Recovery has two main meanings in the Army. The first is the reset of personnel and equipment after a field training exercise, to clean equipment and place the unit back in readiness to deploy or return to field training. Maybe some day we’ll talk about those adventures.
The second is about towing.
Tracked vehicles are surprisingly reliable. For all the times my Bradley driver or M113 drivers abused the vehicles worse than a mangy dog, breakdowns were rare. But they do happen.
And while the whole point of tracked vehicles is their off-road mobility, there are places that tracked vehicles have a hard time traversing. A few inches of mud are no challenge for a Bradley or a tank. But you’d be surprised at the number of times and places that a track can become mired, so deeply stuck in the mud that driving out just isn’t an option.
And of course, in wartime, if a vehicle breaks down, or is damaged by enemy fire, it need not be a total loss. Recovering that vehicle both saves money, and helps a unit retain combat power for future operations.
So getting a vehicle unstuck, or returning it from the front lines is a valuable skill, one that, while most units don’t dedicate training time to, they nonetheless often have practical experience with.
One the back ramp of every Bradley and M113* there is a steel cable, about 10 feet long, with eyes on each end. Similarly, there are two tow pintles on the front, and two on the rear of each vehicle. Having your wingman or other vehicle in your unit attempt to tow you out is the norm. If your vehicle is stuck, in a pinch, another vehicle can give you a tug with just one cable. But if there’s just the slightest bit of time available, then you can use both tracks cables. The only real trouble is usually that,if you’re mired in mud, it takes a heck of a lot of hard, messy work to dig down to where the tow pintles are. They’re fairly low to the ground1, and awkward to reach, even before you managed to get your track stuck in two or three feet of mud. Still, it beats trying to dig out the entire vehicle by hand. When a vehicle is badly mired, more than one additional vehicle may be needed to tow. Two or more tracks can be “daisy chained” to provide the pulling power needed to drag a vehicle out of really bad mud.
Now, if a vehicle has broken down, you’d think that simply towing it would be quite simple. You’d be wrong. First, did you know you have to cross the cables? Instead of just having the cables parallel to one another, you want them in an “X” formation. That provides smoother towing, especially when going around curves. But wait! There’s more! Tracked vehicles steer by braking action. They slow or stop the track on one side to turn. And of course, they stop both to stop. But if your vehicle is broken down, it has no braking power. So in addition to a tow vehicle, you have to have a braking vehicle hooked up via tow cables behind the broken vehicle. The Bradley (or what have you) in front provides the motive power, while the “drag” vehicle in the rear provides braking power, to keep the broken vehicle from rear-ending the first. It also helps provide steering to the broken vehicle. It’s inelegant, but has to be done. On the other hand, you can see where one vehicle breaking down has suddenly occupied 75% of the primary combat power of a platoon. Not an optimal situation.
In the old, old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and infantry battalions were equipped with the M113, each company had attached an M578 Recovery Vehicle. Using the chassis of the M110 howitzer, the M578 was easily capable of towing an M113, and also had a crane that could change engines and help change the track on vehicles.
The M578, admirable as it was, was far, far too small to recover tanks such as the M60 of the Cold War years, much less the 70 ton M1 Abrams. Tank units were equipped with the M88 recovery vehicle, a much larger beast. Based on the hull of the M60, the M88 replaced the turret with a cab, and had a massive A-frame for lifting. It also had a dozer blade on the front. While that blade could do some very limited earthmoving, it was mostly to provide stability when lifting very heavy loads.
I look at the above picture, and I’m kind of curious just how the crew managed to get an M60 on its side like that. Normally, you don’t see tank rollovers on level ground.
The M578 was too small to service the 26 ton Bradley, but the M88, designed for the 50 ton M60 was more than adequate. Each company of Bradley infantry (and each troop of Bradley cavalry) has an M88 in support. 2
But because the M88 was designed to support the 50 ton M60 series tanks, it was found somewhat wanting when it was tasked to support tank companies with 70 ton M1 Abrams tanks. The upgraded M88A2 Hercules is better, but not perfect. But as of now, there are no plans to replace it in the maintenance units of the Army.
Wheeled vehicles get stuck pretty often as well. The wheeled vehicles of a mechanized or armored company can, of course, be recovered by an M88. The battalion headquarters also has a wheeled 5-ton wrecker for support. Since most of the wheeled vehicles are in the headquarters company, it makes sense to keep the wrecker there.
Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) 5-ton Wrecker
Most wheeled vehicles don’t carry a tow cable. A certain percentage of wheeled vehicles are equipped with a winch, for either self recovery, or to recover other wheeled vehicles.
One of my favorite pieces of recovery equipment was specifically for recovering Humvees. Instead of a wire tow cable, where you take a strain, then pull the vehicle slowly and steadily, some units in the 1990s began to be issued AKERR- The Allied Kinetic Energy Recovery Rope. A strong synthetic rope, instead of taking a strain, and then pulling, you’d get the recovery Humvee as close as possible, with as much slack as possible to the stuck vehicle. Then you’d gun the heck out of it. The stretchy rope would spring like a rubber band, greatly increasing the (temporary) bollard pull weight, and snatching the stuck vehicle out of all but the most mired vehicles. I’m not saying I ever got a Humvee stuck. But I’m not saying I haven’t, either.
*M1 tanks also carry a tow cable, but just where they stow it escapes my memory for the moment.
1. Tow pintles also double as tie-down points for rail, truck, air or sea transport.
2. While each company has an M88 in support, the vehicles and the crews belong to the maintenance platoon of the battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC). The battalion maintenance platoon has teams dedicated to direct support of each line company, as well as a team or teams for the HHC vehicles. A typical company maintenance team consists of an M88, an M113, and a 2-1/2 ton truck for spare parts. The team is usually about squad sized.