Category Archives: armor

20 November 1943 Tarawa; Keep Moving

Originally posted 20 November 2009:

The buildings in the “regimental area” of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina are modest, post-war brick buildings that, to the visitor’s eye, look more or less alike. Yet, each of the Marine Regiments of the Second Marine Division has its own storied history and battle honors.  As Captain J. W. Thomason wrote in his Great War masterpiece Fix Bayonets, these histories represent the “…traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as Regiments hand down forever.”

There are symbols of these honors for one to see, if you know where to look. On a thousand trips past those symbols, there is one that never failed to make me pause and reflect. On the headquarters building for the 2d Marine Regiment hangs their unit crest. Aside from the unit name, the crest contains only three words. They are in English and not Latin, and they are not a catch phrase nor a bold proclamation of a warrior philosophy. They are simple and stark. Across the top of the unit crest is the word “TARAWA”. And at the bottom, the grim admonition, “KEEP MOVING”.


It was 66 years ago on this date that the Second Marine Division began the assault on Betio Island, in the Tarawa Atoll. The island, roughly two thirds of the size of my college’s small campus, was the most heavily fortified beach in the world. Of the Second Marine Division, the 2nd Marine Regiment (known as “Second Marines”) landed two battalions abreast on beaches Red 1 and Red 2. The assault began what was described as “seventy-six stark and bitter hours” of the most brutal combat of the Pacific War. More than 1,000 Marines and Sailors were killed, nearly 2,300 wounded, along with nearly 5,000 Japanese dead, in the maelstrom of heat, sand, fire, and smoke that was Betio.

Assault on Betio's Northern beaches

Assault on Betio’s Northern beaches

Marine Dead on Beach Red 1

Marine Dead on Beach Red 1

I will not detail the fighting for Betio here, as there are many other sources for that information. Nor will I debate whether the terrible price paid for Betio was too high. What cannot be debated is the extraordinary heroism of the Marines and Sailors who fought to secure the 1.1 square miles of baking sand and wrest it from the grasp of an entrenched, fortified, and determined enemy. The fighting was described as “utmost savagery”, and casualties among Marine officers and NCOs were extremely high. As one Marine stated, initiative and courage were absolute necessities. Corporals commanded platoons, and Staff Sergeants, companies.

Marines assault over coconut log wall on Beach Red 2

Marines assault over coconut log wall on Beach Red 2

The book by the late Robert Sherrod, “Tarawa, The Story of a Battle”, is a magnificent read. Another is Eric Hammel’s “76 Hours”. Also “Utmost Savagery”, by Joe Alexander, who additionally produced the WWII commemorative “Across the Reef”, an excellent compilation of primary source material. For video, The History Channel produced a 50th anniversary documentary on the battle, titled “Death Tide at Tarawa”, in November 1993. I also highly recommend finding and watching this superb production. It is narrated by Edward Hermann, and interviews many of the battle’s veterans, including Robert Sherrod, MajGen Mike Ryan, and others, who provide chilling and inspiring commentary of the fighting and of the terrible carnage of those three days.

 Master Sgt. James M. Fawcett, left and Capt. Kyle Corcoran salute Fawcett's father's ashes on Red Beach 1. MSgt Fawcett's father landed on Red 1 on 20 Nov 1943.

Master Sgt. James M. Fawcett, left and Capt. Kyle Corcoran salute Fawcett’s father’s ashes on Red Beach 1. MSgt Fawcett’s father landed on Red 1 on 20 Nov 1943.

Tarawa remains a proud and grim chapter in the battle histories of the units of the Second Marine Division. Each outfit, the 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 10th Marines, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Tracks, and miscellaneous support units, fought superbly against frightful odds and a fearsome enemy. It is on the Unit Crest of the 2nd Marines, whose battalions paid the highest price for Betio, that the most poignant of those histories is remembered. Three simple words: “TARAWA; KEEP MOVING”.



Filed under armor, Around the web, Artillery, aviation, Defense, doctrine, engineering, guns, history, infantry, leadership, logistics, marines, navy, planes, ships, SIR!, Uncategorized, veterans, war, weapons, World War II

M1 Tank Survivability

From this tweet, we find video of what purports to be an attack on a Saudi M1 Abrams tank in Yemen.  It’s pretty poor quality video. It is actually hard to tell if it is indeed an Abrams. The roof doesn’t quite look right.

