A sharp, short new report from two researchers at RAND concludes that despite all of the attention that counterinsurgency has received over the past several years, and the scorn that has been placed on heavy armor units, heavy forces—meaning tanks and infantry fighting vehicles—"are key elements of any force that will fight hybrid enemies that have a modicum of training, discipline, organization, command and control, and advanced weapons (e.g., ATGMs, MANPADS, RPGs, mines, and IEDs). Light and medium forces complement heavy forces in hybrid warfare, particularly in urban and other complex terrain, but they do not provide the survivability, lethality, or mobility inherent in heavy forces. Quite simply, heavy forces reduce operational risks and minimize friendly casualties.”
The paper by David E. Johnson and John Gordon IV, is part of a larger research project that assesses how armor has been used in recent counterinsurgency fights, and the implications this will have for “U.S. Army force mix and capabilities, as well as for the elements that support or operate with ground forces.” The duo spoke with the U.S. Marines, the Brits, the Danes, the Canadians and the Israelis for the project, and found that contrary to what one might think, counterinsurgent forces in Afghanistan actually love their tanks. (Check Johnson’s paper on Israel’s performance during the recent fighting in Gaza for some more background on how the IDF is changing the way it fights.)
The Canadians and the Dutch say that they’ve found great success in Afghanistan with the German-made Leopard II tank, (as I wrote about in more detail here), so much so that the tanks have caused the Canadian military to completely revise 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 by 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. Johnson and Gordon write 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.” The Canadians and Danes have been so successful with their Leopard tanks in Afghanistan that the British have taken to relying on them completely for their heavy armor and mobile firepower needs.
Despite having been very happy with the way their Challenger II Main Battle Tanks operated in Iraq, the Brits have decided not to send them to Afghanistan, instead relying on the 30-ton Warrior IFV with its 30-mm cannon for operations in Helmand. In a sharp departure from the Americans, Canadians and Danes, the Brits are even considering shutting down their heavy tank units for up to three years to allow Tankers to perform other duties.
While the final decision rests on what RAND terms “funding constraints and the need to free personnel for other COIN-related tasks,” it will also mean that for a while at least, the heaviest armored fighting vehicle that the British Army will field will be the 30-ton Warrior IFV. As it stand, this would hardly matter in Afghanistan, where the Brits are content to outsource their heavy armor needs to the Canadians and Danes, even though both countries are scheduled to pack up their Leopard II’s and go home about a year from now.
Photo: Major Trevor Cadieu