Syrian Lessons on Tank Warfare
Back in 1995 I joined a Texas Army National Guard tank unit. I remember my amazement upon discovering that tankers didn’t qualify with rifles. Each tank had one rifle for the loader in case he had to dismount, but everyone else just carried pistols. We had brand-new M3 “Grease Guns” in the armory, but as far as I could tell nobody ever fired them.
I had just come from the Marine Corps where everyone’s a rifleman, and I asked why we didn’t train with rifles. I was told, by multiple soldiers, that tankers don’t need them. One platoon leader, when I asked how we’d deal with snipers in an urban environment, said, “You just say ‘gunner, sabot, sniper’ and take him out.” But I had studied military history, knew tanks had frequently been involved in close-in urban combat and often suffered serious losses, and didn’t understand how the Army had managed to unlearn all the lessons of World War II and Hue City. But from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, even after Mogadishu showed us what modern warfare looked like, we still trained against simulated Soviet-type forces using Soviet doctrine. When I was mobilized for Iraq in 2004, I had never fired a rifle in the Army.
Battles like Fallujah showed our military, once again, that we still need infantry to support tanks (“like fleas on a dog”, as WW2 Marine E.B. Sledge described in his memoir With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa) and that tankers need more than just their tank and a pistol. But even more than Iraq, today’s brutal war in Syria shows us the likely future of tank warfare. That future is less about tank-on-tank battles like 73 Easting – although such battles are sure to happen – and more about infantry or insurgents closing to knife-fighting distance and destroying tanks with anything they’ve got. When facing such a threat, tankers need carbines and the skill to use them, plus closeby grunts for security .
Not many people seem to be aware of this, but visibility inside a buttoned-up tank sucks. In my armor unit we’d speak with admiration of the Israeli tank commander tradition of standing tall in the turret, but the reality of urban tank combat is that standing tall will just get you shot. Being buttoned up means the crew can only see through periscopes and main gun sights. Sights are usually clear with extremely limited fields of view; periscopes, on the other hand, are often blurry or cracked, especially if the tank has a few years or miles on it. That means dismounted troops can often approach to contact distance without being seen. When a crunchy is standing beside your tank with a grenade, you need a rifle or carbine in your hand because you probably can’t slew a mounted machine gun fast enough to hit him.
On a related note, I remember getting the worst training of my life one day in Marine boot camp: “If you see a Russian Hind helicopter come over the ridge, there’s nothing you can do. Just give up, because you’re going to die.” But in Kosovo a former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter told me attack helicopters were easy to hide from. “All you have to do is stand next to a tree,” he said. “They won’t see anything.” In Afghanistan I watched two Apaches circling over a village being shot at for several minutes by rifles and even an RPG, and nobody, not us on the ground or the pilots, could tell where the fire came from.
Tanks are similar. There’s a lot we just can’t see, and it’s not too hard to hide from us if you know what angles to approach from.
Insurgents and rebels in Syria have spent years learning all about tank vulnerabilities. They were learning them long before Syria, of course, but the wars following the “Arab Spring” have provided our enemies with unique opportunities they didn’t have when they faced us. Americans aren’t perfect, but we tend to not leave tanks operating on their own and constantly stress scanning and 360 degree security so we’re not surprised by an inconvenient missile. (Ignore the video title below. It was posted by someone who doesn’t know the difference between a T-55 and T-72, and thinks a “cooling system failure” will destroy a tank.)
Unfortunately, our allies did jihadists a solid and let them test their skills against our beautiful Abrams tanks in Iraq and Yemen. I used to feel invincible in an Abrams, not so much anymore. And I’d feel really vulnerable in one today, now that we’ve provided TOWs to “moderate” rebel groups.
This Abrams in Yemen takes multiple RPG hits and what look like Molotov cocktails, and seems to have finally been taken out by dismounts who actually climbed onto the hull.
Tankers today also have to deal with the new, improved RPGs. Modern tanks could pretty much laugh off hits from older RPGs, but the 29 and newer series are a whole different level of suck. This Syrian Army T-72, taken out by an RPG-29 on a city street while surrounded by tall buildings with no apparent infantry support and accompanied by two other clueless tanks, shows us why tanks can’t live without infantry in an urban environment.
When you send tanks without infantry support into a street fight, crap like this next video happens. While I relish the thought of doing this to ISIS tankers, I still tense up at the thought of being wounded, burning, and shot while fruitlessly trying to roll away from my trapped, charred friends. Mad props to the barefoot track star, but I think he would have felt better running with an AK or M4 in his hands.
So I hope we’ve all learned important lessons. First, tanks ain’t invincible. Second, we’re unlikely to fight Krasnovians employing Soviet doctrine, but we’re extremely likely to fight insurgents using any weapon they have, in any non-doctrinal way that works. Third, tanks need infantry, especially in any environment that’s not open desert.
And fourth? Please, for the love of god, don’t ever tell tankers they don’t need to know how to use a rifle. Tankers are warriors, they have to be able to fight on foot if their tank is destroyed, and if I ever have to bail from a burning tank I damn sure want an M4 in my hand. If the lessons of American history haven’t shown us that, the lessons of Syria today should.
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Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a former tanker (best job he ever had) and veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.