Thursday, February 3, 2011

Old Tanker Syndrome Outbreak

Bust out the ointments, because we're having another rash of Old Tanker Syndrome. Adam Elkus brought this Military Review article to my attention last week, penned by an Army major, lamenting the demise of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR). In it, Major Walters states that the Army has lost its ability to conduct conventional combined arms operations at the hands of a myopic focus on COIN doctrine, that reconnaissance is pretty much dead across the full spectrum of operations, and that transition of the 3d ACR to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team is a terrible decision because there are no longer reconnaissance forces above the brigade level.

Let me start this by admitting that this transition from ACR to an SBCT hurts to every cavalryman. It was the last of the great combined arms cavalry units, each ACR facing transition to something else as well as the total loss of Division Cavalry Squadrons (DIV CAV). It sucks and it hurts. Especially as modular brigades are essentially based on cavalry task organizations so it's not fun to watch the model get canned. After we acknowledge that most of the concern over this move is about pride, let's move on to facts.

First, for those that don't know, ACRs were designed to be the forward eyes and ears of corps formations. Divisions had their own squadrons (I was lucky enough to serve in one of these before they were transitioned to Armored Reconnaissance Squadrons (ARS)) and brigades had their own troops. But modularity changed all of that. DIV CAVs went away, because modularity decentralized operations to the brigade level. Brigades lost their Brigade Reconnaissance Troops, but gained ARSs - putting the preponderance of reconnaissance forces in the hands of brigade commanders. As they were becoming the central fighting force of the Army - related to by not exclusively because of operations in Iraq - it made sense to beef up that colonel's ability to look out forward or to secure his own forces. There was some loss of capability in that DIV CAVs had tanks and APCs (Abrams and Bradleys), as well as mortars and two troops of Kiowa Warriors, whereas ARSs consist of APCs and wheeled vehicles (and mortars), but no organic rotary wing assets. They were given significant UAV support though.

So what is the effect of all of this? Brigades - the primary formation for battle command - have greater reconnaissance of their own, but those recon units had lesser ability to fight for their information, relying more on sensors. I don't see this as necessarily bad. While sensors are not the panacea that many advocates make them out to be, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (doctrinally the M3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle) is a pretty robust platform that does not take hits all that well, but can destroy T-72 MBTs with a couple of its weapons systems. There are two other reasons that removing tanks from reconnaissance forces is a pretty good move from my perspective: logistics and the propensity to fight instead of fighting for information. Tanks have a heavy logistical footprint - something you may not want in the force you are sending kilometers ahead of your main body (this is in a conventional environment). They are great for many things, but the guzzle fuel at ridiculous rates and keeping them in the fight is difficult so far ahead. The second reason I don't have issue with this change is structure is that during the invasion of Iraq, while nominally conducting reconnaissance or security operations, my squadron was often just another maneuver unit. I think the cause of this was that we were able to fight like a small brigade so we were used in that way. A lighter force ensures your ARS does not become decisively engaged and actually performs its primary mission.

All of this is a bit of a diversion from the main topic, but the point is that while there are changes to how we've done cavalry business, those changes may actually be good for the force. To suggest that only 3d ACR can provide decentralized reconnaissance and security at the tactical and operational levels across the spectrum of conflict is ludicrously unfounded. To this point, I ask the question: where was 3d ACR during the invasion of Iraq? To no fault of their own (this is not to be taken as a swipe at this great unit) they were in the ocean trying to get to the fight. The invasion force's principle headquarters was the corps level - the type of organization an ACR is designed to support. So a DIV CAV squadron did what they were intended to do. Granted, DIV CAVs don't exist anymore, but I think we can see that the Army is a highly flexible and capable organization that will figure out how to win battles and wars. It is erroneous to state only one type of unit can perform a certain function - that argument hasn't held up to scrutiny since the end of the Cold War. Especially with regard to a unit designed to support corps commands in an environment that places greater emphasis on decentralized brigade-level operations.

