Category Archives: armor

Suribachi

Four days after the bloody struggle to come ashore on Iwo Jima’s fire-swept black volcanic sand beaches, a patrol from 28th Marines was ordered to the top of the sullen volcanic lump that dominated the six square miles of sulphur and rock.  The seven-man patrol under the Executive Officer of Easy Company, 28th Marines raised a small flag.  The flag, difficult to see from the beach, was replaced by a larger one retrieved from one of the LSTs offshore supporting the landing.  Five Marines and one Navy Corpsman labored under fire to plant the larger colors into the rocky ground. The raising of the second, larger flag was captured by Joe Rosenthal, and became the most iconic and reproduced image in the history of photography.

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Many commonly believe that the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi signaled the end of the fight for Iwo Jima.  In reality, twenty-two more days of relentless and ferocious savagery lay ahead.  It was not until 26 March 1945 that Iwo Jima was declared secured.  Of the six men who raised the flag on Suribachi, three, Sgt Mike Strank, Cpl Harlan Block, and PFC Franklin Sousley, would die on the island, along with more than 6,800 others, mostly Marines.  A fourth flag raiser, Second Class Hospital Corpsman John Bradley, was among the more than 19,000 wounded.   The man who took the motion picture footage from the same vantage as Rosenthal, Marine Combat Cameraman Bill Genaust, was later killed in one of Suribachi’s hundreds of caves.

Bradley received a Navy Cross for his actions in combat on 21 February, and Strank a Bronze Star.  Bill Genaust also received a Bronze Star.

The above movie is the approximately 20 minute production called “To the Shores of Iwo Jima”.  Well worth the time, as it is a grim and unvarnished look at the titanic struggle for Iwo.  Seldom have the words of a senior officer been so accurate, or heartfelt, as when Admiral Chester Nimitz described the fight for the island.

Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue

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Vice Admiral Rowden’s Message

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You can read the text of it over at Salamander’s place.  Micromanagement?  Possibly.  Necessary?  Some folks, among which is a guy named Greenert, seem to think so.  From where I sit, it seems there is some serious concern (finally) on the part of Navy leadership from the CNO on down, including SURFPAC, that our numbered Fleet Commanders don’t know how to fight their fleets, that Task Force Commanders do not know how to fight their task forces, nor Battle Group Commanders their Battle Groups, or individual COs and Officers, their warships.   There is, it is suspected, a lack of understanding of warfighting at all levels.  From the Operational Arts, to doctrine and tactics, down to techniques, and procedures, there is an alarming lack of understanding in areas for which we should strive for mastery.  In addition, it is likely that there is serious question about the true state of readiness of our fleet and the ships and aircraft (and Sailors) which comprise it.  Maintenance, training, proficiency, mindset, all these are suspect.

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I think SURFPAC’s message is a very good step in the right direction.  It may also shake out the most egregious impediments to training for war, both self-inflicted and externally imposed.  This includes peripheral tasks that take up inordinate time and attention, maintenance and manpower shortcomings that render weapons and engineering systems non-mission capable, and jumping through burdensome administrative hoops required to perform the most basic of combat training.

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I cannot say whether or not VADM Rowden dislikes Mission Command.  I hope that he does not, because the ability of junior commanders to take the initiative and act boldly across widely-flung battlefields in the absence of orders has been the critical element of success for many centuries.  But Mission Command requires junior leaders who are positively imbued in their craft, and senior leaders who understand what must be done and can clearly express their intent (and then have the courage to trust their subordinates).   The entirety of the US Navy, more so perhaps than the other services, must rely on such leadership for its survival in combat with an enemy.  Unfortunately, the Navy may be the service that has become the most over-supervised and zero-defect-laden bastion of micromanagement in all of DoD.

Gunnery training aboard U.S.S. Astoria (CA-34), spring 1942.

