No substitute for heavy tanks in Gaza, Iraq, Georgia

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Jan. 12, 2009 at 12:11 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- The Israeli failure to crush Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006 strengthened the fashionable impression in the United States that counterinsurgency was now the cutting edge of war and that therefore investment in expensive ground forces, primarily main battle tanks and artillery, could be drastically curtailed.

However, the success of the Russian tank forces in conquering one-third of the mountainous and forested territory of Georgia in only five days revived the lesson -- which should have been taught by the U.S.-led armor-mobile infantry drive to Baghdad in March-April 2003 -- that the main battle tank does indeed remain the master of large-scale ground war. And the success of Israel's initial incursion into Gaza over the past week has underlined that very elementary lesson.

U.S. military planners under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld drank deep of the myth that wars could always be won by "faster, leaner, more agile" means. They invested more than $100 billion in the mirage of Future Combat Systems -- a visionary concept to centralize and integrate the communications and information systems of all U.S. active military forces.

So powerful was the allure of the FCS that the next generation of U.S. main battle tanks is being designed to be 20 tons to 30 tons lighter than the current giant Abrams MBTs.

But strikingly, Russia continues to invest heavily in its T-90 main battle tank, a land leviathan comparable to the Abrams. India has bought almost 650 T-90s from Russia over the past seven years. And China wants to buy lots of them too. Clearly, these are major nations that do not believe "leaner, more agile" tanks win the day.

It is, in fact, extraordinary how often the obituary of the heavy main battle tank has been written in modern war over the past 60 years -- and how often it has been proven wrong.

The United States and the Soviet Union both maintained enormous land fleets of MBTs facing each other across the heart of Europe during the long decades of the Cold War for an apocalyptic showdown that never came. It therefore should be noted that neither side made the mistake of thinking it could just rattle its thermonuclear-armed arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles and expect the other side to either fold or be deterred.

Defense planners in the Pentagon and the Soviet Defense Ministry alike realized that in the event of any major war, you need strong land forces to conquer, hold and defend territory and that those forces would need tanks -- lots of them.

The Russians took that lesson away from their eventual, bloody, slow, costly Pyrrhic victories against the Chechens and applied those lessons very effectively against the Georgians last August. The Israelis, like the Russians, were humiliated badly by a despised, far weaker enemy -- in their case, Hezbollah -- but, also like the Russians, learned hard and well from the experience to perform far more effectively in their next major military operation.

In the case of both Israel and Russia, however, the improvement in their military performance came from learning the same fundamental lessons.


(Part 4: What did the Israelis and the Russians learn?)

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