XBrad provided an excellent overview of the problems with employing armored vehicles in airborne operations. And we’ve mentioned several Cold War vehicles designed to address the challenges of balancing protection, mobility, and firepower – the M56 Scorpion, the M50 Ontos, and the M551 Sheridan. Designers built each of the weapons mentioned around an anti-tank function – each adapting its unique main armament to fit the role. In a larger context, the airborne experience during World War II highlighted a need for those sky-soldiers to deal with enemy armor. All of which hits upon the broader topic of light armored vehicles (and their validity on the battlefield). Contemporary to these airborne designs (the 1950s and 60s) the US Army introduced light reconnaissance vehicles to serve both airborne and armored formations.
The World War II experience weighed heavily on design requirements. At the end of the “big war” each armored division included a reconnaissance squadron and infantry divisions had a recon troop. The basic building block of these recon forces was a platoon with six jeeps and three M8 “Greyhound” armored cars. Three of the jeeps worked as mounted scouts, while the other three were prime movers for 60mm mortars. The M8 cars, with their 37mm guns, provided overwatch support. In theory that is.
In the armored divisions, recon squadrons supported the platoons with a company/troop of light tanks (M3A1 Stuart early on, then M5 Stuarts mid-way through, then finally M24 Chaffee tanks by the end of the war). In addition each squadron had a platoon of M8 Scott self-propelled guns provided indirect and direct support with their 75-mm howitzers.
After the war, as is the custom, the Army looked at lessons learned and field performance to reorganize a post war army. The M8 armored car came off poorly. While considered useful for road operations, the vehicles lacked the cross-country mobility. The armor officers complained about the shortfalls of the light tanks, although the M24 impressed many. It’s 75mm main gun promised to at least put the light tank on par with the medium tanks, in firepower if not in protection. The M24’s speed and maneuverability exceeded others in its class. But the Army was not against ALL wheeled vehicles – nobody could deny the utility of the trusty jeep. In the immediate post-war era, the recon troops lost their armored cars, but gained medium tanks (usually M26 Pershing) to support the light tanks.
The US Army also considered allied and enemy experiences during the war. The Germans and British used heavy wheeled vehicles extensively in their formations, some of which offered the firepower of medium tanks. The British maintained these heavy recon forces into the post-war era with a rather successful series of armored cars and light tracked vehicles. A reconstructed West German Army also opted for heavy recon vehicles.
But while the US Army tested several prototypes, no heavy wheeled vehicles made the grade. (Although the Soviets adopted the “heavy recon” approach, which is another story for another day…) Instead, the Americans wanted to update the team which had served so well through the heavy fighting in the European theater – scouts mounted in light, fast recon vehicles supported by light tanks.
Experience in Korea seemed to reinforce the findings of the post-World War II analysis. Recon troops with M24 light tanks and jeeps performed well when supported by M26 medium tanks. With a mind to improve the light tanks, the Army developed the M41 “Walker Bulldog” light tank, and tested a few in combat during the closing stages of the Korea War. The M41 featured a high velocity 76mm main gun. Improving the maneuverability and speed of the M24, the M41 had slightly thicker armor. While not airdrop capable (well at least not more than once), the M41 was air-transportable – although only in the larger strategic transports such as the C-124 or C-133. At 23 tons, the M41 pushed the limits of even early model C-130s.
The “Bulldog” served the Army through the 1950s and into Vietnam. Only in the later part of the 1960s was it replaced by the M551 Sheridan mentioned above.
Though supported by M24s and M41s, throughout the 1950s, most scouts rode in jeeps, not much different than their World War II counterparts. What planners in the mid-1950s wanted was an armored jeep – fast, mobile, and concealable. Common sense said that the airborne and light scout functions overlapped enough for a common solution. So the Army issued requirements for a lightly armored, three-man, highly-mobile recon vehicle. But the jeep had other functions in the armored formation than just scouting. As the project evolved, many pointed out the same vehicle could meet the need for a commander’s vehicle in armored formations. Other roles required included medical evacuation and anti-tank gun prime mover. These rather varied requirements merged into the Armored Command and Reconnaissance Carrier (ACRC).
In the next post I’ll look at ACRC vehicle fielded by the Army in the 1960s.