The missile is probably an 9M133 Kornet, which is quite the formidable weapon, and quite capable of destroying an M1.

But in this case, look closer.

We see a massive blast at missile impact. And we see what appears to be some sheet metal or similar flying off to the upper right. But as the fireball fades, what we don’t see is any secondary explosions or post impact fire. The second explosion is simply a replay of the initial impact. It’s quite possible the missile either simply missed the tank, or hit a non-vital part of it. Or if it did impact the crew compartment, the on board fire suppression system worked as advertised to immediately suppress any fire. The M1 tank wasn’t built to be indestructible. It was, instead, built to provide the greatest likelihood that the crew would survive an attack, even one that destroyed the tank.

1 Comment

Filed under armor

What’s old is new again, the Armored Gun System and Mobile Protected Firepower.

Light forces lack firepower. Tis true. The light Infantry Brigade Combat Team has small arms, mortars, Javelin and TOW missiles, and a 105mm towed artillery battalion. What they don’t have is a heavy direct fire weapon. This is particularly stressing to the Airborne Brigade Combat Teams of the 82nd Airborne Division. Airborne forces can, by doctrine, expect to operate outside the reach of supporting arms of higher echelons. Yes, the can expect to receive plenty of close air support, but CAS takes time, and often is restricted due to ROE or concerns about friendly casualties. What they need is a rapid response heavy direct fire system to overmatch enemy light forces.

They used to have such a capability with the M551 Sheridan light Armored Reconnaissance/Airborne Assault Vehicle. But the 1960s era Sheridan was worn out by the time it was retired in the early 1990s. The Army actually developed a replacement for the Sheridan in the early 1990s, but the “peace dividend” of the end of the Cold War saw its cancellation due to budget cuts.

The Sheridan replacement was to be the M8 Buford Armored Gun System. Development was rapid, but very smooth, and the Army went through the complete development and trials process, and type classified it. Basically, it was evaluated and approved for service. It was everything the Army wanted in a vehicle to support the Airborne.

A fully tracked vehicle mounting an autoloading 105mm rifled main gun, the M8 was powered by a 550hp diesel engine. The three man crew serviced a vehicle that, in addition to the main gun, carried an M240 7.62mm coaxial gun and mounted a .50cal M2 machine gun on the commander’s cupola. The main gun autoloader held 21 rounds of ready ammunition and a reserve of 9 rounds, both HEAT and Sabot rounds being available. Both a day sight and a thermal night sight controlled the weapons. 150 gallons of diesel or JP8 gave it a range of about 280 miles. .

What the M8 most decidedly wasn’t was a tank. Sure, it looked like a tank. Fully tracked, turret, 105mm gun. What it didn’t have was a lot of armor. You see, the key defining requirement was that the M8 had to be capable of being airdropped via parachute from the C-130. And that limitation imposed hard limits on the weight and size of the vehicle. Basically, the design could be no more than 18 tons, and 100” high or less. That meant very little armor. The benchmark was the M8 had to be able to withstand 14.5mm machine gun fire and fragments from 155mm artillery rounds at 20 meters. That’s essentially the same level of protection that the original vanilla M2 Bradley had in 1983.

That’s pretty minimal protection for a vehicle on the battlefield. So the team at United Defense and the Army developed the “Level” system. While the basic armor was really light, additional bolt-on armor kits could be installed in the field to improve protection. For instance, the slightly heavier Level II bolt on kit would provide improved protection against mines. The M8 could not be airdropped in this configuration, but could still be carried inside a C-130. It would simply have to be airlanded, rather than dropped. The Level III kit gave the M8 a weight of about 25 tons. While that was too much for a C-130 to haul, three could fit in a C-17, or five in a C-5 Galaxy. The Level III configuration would provide decent protection from hand-held anti-armor weapons such as RPGs.

The concept was that Level I M8s would be airdropped onto the battlefield, and as quickly as possible, increased levels would be added. The three man crew could bolt on the additional protection in a couple hours with simple hand tools.