Which brings us to my main point. The Army is changing for a number of reasons and while challenging those changes is healthy, let's all make the right arguments. Major Walker does make some valid points in his article, but those points are lost amid the same tired arguments against organizational change. My advice to the Armor community (of which I am regretfully no longer an active member) to stay relevant is to avoid the following worn out, specious statements unless you can actually show evidence that they are true:

  1. The Army has gained COIN experience at the cost of combined arms competencies. The fact that your last unit didn't do a Table XII does not support this - especially if your last line-unit assignment was in 2005. Even in COIN, units still maneuver, they call for fires and CAS, worry about logistics, and work in TF teams. This statement may actually be true, but anecdotes do not make it so. Show me the numbers.
  2. ARSs don't have enough manpower or dismounts. No they don't. You know what else didn't? ACRs, DIV CAVs, BRTs. As a scout platoon leader I was lucky if I ever had one dismount per BFV in the platoon and most often did not. For whatever reasons, the Army had problems getting enough guys trained to be dismounted scouts. It's somewhat understandable since doctrinally you're supposed to trust that SPC to call for fire and that takes time to do if you find the right guys capable of it. But manpower issues are not unique to ARSs - it's been a chronic problem in cavalry organizations. TOEs of ARS also give the force more reconnaissance than it used to have, even if more dispersed, so on the whole this statement is untrue.
  3. Armor is dead. It's not. The 3d ACR may go the way of the dodo, but the Army still has lots of tanks and lots of tankers who just love what they do. Gunnery skills may vary by unit, but those core skills are still out there. Don't bitch about armor being dead - start writing about how to make core tanking skills universal across the force. (And please don't even try this line with some of my former PSGs and 1SGs - they might disagree in a more vociferous manner than I am here).
Here's the bottom line: the Armor Corps is going through some changes, good and bad. If you're going to argue against it, make your case. I'm getting tired of old (in mindset, not age) tankers making the statement that COIN killed armor as prima facie. It sounds that it could be the case, but we don't know because there is no evidence available for or against. And it also ignores the realities of the current fight even it were true. Would these armor leaders suggest that tankers should have stayed home from the fight because it erodes their ability to wax North Korean mechanized forces? Because that's how I often read these types of critiques. A COIN focus was necessary for the force because that was the "strategy" proscribed by the command - so adapt and get in the fight. And stop worrying: the current COIN fights will wind down and you'll be doing your table XIIs soon enough. You'll adapt again - that's what cavalrymen do.

I apologize to some of readers who aren't so into the details of this discussion and for the length of this post. I'm sure that I missed some things and that many of you are going to smack me around in the comments. Which is good - let's actually have this discussion and stop with the bumper sticker slogans.


  1. Mobile, survivable firepower will always be useful. Tanks can't accomplish all missions in all circumstances, but the idea that shifting circumstances have made them totally irrelevant is a canard. Some tankers apparently feel a sort of cultural attachment to one particular mode of employment -- the one that has historically provided definition to the community; that is, shoot-and-move, high-intensity maneuver warfare -- and create a false dichotomy between a tankless low-intensity future and a tank-intensive conventional future.

  2. Great post and good points, but I think you might be mixing two distinct arguments that deserve individual consideration: 1) "Armor/Combined Arms/Good Ol' Tankin' is dead"--which it clearly is not, as you point out--and 2) "Cavalry is dead (or at least dying)."

    I think the second point has more merit, and shouldn't be conflated with Old Tanker Syndrome. As a veteran of both the old-school 3d ACR--back when they still had the aviation squadron, even--and the current middle-weight ARS, my opinion is that the existence (and ubiquity) of the latter doesn't quite make up for the lack of the former.

    It's not that I think the ACR is the ONLY organization that can do corps/JTF-level recon and security missions--you correctly point out that in the absence of such an organization, the Army will "figure it out" as it did in OIF--but rather that it is/was clearly the organization best designed and equipped to do so. I agree that the push to modularity isn't necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I think that the current BCT organization was an attempt by the Army to get closer to an ACR-like organization, where everything (enablers) is organic at the O-6 level or below, and all the cross-attachment (maneuver units) is done in advance. And they got tantalizingly close. But the ACR has significant advantages over the BCT in both structure (organic combined-arms task organization down to the company/troop level, howitzers at the squadron level) and raw capability (most obviously the aviation squadron).

