Moscow Defense Brief ( 2005 )
US-led Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and the subsequent occupation have fueled debate on the future of armor systems over the next few decades. Supporters of the latest generation tank designs can justifiably claim that the Main Battle Tank (MBT) and the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) have proven their value on the Iraqi battlefield. This was clear especially during the initial stages of combat, when heavy brigade combat teams made up of the M1AHA Abrams and the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle Systems (BFVS), and the British Challenger II Mk2 and Warrior IFVs, destroyed Iraqi combat systems with little resistance along the road to Baghdad and Basra, respectively. On the other hand, critics of this model point to the surfeit of heavy armor and the unacceptably high burden placed on supply chains to sustain heavy brigades so far removed from their bases. Moreover, the second phase of the operation and the occupation revealed certain shortcomings of current MBT protection and firepower systems. The US-Iraq war can hardly provide conclusive evidence in support of either side in this debate, since it is unlikely that the US will ever enjoy such an overwhelming technological and organizational superiority over the enemy. A more even contest will require radically different tactics and result in much higher losses. Nevertheless, the combat experience of medium and heavy fighting machines in Iraq provides some useful lessons for the future.
The Abrams tank armor system was not really put to the test during military operations in Iraq. There were virtually no reported hits on the highly protected frontal arc or on the “heavy” ballistic skirts; all tank losses to enemy fire were defeated from the top, side and rear. Iraqi soldiers had clearly familiarized themselves with the capabilities of American tanks during operation Desert Storm and avoided engaging them in direct battle. For example, there were no reported cases of anti-tank guide missiles (ATGM) being fired at any US army vehicle. At the same time, Iraqi resistance fighters, whose ranks were bolstered by scores of trained Iraqi soldiers, have clearly learned to exploit the vulnerabilities of the US systems. They managed to destroy up to 20 enemy tanks even with their antiquated light anti-tank weapons, mostly Soviet rocket-propelled grenades such as the RPG-7 or its Chinese and Egyptian variants, with rounds developed in the 1970s-early 1980s. The results of combat operations show that the side armor of the Abrams tank is completely inadequate to fire from light anti-tank weapons, including older generation weapons, making these tanks unsuitable for operations in built-up areas.
For example, in a widely-discussed incident, an M1 tank from the 2nd Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment, 1st Armor Division was hit and disabled during a routine patrol on 28 August 2003. The American press, deluded by its own reports of the “invulnerability” of the Abrams, claimed that some kind of “secret weapon” was responsible for the damage. In fact, published photographs clearly show that the offending weapon was none other than a simple RPG. The hollow-charged jet penetrated the side skirt and turret ring and continued into the crew compartment as it disintegrated before finally coming to rest after boring a cluster of craters 30-50 mm deep in the hull on the far side of the tank. The crew was lucky to have suffered only minor shrapnel wounds as the projectile passed through the gunner’s seatback and grazed his flak jacket. On April 2, 2003 an RPG attack from the side disabled another tank by penetrating the turret’s hydraulic drive.
The side protection of the M1 turret is also inadequate. On 7 April 2004 an anti-tank RPG penetrated the side of the turret resulting in serious wounds to two crew members. The top of the tank is equally vulnerable, and even the glacis was easily defeated by anti-tank weapons. For example, on April 10, 2004 a tank was hit on the right side of the glacis by an RPG fired from an overpass and destroyed. Additional measures designed to increase protection for the Abrams tank have showed mixed results. Halon firefighting gear has proven largely ineffective. Practically all secondary fires resulting from enemy fire, engine breakdown or overheating destroyed the tank completely. For example, the 7 April attack noted above ignited the tanker’s personal effects attached to the outside of the turret, and since the crew had abandoned the vehicle, the fire was left unchecked, while on 10 April, fuel leaked out of a damaged fuel tank and ignited. Externally stored items, including on one occasion an external auxiliary power unit (EAPU), caught fire on several occasions and led to catastrophic losses. On the other hand, the vulnerability caused by externally stored items only underlined the wisdom of storing ammunition in a separate compartment protected by blast doors, which contained fires and saved the crew when the main rounds ignited.
The distribution of catastrophic damage to the Bradley IFV was somewhat different. In spite of the vehicle’s explosive reactive armor (ERA), its protection proved to be completely inadequate in combat against even outdated generations of light anti-tank weapons. This led to several episodes of defeat from RPGs, accompanied by crew casualties and in several cases the complete destruction of the vehicle from resulting fires. Significant losses of Bradley vehicles resulted from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) placed in cars or on roads. IEDs made from one or two 122 and/or 152 mm shells with between 4 and 14 kg of explosive proved more than adequate to inflict heavy damage to equipment and crew. The worst case was on January 17, 2004 when the explosion from an IED made from two 152 mm shells overturned the vehicle and destroyed the crew compartment, killing all five crewmen. The Abrams tank proved much more resistant to IED, as only one tank was destroyed on October 27, 2003 by an IED, presumably constructed from a 240 mm Soviet-made mortar-bomb with an explosive charge of 32 kg.