All in all, the Army was very happy with the M8. The plan was to buy enough to equip the 82nd Airborne division with one battalion, and the (then “light”) 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment with about three squadrons worth. That was a pretty small production run planned, which given the development costs* drove up the unit price. And since we all know that in the mid-1990s there were no threats and no possible opponents, the program was cancelled to save money. The 82nd and the 2ACR would just have to get by with Humvees.

So we find ourselves in 2015 with light forces that, as ever, still lack heavy direct firepower. Sure, eventually our light forces can place artillery or air support on target. But many targets on the battlefield are fleeting. The key to winning the firefight is overmatching their fires rapidly. And that means having the firepower on the ground with the troops, right there, right then.

And so, the Army, particularly the Maneuver Center at Ft. Benning, home of the Infantry and Armor branches, is looking at a program called Mobile Protected Firepower. And after the disastrous, expensive and futile programs such as FCS and other stalled development programs, the Army was looking for something they could buy “off the shelf” at minimal cost. Development is expensive. Buying vehicles is, comparatively, not.

Lo and behold, BAE Systems, the successor to United Defense, just happens to have a vehicle that fits in pretty well with what the Army is looking for. It’s called, wait for it…. The M8!

A few updates would be necessary for the updated M8 to fit in with today’s Army. The original 6V92TIA diesel engine is out of production. The likely replacement would be the Bradley’s Cummins VTA903 600hp diesel that also powers the AAV-7, and the M109A7 gun, and its associated M992 ammo carrier.

It would also need integration of the FBCB2 digital command and control system, in a vehicle that’s already pretty tight inside, and likely with some serious weight and power constraints, all while not busting the weight limit for airdrop.

Still, adding the firepower and mobility of a battalion of M8s to the light Infantry and Airborne Brigade Combat Teams would be a significant boost at minimal costs.

BAE called this the Expeditionary Light Tank, which, to my thinking is a bad idea. If you fight the M8 as a tank, you’re going to die. It simply will never have the armor to withstand fighting like a tank. It can kill tanks easily enough. It just can’t go toe to toe against them without being lit up like a Christmas tree.

But really, while General John Buford was a fine cavalry officer, they really, really need to rethink the name.

*It was a remarkably smooth development. In spite of a sophisticated hydropnuematic suspension and the complex but reliable autoloader, development was quite rapid, and testing was very successful. Program managers would be well advised to study the program. The single biggest key to success in the program was the limitation of “creep” in requirements.  The absolute hard limit on being able to airdrop a combat ready vehicle proved a very good firewall against the “good idea fairy.”


Filed under armor

More on OpFor VisMods

A couple of years ago, we discussed the Army’s fleet of Visually Modified vehicles that equip the various Opposing Forces at its maneuver training centers. As it turns out, we’re not the only Army to take that approach. Spill just tipped me to this nifty gallery of some other nations VisMods.

 Soviet "M1 Abrams"

1 Comment

Filed under armor

A Weasel for the Cavalry?

LTG McMaster, in addition to discussing future fighting vehicles for the Infantry, is also hinting that the Army might want to buy a very lightly armored vehicle for light  cavalry units.

Light armor is very problematical. It’s vulnerable to anything beyond the the smallest of small arms fire. Artillery, RPGs, ATGMs, tank guns, mines and IEDs, you name it, they can defeat light armor.

But the alternative to light armor isn’t heavy armor, it’s no armor at all, and how realistic is that proposition? So LTG McMaster is looking at providing the Cavalry squadrons of Airborne and Air Assault Brigade Combat Teams a platform beyond the M1114 Humvee. And since money is tight, it would have to be an off the shelf, non-developmental product.

And the product they’re looking at is the German Wiesel (hereafter, Weasel). Back in the 1970s, the Bundeswehr was looking for a weapons carrier for their own light forces. Development was pretty smooth, but for budgetary reasons, the light, tracked Weasel didn’t enter service until about 1985.

After buying a few hundred in the 80s and 90s, the Germans built a somewhat larger version, the v2. Having a fifth roadwheel and longer body, along with a newer, more powerful engine, it’s still very light, but has significantly more internal volume. This is, presumably, the variant the US Army is looking at.

Wiesel 2

Fitting in six troops is a tight squeeze. And I’m not really sure you need six. The old M114 recon vehicle had a three or four man crew.

Wiesel interior

I’m not sure I’m ready to equip all the light Cav squadrons with these, but I wouldn’t mind seeing at least one equipped and operationally tested.