Vice Admiral Rowden’s message has an almost desperate tone to it.   As if, to quote Service, Navy leadership realizes that it is later than you think.  One cannot help but be reminded of the myriad comments from US cruiser sailors in 1942.  Following initial and deadly encounters with a skilled and fearsome Japanese Navy in the waters off the Solomons, many deckplate sailors swore they would never again bitch about the seemingly incessant gunnery and damage control drills that interrupted their shipboard lives.    Like 1942, a Naval clash against a near-peer who can muster temporary advantage will be a costly affair where even the winner is badly bloodied.  Unlike 1942, there is no flood of new warships on the slips which can make good such losses.

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Words from an earlier post of USS Hugh W. Hadley, on the picket line off Okinawa, reinforce the importance of what VADM Rowden wants:

LESSONS LEARNED, CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:

                      1.  It must be impressed that constant daily drills in damage control using all personnel on the ship and especially those who are not in the regular damage control parties will prove of  value when emergencies occur.  The various emergency pumps which were on board were used effectively to put out fires.  Damage control schools proved their great value and every member of the crew is now praising this training.

                      2.  I was amazed at the performance of the 40 and 20 guns.  Contrary to my expectation, those smaller guns shot down the bulk of the enemy planes. Daily the crews had dinned into their minds the following order “LEAD THAT  PLANE”.  Signs were painted at the gun stations as follows “LEAD THAT PLANE”.  It worked, they led and the planes flew right through our projectiles.

Not the things of (fill in the blank) History Month or of SAPR or “diversity” training….

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Armor Upgrades

We noted an article in The Diplomat remarking on the recapitalization of the Army’s armored fleet.

And you’ve probably seen in the news in the last year or two complaints about how Congress was wasting money on new tanks the Army didn’t even want. Well, that’s not exactly true- after all, when is the last time the press was accurate about anything related to the military. The Army hasn’t bought a brand new tank since the early 1990s. What they have been doing is running tanks through a complete rebuild, upgrading to the latest configuration, known as M1A2 SEP v2. And it was never that the Army didn’t want to continue upgrading tanks. But under the sequester, the Army had to prioritize spending, and wanted to delay M1 upgrades in favor of other programs. Congress noted that delaying upgrades would force the plant to close, and potentially lose the skilled workforce. It was a matter of pay me now, or pay me later. In the long run, reopening the plant would cost more than simply keeping it open. And so Congress told the Army to do so. Don’t think for a moment the Army didn’t know the Congress was going to do this. There’s a very, very long history of the services, when faced with a budget crunch, putting important, popular programs on the block, knowing full well that Congress will put them back in the budget.

At any event, having played that game with Congress for a bit, the Army has now gone in the other direction, asking for quite a bit more money to upgrade tanks.

Army leaders have thus far taken up a losing battle against Congress to temporarily halt funding for its Abrams tanks. However, that changed in its latest budget proposal as the service has reversed course and asked for 50 percent more funding for the M1 Abrams tank over last year.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Congress in 2o12 that the Army wanted to spend money on other modernization priorities. Congress pushed back saying it was a mistake to shut down the production line of the M1 tank, which is located in Lima, Ohio, even if it’s a temporary shut down. The Army would risk losing the skilled workers at the plants and spend more on training when they needed to reopen the production line for the Abrams upgrades the Army had said it needed in 2017.

The Army apparently listened to the critique, as service officials requested $368 million for upgrades to the M1 tank. Last year, the Army asked for $237 million.

What are some of the upgrades the Army is implementing in the fleet? Well, shortly the M1 fleet will have a new type of ammunition, and importantly, a new thermal sight/sensor.

The ability to identify targets prior to engagement remains one of the biggest obstacles to improving Abrams lethality. The new IFLIR solves this problem using long- and mid-wave infrared technology in both the gunner’s primary sight and the commander’s independent thermal viewer. The IFLIR will provide four fields of view (FOV) displayed on high-definition displays, greatly improving target acquisition, identification and engagement times – compared to the current second-generation FLIR – under all conditions, including fog / obscurants.

When the M1 was first introduced in the early 1980s, the tanks thermal sight was almost black magic. The ability to see through dark and smoke was astonishing to gunners trained on earlier systems. Up to that point, night gunnery was conducted with searchlights mounted above the gun tube!