It is interesting to compare the losses sustained by the Bradley Fighting Machines from light anti-tank weapons and IED to the experience of the new Stryker Medium Armored Vehicle. This wheeled 8x8 has about the same ballistic protection as the Bradley (360-degree protection from 14.5 mm shells). Enhanced survivability against RPG is provided by slat armor: testing and combat experience in Iraq has shown that this steel grille is able to prevent the proper functioning of anti-tank grenades and the formation of a hollow-charged jet. The Stryker also has higher survivability against mines. Whereas exploding mines have almost always stopped the Bradley in its tracks, the Stryker as a rule has been able to escape from the area of detonation. For example, on 9 September a Bradley was blown up by an IED placed in a parked car on Haifa Street in Baghdad with an explosive charge of about 10 kg. The IFV suffered damage to its tracks and lost mobility. Two crew members were injured and another four were hit by small arm fire and RPGs when they tried to exit the vehicle. Reinforcement units evacuated the crew and the vehicle burned unchecked. On 11 October, 2004, a car in Mosul rammed into the side of a Stryker, detonating a similar explosive charge. The MAV suffered serious damage, the commander was killed, and seven out of 8 wheels were punctured, but the vehicle retained mobility and was able to return to base on its own. In another pair of incidents, a Bradley and a Stryker each lost their front suspension arm, on 12 October and 20 December respectively. Again, the Stryker retained mobility while the Bradley did not.
Firepower and Target Acquisition
The American tank system is distinguished by the high quality of its infrared equipment. Second-generation forward looking infrared (FLIR) has a resolution that can distinguish small targets and people at far distances, at night and in bad weather, and even during sandstorms. But like its armor protection, the main gun of the Abrams tank, the 120 mm M256 often failed to meet expectations. Firepower problems were exacerbated by an initial reliance on a basic load appropriate for battle against enemy tanks, but not against infantry. High explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds at first made up only 25% of the stowed munitions. This share increased to 60% by the end of combat operations, but the lack of dedicated anti-personnel rounds reduced firepower effectiveness. Other problems, typical of the use of tank guns in urban conditions and against infantry ambushes, also played a role: the extension of the cannon beyond the hull of the tank, significant blind spots along the vertical, especially towards the rear, the gunner’s restricted field of vision, etc.
One unexpected failing of the Abrams main cannon derived from the use of a fibreglass bore evacuator. Combat operations revealed that the bore evacuator is easily disabled by small arms fire, and the smoke generated by a malfunctioning bore evacuator drives the crew out of the tank after the firing of just two or three rounds. In battle with mobile enemy, Abrams crews used mostly open mounted machine guns (the commander’s 12.7 mm gun and the loader’s 7.62 machinegun on skate mount). A lack of protection for the machine gunner from small arms fire led to several casualties and created opportunities for the destruction of the crew compartment through the open hatch. A tank was disabled on March 26, 2003 when an anti-tank grenade ricocheted off a roof and through the commander’s hatch. The tank commander was hit and killed while he was manning his machine gun.
The Bradley also had trouble applying firepower in urban areas. The fragmentation ammunition of the IFV’s 25 mm automatic cannon was not effective against enemy infantry in buildings, and so the vehicle’s Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire command-link guided (TOW) missiles had to be used. The firepower of these missiles was more than adequate, but limited to two rounds since they are impossible to reload under the protection of armor. The firepower of the Stryker APC is even more limited. Depending on configuration it consists of either one 12.7 mm machine gun or a 40 mm grenade launcher, and was applied only in battle against enemy personnel in the open. Due to the unreadiness of Mobile Gun System (MGS) Strykers with 105 mm tank guns, support fire was provided by ATGM Strykers equipped with TOW missiles. The weak firepower of the APC Stryker limited its use during periods of heightened confrontation with Iraqi resistance.
On the whole, the Abrams tank demonstrated a high level of mobility in combat operations. Notwithstanding instances where the tank may have flipped over or got stuck, the road system and bridges of Iraq were able to sustain the traffic of fighting machines weighing more than 63 tons; off-road mobility was also satisfactory. Nevertheless the quick pace of attack, extremely dusty conditions and sandstorms raised a host of problems. There was a high rate of failure on the road arms and assemblies. Road wheels and track wear proved to be significant. Just as during “Desert Storm” the air filters required continuous cleaning and servicing. Units used more fuel than expected due to the use of the antiquated gas turbines as a power plant, especially on those tanks not equipped with an auxiliary power unit. The Bradley APC, in spite of its smaller size, faced similar problems and, on the whole, did not prove to be more mobile than the tanks. The extensive use of armor in urban areas, especially during the occupation, created additional problems due to the limited manoeuvrability on the narrow Iraqi streets. In practice, the use of armor was possible only on wide thoroughfares and on squares. The use of heavy vehicles also caused significant damage to the urban infrastructure and to property, though the use of rubber-padded tracks helped to reduce the damage to roads.
