In recent weeks there has been a series of articles and posts regarding the Australian Army’s M1 Abrams tank capability. These range from ill-informed polemics to more balanced critiques of the utility of the tank.
Common themes throughout are factual errors concerning the tank itself, and superficial speculation on its future employment and survivability. This suggests the tank capability, and more generally armour, remains poorly understood.
In the June edition of this magazine, Ewen Levick asked – why do we need tanks? He also commented on the tank’s utility at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. In doing so, he critiqued a publication I co-authored four years ago on this subject. From the article I derived the following key questions/implications:
- Why does the firepower that a tank provides have to be delivered by a tank?
- Given tanks have not been deployed since Vietnam is the tank a ’nice to have’ capability or a ‘necessity’?
- The United States Marine Corps (USMC) has divested their tank capability, so why should Australia keep its own?
As the author has based his critique on arguments I have made previously, and in the interest of robust debate, I feel obliged to respond. This response provides necessary context on the capability and addresses these questions. However, I do not presume to speak for either the Australian Army or the USMC on their requirements for armoured vehicles, so specific matters of policy, strategy and employment are left to others in uniform. Equally, I will not address those comments which are answered in my previous examination of the tank capability. While I do not agree with Ewen’s stance on this topic, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.
What is Armour?
To enable a productive dialogue, it is necessary to understand the capabilities in question: Armour in a military context is an umbrella term encompassing both armoured fighting vehicles and those forces which fight with or operate them. These forces include combat elements such as armoured or tank units equipped with Main Battle Tanks (MBT), whose primary role is to destroy the enemy. These fight in close co-operation with infantry elements who, in addition to killing or capturing the enemy, also seize and hold ground.
Infantry elements equipped with armoured vehicles include mechanised and armoured infantry types. The distinction between these is blurred between armies, however mechanised infantry are generally equipped with Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC), whose design prioritises passenger-carrying capacity and mobility; and armoured infantry are provided Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) with a greater emphasis on firepower and protection. Another critical element is cavalry, whose primary role is to gain or deny information by actively fighting for it or passively acquiring it. As these methods to gain information demand different fighting abilities, cavalry elements may be equipped with Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles (CRV), which are armed and armoured to fight for information. Alternatively, they may employ protected reconnaissance vehicles with lower battlefield signatures, designed to obtain information by stealth. Both require high mobility levels in order to cover wide areas in their hunt for the enemy.
Supporting elements are also equipped with specialised armoured vehicles to provide assistance to the force, including minefield breaching, bridging, indirect fire support, air defence, command and control, medical evacuation, resupply, repair and recovery. These vehicles often share mobility and protection commensurate with the combat elements to ensure they can provide support when and where required.
Each of these elements perform different functions, e.g., finding the enemy, fighting at close ranges, long-range fire support, protection from air attack, transporting soldiers into battle and delivering supplies to troops in combat. Consequently, the armoured vehicles equipping each element are designed differently to perform these various functions on the battlefield. Hence the need for MBT, IFV and CRV as well as support variants.
Importantly, combat and combat support elements operate together. These combined-arms teams, which are formed by grouping Infantry, Armour, Artillery, Aviation, and Engineer elements together, generate a combined-arms effect. The essence of the combined-arms effect is that it provides the advantage of increasing the offensive and defensive abilities of a force by delivering multiple complementary ways to defeat the enemy and multiple complementary ways to protect friendly forces from the enemy.
Each capability in the combined-arms team has inherent strengths and weaknesses which contribute to this effect. For example, infantry can clear and hold terrain, and use it for cover and concealment more effectively than vehicle-based elements. Critically, they often provide the face-to-face connection between the military and civil populace. However, infantry have limited mobility on foot, are vulnerable to basic small arms fire and are constrained by their physical ability to carry the weapons and ammunition to generate firepower.
Armour, particularly tanks, is highly mobile, practically invulnerable to small arms fire and shell fragments and has higher levels of endurance in close combat. However, armour can be defeated by a wide array of hyper-velocity and high-explosive armour defeating munitions.
Artillery specialises in sustained heavy indirect fires which can devastate an enemy force, however, this emphasis on firepower impacts on their protection and mobility, restricting their utility in direct contact with the enemy.
Aviation (helicopters) and jets can provide rapid on-call close air support to ground forces, however, in doing so at low altitudes they become vulnerable to other aircraft, surface-to air guided missiles, air defence artillery and ground fire.
Drones offer the ability to surveil and engage targets remotely. These range from cheap and disposable micro systems, to much larger and more capable unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Both are susceptible to ground and aerial fires, counter-drone drones, high energy lasers, high power microwaves and disruption of their remote-control systems via cyber-attack.
Engineers share many of the strengths and weaknesses of the infantry, particularly when they conduct tasks on foot without armoured protection.
All capabilities have limits, however if properly employed together, and adequately supported, they remain viable and necessary members of the combined-arms team at all levels of war. Consequently, removing one element from the combined-arms team is akin to removing a certain type of chess piece from the game. Each piece – king, queen, knights, rooks and pawns – has unique abilities which affect their employment in the game. Removing any one piece affects the tactics available, how the pieces are organised and the overall strength of the side. This can have a ripple effect which limits the strategies that can be employed to win. Therefore, decisions to remove elements of the combined-arms team must consider the impacts at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war.
The tactical utility of the tank
The author raises several issues concerning the tactical utility of the tank. He specifically asks why does the firepower to support ground forces have to be provide by tanks and not by artillery, helicopters, jets or UAS’. Subsequently, he asks whether tanks are a ‘nice to have’ or a ‘need to have’. As noted above, artillery and aircraft are incredibly useful parts of the combined-arms team. However, while there are superficial similarities in terms of the firepower effects provided by them, they do not replicate the capabilities of tanks in combat. Combat is not conducted in a void – the enemy, weather and terrain matter. The capabilities suggested by the author are affected by these factors in different way to tanks, specifically:
- aircraft/UAS are affected by adverse weather which can prevent them flying,
- artillery and aircraft are affected by weather effects when firing at long-ranges which reduces their accuracy and precision,
- aircraft lack persistence as they must return to firm bases to refuel and rearm,
- aircraft do not generate the sustained rates of fire required in close combat as they have less ammunition stowage,
- artillery has limited ability to discriminate between targets as they are not in direct line of sight of them and the nature of their fires may result in unacceptable collateral damage,
- artillery lacks the physical armour protection to endure in close combat to provide direct fire support, and
- artillery lacks the tactical mobility to move and fight in close combat.
- fight in all weather conditions,
- fight in close range of the enemy with little impact from weather on the accuracy and precision of their direct fires,
- provide a persistent presence as they do not return to a firm base to refuel and rearm,
- fight in direct line of sight of the enemy and can discriminate between targets and apply appropriate munitions/measures to avoid collateral damage,
- generate the sustained fire support required in close combat as they contain large quantities and different types of ammunition,
- have high levels of physical armour protection, enhanced by active protection systems, which allow them to endure in close combat,
- have high levels of tactical mobility allowing them to move with other close combatants, ensuring that they are in the right place at the right time to fight.
Furthermore, the assertion made by the author that airborne and long-range weapons ‘do not demand the same logistics burden’ as armour, is heavily contingent on what he defines such weapons as. Jets, helicopters and UAS that can deliver useful quantities of ordnance all require an extensive apparatus of runways/airfields, hangars, maintenance facilities, munition storage, refuelling and air traffic control systems to undertake air operations. Likewise, artillery systems such as rockets, towed and self-propelled tube systems require significant logistics support to simply move the munitions required to provide sustained long-range fires, let alone feed, repair, refuel and maintain them. It may be true that small drones do not have a significant logistics burden, but these certainly do not provide the same fire support as armour, aircraft or artillery.
Fundamentally, success in close combat requires accurate, precise and sustained direct fires available to the combined-arms team at the point of contact. By virtue of its design, which maximises firepower (both in terms of weapons and quantity of ammunition), protection and mobility, the tank remains the best capability to provide this. It provides an overwhelming weight of mobile sustained direct firepower to land forces.
Capabilities that are not designed to endure in close combat, which cannot operate in adverse weather, that cannot move with the combat force and do not deliver the same firepower effects, therefore do not replace the tank. Thus, tanks are not a ‘nice to have’ they are a ‘need to have’ because they provide certainty of direct firepower at the tactical level which artillery, aircraft and UAS do not. However, it should not be inferred that tanks are invincible, operate independently or that these other elements are irrelevant. The tank is protected and its employment enabled by other elements of the combined-arms team.
