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Mech Infantry's Next Step

Jimmy Wu is an MIT grad in mechanical engineering, and a missile defense systems engineer at Boeing -- and a 1st Lieutenant in the Alabama National Guard, currently deployed in Iraq. Back in the day, armored personnel carriers had a carefully-defined mission: As the battalion task force would roll forward, the APCs and other mechanized infantry would dismount and clear out an enemy position, allowing the tanks to exploit the breakthrough. To handle the job, APCs needed enough armor to survive that approach march -- and a whole lot of guns, to survive that dismounted attack. By the end of the Cold War, APCs had bulked up so big that they had evolved into Armored Infantry Fighting Vehicles (AIFVs) like the Bradley: carrying almost an entire squad, with enough weapons to take on tanks, and the armor to back it up.dvic338.jpgBut Iraq has shown that all that muscle doesn't necessarily work on the modern, non-linear battlefield. While everyone appreciates the Bradley's armor and its the chaingun in the firefight, the thing is expensive to operate. (Witness the broken Bradleys in the depots that the Army does not have the money to fix.) Moreover, the Bradley usually are not carrying its full complement of dismounts these days; infantrymen are driving the Humvees to add more guns on the convoys, instead. When the APC is no longer carrying its infantry, it loses its raison d'etre. We might as well get a cavalry vehicle that can do the job better.

In fact, as OIF shows, on the modern non-linear battlefield, the mech infantry does not work as mech infantry anymore. The legs are more akin to the light cavalry of old, patrolling the lines of communication, establishing presence, and looking for the enemy. In this context, the infantry does not operate in the battalion attack, it works in a section/squad attack perspective. The shift in the mech infantry paradigm requires a new APC: One that works well as a light cavalry vehicle and can carry a good load of infantry.The American experience with Humvees and other armored vehicles are indicative: When they roll out the gate, the infantry squad normally splits itself into two vehicle or more. This is because 1) more vehicles means more gunners on top to fight the crucial first few minutes of an ambush, 2) an IED or RPG would not take out the whole squad, and 3) the squad will have space for passengers or survivors. A rough civilian analogy would be a police squad car: A squad car normally does not have officers in the back seat.What we have, in fact, is a small APC/liason vehicle, in the vein of the Italian 4x4 Puma or the American ASV. Such a small APC seats about 5 soldiers, including the gunner. The small APC allows the squad to spread itself out on the distributed battlefield. The small APC allows the mech squad to fire and maneuver on the march, restoring the offensive capability to the mech squad. The small APC, by virtue of its size, automatically limits its weapon load to infantry support weapons (50 cal, rockets) instead of engaging in the AIFV arms race. As fire control/weapon system is a major component of the vehicle cost, the less sophisticated small APC acts as a natural limit against the cost growth of a program like Future Combat Systems.To outfit an infantry squad with small APCs may be slightly more expensive than with a single AIFV. However, if you add in the up-armored Humvees with electronic countermeasures to the AIFV squad, the cost projection would be a wash. And we are not arguing against a full-sized APC such as the M-113 Gavin. The Gavin, or a Stryker, can be useful when we need to bring more dismounts. The modern mechanized company team should have a mix of small APCs, full-sized APCs, and tanks to carry out its new cavalry missions on the non-linear battlefield. And as we start looking for Humvee replacements, let's keep in mind a small APC, instead of a better jeep.-- Jimmy Wu

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