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The Hill May 21, 2003

Revolutionary tank tactics alter Iraqi conflict, future of urban warfare

By Patrick O'Connor

In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit was ordered to capture Ba'ath Party Headquarters in the center of Umm Qasr.

Despite the narrow streets and attendant concerns over their maneuverability, a tank platoon was chosen to lead the assault.

Rumbling ahead of the personnel carriers, the tanks approached the target and spread out four abreast in front of the building. [See graphic, facing page.]

The tanks then pummeled the front of the headquarters with their main guns, blowing two holes in the front of the structure, and began unloading with machine gun fire as personnel carriers pulled even to deposit their troops.

The infantry then deployed to the sides of the tanks and set up a perimeter around the building. Afterward, each of the four tanks moved to a corner of the block and turned its turret outward, guarding the four roads approaching the target.

With the perimeter secure and two large holes punched in the front of the building, the unit's force reconnaissance team entered the breaches and cleared the headquarters of whatever resistance remained.

The operation was efficient and powerful, and highlighted the tank's evolution in urban conflict. What had previously been considered a liability was now a significant advantage.

Operation Iraqi Freedom showcased the versatility and power of the Abrams tank in both desert and urban terrain.

But with the military shifting to lighter, faster ground combat units, this may be the last stand for these 25-year-old ground combat veterans.

On televisions back home, America watched the massive aerial assault on Baghdad with keen appreciation for U.S. air strength.

On the ground, though, it was a different story; American infantry troops saw a lot of close-up fighting, especially in cities.

For those units, the M1A1 and M1A2 Abrams tank provided powerful artillery and necessary protection from sniper fire and head-on conflicts alike, allowing coalition forces to conquer and secure a string of Iraqi towns along the 350-mile march to Baghdad.

"The tank was the centerpiece of this offensive," said a source in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding that coordination within all units of the tank battalion was the key to success.

"Tanks were the sledgehammer in this war," added Pat Garrett, an associate analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "The tank was the tool that allowed [the ground forces] to progress as fast as they did."

Indeed, with a protective unit guarding the tanks from urban ambush, the tanks provided ground troops with a protective shield and offered more precise artillery fire in city streets than helicopters or planes were able.

Using radios or basic hand signals, infantrymen were able to point out targets, such as a sniper in a third-story window, and command fire.

The tanks provided the infantry with heavy artillery support as they performed building-to-building sweeps of each town along the route.

"Even if it loses a track, it becomes a pillbox with a cannon," said Nick Ritzcoven, a public affairs officer with the Marine Corps War Fighting Lab.

Also, the 67-ton Abrams tank can endure enemy fire that would down an Apache helicopter.

"It became the un-killable beast and caused [the Iraqis] nightmares," wrote a Marine colonel with Task Force Tarawa in his field notes.

The officer cited one tank in particular that suffered seven dents from rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) rounds, three of which had scorch marks, indicating the round had detonated and was repelled.

The Abrams tank instilled such fear, in fact, that U.S. Psychological Operations Units set up speakers near Iraqi encampments to broadcast tank noise during the night to unsettle the Iraqi soldiers.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was the first contemporary war in which the United States military employed wide-scale use of tanks in urban areas.

In Operation Desert Storm there were more tanks on the ground, but they staged pitched battles in the open desert. In that war, nine tanks were destroyed, but no soldiers were injured.

Conflicts in Bosnia, Serbia and Somalia relied on air strikes or smaller-scale engagements, relegating tanks to a support role.

In addition, tanks present logistical problems unique to their size and weight that become significant detractors in smaller conflicts.

For example, the streets of Bosnian cities were often too narrow for tanks, and bridges could not support their weight, making them unwieldy in the urban terrain.

Furthermore, tanks are harder to transport from one theater to another because they cannot be loaded onto cargo planes and easily deployed.

Tanks also require long and stable supply lines to advance; although an individual Abrams tank can exceed speeds of 40 mph, they must be refueled after eight hours of constant motion and regularly rearmed, slowing their advance across a long stretch.

Success in Operation Iraqi Freedom required a quick advance on Baghdad. To counteract the supply line demands of the Abrams tanks, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) planners limited the number of howitzers and rocket launchers traveling with each tank brigade, making them faster and less reliant on a longer supply tail.

The result was more nimble tank brigades.

Marine planners also were concerned that tanks would be a liability in close urban quarters.