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The technology of thermal sights has greatly improved over the last 30 odd years, and the sights have been steadily improved since then. The original sight would seem crude to today’s gunners. A second thermal sight was added in the 1990s to give the tank commander an independent thermal vision device.*

The improvements, taken together, will establish the M1A2 SEP v3 configuration.

*That capability was planned from the outset of the M1 program, but not intially installed for cost reasons.

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Let’s talk about the Bradley some more…

A bit of a stroll down memory lane for me, as it were.  First, the Bradley’s been in service since about 1982. Main production variants of the Infantry Fighting Vehicle version include the M2*, M2A1, M2A2-ODS**, and the M2A3. I’ve never seen an M2A3, but I’ve dealt with all the other models. Oddly, I mostly went backwards. I was loaned out to a unit for Desert Storm, and it was equipped with brand new M2A2 vehicles. Months later, I was assigned to a unit in Colorado that was equipped with M2A1 models. And when that unit went to the National Training Center, we drew vehicles there for our rotation from the common pool rather than bringing our own. Those vehicles were vanilla, early production M2s. Eventually, I got to spend just a bit of time on an M2A2-ODS at Ft. Benning.

Esli had this to say about reloading the main gun on a Bradley.

It’s easy but not too fast. You have to traverse the turret, pop off some covers to give the guys in back access. Then, the guys in back have to move all the gear that is stacked up all over the floor, raise the floor panels and pull long cans with multiple straps around them up. Then open the long cans, which are covered in a thick sheath. Then feed belts of AP or HE into the ready boxes, reorganize the rear stowage and reinstall the covers and then traverse the turret back. (What our host may not know is that an upgrade to the rear of the track changed the 25mm stowage to this new system.) I made all my infantry crews practice this.

By the way, no static Bradley begins to convey how cramped they are when loaded up with nine guys and all their gear. Particularly cramped in the turret.

Youtube has all kinds of neat Bradley videos (see below) but apparently none showing the loading of the ammo cans. The ammo cans for the Bradley are the the front of the turret, beneath the gun mount itself, right about where the gunner and commander’s shins are. You may recall that the M242 25mm gun fires two types of ammunition, Armor Piercing (AP)*** and High Explosive Incendiary (HE). Both types of ammunition are carried simultaneously, and the gun can switch from one type of ammo to the other simply by pressing a button on the gun control panel. Here’s an oddity. The next round fired after changing the selection will be of the previously selected ammo- that is, if you fire a burst of AP, then switch to HE, your next shot will be AP before the HE starts loading and shooting. AP and HE have very visibly different ballistic trajectories, and it is quite disconcerting at first to see the first round of a burst fly off on a path well away from where the reticle in the Gunner’s Sight Unit would lead you to expect.

The ammo cans, in spite of being right in front of the turret crew, cannot be accessed from inside the turret. There are two cans. One holds 230 rounds of ammo, and the other holds 70 rounds. The “normal” load is 230 rounds of HE, and the smaller can with 70 rounds of AP. Both kinds of ammo used to  come in boxes that hold two 15 round linked belts of ammo.

The boxes are sized to fit under the floorboards of the troop compartment, filling the space between the hull and the floorboards. The new ammo storage is supposed to be easier and more ergonomic. Don’t bet on it. Now the crew pulls ammo out of the cans, and loads them into “hot boxes” under the floorboards in 50 round belts for “ease” of loading.

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Here’s what the back of the vehicle looks like. You can see the pop-up floorboards more clearly here.

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Actually the interior of the troop compartment of a Cavalry M3. The M2 has bench seating on both sides of the compartment.

You can also see the turret basket and some of the interior of the turret itself. The shielding around the turret does not rotate. There’s a sliding door that is normally closed when operating the turret for safety.

The belts of ammo don’t just rest in the bottom of the turret ammo cans. Instead, there are flanges on each link of the ammo belt that are used to hang the ammo along side rails at the top of the ammo can. Loops of about 25 rounds hang in the can.

Dummy 25mm ammo. The flanges are at the top and bottom of the link.

Actually, in one can, the ammo goes under the top rails, and on the other, the ammo is “upside down” with the links on the bottom, so one round of the ammo itself rides along the top of the rails inside the can. Sound confusing? It is. Who knew simply loading ammo in a can would involved having to count exactly how many rounds were being looped in. From FM 23-1 Bradley Gunnery.

