Are Tanks Obsolete?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Military bloggers are preoccupied with an existential question this week: What role will tanks play in tomorrow's military? The U.S. Army's armor branch, once a crucial tool of conventional warfare, has been slowly scaled back in recent years as the U.S. engages in lighter, less conventional wars. But is that a good thing? At hand is a two-part question: How useful are tanks in asymmetrical, counterinsurgency battles like those in Iraq and Afghanistan? And how important is it for the U.S. to retain a large and well-trained tank division for possible use in a conventional war? Here's the debate.

  • Are We Still Ready For Conventional War?  Kicking off this round of the long-running debate, Colonel Gian Gentile writes in Small Wars Journal, "Over the last 9 years of doing irregular warfare we have eviscerated the Armor Corps to the point of its extinction. ... But what if the American Army has to fight somebody in the future beyond insurgents laying IEDs and small arms ambushes that is usually handled effectively by infantry platoons? What if a heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq was told to pick up and head east and do a movement to contact into a threatening country?"
  • Tanks Do Help in Unconventional Wars  Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks notes, "one thing I would add to his article is that armor has a clear morale value for troops in a counterinsurgency campaign -- when they are in a bad fix, there is nothing like hearing an M1 clanking around the corner to help out."
  • The Israel Lesson: Hybrid Warfare  RAND's David Johnson examines Israel's defeat against Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which he credits in part to Israel letting its tank training deteriorate as it focused on low-intensity conflict with Hamas in the West Bank. Johnson calls the Hezbollah conflict a "hybrid war" because it combined elements of low-intensity conflict with conventional war. "The U.S. Army, focused as it necessarily is on preparing soldiers and units for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, might be approaching a condition similar to that of the Israelis before the 2006 Second Lebanon War: expert at [counterinsurgency], but less prepared for sophisticated hybrid opponents.”
  • Don't Plan Around 'Hybrid Warfare'  World Politics Review's Judah Grunstein rolls his eyes. "But how many paramilitary organizations worldwide currently enjoy the kind of support, training and terrain advantages, not to mention semi-state privileges, that Hezbollah does? Clearly, Hamas did not. And I'm skeptical that enough will in the future to warrant turning hybrid wars into a focus of training and preparedness. For all sorts of reasons, Hezbollah seems more like a boundary-blurring exception to the state vs. non-state actor continuum, rather than a model that can be easily reproduced elsewhere. So while it makes sense for the Israeli army to prepare for hybrid wars, I'm not sure Western militaries need be that concerned."
  • Weighing Different Threats  Military blogger Starbuck muses, "Truth be told, there is reason for alarm in the deterioration of the tank force. Although I would say that 'small wars'--insurgencies, peace enforcement, peacekeeping, stability/support, humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorism, border conflicts, etc--will probably dominate the US military's future, 'Black Swans' tends to make their way into the mix. As a wise man once said, in the wake of his inability to see into the future, 'always in motion, the future is'." He adds, " In a perfect world, the US military would be prepared for every single threat" But, "it's no surprise that we addressed counterinsurgency, as it's the highest priority right now."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.