The Weasel has a couple of interesting capabilities. First, it can be carried by a CH-47 Chinook. And not just as a sling load. You can actually drive it right inside. Three or four can be stuffed into a C-130. From what I hear, Bundeswehr air drop tests were less than successful, but I suspect our airborne guys could figure out a way to airdrop them.

The Germans seem pretty happy with theirs, so it might be worth looking at. At this point, I’m inclined to look favorably on pretty much anything that increases the mobility and firepower of the light formations.


Filed under armor

Marines about to downselect to two competitors for the Amphibious Combat Vehicle Program

The legacy AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicle is very, very long in the tooth, having entered service in the 1960s. Even though it has gone through two major revisions, it is undoubtedly due for replacement. It is an excellent swimmer, but not so great ashore. But that’s the challenge with any amphibious vehicle- balancing the performance afloat, where you spend about 1% of your time, with performance ashore, where you actually do the fighting. But if you can’t swim well, then what is the point? Unfortunately, these two requirements tend to compete against one another.

After the expensive and technically ambitious but frustrating development of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was cancelled, the Marines eventually asked for proposals for a low end amphibious vehicle capable of carrying 11 troops, and incorporating lessons learned about protection against IEDs learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five teams submitted proposals, and the Marines expect to downselect to two teams shortly. Those two teams will provide 16 vehicles each that will then undergo about 2 years of engineering and operational testing.

Megan Eckstein at USNI News has a piece comparing the five entrants.

I’m leaning toward the BAE systems variant myself, but of course, Lockheed Martin will use its en0rmous political influence to try to win.

BAE Systems and Iveco Defense partnered to create this entrant for the Marines ACV 1.1 competition. Photo courtesy BAE Systems.

BAE Systems and Iveco Defense partnered to create this entrant for the Marines ACV 1.1 competition. Photo courtesy BAE Systems.

Lockheed Martin's ACV 1.1 prototype. Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin’s ACV 1.1 prototype. Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin.

Click on over and read the whole thing.


Filed under armor, marines

Wal-Mart and future Army vehicles.

So, Wal-Mart has a prototype of a new Peterbuilt/Great Dane big rig. Whether they order it into production remains to be seen.

I don’t really care about the aerodynamics part, but the drive train is interesting. Spill and I were talking about future Army vehicles (hope to get the podcast edited and published today) and one thing I neglected to bloviate on was the powerplants.

This Wal-Mart prototype uses a small gas turbine to charge a battery bank, and electric motors to actually move the vehicle. 

Today, the US uses the M1 Abrams tank, which famously uses a gas turbine. It, however, is directly geared to the transmission, much as a gas turbine is used to spin the props of a turbo-prop.  That gives the Abrams great power, and more importantly, great acceleration compared to diesel powered vehicles of similar weight and horsepower. The problem is, it isn’t terribly fuel efficient, with the a Abrams being famous for sucking down hundreds of gallons of JP-8 daily.

A hybrid gas turbine/electric plant avoids some of the pitfalls of that turbine inefficiency. First, the horsepower/torque requirement is shifted from the turbine to the electric motors. That means you can likely use a significantly smaller turbine. The turbine isn’t there to move the vehicle, it’s there to run the generator. And you can optimize a turbine and transfer case to run the turbine at its most efficient speed constantly.

Alternatively, when you have a decent charge on the battery banks, you can simply shut down the turbine, and yet still have power available to instantly move the vehicle. As it stands now, Abrams spend a LOT of time idling their turbines. Guess what? An Abrams burns fuel almost as fast at idle as it does when it’s moving.  It wouldn’t take much to configure the turbine to automatically start as soon as the vehicle started moving. And since every time you move, you start charging, that means your battery bank can be comparatively small.

I can easily see a future family of integrated gas turbine/electric motor powerplants for almost every type of Army vehicle. Further, this type of powerplant is very helpful when we’re also looking at the ever increasing electrical loads place on vehicles by sensors and networking.  And if future vehicles rely on lasers for active protection against, say, anti-tank missiles, they’ll need even more electrical power.

This is also very similar to the integrated drive system the Navy’s DDG-1000 Zumwalt class uses.


Filed under armor, ARMY TRAINING