Here's why the US Army is more than ready to face Russian or Chinese tanks
The global proliferation of Russian and Chinese weapons massively increases the likelihood that US Army forces will confront tanks, drones, electronic warfare systems, precision munitions, armored vehicles and artillery made by near-peer competitors.
Although the prospect of major-power mechanized ground war between the US and Russia or China may not seem likely, the US Army is tasked with the need to be ready for any ground-combat scenario. What this means, Army leaders explained, is that the current and future combat environment the globe is both increasingly urban and armed with Russian and Chinese-made tanks and weapons.
Russian-built T-72 and T-90 tanks, Chinese drones, fighters, and missiles are now part of Armies around the world who might wind up in conflict with the US. In particular, Pakistan is armed with Type 85-IIAP Chinese-built tanks and Iran is equipped with Russian-made T-72s. Even smaller countries, such as Bangladesh, have Chinese tanks. In addition, a far greater number of smaller countries such as Cuba, India and Lybia have Russian tanks. North Korea, not surprisingly, has both Russian and Chinese tanks.
A T-90A battle tank in Moscow | Creative Commons photo by Vitaly V. Kuzmin
Also, senior Army officials explained that if US Army ground forces wind up on the ground in Syria, they will definitely wind up confronting Russian-built weapons. Although such a scenario may or may not happen, the prospect presents a very real threat to Army analysts and trainers.
"If the Army goes into ground combat in the Middle East, we will face equipment from Russia, Iran and in some cases China," a senior Army official told Scout Warrior.
Re-focused Army Training
The Army's "live-fire" combat exercises involve large-scale battalion-on-battalion war scenarios wherein mechanized forces often clash with make-shift, "near-peer" enemies or enemy weapons using new technologies, drones, tanks, artillery, missiles and armored vehicles.
The Army is expanding its training and "live-fire" weapons focus to include a renewed ability to fight a massive, enemy force in an effort to transition from its decade-and-a-half of tested combat experience with dismounted infantry and counterinsurgency.
Recent ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created an experienced and combat-tested force able to track, attack and kill small groups of enemies -- often blended into civilian populations, speeding in pick-up trucks or hiding within different types of terrain to stage ambushes.
"The Army has a tremendous amount of experience right now. It has depth but needs more breadth. We're good at counterinsurgency and operations employing wide area security. Now, we may have to focus on 'Mounted Maneuver' operations over larger distances," Rickey Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff, Training and Doctrine Command, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
Abrams Main Battle Tank platoons position themselves on the battlefield in order to lay suppressive fire during Hammer Strike, a brigade level live-fire exercise conducted by the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, near Camp Buehring, Kuwait. | US Army photo
While senior Army leaders are quick to emphasize that counterinsurgency is of course still important and the service plans to be ready for the widest possible range of conflict scenarios, there is nonetheless a marked and visible shift toward being ready to fight and win against a large-scale modernized enemy such as Russia or China.
The Army, naturally, does not single out these countries as enemies, train specifically to fight them or necessarily expect to go to war with them. However, recognizing the current and fast-changing threat environment, which includes existing tensions and rivalries with the aforementioned great powers, Army training is increasingly focused on ensuring they are ready for a mechanized force-on-force type engagement.
At the same time, while large-scale mechanized warfare is quite different than counterinsurgency, there are some areas of potential overlap between recent warfare and potential future great power conflict in a few key respects. The ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over a period of more than a decade, involved the combat debut of various precision-guided land attack weapons such as GPS guided artillery and rocket weapons.
Weapons such as Excalibur, a GPS-guided 155m artillery round able to precisely destroy enemy targets at ranges greater than 30-kilometers, gave ground commanders an ability to pinpoint insurgent targets such as small gatherings of fighters, buildings and bomb-making locations. Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket System, or GLMRS, is another example; this precision guided long-range rocket, which can hit ranges up to 70-kilometers, was successful in killing Taliban targets in Afghanistan from great distances, among other things.
Marines with Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, fire an M982 Excalibur round from an M777 howitzer during a recent fire support mission. | US Marine Corps photo
These kinds of precision munitions, first used in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the kind of weapon which would greatly assist land attack efforts in a massive force-on-force land war as well. They could target key locations behind enemy lines such as supplies, forces and mechanized vehicles.