Load AP

Load HE

I’ve tried to find a decent picture of the actual loading setup, but my google fu failed me.

Note that the cans load from the side. The gunner has to spin the turret to align first one can, then the other with the turret shield door (and engage the turret lock, and turn off the turret drive motor for safety) before loading can actually begin. If the cans are partly filled, the counting process still has to occur, and the loader just hangs the ammo. But if the  cans are completely empty, the gunner has to use a ratchet wrench to drive a pawl that feeds the ammo up the feed chutes to the gun’s feeder, and go through the hassle of actually feeding both types of ammo into the feeder and cycling the ghost round. If you really want to learn about that, which I’ve mostly forgotten, feel free to consult FM 23-1 yourself, embedded below.

Enough of this. As noted, the Bradley entered service in 1982. Here’s a contemporary video released by FMC, the manufacturer, about that time. There’s some good shooty and splodey in it. It also shows loading the TOW missile launcher from the troop compartment via the top hatch over the troop compartment.

It also shows the Firing Port Weapons in use. I’ve actually shot them. Today, they’re virtually never used. In fact, M2A2 models and later blanked over the ports on the sides of the vehicle, leaving only the two on the rear ramp.

The “bible” for shooting the Bradley, and training crews was, as noted above, FM 23-1 Bradley Gunnery. Far more than the mechanical aspects, it discusses armored vehicle gunnery techniques in general, as well as platoon fire distribution and some other good stuff. Like, you know it is legal under the laws of war to shoot paratroops hanging in their chutes, but not aircrew escaping from a downed aircraft? I used to have this manual virtually memorized. Now… not so much.

 

*Often referred to as M2A0 to differentiate from the more generic “M2” designation.

**ODS- Operation Desert Storm. A series of improvements derived from lessons learned and suggestions from the field, mostly concerning internal rearrangements and addition of a laser range finder.

***Actually, Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot- Tracer, or APFSDS-T. Similarly the High Explosive has an incendiary component and also a tracer element, and is more properly HEI-T. In common usage and in fire commands, they’re simply referred to as AP or HE.

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About that War is Boring Article on the Bradley…

Spill nudged me about this post at War is Boring about the Army wanting to replace the Bradley some 38 years ago.

The U.S. Army Wanted to Replace the Bradley 38 Years Ago

And of course, the movie The Pentagon Wars makes an appearance.

Thanks to the famous made-for-TV movie The Pentagon Wars, many Americans are aware of the problems with the U.S. Army’s Bradley fighting vehicle.

………….

In 1977, Congress wanted to know if the new armored personnel carrier could survive a fight against Soviet forces in Europe. By that time, the Army had worked on the Bradley—while repeatedly changing its requirements—for years.

“The Army requires an infantry righting vehicle [and] the design of the IFV is acceptable,” concludes an Army study, which the Pentagon declassified in 2003, and recently released online at the Army’s Heritage and Education Center.

The Bradley would enter service. But now legislators wanted plans for a better design that could be ready within the decade.

Every fighting vehicle is a compromise among several traits. Speed, survivability, protection, signature, lethality, weight, and affordability all have to be weighed in the balance. Another critical factor is time. That is, the time needed to study, propose, design, test, manufacture, and field a weapon system. 

Let’s also note that the article refutes its own premise. The Army wasn’t looking to replace the Bradley even as it first started to roll off the production line. Congress was mandating the Army conduct a study. That’s a horse of a somewhat different color.

The Army asked itself back in the late 1970s and early 1980s not whether the Bradley was a perfect vehicle, but rather, is the Bradley a more effective vehicle for the threat we face than the current M113 Armored Personnel carrier?

Having served in units equipped with both, let me assure you the answer to that question was unquestionably an emphatic YES!

From the article:

The problem was that future Soviet tanks might turn the Bradleys into veritable coffins. If World War III broke out, the U.S. could face Russian armored beasts with huge main guns, long-range missiles and thick armor.

