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Think Tanks

Soviet tanks ended up in Afghan scrap heaps.
Soviet tanks ended up in Afghan scrap heaps.
The announcement that the United States will send 14 M1A1 Abrams tanks and 115 Marines to Afghanistan in support of operations in Helmand and Kandahar provinces was seen by "The Washington Post" as "further escalation in the aggressive tactics that have been employed by American forces this fall to attack the Taliban."

The article quotes David Johnson, co-author of a recent RAND corporation report on the role of armored forces in recent counter insurgency (COIN) operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The report looks at how U.S. Marines used tanks in Iraq as well as how British, Canadian, Danish, and Israeli forces have used heavy armored forces in recent conflicts. Oddly, the Soviet Union's experience in Afghanistan receives nary a mention.

The RAND report views tanks as an important contributor to COIN operations, noting that "The Marines consider tanks a major contributor to success in COIN." The U.S Army tanks attached to Marine units in Iraq were highly effective in supporting infantry operations. In Iraq, even large ramming attacks from vehicle-mounted improvised explosive devices (IEDS) proved ineffective against the 68-ton M1A1 Abrams. Currently, only Danish and Canadian forces have deployed tanks in Afghanistan.

According to the RAND report, Canada has been seeking to purchase more tanks based on their positive experiences. A Canadian tank commander returning from Afghanistan noted that tanks intimidate insurgents. "The paucity of direct fire suggests that they did not want to take us on," he said. "As I tell my guys, if we go somewhere and don't fire a shot, and neither does the enemy, we have achieved our aim."

The RAND report backs up this assertion. Convoys with tanks are far less likely to be attacked and insurgent activity drops off in areas where tanks are operating.

The report concludes that "Quite simply, heavy forces [tanks] reduce operational risks and minimize friendly casualties." A recent post on the "At War" blog, however, quotes a U.S. soldier with a critical view on tanks in COIN operations. "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."

The RAND report is light on logistical considerations, though it notes that the British Army is moving the opposite direction of U.S forces on tanks. The British plan to mothball their heavy tank units for a period of up to three years in order to free up personnel for other duties.

The Abrams' greatest weakness may turn out to be its gas tank. It takes 38 liters of fuel just to start the ignition of an M1A1 Abrams. Once in motion, the Abrams continues to gobble gas, ranging from 6 to 15 liters per kilometer. The good news is that tanks have built-in fuel-economy measures: in difficult terrain they are prone to mechanical failures.

Note that 70 percent of ISAF supplies travel through the Khyber Pass connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, tanker trucks bound for Afghanistan are increasingly under attack both by insurgents and criminals in Pakistan. On November 20, 10 tanker trucks were torched near Peshawar before they even left the depot. Planners should also recall that earlier this year the Pakistani government briefly closed the entire border to protest ISAF actions.

Securing the supply chain to 130,00 soldiers in Afghanistan is crucial to ISAF’s mission. This additional company of tanks makes the tenuous supply chain even more important. The war in Afghanistan remains, first and foremost, a quartermaster's war.

-- Joseph Hammond