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Army Shifts to Lighter, Faster Tanks

Military: The phasing out of the M-1A-1 Abrams starts today, signaling the need for a more mobile force for future conflicts.

January 16, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FT. LEWIS, Wash. — They're heavy, they're slow, they smell bad. It takes 20 gallons of gas just to start them, and once they get going, they sound like screeching monsters. Sometimes--almost always, when the situation is as unpleasant as the weapon--you just need a tank.

But in modern warfare that doesn't necessarily require a 72-ton behemoth with a 120-millimeter cannon, it's time to try something new.

Today, the U.S. Army at Ft. Lewis begins phasing out its last M-1A-1 Abrams tanks, part of the transition to a new, lighter, more mobile force the military says will be necessary for the conflicts of the future.

The Army's remaining 44 main battle tanks here eventually will be handed over to the Oregon National Guard, to be replaced by a fleet of fast, lightweight Interim Armored Vehicles that will allow the Army to deploy faster and deeper than ever.

"This is not for Desert Storm. It's not for when the North Korean horde comes across the border. It's for "Oh, my goodness, we've got to get to Afghanistan," Maj. Matt Venhaus explained Tuesday. If the Army had had a force such as the one now being trained at Ft. Lewis after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, "on Sept. 12, we would have been in Afghanistan."

There has been much talk in recent years of building an Army of the future, as conflicts in places such as Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan point to the kind of chaotic, low-intensity warfare America will increasingly be asked to conduct.

Early last year, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Ft. Lewis became the first of six brigades to begin turning into the Army's first new medium-weight combat brigade. Today, the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division is launching its own move.

On Tuesday, the old M-1A-1s were fired up, hauled into a garage, inspected and repaired in preparation for the hand-over to National Guard units. Mechanics began pulling out the huge, 1,500-horsepower turbine engines, steam cleaning the tracks and aiming scopes down the barrels of the long cannons. The repairs are expected to cost $250,000 for each tank hauled down to Oregon.

That any serious combat unit would be thinking of phasing out the M-1A-1 tank, probably the most powerful land fighting vehicle in the world, points up the dramatic changes in the nature of warfare that have taken place since the tanks were first delivered to the Army in 1980.

The $3.2-million Abrams was able to squash the Iraqi Republican Guard's Soviet-built tanks in the 1991 Persian Gulf War on the wide desert plains of Kuwait. It was designed for what many military strategists, schooled in the Cold War, imagined would be a ferocious tank battle with high-tech Soviet tanks somewhere in Europe.

In reality, military officials say, the Cold War is over, and the Army has been called to more missions over the last seven years than in the previous 40 years--many of them in unpredictable urban areas where a tank would take too long to get there and be virtually useless once it arrived.

While the Army is by no means phasing out its tanks--plenty of units will keep them--the transformation at places like Ft. Lewis is intended to provide the Army's first middle-ground alternative. The two medium-weight combat brigades here are designed to be more heavily armed than infantry units, faster and more mobile than tank brigades.

The goal, said the 1st Brigade commander, Col. Harry Scott Jr., is to have a force that can be deployed anywhere within 96 hours, equipped with its own vehicles and support systems, reconnaissance teams and heavy weapons, capable of taking on everything from peacekeeping missions to urban warfare to traditional, major theater warfare when aided by other combat units.

"Now, as a light infantry brigade, I need 350 trucks that are not part of my organization to move my soldiers," Scott said. "With this transformation, I'm able to increase my mobility and my lethality."

In fact, the 1st Brigade will wind up later this year with more big guns than it had before, because many of the new wheeled vehicles will have 105-millimeter cannons attached to them. Still, there was a sense of regret Tuesday as soldiers began preparations to ship out the tanks.

"Arguably, this is the most lethal combat vehicle, right here, to ever grace the battlefield. There's just simply nothing that can match it," said Lt. Col. Ernest Audino, commander of the unit within the 1st Brigade that is giving up its tanks. "When you need critical combat power at a critical time, the M1s can deliver it."

The tank Audino rides into battle has the words "Whispering Death" stenciled on its 17-foot-long cannon. His gunner, Sgt. Andrew Trimele, said they chose the name based on what NATO forces in Europe called the lumbering monster during exercises when it came up silently on them--the deafening screech of its engines inaudible because it's projected behind the tank. (Other M-1A-1s under inspection Tuesday: "Cancel Xmas," "Comgitsum," "Cardiac Arrest.")

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