At the Pentagon, It's Tanks, But No Tanks

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Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

The US Army's new XM1203 Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (NLOS-C) is seen on the National Mall in Washington on June 11, 2008. The new cannon is part of the Manned Ground Vehicle family of the Pentagon's Future Combat Systems Brigade Combat Team.

What's going to happen to the tank? The Pentagon's 70-ton Abrams may be battle-tested and almost iconic but perhaps not as important to the kinds of fluid, counter-insurgencies the U.S. has been waging recently. At the same time, however, the Pentagon's latest budget proposal has just cancelled what was once a more future-looking program that would have developed 27-ton vehicles with lightweight armor and the ability to fire GPS-guided shells.

The trouble with the new lightweight armored vehicles is that they were planned before the U.S. had to deal with the deadliest weapon used by its latest enemies in both Iraq and Afghanistan: Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Those vehicles were part of the Army's decades-long $160-billion Future Combat Systems (FCS) modernization efforts. Eight variants of the new vehicles, totaling several hundred, were supposed to have gone into service by 2015. The Army is now refining its strategy and drafting new requirements for its combat vehicles. In the meantime, it will modernize and maintain its fleet of Abrams tanks until at least 2050, while it simultaneously plans for new lighter weight vehicles. "We are hoping to have a plan around the labor day time period," said the Pentagon's Future Combat Systems spokesman Paul Mehney. The Army, he says, is in the middle of "reassessing" the new requirements. "Everything is on the table." (Read a story about the Army's war game exercises.)

Central to this task is the question of how best to balance protection, mobility and survivability in one vehicle. Lighter weight combat vehicles are key to rapid deployment but vehicles built for heavy combat are more likely to survive explosive encounters. IED protection for prospective vehicles could be improved with V-shaped hulls that would better divert the force of the bombs. Additional armor could also be added to the existing designs of the 27-ton vehicles to better protect against RPGs and, just in case, enemy tank fire. The Army Research Lab could also receive more funding to speed up development of lightweight armor composites that would provide the protection of traditional steel at a fraction of the weight. (Check out a story on how the Army is developing robots.)

The crux of the current debate is that heavy steel has counter-intuitively proven crucial to securing the lives of America's fighters even amid the hide-and-seek urban battles of Iraq, according to U.S. Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. "I find this argument that somehow there is not a role for the heavy stuff in urban fighting or in irregular war just kind of denies the facts. I grew up in an Army where those of us in heavy units were told to stay out of built-up areas," said Chiarelli, who commanded Army units in Iraq in 2004 and 2006. He emphasizes that heavy armor and traditional steel perform very well in non-traditional combat environments such as urban areas and counterinsurgency missions. "There were times and days and weeks, and sometimes months, when I would allow nothing else in certain parts of the city than tanks and Bradleys because of the protection they afforded. It was just too dangerous to be out in a thin-skinned vehicle." (Read about the Pentagon's shopping list for Afghanistan.)

However, a vehicle that is half the weight of an Abrams could more quickly be deployed to a combat area on board a C-17 aircraft. But lightening the tank would also put in jeopardy all the sensitive hi-technology that the Army wants in the vehicle as well: next-generation sensors, battle command equipment and active protection systems engineered to detect and destroy enemy fire before it hits. So any new vehicle has to be built tough enough to withstand roadside bombs and explosively formed penetrators, a senior Army official said. In addition, 70-ton vehicles simply will not be able to go to as many places in war zone environments such as Afghanistan. Even Chiarelli is willing to accept that. "If you change theaters and go to Afghanistan, I will be the first to admit if you are in the east and going up roads 8,000 to 10,000 feet [in elevation], it would be nice to be able to have a tank or a Bradley with you... but it is impractical given the terrain you are in."