In Chechnya, the Russians lost most of a 120-tank brigade within hours when Chechen rebels created tank ambushes. The rebels disabled the front and rear tanks of an advancing column with RPG rounds and then quickly destroyed those tanks stuck in between.

To prevent this, planners with the Marine Corps War Fighting Laboratory, an experimental training unit in Quantico, Va., trained infantry soldiers to escort the tanks through a town or city and provide fire support to prevent a potential ambush.

If done correctly, the result is cooperative protection for both the ground soldier and the tank operators.

"We found that the tank is a very effective weapon, if used correctly," said Capt. Carlos Gomez, project rifleman OIC with Project Metropolis, an adjunct of the war-fighting laboratory specializing in urban combat.

"You must combine dismounts with the tanks themselves," Gomez said. "The infantry provides protection, but if you don't train to do it, it's not effective."

Gomez said the Marines have been training in these methods for at least three years, but they have not yet compiled enough action reports from platoon leaders in Iraq to know whether or not the tactics were successful.

Gomez also noted that tanks are now tasked out at a platoon level, so that an individual infantry sergeant commands a single tank.

Under this delineation, the sergeant can use the tank as best as he sees fit, instead of coordinating with a separate tank battalion. Stand-alone tank battalions, however, were also successful.

In the war of public debate, CENTCOM commanders were intent on limiting civilian casualties. In many cases, this meant slower progress because coalition forces were less reliant on air strikes than before.

As such, tanks and ground artillery provided a much more crucial role in urban environments, but the air war actually reduced the tanks' responsibilities.

JDAMs (joint-direct attack munitions) and "tank busters" - heat-sensitive bomblets dropped from the sky by parachute - wiped out much of Iraq's tank force on the grounds before American battalions had to.

This limited conventional pitched battles, but that made Iraqi soldiers more reliant on non-traditional guerrilla tactics, such as suicide bombs or the use of civilian disguise, to which the heavy tanks were unpredictably susceptible.

At least one Abrams tank was destroyed when a pickup truck stopped and someone fired an RPG round into its rear, where the exhaust vents and lighter uranium make the tank more vulnerable.

But given the unconventional battlefield, the ground forces were able to avoid a "Black Hawk Down" scenario throughout the entire course of the war.

Since the 1993 disaster in Mogadishu, Somalia, in which 18 soldiers were killed and another 84 were injured during a 17-hour firefight, armed forces commanders have been trying to prevent a similar catastrophe.

That meant increased experimentation with tanks in cities.

Some analysts argue, though, that there are no parallels between Mogadishu and Operation Iraqi Freedom because the Somalis sided with the warlords in 1993 while the Iraqi citizens hated Saddam's Fedayeen.

For whatever reason - superior training, the presence of tanks, or lack of civilian support for the Iraqi military - coalition forces invaded and secured many towns on their way to Baghdad and never incurred casualties in a single action like those in 1993.

And more importantly, civilian casualties were greatly reduced.

With Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recommending a lighter, more technologically advanced military, one based more on capability than on threat prevention, the fate of the tank is now in question.

The Pentagon already is in the development stages of building their new "Objective Force" vehicle, a future ground-fighting unit that eventually should replace the four-man tank.

In this transition, though, the Defense Department does not want to sacrifice speed for security. Tanks are heavy and slower, but they can endure light artillery fire, and the Pentagon does not want to compromise that level of protection.

That protection may not come in the form of fortified uranium, though; instead, the Pentagon wants to develop an interconnected ground force, linked together by an advanced digital network.

To this end, the Pentagon recently granted Boeing Co. a $14.92 billion contract to modernize the Army, and this interconnectivity, along with enhanced surveillance, should make battlefields more predictable.

Whatever the case, the next genus of combat vehicle, whether through surveillance technology or improved alloys, will be faster and lighter - but Defense Department officials want it to offer soldiers equal protection to the M1A1 and M1A2 tank.

Garrett of GlobalSecurity.org argues that while the Pentagon is making the steady transition to a new armored vehicle, potential trouble spots like North Korea, which has a huge stockpile of tanks, guarantee that the Abrams will remain in use and won't be entirely phased out.

But even if Operation Iraqi Freedom was the Abrams' last large-scale conflict, according to Capt. Gomez, it offered the Marine Corps valuable lessons about urban warfare and the role of tanks in smaller combat units.

And those lessons will carry on.


Copyright 2003, Capitol Hill Publishing Corp.