“In the 1987 time frame, the Warsaw Pact 130-division force … would contain more than 34,000 tanks, the majority being T-72s, with a good proportion of the successor tank,” the Army’s study warns.

 

Well, duh. That’s why the Army was also fielding the M1 Abrams tank.  And that snippet above also doesn’t mention that tens of thousands of BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and BTR Armored Personnel Carriers that would accompany any fleet of Soviet tanks plunging through the Fulda Gap. You know, the very BMPs and BTRs the Bradley was optimized to destroy? With the Bradleys smoking BMPs and BTRs, then the M1 tanks would be free to concentrate on killing the hordes of T-72 tanks the Army study mentioned.

The article goes on to examine possible Bradley replacements, and manages to compare them to the German Marder and other allied Infantry Fighting Vehicles. What it doesn’t quite manage to make clear to the reader is that those vehicles are very much comparable to the Bradley in terms of armor. None had the heavy, tank like armor the article implies.

The problem with installing tank like armor on an Infantry Fighting Vehicle is pretty soon, you have a tank, and the problem of fitting infantry into it is even worse than cramming dismounts into the back of a Bradley.

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M9 Armored Combat Earthmover

The three primary missions of the Engineers in combat are mobility, counter-mobility, and force protection. Rather obviously, this means ensuring our freedom of maneuver, by improving roads and reducing obstacles, both natural and man made; emplacing obstacles to slow, channel or turn an enemy force; and digging or building positions for friendly forces.

As you might expect, a large portion of this can be accomplished by earthmoving. As a mechanized Infantryman mounted on a Bradley, my most common interaction with the Engineers was when we had a D7 bulldozer dig fighting positions for our vehicles.

Merely pushing a berm in front of the position does little to offer protection for fighting vehicles. While it might defeat HEAT rounds, kinetic rounds hardly notice a dirt berm before passing through the frontal armor, engine block, turret basket and troop compartment and then exiting the rear ramp armor. So the position is dug deep enough to fully conceal the vehicle. But the vehicle also has to be able to fight from the position, so there is a step on the front half of the position that the Bradley can drip up on, exposing only the turret, giving it a field of fire. Pop up, shoot, scoot back, scan for the next target. In gunnery terms, this is known as a “berm drill.”

While the D7 bulldozer is very, very well suited for digging said positions, it is not without its drawbacks.

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First, it is completely unarmored. If the position isn’t completely secure, the operator is at an unacceptable risk. But failing to construct the positions then places the fighting vehicles at a completely unacceptable risk.

Secondly, the D7 is rather slow, with a maximum speed of around 7 miles per hour. That means it has to be transported from location to location on a heavy equipment trailer. That also means the trailer is restricted to relatively good terrain. The truck and trailer also are unarmored, and add an additional logistical, manning, and maintenance burden.

And so, starting in the late 1980s, the Army began fielding a lightweight vehicle known as the M9 ACE or Armored Combat Earthmover. A relatively lightweight tracked vehicle with a bulldozer blade on front, it was proof against small arms fire and artillery fragments. The driver was protected. The hydropnuematic suspension allowed it to travel cross country, and on roads at a respectable 30 miles per hour or so. Maybe not enough to keep up with Bradley’s and M1 Abrams, but enough that the wait for ACE shouldn’t be too long.

Light weight is a disadvantage for a bulldozer, though. The tracks need significant weight on them to increase the dozing ability. So the M9 can actually also act as a grader/scraper, and load a ballast compartment just behind the blade with earth to improve its earthmoving ability. When it is done, it can also eject that earth. In between missions, that space can be used to carry cargo or engineer supplies.

My experience with the M9 is very limited. I have heard that some dozer operators didn’t like it, and felt it was a rather poor earthmover, especially those who had previous experience with the D7. It has also had a long, long history of maintenance issues, primarily associated with its complex suspension system.

What’s especially interesting is the long development time of the M9. As I mentioned, the Army didn’t start buying the M9 until the late 1980s. But that doesn’t mean it was a new design. Its design actually dates back to the early 1960s.