Drones are another area of potential overlap. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan featured a veritable explosion in drone technology and drone use. For example, the Army had merely a handful of drones at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, the service operates thousands and has repeatedly relied upon them to find enemy locations, spot upcoming ambushes and save lives in combat. These are the kinds of platforms which would also be of great utility in a major land war. However, they would likely be used differently incorporating new tactics, techniques and procedures in a great power engagement.
"This is not back to the future…this is moving towards the future where Army forces will face adaptive enemies with greater lethality. This generation of Army leaders will orchestrate simultaneous Combined ArmsManeuver and Wide Area Security" Smith said.
Nevertheless, many Army leaders now experienced with counterinsurgency tactics will need to reexamine tactics needed for major conventional warfare.
"You have a generation of leaders who have to expand learning to conduct simultaneous 'Combined Arms' and 'Wide Area Security" Smith said.
"The Army has to be prepared across the entire range of military operations. One of these would be 'near-peer' operations, which is what we have not been fighting in recent years," Smith explained.
Massive Land War "Decisive Action"
The new approach to this emerging integrated training is called "Decisive Action,"senior Army leaders explained.
Live-fire combat at Riley, Kan., affords an opportunity to put these new strategies into effect, service officials said.
"Every morning I could put a battalion on the north side and a battalion on the south side - and just joust working "Combined Arms Maneuver." I can do battalion-on-battalion and it does involve "Combined Arms" live fire," a senior Army official said. "Because of the airspace that we have here - and use the UAS - I can synchronize from 0-to-18,000 feet and do maneuver indirect fire."
This includes the use of drones, Air Force air assets, Army attack aviation along with armored vehicles, artillery, tanks and infantry units equipped for small arms fire, the official explained.
Some of the main tactics and techniques explored during "Decisive Action" live fire exercises include things like "kill what you shoot at," "move to contact," "synchronize indirect fire," and "call-in 9-line," (providing aircraft with attack coordinates from the ground), Army leaders said.
Army developers explained that "live-fire" combat exercises now work to incorporate a wide range of emerging technologies so as to better anticipate the tactics, weapons and systems a future enemy is likely to employ; this includes the greater use of drones or unmanned systems, swarms of mini-drones in the future, emerging computing technology, tank-on-tank warfare tactics, electronic warfare, enemy aircraft and longer-range precision weaponry including anti-tank missiles, guided artillery, and missiles.
In order to execute this kind of combat approach, the Army is adapting to more "Combined Arms Maneuver." This warfare competency seeks to synchronize a wide range of weapons, technologies and war assets in order to overwhelm, confuse and destroy an enemy force.
Smith likened "Combined Arms" to being almost like a symphony orchestra where each instrument is geared toward blending and contributing to an integrated overall musical effect.
In warfare, this would mean using tank-on-tank attacks, indirect fire or artillery, air defenses, air assets, networking technologies, drones, rockets, missiles and mortar all together to create a singular effect able to dominate the battlespace, Smith explained.
US Army officers observe Afghan soldiers in Armored Security Vehicles maneuver down a gunnery lane and engage targets during a gunnery exercise in Zabul province, Afghanistan. | US Army photo by Spc. Tim Morgan
For example, air assets and artillery could be used to attack enemy tank or armored vehicle positions in order to allow tank units and infantry fighting vehicles to reposition for attack. The idea to create an integrated offensive attack — using things like Apache attack helicopters and drones from the air, long-range precision artillery on the ground joined by Abrams tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in a coordinated fashion.
Smith also explained how preparing for anticipated future threats also means fully understanding logistics and sustainment — so that supplies, ammunition, and other essentials can continue to fortify the war effort.
Current "Decisive Action" live fire training includes an emerging emphasis on "expeditionary" capability wherein the Army is ready to fight by tonight by rapidly deploying over large distances with an integrated force consisting of weapons, infantry, armored vehicles and other combat-relevant assets.
At the same time, this strategy relies, to some extent, on an ability to leverage a technological edge with a "Combined Arms" approach as well, networking systems and precision weapons able to destroy enemies from farther distances.
In order to incorporate these dynamics into live-fire training, Army trainers said the battalion -on-battalion combat exercises practice a "move to contact" over very large 620 kilometer distances.
"This builds that expeditionary mindset," he explained.