The Buzz

This Is How to Make America's Tanks More Lethal on the Battlefield

Colonel Patrick Donahoe recently articulated the importance of the main battle tank in future conflicts. History has shown tanks are a valuable tool in the application of combined arms warfare, and commanders will continue to exploit the capabilities of the armored force, where appropriate, to counter the armored formations of our adversaries. The tank, however, is an inanimate object, incapable of understanding terrain and maneuvering to a position of relative advantage unless under the control of a highly trained and technically capable crew. Additionally, the direction of company, battalion, and brigade commanders and staffs proficient in the art of armored warfare expand its usefulness from one tank to dozens. Unfortunately, changes in force structure have diluted the expertise of our armored forces, which will necessarily affect performance on the battlefield.

Changing Armor Organization:

Many leaders with service in tank battalions, a formation that no longer exists, will attest that the soldiers and leaders of a tank battalion were laser-focused on the development of the skills necessary to provide commanders with armored formations that were fast and lethal. In the same manner, pure mechanized infantry battalions were able to focus on the employment of mechanized infantry formations. Force structure, with pure tank and infantry battalions, allowed for a focus on training core competencies. Battalions could be task-organized with companies of a different type, when necessary, for the completion of a specific mission.  

The transition to modular brigade combat teams in the mid-2000s brought with it a new battalion task organization, called a Combined Arms Battalion, consisting of two tank and two mechanized infantry companies (now with a 2-1 or 1-2 mix). With this new task organization came changes in manning. There are five leadership positions of great significance in any battalion; the commander, command sergeant major, executive officer, operations officer, and operations sergeant major. These five leaders work together to train and employ the unit in combat. In a tank battalion, all five of these leaders were from the armor career field; in a combined arms battalion, they can be a mix of armor and infantry officers and noncommissioned officers.

It is not uncommon to find a combined arms battalion where only one or two of the five leaders listed above has extensive experience in tank and mechanized units (and vice versa, creating a similarly-degraded situation for infantry expertise). Armor officer career paths may include assignments in Stryker and light brigades, away from armored forces, and infantry officer career paths are required to include assignments on and off of vehicles. Opportunities for developing warfighting skills in future commanders are limited, as an officer will spend approximately half of his or her career in non-tactical assignments prior to being selected for command. Repeated assignment to the same type of unit at the platoon, company, and battalion-level would allow for increased opportunities to develop specialized expertise; these opportunities were afforded to tank battalion commanders before force structure transformation. Today’s diversity of tactical assignments for both armor and infantry officers leaves them both with less opportunities for specialized development prior to taking command, when compared to commanders of the past.

Legacy tank (and mechanized infantry) battalions had unique gunnery and sustainment requirements, and maneuvering one against a thinking enemy is not a skill one picked up from either reading the latest doctrinal publication or from one rotation at a training center. These skills were learned through years of repetition in training and in combat. Force structure transformation diluted the task organization of these legacy battalions, which expanded the number of tasks and skills that must be trained, and it diluted the combined expertise of the battalion’s most senior leaders, which reduced their ability to train the unit on those tasks.

Changes in force structure modified not only tank and mechanized infantry battalions; the army’s cavalry formations were affected as well. Division cavalry squadrons and an armored cavalry regiment, both with a mix of tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, served as the backbone for the army’s pre-transformation armored reconnaissance. Successfully leading a heavy cavalry unit required one to have expertise in conducting armor and mechanized operations, as well as a depth of knowledge in reconnaissance and security tasks. The five senior leaders in the legacy cavalry squadrons were all from the armor career field.

Transformation broke apart the division cavalry squadrons, and the armored cavalry regiment is no more. Armored brigades were given a cavalry squadron with a mix of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and wheeled vehicles, and, most recently, a tank company. To preserve expertise in cavalry skills, the command and operations sergeants major of an armored reconnaissance squadron are both 19-series (armor or cavalry), and can lend wise counsel to the three senior officers, who can be either armor or infantry.

New Talent Management: