Return of the Medium Tank?
According to the official wisdom, we needed a vast fleet of heavy tanks because the USSR had one. Others have pointed out that the best way to fight tanks is not other tanks, but a variety of anti-tank systems. It has even been suggested that the Russians never intend to fight tank to tank if they could avoid it. Western tanks were to be engaged by anti-tank guns and the numerous ATGWs mounted on the BMP and other vehicles. The tanks would instead be used as a raiding and exploitation force.
NATO never fought the USSR, so we will probably never know. One western army that did fight vast Soviet tank fleets was the WW2 German army. The organization of German Panzer divisions that was perfected by experience on the Russian front was rather different from that now suggested for Armoured Divisions.
A Type 1944 Panzer division had two battalions of medium tanks, giving 8 companies in total. There were four, sometimes six battalions of Panzer grenadiers, though the Reconnaissance Battalion and Engineer Battalion were equivalent to mechanized infantry battalions in strength and organization. The Division also included an artillery regiment of three battalions, an anti-tank battalion and a flak battalion.
What is interesting is that this only works out as about 200 medium battle tanks to support the equivalent of six to eight infantry battalions. True, the division also had various tank destroyers, assault guns and armoured cars or half tracks mounting anti-tank or infantry support guns, often as an integral part of an infantry battalion. Even taking this into account by modern standards this formation is still very "tank light"
Panzer grenadier divisions, which formed the bulk of German mechanized divisions had only one battalion of assault guns or close support tanks (Pz IV with short L24 75mm guns) to support 8 to 11 battalion of infantry equivalents (ie Panzer grenadiers, Reconnaissance or Engineering units)
Such formations seem to have worked rather well against the Russians.
This was not the whole of the story. You'll note that the Panzer division used medium tanks : Pz IVs and Panthers usually. Some units might have a ninth company of assault guns or Tigers, but it was more usual to find the Heavy tanks in Corps or Army controlled formations.
A Corps or Army heavy tank battalion would in fact have 2 companies of 9 heavy tanks (Tigers) and 2 companies of 11 medium tanks (Pz III or IV). A Corps or Army controlled Panzer brigade would have a Panzer battalion of four companies of 17 Tigers, a battalion of Panzer grenadiers and an engineering company.
When the German army was drawing up its "wish list" of AFVs, the E-series, it included medium Panther type tank, the E-50, as well as the replacement Tiger, the E-75.
All this poses the questions:-
If a modern armoured division is going to be an effective and versatile force, capable of a large variety of missions, just how many tanks does it need?.
Does it need heavy tanks like the M1 Abrams?
Would M1s be better in more compact independent formations?
The Abrams and most western tanks of the period were designed for a mainly defensive role to prevent the breakthrough of Russian armoured forces.
In more recent conflicts the Abrams has been used in a more aggressive role that it is less than ideal for. The Abrams is fine in a defensive role or in assaults to create breakthroughs, but it is in the exploitation of such breakthroughs that it has nearly been found wanting.
The Abrams has a gas turbine engine that gives it great speed, which is great from a tactical point of view, although potentially the tank can outrun its supporting elements. The downside of this engine is that it is an incredibly thirsty beast, so tanks advancing on Baghdad had to frequently stop to wait for fuel trucks to reach them. It is only by sterling efforts by the CSS soldiers and a certain amount of luck that no units ran dry.
A tank with a diesel engine would be slower, but would have greater strategic speed since it could reach most objectives without needing to refuel. A lighter medium tank could exploit a greater choice of potential approaches.
Tactical requirements for Armour have changed since the end of the Cold War. The modern tank force must be capable of an exploitative as well as defensive role, and therefore needs both Heavy and Medium tanks. The proposed German E-50 medium tank and E-75 heavy tank were intended to be produced on the same production lines, using the same armament and as many components as possible in common. This suggests that the existing production lines for the Abrams could be used to produce a medium weight tank with a lighter hull and turret. This would have a diesel engine and possibly greater fuel capacity.
Suspension and running gear of the Medium would be the same strength as the Heavy, and if the tactical situation required it the Medium could have add-on armour fitted.
"Heavy" Abrams would be used in defensive roles and to create breakthroughs. "Medium" Abrams would be used to exploit such breakthroughs, although a few "Heavies" might take the point. An interesting point about the above idea is that the Heavy and Medium tank would look very similar. An enemy anti-tank gunner would not be certain if he is attacking a Heavy or a Medium, so opening fire may achieve a kill or simply reveal his position
Some have suggested that upgraded versions of the M60 would be far better general purpose tanks.
