There has been some skepticism over the Marine Corps’ decision to send a company of M1 Abrams tanks to join the battle in southern Afghanistan, but the use of tanks in a counterinsurgency in general, and in Afghanistan in particular, is hardly new.
In Afghanistan, the Canadians and the Danes have used their tanks to great effect--and Canadian Army Maj. Trevor Cadieu has written a detailed account on how tanks became an integral part of the Canadian fight in Kandahar—the place U.S. Marines are fighting now. In December 2006, the Canadians deployed a squadron of Leopard C2 tanks to Kandahar, and the major writes that “after deploying forward … the tank squadron and armoured engineers featured prominently in all major combat operations undertaken by the Canadian BG … Since May 2007, the tank squadron has fought almost constantly alongside Canadian and Afghan infantry in close combat with the Taliban.”
The Canadians say that they’ve found so much success in Afghanistan with the German-made Leopard tank that they completely revised plans for the structure of their ground forces. In 2001, the Canadians decided not to replace their aging fleet of Leopard I tanks—the plan was to simply ride them until they died and then transition to a lighter force structure using the Stryker-like LAV infantry carriers as their heaviest piece of equipment. It wasn’t long before the heavy fighting and the toll that powerful roadside bombs Canadian troops encountered in southern Afghanistan changed this calculus, however, prompting the Ottawa government to kick off a “crash program” to buy surplus German and Dutch Leopard II tanks, which began arriving in Afghanistan in 2008.
In a RAND study published earlier this year, David E. Johnson and John Gordon IV wrote that
The experience in southern Afghanistan has convinced the Canadian Army that armored forces have a very important role in COIN operations. The Leopard II tanks currently operating in Afghanistan have been modified with improved armor (in particular, all-around metal skirts to detonate RPG shaped-charge warheads) and improved crew-comfort items, such as cooling systems to cope with the intense summer heat.
The Canadians have also said that convoys have proven to be less likely to be ambushed if tanks are present. The Danes have had much the same experience with the Leopard II in Afghanistan, claiming that the tank’s 120mm gun is so accurate that it minimizes civilian casualties, and the RAND team reports that the Danes “noted that tanks can respond very quickly when contact is made with insurgents, and that it was clear the Taliban respects tank firepower. Indeed, it was stated that Taliban activity drops considerably when tanks are operating in an area.”
And this morning, Jason Fritz, an Army vet and consultant, has this to say about the use of tanks in a counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan:
You know what scares the hell out of dismounted insurgents? 70 tons of badassery that will make them dead if they mess with it…If the problem in Helmand is a highly-active insurgency that requires a firepower solution, then the M1A1 is what you want to bring to the fight….The bottom line is that the Abrams provides a highly mobile, well armored platform for long distance, highly accurate fire. To question that is to not understand tanks at all. It seems that the Marines need long distance, highly accurate firepower or they wouldn't be asking for it.