The U.S. Army went into Iraq with a line of battle still determined by the supposedly obsolete requirements of the Cold War. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spent his six years in office supposedly trying to shrink the Army down to a “lean, mean and agile” configuration to face the challenges of a complex new world. Given the way the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts have evolved, it’s understandable that MBTs should be out of favor with U.S. policymakers and military theorists alike these days.
There is good reason for that, and good reason to take the kind of critical look at MBT design and functions that the late U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, Pierre Sprey and their colleagues so memorably did with air superiority combat fighters when they reversed the apparently inevitable trend towards ever-bigger leviathans to come up with the superb F-16.
But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. Just because tanks cannot be war-winners in Iraq and Afghanistan or other guerrilla or Fourth Generation War conflicts does not mean the U.S. Army still won’t need them in future conflicts.
Through its 90 years of operational history, the tank has been condemned by theorists and even generals as obsolete more often than any other major weapon of modern war. British and American generals eagerly abandoned it in favor of returning to their beloved horse cavalry in the 20 years between the two world wars. There was even some hard operational evidence -- or so it appeared -- for this absurdity at the time. The Battle of the Vistula in 1920, which smashed the Red Army in front of Warsaw and prevented the Bolshevik revolution from sweeping onwards into Germany and the heart of Europe, was won by Polish cavalry exploiting large holes between the invading Soviet armies. Of course, 19 years later, when the Poles imagined they could pill off the same trick against the Wehrmacht, they got annihilated.
From 1939 to 1942, massed formations of German tanks appeared invincible and capable of quite literally conquering in the world. In fact, there was a lot more to the complexities of blitzkrieg than that, but the correct use of tanks to exploit holes in enemy lines and drive ahead to encircle enemy armies was certainly central to it.
However, the months of ferocious street fighting in Stalingrad showed that tanks were highly vulnerable in extended close-quarters street fighting in large cities. And as early as 1941, Rommel and his Afrika Korps were exposing the vulnerabilities of British tanks to skillfully used anti-tank weapons against vulnerable exposed formations that were operating without infantry screens.
The Germans also pioneered the use of cheap, mass-produced and extremely convenient anti-tank weapons in the Panzerfaust -- so easy to use, a caveman could do it. Certainly, tens of thousands of teenage German soldiers conscripted in the last six months of the war did. Some 28 years later, Egyptian infantry soldiers using Soviet-made, wire-guided anti-tank missiles taught the same lesson to the Israeli army's elite tank units during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, or War of Ramadan.
But the lightning-fast U.S. victories in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq campaign would not have been possible without the skilful, massed use of tanks in ways that Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel, George Patton and Bernard Montgomery would all have readily recognized. And their future successors will certainly need them, too.