretch Aviation-heavy USS America Before Deployment”, Gidget Fuentes, 23-Jan-2017,


  1. Some time ago I read that during Cold War Marines rejected the idea of ​​equipping themselves with more tanks to fight in Europeand scenario and that the focused on light infantry and high mobility. Is this true?

    Then, current situation could be considered a consequence of that?

    Most of the world's marine forces do not have tanks, but are smaller and less ambitious than Marine Corps

    1. This is part of a long-term trend to convert the Marine Corps into a worldwide Third World police force, with amphibs built to support this mission. The US military no longer has a forcible entry amphibious capability against anything more than AK-47 armed insurgents. This is mostly because we no longer have LSTs that are the most valuable amphibs. I agree with this article that says the rest aren't useful for real combat missions:

    2. Actually, the world's marine forces that actually expect to fight do have tanks, heavy artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, etc. and are working diligently to The US Marines are unique in that they are trending towards lightness. China certainly isn't!

      The USMC was a medium weight force, supposedly capable of opposed amphibious assaults. That is no longer a capability as they move towards becoming a strictly lightweight force.

      This begs the question, why do we need 30+ big deck amphibious ships if the Marines can no longer conduct a peer-opposed landing?

    3. M1 is not really suited to amphib operations,not really infantry friendly either, you cant really follow behind it, gun blast will kill or injure you if to close, reactive armor is deadly to anyone around if hit. what we need is something like the CV120 armored gun system. Actually the IDF replacement for the Merkava was just unveiled, it is a 30 ton medium caliber gun AFV. Something along the lines of the 75mm Ares gun.(CARMEL AFV)
      Russians and Chineese employ medium weight AFV with their naval infantry. Modern anti tank missles make Infantry pretty lethal to AFVs if used right. (Spike, Spike NLOS, Hellfire, LAHAT,RPG29 ect,). What would be nice is to have a LST back in the amphib group. Check out the website on DAMEN LST-120. They have a whole family of LSTs in different sizes from open ocean to littoral.

    4. "M1 is not really suited to amphib operations"

      It's actually ideally suited to amphib ops! There is nothing more suited to attacking a defended beach/port than a heavy tank! What the M1 is not suited for is transport from a ship to shore which makes its use in an amphibious assault problematic. The ideal solution is better transport methods. The next best solution is to develop a somewhat lighter tank that CAN be transported from ship to shore. The least desirable solution is to abandon armored vehicles - that leaves you with nothing but a light infantry force which will not be survivable in a peer-contested assault.

      As far as following behind a tank, that's a simple matter of tactics - how to integrate infantry and armor.

      Yes, infantry anti-tank weapons can be effective if the infantry is given the opportunity to employ them under advantageous conditions. This is where doctrine and tactics come in. Combinations of air support, artillery barrages, IFVs, and tanks provide the necessary variety of firepower to prevent infantry from performing effective anti-tank operations. This goes to infantry being non-survivable in modern combat. Blanket an area with cluster munitions and HE from artillery and see how many infantry are left ready and capable of countering a rapid IFV/tank attack.

      We too often tend to "analyze" weapons in isolation. Sure, an anti-tank infantry soldier can stop a tank under the right conditions. The goal/job of the tank force is to deny the enemy infantry those conditions - not hard to do given the inherent vulnerability of infantry to high explosives.

      I'm familiar with the DAMEN LST's. They look quite nice on paper and would make a useful addition to any amphibious force. I'm mystified why the Marines would not want LST's other than the fact that they are institutionally committed to becoming aviation-centric light infantry.

    5. "The next best solution is to develop a somewhat lighter tank that CAN be transported from ship to shore."

      As I mentioned in the Prototype post comments, I'd like to see a 120mm NEMO or AMOS mortar fitted to the AAV-7. It would be yet another step down from a MBT or a true amphibious light tank, but the 120mm mortar is still a big step up from 12.7mm or even 30mm if the direct-fire range is high enough to be useful.

      "I'm familiar with the DAMEN LST's. They look quite nice on paper and would make a useful addition to any amphibious force. I'm mystified why the Marines would not want LST's other than the fact that they are institutionally committed to becoming aviation-centric light infantry."

      While it did not seem to hinder deployment in WWII, one issue that seems to come up with LSTs is their less than stellar sea-keeping characteristics owing to having a relatively flat hull bottom.

      The French have designs for two versions of L-CAT. One is a ship-to-shore vessel sized to fit in well decks and the others is a larger, self-deploying shore-to-shore vessel. The variable-displacement idea is interesting.

      In addition to or instead of speed, a variable-displacement capability could give better sea-keeping characteristics or provide more over-the-beach payload. Transporting MBTs, you're probably going to be mass-limited not volume-limited, perhaps even a conventional-hulled LST with folding, variable-displacement outriggers could transport a few more MBTs. Adding armor and weaponry to the LST is another possibility.

