Game Changer: Tanks to Afghanistan
The United States military has announced that it will be sending a company of Marine Tankers to southwest Afghanistan, bringing a much-needed armor presence to an asymmetrical fight.(U.S. Tanks En Route to Southwestern Afghanistan).
Despite serving in an infantry company and performing infantry patrols during my 12-month tour in Afghanistan, I am actually an armor officer trained to command tank and scout platoons…and the news absolutely warmed my heart.
Most tankers with whom I served in Kandahar recognize the inherent value that armor assets can bring even to the most civilian-friendly counterinsurgency. It is often thought that heavily armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, etc.) would be excessive instruments. This argument is not merely in the context of combat, or even intimidation of locals, but the tracks of a main battle tank would most likely destroy the few poorly engineered concrete roads that facilitate the Afghan economy.
Offense & Defense
Driving through minefields is one of the scariest parts of an Afghan tour. A 500-pound I.E.D. is comparable to the psychological effect of a tank’s main gun concussion. My body armor felt more like a pressure cooker around my sweaty chest. As vehicle design has attempted to adapt to this modern threat, the vehicles have inherently become more defensive in nature. They are elevated from the ground to make room for V-shaped hulls. They sacrifice visibility for protection, and combat effectiveness for survivability. But a more defensive vehicle is also an ample target for the enemy.
A battle tank is different. The tank is clearly an offensive vehicle, but with a mine-roller in front and 70 tons of steel to protect its crew, tanks are a fantastic combination of offense and defense on the battlefield. No vehicle is ever immune to the I.E.D. If there is a vehicle on the ground in Afghanistan, the enemy will find a way to blow it up. But tanks are weapon systems capable of taking the hit and continuing the fight.
The Army’s Mobile Gun System Stryker variant (MGS, see above) is the closest thing the Army has to a tank at its disposal in Afghanistan. This weapon system is rarely discussed when the issue of Stryker Brigade performance is on the table. In fact, I imagine few who have followed the Stryker’s progression in the global war on terror would even recognize the 105 mm main gun turret that rotates on an amplified Stryker hull…but I guarantee the Afghans in Kandahar province know it very well.
However, as I say, a battle tank is different.
Driving a Stryker or MRAP down the Afghan highway is much like driving a bus down a crowded street. As Afghan locals become more aware of what behaviors they can get away with before soldiers will respond with their restricted levels of force, it becomes difficult to keep both soldiers and Afghan civilians safe during our movements. But tanks elicit a far different response from the average Afghan.
Most Afghans have distinct visions of the havoc that T-72 Soviet tanks were able to produce from their occupation. As my MGS vehicle rolled through Kandahar streets,no motorcycles cut us off. No oncoming traffic tried to lure us into a game of chicken, as sometimes happened with the infantry carriers. People kept their distance, which kept them safe, and us free to control the tempo of operations.
I’m certainly aware of the argument that rehashing these memories of Soviet tanks to the Afghan people might not be in the best interests of earning their “hearts and minds.” But in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, we are still working on earning their respect. A tank demands respect.
The Power of Sight
Firefights are the bread and butter of daily life in Zhari District; and the enemy has nearly a 100 percent vote in when and how he engages us. Most of these skirmishes occur at ranges exceeding 750 meters amidst dense vegetation. Above all else, the power to see is the most limiting factor in an armed conflict. Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems, which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.
Once a target is finally acquired, most people are unaware of just how diverse an array of ammunition choices there are to engage it properly. There are high explosive rounds for light targets, canister rounds for dismounts, which will preserve the local infrastructure, and of course anti-tank rounds in case the Taliban are able to fix up an old relic of previous wars. The tank does not have to be a source of complete destruction. But it is a game changer. And when that fearsome concussion reverberates, the enemy always second guesses its fight.
The Elephant in the Command Post
As I discussed with colleagues the addition of tanks to the Kandahar mission, I was not surprised to find a strong variety in responses and interpretations of how an armor company integrates with a counterinsurgency mission. A memorable quote from a colleague: “One minute they’re saying minimize civilian casualties and let ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] lead the way; the next, we’re bringing in arguably the most fierce ground weapon system in our Army’s arsenal. I think we’re sending mixed signals.”
Another veteran of the Afghan war currently set to return as a civilian noted: “Anything that separates us from the population makes us less likely to win the war. All the successful COIN initiatives in Afghanistan involve dismounted operations, living with the population, minimizing the distance and difference between us and them.”
But from a tactical perspective, a senior tanker NCO hailed the idea: “We can talk about Afghans all day, but it’s really hard to go interact with locals when there’s a minefield and Taliban fighting positions in the way. Tanks will help us fill the gaps where the infantry cannot cover. Both are important.”
Thus, the real strategic question becomes, are these tanks a supplement to the counterinsurgency mission, or a diversion from it? If the latter, what implications arise for our approach to state-building?
Not the first. Not the last.
One of the most memorable moments during our 12 month tour was arriving on FOB Wilson in Zhari, Kandahar, for the weekly district security shura and watching the tanker half of my platoon swoon over the troop of Canadian Leopard 2A6Ms parked in the motor-pool. Memories of past I.E.D.s and firefights flowed through our heads. And of course, we couldn’t help but wonder, “What if…”.
Perhaps in my excitement for these tanks I am personally still stuck in “survival mode” from my year in Kandahar; perhaps I’m failing to see the negative strategic implications that will follow these tanks into southern Afghanistan. But then again, the soldiers who patrol those sectors each day are always in survival mode. If a tank has any chance at keeping them safe during their dangerous tour, I’ll be the first to give it a fair shot.
These Marine tanks will not be the first to enter Afghanistan. But they will no doubt make a resounding impact when integrated with conventional infantry. This will no doubt be a game changer in our fight against the Taliban. From the sidelines here in the United States, the crossed sabers on my chest beat with tanker pride.