Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Army Picks the Wrong Future

Army Chief of Staff General George Casey is considering an increase in the number of light infantry brigades centered on the Stryker armored truck at the expense of armor – tanks and armored fighting vehicles. This approach would effectively transform the Army into a constabulary force useful only for policing weak, Third World peoples with no navies, no armies, no air forces and no air defenses.

Retreating from reality in warfare is a bad idea and the generals know better. Increasing Stryker Brigades comes at a point in time when Americans are walking away from the exorbitant expense and frustration of "persistent warfare" in Iraq and, increasingly, Afghanistan. Future wars are far more likely to involve fights against serious opponents for regional power and influence, fights that overlap with the competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create.

The West has been down this road before. The British Army adopted false assumptions about future warfare in the aftermath of World War 1 and took a similar road to the one General Casey advocates; a road that prepared the British Army for conflicts with weak, third world opponents. In the 1920s another war of decision on the scale of World War I seemed impossible if not improbable, but history teaches nothing is impossible when it comes to human conflict. Thanks to the wrong assumptions, Britain’s Army failed miserably in 1940 when it confronted a real enemy - the German Army.

Myopic visions of a light Army centered on the Stryker guarantee American soldiers will re-live the nightmare of 1950 when Army forces confronted a trained and capable enemy they did not expect to fight, an enemy with tanks and artillery at a point in time when our own troops on the ground had no tanks and little artillery. In time and at great cost in American lives, the constabulary Army of 1950 was transformed under fire by General Matt Ridgway into a force that could mount an effective defense, but the Army of 1950 never recovered to launch large-scale ground offensive operations against the Chinese.

No less preposterous is the claim that the Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle is a Cold War system, when it is far more modern than the Stryker. The Bradley was developed in the 1970s and fielded in the 1980s, but unlike the Stryker, the Bradley has been subjected to repeated and thorough modernization and mounts significant firepower. In contrast, the Stryker lacks significant firepower. It’s also an over-sized version of the block III the light armored vehicle (LAV), a platform originally designed in the late 1960s for use in amphibious operations.

When a 1967 a vehicle like the LAV, a vehicle designed to support no more than 15 tons is expanded in size and weight to carry more than 25 tons, transmissions, suspensions, tires and engines come under extreme stress. Heavy investment in end item replacement becomes unavoidable. In anticipation of the Stryker Brigade's arrival in Afghanistan, the Army generals are investing 130 million dollars in the construction of a contractor-run support base designed to sustain the expensive Stryker fleet. They know Afghanistan will involve much more damage from the terrain and the climate. The generals also know America's road bound forces in Iraq defeated the IED threat by paying the Sunni insurgents hard cash not to plant them. This solution is unlikely to work in Afghanistan.

What American forces will discover is what Canadian forces already know from experience in Afghanistan: Wheeled armor is unable to operate effectively off road. Only tracked armor provides the stability for automatic cannon and larger caliber guns along with the off-road mobility and the armored protection to close with the enemy and live.

What should worry American lawmakers most is that light wheeled constabulary forces ensure American ground forces remain as dependent on fixed bases and air strikes for survival in the future as they already are today in Iraq. American armor – the combination of mobility, protection and firepower - has been the decisive factor in every American battlefield victory from Normandy to Baghdad. Recent Israeli operations in Gaza and, less successful Israeli operations in South Lebanon both reinforce this lesson.

Reliving the Korean nightmare in some new form is unnecessary. But if the current misreading of the past and the future is not stopped a future disaster on the scale of 1950 will be inevitable.

by Douglas Macgregor