    Now why should we care? First, your counter-solution for a JTF-level R&S/advance guard/whatever was DIV CAV ... an organization that also no longer exists, and while just "figuring it out" can go a long way, there comes a point when the cupboard is simply bare. An ARS can't do what 3-7 CAV did in OIF. A CAB or full BCT might, if it was graciously provided with some aviation by the division/corps HQ, but that would also mean giving up a big chunk of maneuver firepower from the main body, which the commander may not be willing or able to do.

    Second, you pull out the "lighter recon force = no decisive engagement = more time for primary mission" argument. But I would submit that getting decisively engaged or not isn't entirely up to you. Enemy gets a vote, after all. Heavier recon forces is a hedge against that uncertainty, which doesn't go away with increased "sensors" and passive surveillance. Getting distracted from one's recon mission to go do some killin' is a smaller price to pay than your whole recon unit being dead, and subsequently unable to do ANY scouting.

    So what should the Army do? I'm not going to cling, kicking and screaming, to the ACR as a unique organization if, as seems apparent, that's not the direction the Army wants to go. So if modularity is it, then go all the way: aviation organic to BCTs. Combined-arms task organization all the way down to company, or even platoon level. Organic CSS. If BCTs are the central maneuver unit, then give those colonels some actual assets to use and quit half-assing it.

    Rant over. On a side note, I don't know if you're the same Fritz I went to tanker-school with way back in the day, but let me ask you this: does the name "Dick Mulder" mean anything to you?...

  3. Michael, you make some very solid points here. I probably am conflating in this post the current and future states of armor and cavalry - as they are different subjects. Reading the article in question, I saw the same arguments, which was my oversight.

    As for the cavalry, from an organizational viewpoint it is entering some dark days. The ACR (which I never did serve in) was an extremely robust unit that was the likely model for today's HBCTs. Especially with organic howitzers and attack aviation, as you mention. I think that the aviation corps still needs to get sorted out to meet how the rest of the Army is moving and think that is one effect caused by our current fights - there just weren't enough to go around to assign to BCT level. This is something that I hope changes (even if AV O-6s need jobs, too). I wholeheartedly agree with your prescription for true modularity.

    I also take your point on the enemy voting on who gets decisively engaged when. But I think the ARS is capable enough to handle itself when the going gets tough. And if they can't then they need to rehearse retrograde operations. An ARS can't don't what GarryOwen did in 2003, but that was an armored cavalry version of a body breach. I "reconned" in OBJ MONTGOMERY by parking my tank on Highway 10 and waited to see what came down the road. A tank company can do that, too. M3s can provide cover to the wheeled platforms in a very effective manner. And they make a hell of a lot more sense than the old BRTs. I remember seeing those poor guys screening north of an armor battalion south of Karbala - four HMMWV alone and unafraid between a heavy brigade of 3ID and two brigades of Republican Guard. Not a pleasant position on the battlefield - but they were supposed to scout, call for fire, and bug out, as you know to provide time for the main body to react. Not become decisively engaged.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with the transition of 3d ACR - it is the best tool for the job. But there are other tools that can do it and losing it does not portend the death or armor or cavalry or our ability to conduct high-intensity maneuver warfare. It was a nice hedge, as you called it, but it could be argued that it was an unnecessarily expensive hedge that would most likely be used as another HBCT anyway. I could be wrong in that, but there is some precedence. I may be wrong about the "lighter is better" thing, too. It strikes me as unnecessarily heavy for recon and security, but it may be just what the Army needs. Maybe the answer is bulking up the ARSs with some armor (like 3-7 CAV in 2005 which kept most of its DIV CAV MTOE)? Dunno.

    I can't say I remember "Dick Mulder" so I may not be the Fritz you went to school with or I have a bad memory. I was there for the second half of 2002. There were Fritz's in 3ID who were there the years before and after me - and we ended up in the same brigade in 2007/08. I even shared a CHU with one of them - you can imagine the jokes that we heard about that.

