Questions About Tank Warfare
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
During World War II, the Sherman tank was our army's weapon of choice. It was versatile and relatively cheap to make, but it was designed to support infantry, not fight enemy tanks. We had antitank weapons, but a battlefield is a chaotic environment and they were not always on hand when needed. The Shermans often found themselves up against German Tigers and Panthers, and when that happened the Shermans usually got the worst of it.
By March 1945 our troops were finally getting tanks that could stand up to the Tigers and Panthers, but by then the war was pretty much over. I do not believe our new, more powerful tanks ever got a chance to show what they could do against the big German tanks, or at least there is no record of that happening.
Today, the M1 Abrams main battle tank is the heart of our ground forces and it is truly an awesome machine. Weighing almost 70 tons it can move at 42 miles per hour and hit distant targets while on the move. Its armor is almost impossible to penetrate. It blew away Saddam Hussein's armored brigades in Operation Desert Storm. It dominated the battlefield.
But the M1 Abrams, like all of our armored military vehicles, is expensive. It costs millions of dollars to make and millions more to maintain. Now we find ourselves sending these awesome weapons into conflict against poorly armed terrorists who make no attempt to match our massive weapons. They rely instead on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that cost maybe $20 to make and can disable or destroy our expensive technology. We are finding that these massive tanks are simply inappropriate for the kind of guerilla warfare we are engaged in.
But that does not mean the M1 Abrams is obsolete - not by a long shot. We need to keep in mind that while the Islamic terrorists are determined foes and can under some circumstances cause great damage, such as on 9/11, they pose no real threat to our national security and are unlikely to until and unless they get their hands on nuclear weapons. Even then they would be hard pressed to find a way to deliver such weapons against us.
But we do have real potential enemies of the old fashioned kind, the most conspicuous being Russia which does have nuclear capability and also has a massive land army that could challenge our own. The Russian T-14 tank is an advanced weapon that could challenge the M1 Abrams on the battlefield, or at least more effectively than the Iraqis did.
Today, our best military minds are reconsidering our basic military strategy and the future role of the battle tank in a world of terrorists and IEDs. My best guess is they will decide to invest fewer resources into armor and more into counter-insurgency and cyber warfare. All well and good, but my advice is to keep a substantial armored force on hand ready to do battle the old fashioned way. If we get into a knockdown, drag out fight with a sophisticated enemy, we will need the tanks.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.