With a few minor changes, the UET would become the M9. So why the 20 year gap between design and fielding? First, just as the Army was finishing development, Vietnam happened. And the money that would have gone for the UET instead went to fighting that war. In the years after Vietnam, the Army’s funding priorities were on the Big Five, the M1, M2/M3, UH-60, AH-64, and Patriot missile. It wasn’t until those programs were well in hand that other priorities could be addressed.

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World War II Armor in the Balkans Wars of the 1990s

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The eight-plus years of bloody conflict in the Balkans that began with the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and (more or less) ended with the Kumanovo Treaty of 1999 displayed for the world the lingering bitter ethnic and religious divides that made the fighting in both world wars so savage earlier in the century.  The 1980 death of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito uncapped the regional tensions which led to the successful  independence movements in Slovenia and Croatia, and wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Kosovo.

The grim history of these events is replete with the age-old themes of conflict in that area of the world.  Atrocities, massacres, rape, savagery.  To which was added the feckless and ineffectual UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR), arms embargoes, belated NATO participation, and a Europe once again largely unconcerned with a conflagration in the Balkans.

What is a curious aspect of these wars is the extent to which tanks and armored vehicles left over from World War II populated the battlefields of those wars.   In the post-World War II period and during the Cold War, Tito’s Yugoslavia was an officially “non-aligned” nation, and as a result was the recipient of both US and Soviet military aid.  This aid consisted of several hundred of the ubiquitous Soviet T-34 and US M4 Sherman tanks and M18 Hellcat tank destroyers, along with self-propelled guns, AFVs, and other implements.  Also, during the time when Yugoslavia seemed threatened by imminent Soviet invasion, nearly 30o 90mm-armed M36 Jackson tank destroyers were supplied by the United States.   The T-34 and M4 variants were late-war models, the T-34/85 and M4A3, respectively, the former carrying the 85mm D12 cannon, and the latter armed with the excellent long-barreled 76mm gun.

In the 1970s, Yugoslavia began to produce its own variant of the modern T-72 main battle tank, replacing the older T-54/55 in service.  It was thought that while some of the T-34/85s probably still existed in reserve, most of the American equipment was long since withdrawn from the inventory.  However, when the Balkan Wars began in 1991, and particularly after the so-called “Battle of the Barracks” that summer which led to the capture of large numbers of Yugoslavia National Army (JNA) tanks and heavy weapons by the Croatian independence forces, many of the old American and Soviet tanks and tank destroyers were employed by both sides.  This led to some very interesting images from the battlefields in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia.  And it was reported that at least one M36 was destroyed by a US F-16 strike before NATO air power forced dispersal and concealment of heavy weapons in the ample woodlands.

With a supply of replacement parts almost non-existent, many Shermans and Hellcats and Jacksons were cannibalized for spares, and some wildly improvisational local modifications were made.  This includes at least one M18 Hellcat with a Molotava truck engine replacing the US-made radial, and an M18 turret fitted to a T-55 hull.  (You can see both clearly in the images below.)  In addition, a considerable number of the M4s and M36s had their power packs swapped for Soviet T-54/55 engines, for which parts and fuel were relatively plentiful.

As ammunition grew scarce and keeping the ancient vehicles in operating order became nearly impossible, those veteran tanks of another age that were not destroyed (which was a considerable number) were retired from service.  The T-34s fared somewhat better.  By 2005, it was reported that virtually all of the American equipment was disposed of, and only a few T-34s remained in service.   With that, a number of M18 and M36 tank destroyers had been identified for purchase and restoration  by museums in the United States, and at least one has made it from the troubled region into American hands (featured in Season 1 of Tank Overhaul).

Here are some of the more interesting pictures from the battlefields of the Balkans, where, despite their age and obsolescence, many of the World War II-vintage tanks served their operators well, and were feared by opponents who did not have modern counter-mech weaponry.  (The photos that show tanks appearing to have an armored skirt are actually showing a hard rubber sheet, which was to protect against RPGs by prematurely detonating the warheads and dissipating the molten stream of metal.  This is reported to have actually worked to some extent, with some T-34/85s and Shermans surviving multiple strikes from RPG-7s.  I could find no corroboration of those reports.)

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