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IW Needs Armor, Firepower

A key part of the seemingly endless debate about Afghanistan and Pakistan -- not to mention Iraq -- has been just what forces are needed to succeed.

Most analysts would agree that mass -- numbers of troops -- is one key to success. Most thinktank analysts agree that a counterinsurgency (COIN) approach is best. Deploy close to the people and clear, hold, build. The part that doesn't get a lot of attention in the public debate is just what it takes to do to the "clear" part. So much of the rhetoric about the Iraqi surge focuses on the simple issue of mass that not much attention has been paid to how you do the first part of COIN.

Our man Greg Grant wrote a piece asking if so-called "diffused warfare" was the right model for Afghanistan and future wars against irregular enemies. That piece sparked an extended exchange between us and retired Army Col. Doug MacGregor and an Israeli military expert. The Israeli made clear that armor was key to the success of the recent Gaza fighting: "It was characterized by what some called heavy maneuver, a lot of ISAR, engineering, fire and heavy armour. Even the tracked upgraded APC M-113 were prohibited for use for their lack of sufficient armour" And he said the Israelis had added a cannon to the NAMER (a new APC based on the Merkave chassis) in light of the recent fighting. One senior Israeli official even referred to this as a combined arms operation. [Our photo is of IDF tanks massed before the Gaza strikes.]

In his first email to us, MacGregor scoffed at the focus by many analysts on the importance of special forces, ISR and precision strike in the Iraqi fighting: "If some of us did not know better, we would think UCAVs, precision air strikes and SPECOPS teams won the day in Sadr City. We know tanks and armored fighting vehicles with accurate, devastating fire power were the dominant elements because interviews with the Soldiers and their captured opponents said so. The IDF will tell you the same thing. It’s why the IDF has no interest in Stryker or motorized infantry constabularies."

In the following commentary written for us, MacGregor argues fervently for combined armor formations in Afghanistan, saying that Strykers and M-ATVs are not enough to deliver the firepower and survivability needed for the clearing portion of COIN. As he puts it: "Strykers had no utility in the close combat seen in Fallujah, Najaf and Sadr City because they lacked sufficient survivability, mobility and firepower."

MacGregor's commentary follows:

While I believe it is neither wise nor necessary for the US to intentionally involve its forces in COIN operations on foreign soil, particularly inside the Islamic World where our very presence is alienating and radicalizing, if we are going to commit ground forces the conventional force must contain substantial mobile armored firepower to deter/prevent or counter any effort by the guerillas/irregulars to mass and overwhelm the light troops and SOF. The armored and air mobile forces work to isolate the contested territory and cut off the guerillas from safe havens and sources of supply.  Thus, the two forces – Mobile armored and airmobile elements plus SF/SOF are inextricably intertwined, but all of these missions cannot readily be carried out by the same force.  Specialization is vital.

That said, given that in both Iraq and Afghanistan off-road mobility is the key to survival I am at a loss to understand why we are spending money on more Strykers and M-RAPS The only difference between M-RAP and saran wrap is the size of the explosives in the IED needed to destroy it.

Stryker’s speed on road causes its admirers to think that speedy movement on roads will allow the infantry riding inside the armored truck to potentially outrun IED blasts or enemy contact. Of course, rapid movement at 40 miles an hour down road in Iraq did not prevent Strykers from being blown up by IEDs or demolished by complex RPG ambushes in places like Bouqaba and Sadr City.

Strykers and other wheeled troop carriers have utility in relatively benign environments like East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo—and parts of Iraq where the roads were good and IEDs were in short supply; especially after the cash for peace program. Strykers had no utility in the close combat seen in Fallujah, Najaf and Sadr City because they lacked sufficient survivability, mobility and firepower. But, we must not confuse their utility in those environments with what is brewing up in Afghanistan or places like Lebanon. The Canadians brought Leopards to Afghanistan for a reason and reversed a decision they had made to transform into the Shinseki “All Wheeled Force.” Meanwhile, the Israelis restarted the Merkava line and are building NAMERS -- heavily armored, tracked infantry carriers -- because they believe they need them.

Strykers were not bought for COIN, but as an interim solution to getting to Kosovo fast. It predates the Army’s fascination with COIN. And it was supposed to be replaced by FCS which would be more survivable (at least that was the story at the time). Then the occupation in Iraq continued and the Stryker suddenly becomes purpose designed for COIN. This is nonsense.

Unfortunately, Stryker brigade advocates view the Stryker as a single system solution and thereby discount the necessary synergy and complementary effects that all arms armored formations have delivered for decades. This line of thinking not only assumes away the need for integrated mobility, protection, and firepower – the critical elements of success in land warfare – the thinking results in Stryker formations that are critically dependent on the prompt arrival of air strikes for both effectiveness and survivability in any encounter with an enemy more robust than a Muslim insurgent armed with an AK-47 and an IED.

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