  2. G2mil has a couple of good articles on LSTs and the move away from heavy tanks.

  3. The root of this issue is one I ran into back in 1985. There are NO requirements for how large the footprint (Square or Cube) of equipment has to be while it is being developed.

    So on my first program, I was trying to see what a 30 day support package would consist of and cost. The Loggies all dutifully used the OMP, the predicted MTBF data, and the planned maintenance level strategy to compute what would fail and need to be replaced.

    While this was going on I asked do you ever have to worry about how big this 30 package is? The answer was NOPE, the Navy will have to carry it.

    NOT a good answer when you figure that I was just one system and an infantry Battalion probably has 20 systems and 200 other types of equipment items. If none of the programs have a size budget, guess what? It won't fit.

    Likewise no one looks at the total equipment cost of a Battalion in order set the program unit cost targets. SO there is no ability to conduct trade-offs to keep the overall cost of a Battalion constant. We need to keep the cost of a Battalion's equipment down so that we can afford more Battalions.

    I imagine the other equipment crowded out the tanks (or the tanks require too much - Fuel, ammo, parts, etc.).

  4. "The next best solution is to develop a somewhat lighter tank that CAN be transported from ship to shore. "

    Its already been developed

    BAE Systems, responding to the US Army's call for a new light tank, has brought back a vehicle that was scheduled to go into service in the 1990s.
    The M8 Armored Gun System is meant to provide a firepower boost to light infantry forces, particularly paratroopers. It was originally set to go into service in the 1990s

    1. There are many options that have been developed in the past and/or exist today, both domestically and foreign. We seem not to care, however.

    2. This is not the answer. The true question is...who allowed the Navy to procure a "amphib" ship that has no amphib capability? The reason tanks are not on the MEU is simple....there is no room for them with a ship that has no well deck.

      The next question you have to ask yourself is what else was left behind? Loosing a well deck, the associated "connectors", and a lower vehicle deck does not equate to simple three tanks. You also lost three preboats loaded with vehicles (typically your LAV's and CAAT teams), as well as the HMMWV's and cargo storage in the lower vehicle deck.

  5. Only America (LHA-6) and Tripoli (LHA-7) lack a well deck, Bougainville (LHA-8) will have a smaller hanger to accomodate a well deck. Perhaps the Navy has learned their lesson.

    As for the lack of tanks, I suggest the Marine Corp adopt the improved Stryker vehicles upgunned with a 30-mm cannon and another armed with Javelin ATGM's.

    Maybe form an reconnaissance/anti-armor company of 2 platoons with 30-mm cannons and 2 platoons with Javelins with a mortar platoon for support.

    And, let's not forget that a Marine BLT has Harriers (to be replaced by F-35B's) and AH-1 Vipers for close air support.

    1. "Marine Corp adopt the improved Stryker vehicles upgunned with a 30-mm cannon"

      In comparison, the Chinese have developed a light amphibious tank, the ZTD05, with a 105 mm gun. What the Chinese have developed is interesting but almost irrelevant in an amphibious assault scenario since we'd be facing their main tanks, not amphibious tanks. A 30 mm Stryker is a very feeble replacement for real tanks!

    2. "let's not forget that a Marine BLT has Harriers (to be replaced by F-35B's) and AH-1 Vipers for close air support."

      I know you're attempting to offer at least partial solutions but this is typical of the kind of thinking that permeates our military today - the belief that we'll be able to operate unhindered by any enemy actions. In a peer-opposed assault scenario, there won't be any close air support. The skies will be an aerial no-man's land, at best, and helos will be decimated by shoulder launched SAMs. Counting on Harrier/F-35's and helos works only if you assume we have total aerial supremacy (wishful and utterly unrealistic thinking against a peer). F-35's will be tied up just trying to defend the fleet!

      We need to start facing up to what a peer-opposed amphibioius assault will really be like and stop basing our plans on wishful thinking. An opposed assault will require heavy naval guns to provide supporting fire and heavy tanks, artillery, and armored vehicles - none of which we have.

    3. If we're going to be realistic, then assign assign a tank company to each BLT. A tank platoon isn't enough support. Add another LSD carrying a tank company with a couple of LCACs to each amphibious group and problem is partially solved. There still remains the problem of a lack naval fire support as you pointed out.

    4. "Add another LSD"

      This has been suggested before and the idea has merit. However, we currently have 30+ big deck amphibs to support the 1-3 MEUs we typically have forward deployed. If we add an extra big deck amphib to each MEU/ARG, where will the extra ships come from? The budget isn't getting any bigger and we already can't afford the ships we want. Also, we seem unable to properly maintain the ships we have. How will we maintain extra ships?


