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Top Tank : In Desert Grit, Soldiers Learn the Hard Lesson That Strategy, Not Just Technology, Wins Wars

June 08, 1989|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

FT. IRWIN — Enemy tanks and armored personnel carriers roared down out of the rugged mountains, guns blazing as they attacked the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's defenses, slicing through the front lines.

Before the sun was an hour high over this giant Mojave desert training base northeast of Barstow, all 41 of the Texas-based regiment's $2.7-million M-1 Abrams tanks were tangling with nearly twice that many aggressor tanks in a desperate, startlingly real battle.

This was a "force-on-force" exercise, the U.S. Army's tank equivalent of the Top Gun school for naval aviators. And many of the Army's 70-ton main battle tanks were getting the worst of it, despite their vaunted fire control systems, speed and maneuverability. To win, the 3rd Cav was going to have to fight like mad.

Learning the Hard Way

The tankers from Texas were learning the hard way that the commanders of the "Op-For" (Opposing Force) regiments at Ft. Irwin are experienced fighters.

Op-For tactics are right out of Soviet manuals, harsh and realistic. The tough, cocky Op-For veterans of the 177th Armored Brigade--dressed and equipped like Soviets--aim to teach one lesson: tactics, not expensive hardware, win battles. "People learn more from defeat than from victory," one instructor said.

The training also puts the Army's main battle tank to the test. Is the new M-1A1 version of the Abrams, known as the M-1, the best fighting machine ever built, as supporters claim? Or is it a costly, fuel-guzzling dinosaur doomed to the tar pits of history, as critics contend?

The M-1 is too costly, too heavy and too vulnerable to high-tech anti-tank weapons, and what the nation needs now are lightweight anti-tank fighting machines, said Bill Taylor Jr. of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank used by Congress and the Administration to evaluate the nation's war capabilities.

Not everyone agrees. And arguments are heating up again as the Pentagon seeks more money for the M-1. Proposed modifications would raise its price to $3.2 million each, up from $2.7 million, officials report.

One of the M-1's big supporters is Lt. Gen. William Desobry, a World War II tanker who helped design it before retiring as commander of the Army Armor Center at Ft. Knox, Ky. "The M-1 . . . can go across country at better than 30 miles an hour . . . has a stabilized turret and night firing capability," he said, adding fondly that the M-1's "beauty and agility . . . are overlooked because it's so big and powerful."

Debates about the future of armored warfare and the M-1's capabilities are unlikely to be resolved soon, but most agree the best place to see the big, low-slung tanks in action and learn how well crews perform is at the training center.

Its rugged desert battlefields, experts say, are the largest, most sophisticated training facilities anywhere, with instructors and analysts linked to combat units by laser technology, microwave radios, satellites and computer nets. They even have video instant replay.

Lasers Instead of Bullets

Battlefield conditions are so realistic that the only things missing are blood and death. Weapons are modified to shoot laser beams, not bullets or missiles. Sensors strapped on fighters and vehicles record laser hits and relay information to computers in the war room. A hit turns on a flashing yellow light atop a tank, signaling it is dead.

Watching the 3rd Cav deploy across a dry lake bed in a classic, trapping defense and later engage Op-For's two mechanized regiments, it was obvious that tank warfare had changed little over the years.

The first tanks--simple, ungainly tractors protected by bullet-proof armor--were built by the British in 1914 to fight the deadly machine guns of entrenched German infantry. The Germans countered by building armor-piercing anti-tank weapons, which forced the Allies to build bigger tanks with thicker armor and more fire power; that, in turn, resulted in development of more powerful anti-tank weapons, and so on.

By World War II's start, basic tank design was fixed, with a driver down in front and a gunner, loader and commander up in the turret. Each tank had a rotating gun turret and two or three machine guns. Under fire, crews battened down the hatches and operated with periscopes, almost blind and vulnerable to infantry attack.

In World War II, Nazi panzer divisions pushed tank warfare to its current form, deploying infantry-supported Tiger tanks in divisions that blitzkrieged Europe and Africa. The Tigers had thick frontal armor and outgunned the U.S. Army's main battle tanks, the M-4 Shermans, which were faster, more maneuverable, reliable machines. The Shermans cost $55,000 and took only eight months to design. More than 48,000 of them were built and used by Allied armies. Military historians dubbed them the "tank that won World War II."

'Outgunned, Outclassed'

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