Despite bearing the brunt of the fighting over a decade dominated by two ground wars against irregular enemies, the U.S. Army looks like it’s about to take the brunt of budget and force structure cuts in the coming Age of Austerity. It’s not hard to imagine that expensive-to-maintain Heavy Brigade Combat Teams (HBCT) will provide cost-cutters with an attractive target as Washington’s gaze quickly turns away from ground war and toward the expanses of the Pacific and the cyber-realm—so much so that the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld recently told an audience that “we are not likely to have as our next fight a counterinsurgency,” and as a result “we can’t dwell on the wonderful COIN capability we have developed.” He’s probably right—at least about fighting another counterinsurgency right away—but such statements by military leaders about what the future holds have rarely turned out well.
Speaking up in defense of heavy armor and holding on to recent lessons learned in a COIN environment is David E. Johnson, a RAND analyst and former Colonel in the U.S. Army, who writes in a recent paper that lessons learned by the United States and Israel in irregular conflicts show that heavy armor can be extremely effective when dealing with both insurgents and regular forces, (even if Adm. Winnefeld thinks that we’re through with insurgents…).
Though its not something that has been promoted heavily, U.S. and NATO forces have often relied on heavy armor in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in fights such as the 2004 battle of Fallujah and the 2008 battle of Sadr City, both of which rolled out plenty of armored fighting vehicles, especially tanks, to counter roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades fired at close range in the tight urban terrain. More recently, the Canadians, Danes and U.S. Marines have used tanks for fire support in southern Afghanistan. But Johnson also finds the Israeli case instructive. In both the 2006 Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Israel effectively relied on heavy armored formations—Merkava tanks and Namer infantry carriers—to counter the enemy’s use of effective standoff weapons like ATGMs and MANPADS.
Recent history is something that policymakers need to keep in mind as they contemplate the future, but as we’ve all seen, this ain’t always the case. The fact that the vice chief of the Joint Chiefs quickly dismisses the past decade of lessons learned doesn’t bode well for the institutionalization of those lessons…