The Stryker APC was deployed in Iraq only after the end of active combat operations, so its ability to sustain a high tempo of attack under difficult climatic conditions remains to be seen in practice. Nevertheless, the high centre of gravity of these relatively heavy vehicles, combined with the crews’ lack of experience led to several unfortunate accidents. For example, on 8 and 16 December, 2003, three vehicles were severely damaged when they flipped into a canal, killing three soldiers. At the same time, the wheeled Stryker has an edge over the tanks in terms of speed and minimization of the damage to the urban infrastructure. Integrated C4SI provides enhanced situational awareness and allows the crew to navigate unfamiliar streets and rapidly come to the aid of ambushed comrades.
The examples above show that the Abrams M1 tank, on the whole, failed to live up to its full potential in combat, while the Iraqi resistance was able on several occasions to exploit faults in the vehicle's design. Nevertheless, the Abrams tank proved itself to be a formidable fighting machine with no serious competitor on the battlefield, while losses resulting from combat or technical causes remained within reasonable limits. Accounting for variations in national design, it is likely that other modern MBTs would have performed more or less the same under similar circumstances. It is worth recalling the range of measures proposed by American specialists to enhance the survivability of the Abrams tank under urban conditions: extra smoke grenade launchers along the perimeter of the turret that provide cover from all aspects; extra gun-slaved mount for 7.62 or 12.7 mm calibre machine guns or a 40 mm grenade launcher (CSAMM); improved protection side skirts and engine deck roof; slat armor for the stern; the PDCue computer system of directing to the sound of fire; commander-activated claymore mines on the side skirts for battle against infantry in blind spots; a retractable mast with observation instrumentation; video-camera on the sides and rear, etc. The vast majority of these measures are entirely appropriate for conditions of urban battle.
The Bradley Fighting Machine on the whole performed rather well, though the destruction of several vehicles by anti-tank RPG suggests that in spite of the significant resources devoted to the development of additional anti-hollow charge defences, U.S. engineers have not yet solved the problem of 360-degree protection even from older generations of light anti-tank weapons. The installation of slat armor on the Stryker APC marks a real breakthrough in this regard. This extremely simple design reduced the effectiveness of the older types of light anti-tank weapons by some 200% or more. Several firms, including the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Steel, have developed similar grilles. We can only voice regret over the tardy introduction of such grilles for use in active combat in Chechnya. The Stryker fighting vehicle performed somewhat better than predicted, and undoubtedly confirmed the relevance of wheeled armor. Nevertheless, the incredibly high cost of such vehicles (over 2 million dollars for the basic model) is not matched by military utility. That said, the development of this type of vehicle for Russian procurement and export seems justified.
Operations similar to the current occupation of Iraq require the development of a specialized heavy vehicle that compensates for the deficiencies of the MBT and maximizes its lethality. This machine could sacrifice heavy frontal armor, but in exchange would have 360-degree protection from modern infantry anti-tank weapons. All equipment should fit within the crew compartment. It is essential to increase the number of times a fire-fightingsystem can engage to five or six in place of the two or three currently in place. The vehicle should have a high degree of system redundancy, especially for sighting and target acquisition, and should not have any significant blind spots for scanning and firing. Auxiliary power units should ensure the reliable functioning of all main systems when the vehicle is parked or in case the engine is disabled. The vehicle’s firepower should be optimized for battle against both mobile and fixed infantry in the field and in urban conditions. All firepower should be controlled from under armor. It is essential to allow for the substitution of weapons systems of comparable dimensions to satisfy the demands of the customer in accordance with the appropriate standards or for the further optimization of weapons systems to address specific tasks. It would be very good to have a super-close-in anti-personnel armament. This role could be fulfilled by e.g. fragmentation grenades fired from the conventional smoke grenade launchers.The continued use of tracks would appear inevitable, but all possible measures to prevent the destruction of the road surface should be taken, including the use of “rubber-clad tracks.”
The combat support vehicle currently under development at the Ural Tank Factory may be a step in the right direction. However the firepower system envisaged for this vehicle, essentially a doubled 30 mm automatic cannon and four ATGMs, is far from ideal, and should be replaced with a 50-60 mm cannon that can fire fragmentation or shrapnel rounds with high explosive fill ratio and preformed subprojectiles. The use of powerful guided missiles to defeat hardened targets is justified, but rather than using common ATGMs, it would clearly be preferable to look towards the development of dedicated assault missiles with reduced range (2-3 km would be sufficient), but with enhanced effectiveness against installations and personnel. The launcher must be protected against 12.7 mm rounds. Such a vehicle would be useful in low intensity conflicts, for patrols and to escort convoys in the context of peacekeeping operations, law enforcement and the battle against armed separatism and international terrorism. Insofar as several nations will evidently need to pursue such missions, the development of such a vehicle would have good prospects for export sales, modernization and subsequent maintenance contracts.