The operational utility of the tank
The author’s primary argument concerning the operational utility of the tank is premised on the absence of tank deployments since the war in South Vietnam. This view contends that, as they have not been employed since this time, they are no longer necessary. However, the logic that tanks were not employed on Australian operations in the past and therefore not useful in the future, is a causal fallacy. As others have written, the cause for the absence of tank deployments since Vietnam has less to do with the utility of tanks on operations and more to do with the type of operations on which Australia has chosen to deploy land forces in this period.
It’s a fact that tanks were not sent to de-mine Namibia, distribute humanitarian aid in Somalia, provide medical assistance in Rwanda, restore peace to East Timor, support law and order in the Solomons, protect the Japanese reconstruction efforts in Iraq or train the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan. Because of the nature of these conflicts and the missions prescribed by government, Australian troops have very rarely been ‘committed to combat’ since Vietnam. Since this time Army has predominantly deployed to what it terms stability type operations. Unlike major combat operations, which plan for large scale combat against peer enemies, the focus of these types of operations is the control of - and assistance to - the populace and/or the reform and restoration of security and governance mechanisms in the country concerned. Logically, the types of forces deployed to these operations reflected the types of capabilities required to perform these types of missions.
Iraq and Afghanistan blurred the lines between these types of operations. The mission initially required some Australian forces to undertake combat operations during the major combat phase of these conflicts. Subsequently, other forces were employed to support and partner with local security forces during the stability phase. Tanks would have provided useful augmentation to Australian forces in either operation if two factors changed; the government mandated a security/combat mission or if the enemy threat had increased. To the first point, in 2002 Australia did examine sending an armoured force to fight in Iraq. However, decades of neglect meant that Army’s aged Leopard AS1 MBT and M113A1 APC capabilities were deemed unfit for service. This triggered the replacement of the Leopard with the M1 Abrams and, in the near future, the APC will be replaced by an IFV. To substantiate the second point, had the enemy threat increased during the intervention in East Timor during 1999, Army had an armoured squadron ready to deploy in response. Further, when Special Forces were deliberately committed to certain combat missions in Afghanistan, they were supported by USMC tanks. Therefore, tanks remain operationally useful to operations where the mission, threat and environment warrant them.
Furthermore, if this ‘past-is-future’ logic of force design were true, this would have significant ramifications across the ADF. Given the RAAF has not shot down a single enemy fighter aircraft since the Korean War (the Taliban Air Force was terribly unobliging) perhaps Australia should abandon the Joint Strike Fighter? Equally, the Navy’s submarines would be decommissioned, given they have never actually sunk any enemy ships with them. Alternatively, Australia might need these capabilities, as well as armour, in case the enemy of the future has greater combat power than an unhealthy level of religious fervor and a penchant for homemade explosives.
Hence, while it is a fact that Australian tanks have not deployed on operations since the 1970s, given the nature of operations in the period since, it is illogical to deduce that tanks are not useful to future wars which may involve major combat operations.
The strategic utility of the tank
Within his evaluation of the strategic utility of the tank, the author made a series of sweeping and inchoate statements regarding policy, strategy, and the utility of the tank. Chief among these is that tanks are not relevant to our region as the USMC has deemed them ‘operationally unsuitable’ for the Corps’ mission of providing amphibious power in the Indo-Pacific. The implication is that as the USMC has divested its tanks, they are no longer suitable for Australia. This thinking deserves scrutiny.
The claim that ‘tanks are not relevant to our region’ was not made by the USMC in the cited USMC Force Design 2030 report, it was made by the author. An examination of the report illustrates that the reason for the divestment of tanks is more complex than suggested. The 2018 US National Defense Strategy directed the Marines to re-focus from inland Middle Eastern insurgencies to peer-level competition in the Indo-Pacific littoral. This is a return to the Marines’ historical role in support of the US Navy rather than supplementing US Army land power. It affirms their doctrinal function of ‘…service with the fleet in the seizure and defence of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.’