Many of these upgrades add a new turret, more like that of the Abrams in shape, and in certain cases the same as the M1A1. While I like the new turrets, I'd keep the 105mm gun as the armament rather than fitting a 120mm. I call this variant the M60Z. I'd also like to experiment with 76/90mm guns. This main gun would be supplemented by ATGW pods and a secondary armament such as grenade launchers, cannon and miniguns/machine guns. The tank might also have soft-launch rocket pods for use instead of the main gun when infantry are operating close by.
One interesting idea for creation of a medium tank is to use some of the large number of Russian built T-55s still in service throughout the world. A few years ago Sweden brought over 800 BMP-1s and MT-LBs from East Germany to equip its non-mechanised infantry battalions.
The T-55 offers several advantages over later Russian designs. It has a crew of four, which is not as high-tech and trendy as having an autoloader but it tactically more practical. The interior is designed for a crew of average height, unlike later models which were designed for smaller individuals. The T-55 is also noted for its range and fuel economy. Numerous countries offer various upgrade kits for the T-55, many giving them western equipment, powerpacks and armament. A common conversion is to fit the RO L7 105mm gun (known in US service as the M68). Since M60s have been upgraded to mount 120mm guns this may also be possible for the T-55 if it is deemed necessary.
If T-55s are taken into service one issue that will need to be addressed that of making such tanks distinctive from Russian built tanks that may be used by the enemy. The most logical way to do this is to change the shape of the turret to one more closely resembling that of an Abrams. This can easily be done by the addition of storage boxes and armour.
A Bradley based medium tank is another possibility.
In addition to these medium tanks, I'd also make the infantry battalions more self supporting. Each would have a platoon of about 8 Tankitas, two or three of them mounting 30mm gatlings, the others 76/90mm guns. For the infantry I'd use up-armoured and armed M113s. The battalion would also have a unit of 120mm Assault Gun-mortars.
How many medium tanks, and how many if any heavy tanks the division should have I'll leave to those more familiar with large scale tactics.
I will suggest an organization for a Army/Corps controlled unit of Abrams:-
Heavy Armour Task Force.
This unit would act as a reserve/exploitation unit and I feel that the Heavy armour would actually be more effective in such smaller compact formations. The Bradley is sufficiently well protected that it can serve rather like the Pz IIIs and IVs did in the Tiger battalions screening, scouting and infantry suppression. It's been suggested to me that some Bradleys could mount the 76/90mm gun.
- one battalion of Abrams (M1A3 standard as Carlton suggests)
- one battalion of Armoured Infantry probably mounted on M2 Bradleys, though M1 or M60 based Tank Personnel Carriers (TPCs) are possible too
- Engineering detachment
- Unit of 155mm Assault gun style Artanks
- Unit of M113 cargo carriers, mainly carrying fuel Abrams are thirsty beasts.
The Artanks would resemble vehicles like the Russian ISU-152, but be capable of both direct and indirect fire. These would be very useful weapons for the long range destruction of enemy armour and strong-points and the suppression of ATGW teams.
One drawback of the current Bradley platoons is the small number of dismounted troops available.
When the German Army was planning to replace the Marder, one design concept was to have two vehicle designs, one an infantry carrier and the other a "support fire" vehicle armed with a 35/50mm Rh503 gun.
Mike Sparks has suggested that a Bradley with the two-man turret removed might be capable of carrying a more useful number of infantrymen. This variant would probably have a simpler turret or cupola.
The Bradley element of a Heavy Battalion might possibly be a mixed force of turreted and "unturreted" Bradleys, some of the former mounting heavier armament.
Ralph Zumbro writes:-
"Bradley....Better put a bunker busting heavy gun in the beast, maybe the French AMX turret with a Cockerill 90mm. Keep a couple of dismounts and they can reload the turret bustle revolvers from the top hatch. They can also provide local security.
Pair the Bradley with a M113 full of dedicated armored infantry.
Call five pairs like this a doubled platoon and add a resource sergeant with a couple of M548s and you've GOT something."
I'd rather have the infantry in a compatible vehicle.
I like the idea of twinned platoons though
Roy Ardillo suggests:-
"How about 4+2 ? Mike and I talked about it a while ago.
Four for infantry carriers with two fire support vehicles. Two carriers and one fire support vehicle per squad."