    5. Then maybe its time to rethink the use of armor for the Marines. Do the Marines need M-1's or is a light/medium tank better suited? Not to say that heavy tanks don't have a role, but for amphibious assaults, at least for the first few waves, lighter tanks might be better.

      The Army is looking at light armor again with its Mobile Protected Firepower program. Maybe that is an option for the Marines.

    6. " Do the Marines need M-1's or is a light/medium tank better suited?"

      Well, imagine yourself facing a peer enemy with heavy tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, heavy mortars, and missiles of all types. Will a light tank with little armor do the job?

    7. For a variety of practical reasons, we fielded the Sherman medium tank in WWII, which was woefully outclassed by the Panzer IV, Panther, and Tiger tanks. Like everything else, it comes down to doctrine and tactics.

      The Army airborne face the same problems as the Marines when making a drop. And, until 20 years ago, they had the M551 Sheridan light tank as support.

    8. Okay, so what specific doctrine and tactics will allow light tanks to attack and beat a peer enemy with heavy tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, heavy mortars, and missiles of all types?

    9. To be fair, I said a lighter tank might be better for the initial waves of an amphibious assault.

      What about the AAV-7's? They will be part of the first wave of any amphibious assault. They are not exactly heavily armed or armored. Nor are the LAV-25's or the newer Marine Amphibious Combat Vehicle or Marine Personnel Carrier. All are medium weight vehicles with limited protection and firepower.

      I'm not saying M-1's don't have a role. But, given the limited ship-to-shore capacity of an MEU, a lighter, medium weight tank makes more sense for the initial waves of an amphibious assault.

    10. I repeat my question.

      You seem to be engaged in wishful thinking based on budgetary and connector lift limitations. You see the problems and rather than find a viable solution, you seem to be saying, let's just go with what we can afford and can get ashore. You then reinforce that view and dispense with the potential problems with some handwaving about doctrine and tactics.

      I'm not saying you're wrong about a light tank but you've offered nothing to suggest that you're right, either! I'm inviting you to think a bit deeper and tell me how (doctrine and tactics) you think a light tank force can attack and defeat a peer enemy with heavy tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, heavy mortars, and missiles of all types?

      This question is particularly appropriate, now, as the Marines struggle with their reason for existence, their current acquisition path, and their emphasis on aviation over ground combat.

      So, please, think about it and take a shot at describing the doctrine and tactics you think will allow light tanks to attack and win. I'm trying to prompt a discussion, not win an argument.

  6. Why couldn't the tanks of the 15th MEU be embarked on USS San Diego and/or USS Pearl Harbour?

    1. The ships aren't bottomless pits. They have a finite amount of space. The MEU has a lot of equipment and supplies. They had 6 pounds of stuff to fit in a 5 pound container and had to choose what to leave behind. They chose to leave the tanks behind.

  7. The Marine Cops leadership want to fight the last war not the next one. The last-albeit ongoing-war against terrorists/counter insurgent is perceived as a spec-ops + Air Support war. They want fighters like USAF and light infantry units for counter insurgent ops. They have no real interest in the amphibious ops the Marines excel at. They can't lift tanks with their precious Ospreys so they must not need them.

    It's like preparing for the trenches of WW1 but fighting a war of maneuver in WW2. Some generals were prepared and others not.
    Theses generals are prepared for another Afghanistan not an Island seizing war with China. They have forgotten that in Vietnam everyone perceived it as purely infantry but tanks contributed in a big way as well.

  8. It should work something like this

    What do you want to do?
    How do you expect to do it?
    What assets will you need to do it?
    What assets will you need to get there, and sustain yourself?

    Designing assets to fit the logistics sounds like progress, but its legitimising and entrenching absolute worst practice.

    MEBs and MEUs have MBTs because they hit hard and can take a hit, and because they are deemed necessary assets for how they want to accomplish the things they want to accomplish

    There is very little on the battlefield that can take a hit from an MBT and keep fighting, and there is very little on a battlefield that can hit an MBT and stop it.

    Yes, there are a vast selection of ATGMs out there, but only the very top tier can even semi reliably knock out a tank, and they are rare as hens teeth.

    Your average infantry get 66mm LAWS or the equivalent, and you can fire dozens of those at a tank and do little but scratch the paint. The highest I can find a reference for now is 70+ RPGs failing to actually kill a tank, although it was disabled. I'm sure I remember one being hit 140 times, but that might have been a Land Raider.

    Replace those tanks with "Mobile Gun Systems", and its a whole other story. A Mobile gun system that gets hit a couple of 66mm type weapons is dead. And anywhere the marines try to kick the door in, there will be hundreds of 66mm rockets waiting for them.


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