  4. You say that the ARS is "capable enough to handle itself," but not capable enough to do the 3/7 CAV OIF body-breach ... and I say that's not good enough. For a fast-moving mechanized attack (and really, is there any other kind?), you need something at least as heavy as a Div Cav squadron, with its own organic aviation (the Ravens we had in the ARS don't count). The "sneak & peek," call-for-artillery-only and then bug out method of reconnaissance is excruciatingly slow--even in the schoolhouse, in purely theoretical exercises, there's never enough time to do proper "recon pull." I've definitely never seen it live training or real-world. So the light scouts either get wasted, overrun by their own main body, or brushed aside to "screen the flanks."

    So again I say: go all the way with modularity, push some real assets down to the BCT commander, and then the JTF commander can give the advance-guard recon mission to a BCT that is now equipped to do it, or if that's overkill, to one of the fully-modular battalions with a slice of aviation from the BCT.

    About the expense of the ACR ... sure, but with ground maneuver assets double that of the old-style tank or mech brigades, and almost triple that of the new BCTs, you're really getting more teeth for less tail and one chain of command vs. two or three. Re-make the rest of the BCTs in the Army at least closer to that model, and we could make do with 30 or so vs. 45-48 now.

    A nice idea, maybe, but probably a bridge too far for current Army culture.

    And you'd remember Dick Mulder ... without a doubt, he was THE O.G. Old Tanker. Pretty sure he retired after my class graduated in early 2002, so you just missed him. Pity.

  5. A brigade is a way too large (combat) formation for reconnaissance. Their demise doesn't mean an improvement, though.

    The basic mistake is to assign reconnaissance units to a combat brigade that could be called upon to move by 100 km sideways in a day. Its own recce troop cannot support this. Recce needs to be in place already, it needs to be corps area of interest-bound. It must not be bound manoeuvre units.

    Recce should be done with dispersing mixed companies under loose control of the corps. 6x6 vehicles as basis for recce at great depth, 40 ton tracked combat vehicles (and supporting APCs) as basis for recce in the areas where Opfor combat units are to be expected.

    Add a recce training for all combat battalions (maybe additional recce training emphasis on one company each) for close recce and security.

    The ACR was a stupid idea all the way because it was way too large for recce, the trend towards their misuse as combat brigade was only natural.

  6. Sven, the ACR wasn't "too large for recce," it was designed to perform exactly the function you describe: "mixed companies" (9x cavalry troops, 3x tank companies), "under control of the corps." Granted, with an intermediate chain of command, but that's a debate over C2 design, not raw size of the organization.

    "40 ton tracked combat vehicles (and supporting APCs) as basis for recce in the areas where Opfor combat units are to be expected" is precisely what the ACR design is intended for: NOT stealthy recce, but screen/guard/cover and recon in force, out in front of or alongside a corps-size formation.

    And to my knowledge, the ACR has yet to be misused as a combat brigade: they performed their doctrinal "cover" mission for 18th Airborne Corps in the 1991 gulf war, and was scheduled to do the same for V Corps in 2003, except the invasion kicked off while they were still unloading ships in Kuwait. As it turned out, they were assigned to occupy a large area of responsibility in Anbar as an "economy of force" mission (another doctrinal ACR task), while V Corps' main focus was in Baghdad.

  7. A question for both of you, since I'm a little light on specific doctrinal data on high intensity after modularity. With the increase in size and capability per divisional element (an extra brigade and more fires), can an ACR effectively recon and guard an entire corps front anymore? If you take the concept of more decentralized operations, how would the ACR fit into such a scheme of maneuver? It strikes me as too much firepower to conduct a moving flank guard for a corps and too little to go around to cover a corps frontage, leaving BCTs to conduct their own recon (and guards). I guess we'll also have to see what happens at NTC in the coming years with such things as BCT commanders plussing up their ARSs with tank company teams from their maneuver battalions (which 2/3 BCT did in OIF VII in Baghdad). I haven't found a copy of the newest 90 series FMs available to public, so I couldn't look this up myself.