This narrower focus requires changes in priorities and budget, and necessitates adjustments to how the USMC organises, trains and is equipped. The Marines divested their tank capability as it ‘…is operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority challenges in the future’ e.g., securing island archipelagos in support of naval operations; not because it is inherently unsuitable to the either vast Indo-Pacific, other challenges, or warfare in general. This is evinced by the fact that the USMC still needs armour and in fact proposed to grow its light armour capability by a third, while advising that its heavy armour capability (tank) will be provided by the US Army. This approach poses risks and operational limitations, articulated here. These may be acceptable to the USMC, but not necessarily to Australia.
While the US Navy/USMC may be the authority on amphibious warfare they are not the authority on how, when, or where the Australian Army fights wars. The author states the two forces are not the same, however, he does not expand on why this matters. Instead, he appeals to the Marines’ authority as a reason to question the need for tanks within Australia’s strategic paradigm. This comparison is invalid, as Australia’s strategic circumstances are vastly different to the United States. While Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update focusses on the Indo-Pacific, it clearly states that defence planning will focus on the immediate region, ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia. to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific. It also emphasises the possibility of state-on-state conflict and that Australia must be prepared for the prospect of high-intensity conflict wherever its interests are threatened. Hence the equation which determines Australia’s national security interests, policies and military strategy differs also.
The ADF has differing ends, ways and means to the armed forces of the US, particularly the USMC. Contrary to the author’s opinion, the ADF is not designed as an amphibious force. While the ADF seeks to undertake amphibious operations as oneof the ways it fights, it is not the only way it fights. A very important difference is that while the ADF conducts sea-lift, amphibious lodgements and ship-to-shore operations, unlike the USMC it is not tasked with conducting opposed amphibious assaults.
Consequently, the Australian Army has a different mission, a different geographic focus and different resources to the USMC. This manifests most visibly in its size, organisation and breadth and depth of capabilities. Further, as the author concedes, unlike the USMC Australia does not have the US Army to rely upon to provide its heavy armour capability. Therefore, the reasons for the removal of the tank from the USMC equation are not compelling reasons for Australia to do so. To paraphrase the author, the Australian Army is not the USMC, therefore the divestment of tanks by them does not form an ipso facto justification for Australia to do the same.
The Tank is dead…again
Last, I would like to address a vampiric argument routinely resurrected in the public arena. A regularly touted shibboleth is that the ‘tank is dead’, generally in conjunction with the emergence of novel technology. This argument appears oblivious to the dynamic interplay between warfare and technology. Technology is not monolithic – it evolves when tested in combat. Accordingly, as each technology or capability is developed, it breeds a counter-capability. This then triggers an evolution in the capability, and its method of employment, in order to defeat the counter. In turn this spawns a better counter to it, and so on and so forth.
This cycle has been repeated continuously throughout the tank’s existence. Since its inception theorists have argued the anti-tank rifle, anti-tank gun, anti-tank rocket, anti-tank missile, mines, improvised explosive device, precision munitions, and now drones, have all heralded the death of the tank. However, improvements in firepower, protection, mobility and connectivity mean that the tank has successfully evolved in response. The analysis here offers an informative detour examining the future of the tank and the impact of threat technology.
Thus, without a detailed understanding of the history of the development of Armour it is easy to overplay the impacts of novel weapons. Equally, the threat these pose should not be dismissed off-hand and it is important that the implications of new technology are understood to inform this cycle. A Washington Times article examining the use of drones during the Nagorno-Karabakh clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan indicates that drone technology has shifted this cycle in favour of the counter-capability phase. This does not mean that technology cannot shift in favour of the tank capability. If Australia is to prepare for war with a peer, it may be prudent for Army to investigate the incorporation of mobile, protected short-range air defence systems into projects such as Land 400 Phase 3, to ensure there is an effective counter to such threats.
In conclusion, when adequately supported and enabled the tank remains a useful element of the combined-arms team. It continues to provide a unique set of capabilities to this team, specifically mobile sustained direct fire support, which aircraft, drones and artillery cannot replace. While the nature of the conflicts and the missions assigned by government have not required its deployment on operations since Vietnam, this does not mean that future conflicts involving major combat operations will not require tanks. Equally, while the USMC has divested its tanks, this does not provide a compelling reason for Australia, with its unique strategic circumstances, to do so. In closing, we need tanks because nothing else provides the same effect in the combined-arms team. We can’t rely on others to provide them and they remain relevant to winning potential combat in our region.
Note: Leo Purdy is the author of Fighting to Win: The importance of the tank to the ADF in the 21st Century.
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