Nine years into the Afghan War, U.S. Marines will soon have a weapon they've been lacking in that theater: M-1 Abrams tanks.
As difficult as it is to believe, the Pentagon has never deployed main battle tanks into Afghanistan--until now. With American operations around Kandahar (and other areas) taking on a harder edge, Marine commanders requested the tanks to provide direct fire support. The U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, approved their request, and a company of M-1s (numbering about 16 tanks, plus crews and support personnel) will arrive in the coming weeks.
A U.S. officer familiar with the decision said the tanks will be used initially in parts of northern Helmand province, where the Marines have been engaged in intense combat against resilient Taliban cells that typically are armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs. The initial deployment calls for about 16 tanks, but the overall number and area of operations could expand depending on needs, the officer said.
"The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower," the officer said. "It's pretty significant."
Although the officer acknowledged that the use of tanks this many years into the war could be seen as a sign of desperation by some Afghans and Americans, he said they will provide the Marines with an important new tool in missions to flush out pockets of insurgent fighters. A tank round is far more accurate than firing artillery, and it can be launched much faster than having to wait for a fighter jet or a helicopter to shoot a missile or drop a satellite-guided bomb.
So why have we waited so long to utilize M-1s in Afghanistan? From a logistical stand-point, shipping the 68-ton tanks to the war zone would be difficult and costly. Airlifters like the C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster III can fly M-1s into Bagram and other major airfields--but at a price. Load a single Abrams into a C-17 (or two tanks into the cargo bay of a C-5) and you've reached their load capacity. That means tons of equipment and other supplies must wait for another mission, or transport by a civilian carrier. As we noted in a previous post, many of the MRAP vehicles rushed to Iraq and and Afghanistan were transported by Russian and Ukrainian heavy-lift aircraft, to minimize disruptions in our own airlift system.
And, from an operational standpoint, there were plenty of reasons to keep the M-1s at home. Much of the terrain isn't exactly conducive to armor operations. Besides, our enemy--Al Qaida and the Taliban--are light, mobile forces, so it makes sense to go after them with units that can move rapidly, across all types of terrain, and utilize artillery and air for fire support.
There was also a perception problem. Some officers worried that tank deployments would conjure up images of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. But Canadian and Danish forces had previously used tanks in Afghanistan (in support of their own troops) and the Marines had asked permission to deploy M-1s as early as 2006. Those requests were rejected by previous American commanders in Afghanistan, who believed that air strikes and artillery fire were sufficient.
But in isolated cases, that support proved difficult to obtain, a reflection of the more restrictive rules of engagement previously imposed on our forces. But since General Petraeus arrived in Afghanistan, he has loosened those constraints, and the number of fire support missions have mushroomed. According to the Post, coalition aircraft dropped more than 1,000 bombs in Afghanistan in October, the highest total since the war began in 2001.
While air and artillery support is effective and deadly, there are advantages to having M-1a along on a mission. As one analyst observed:
Tanks give you immediate, protected firepower and mobility to address a threat that's beyond the range" of machine guns that are mounted on the mine-resistant trucks that most U.S. troops use in Afghanistan, said David Johnson, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. who co-wrote a recent paper on the use of tanks in counterinsurgency operations.
There's also a psychological benefit, as illustrated on battlefields dating back to World War I. It's a fact that isn't lost on the Danes, who also dispatched their Leopard 2 main battle tanks on deployments to Bosnia back in the 1990s. At the time, other nations had tanks in the Balkans; in fact, some of the other NATO partners privately ridiculed the deployment, noting that the warring factions had few tanks (or anti-tank weapons). Moving the tanks around the Danish sector was viewed as difficult, since many of the local roads and bridges wouldn't support the weight of a main battle tank. There was also the added cost of supporting a small armored force in an environment where tanks were considered less-than-optimum weapons.
But some of those arguments were demolished (quite literally) one day in 1994. Danish forces near Tuzla came under sustained fire from a Bosnian Serb unit, located in a fortified position. I was a crew member on a USAF EC-130E aircraft, orbiting well south of the firefight. Along with the rest of the airborne battle staff, I listened as the Danes asked for air support, knowing that the request would have to go through NATO and U.N. channels--with only a slight chance of being approved.
While NATO and the U.N. diplomats mulled over the request for an air strike, the Danes did something unexpected. They dispatched two of the Leopard 2 tanks to support the ground unit under fire. The Danes didn't need NATO or U.N. approval, since the tanks were organic assets, and the ground unit was exercising its inherent right to self-defense.
The tanks arrived within about 20 minutes and spent the next hour (or so) pounding the Serb position. There were a few cheers aboard my aircraft, as the Tactical Air Control Party gave us a blow-by-blow account. Needless to say, the Serbs stopped shooting at the Danes and gave them a wide berth after that.
I picked up a few more details on that battle years later, in another assignment at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith was a guest speaker for our group; five years earlier he had been the commander of NATO forces in the Mediterranean when the Danes sent the tanks after the Serbs. He spoke with one of the tank commanders--a young woman--and asked her why she expended more than 40 rounds from her main gun (120mm) against the Bosnian Serb position.
"Because that was all I had," she replied.
Admiral Smith's story got a good laugh, but it also illustrated an important lesson. Even against low-tech adversaries, overwhelming force can still carry the day. And for troops on the ground, it's nice to have a highly accurate fire support platform completely at your disposal. No calling in a fire mission, waiting for approval, then waiting for the arty, fast movers or Apaches to show up. Just point and shoot. Dead Taliban in a matter of moments.
Incidentally, the bad guys in Afghanistan have already run up against the Leopard 2, with predictable results. Now they get a chance to meet the M-1 with the Marines. Sounds like a plan to me.
Labels: Afghanistan; M-1; USMC; Bosnia; Denmark