  8. Well, that's something of a question without an answer, because (1) the heavy ACR doesn't exist anymore (or soon won't, same thing), and (2) the ACR was designed around pre-modularity operational and tactical assumptions of high-intensity warfare.

    Doctrinally, the ACR could cover 90 or so km of frontage, contiguously. Don't know if that's enough for what you have in mind, but there it is. In a decentralized scheme, the squadrons split off from the regiment fairly easily, and the troops in turn from their squadrons, leaving the parent headquarters to throw their extra enablers and C2 weight behind whatever the "main effort" is. Behold the inherent flexibility of organic CSS, organic fire support, and habitually-related enablers. Bow before its glory.

    Nowadays, the doctrinal frontage for an ARS is the same as the old-school squadrons, assuming "hope" can be employed to defeat any heavy resistance that may be encountered. A BCT could presumably cover about the same frontage as the ACR, on paper ... just minus the organic aviation, and about 1/3 of the fire support.

  9. >"just minus the organic aviation, and about 1/3 of the fire support."

    ... and about 1/2 of the ground combat power. Forgot to mention that.

  10. Once again, you need an old tanker to have OTS. Some factual corrections to what you Jason has written. In Div 86, there was NO brigade recon company. There were battalion scout platoons and a Div Cav squadron, and John Rosenberger fought a valiant fight to keep tanks in the Div Cavalry squadron so that it could act as part of the covering force and to guard missions. Our infantry school comrades plumped for a more continental order of battle in which the security force missions would be tasked out to company and battalion size detachments. In a way, you can look at the Strykerized Cav Regiment as an extension of this idea.
    While we're going down memory lane, it might be good to point out that the Cav at 73 Easting was doing its doctrinal mission, but McMaster and MacGregor went cowboy and charged in as if they were tank-heavy brigade. Faced with a decent enemy, they would have gotten clobbered, and their tactics would have gotten the both of them NO GO's on the Cav Exam in AOAC. Just sayin'...and such is the stuff of which myths are made.
    Personally, and given the frontages and depths of the "large formations" (Thats Grossverband or Soyedinneniye for you non-English speaking operational artists) under which the brigade maneuvers nowadays, I am not certain that forming the advance, rear, or flank guard elements of the large formation (okay, "division or corps or JTF" and you all can argue which is which) based on tanks and ground scout vehicles is that good an idea.
    This has nothing to do with the proper role of tanks - main battle tanks - on the battlefields of the present and future. Precisely BECAUSE I am an Old Tanker, I believe those missions and roles are - still - valid. It would have been fun doing bank shots with BLOS fires off the MCS and NLOS-C: you young whippersnappers need to show me that you're serious enough to make these tactics work and work in the right way for you. That said, the proper use of the main battle tank is to use its main armament to clear all the armor off the objective, to lead the infantry in the assault in the open, or follow and support the infantry in close terrain, and to provide the kinetic antiarmor fires you need to survive against a well armed foe. When you get around to rediscovering digital C2 systems, you will also learn that there can be marvelous ways to integrate the tanks into a web of networked firepower that can be precisely controlled and well distributed. So - carry on young whippersnappers, and train hard when you get off those world policing assignments.

  11. Armor and Cavalry will always have a significant role during any conventional ground war. Just as we did with our M-551 Sheridans, M-113s and M-60A1s in USAREUR during the Cold War, conforming to the mission is what we do best. In those days, preparing to stop, or at least slow down the Soviet Bloc invasion of West Germany by using the "Active Defense" gave us Cav LTs a life expectancy measured in minutes...but we embraced the challenge because it made sense. Those tactics only applied to that old USAREUR scenario, though, and fortunately for our branch, those in charge of developing Armor/Cav doctrine have embraced "Semper Gumby".
    The best part of this erudite and esoteric discussion is that it proves the enduring capacity of combat arms leaders to adapt, overcome, and above all, always question the way things are while preparing for the next war. Well, that and helping me rediscover my long-dormant "Inner Cavalryman"...guess we never truly recover from that, eh? "Honor and Courage!" (3/8 Cav, 1977)