The Army's M-1 Abrams tank unexpectedly has proven in Iraq to be one of the best weapons in close-range urban warfighting, but its once invincible image has been shattered by an inventive enemy.
The enemy has destroyed more than 20 of the 68-ton armored fortresses and disabled scores more, not with sophisticated anti-tank weapons, but with relatively crude rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and roadside bombs.
The good-news bad-news "lessons learned" out of Iraq has some Army officers rethinking plans to downsize the overall tank force, while M-1 producer General Dynamics quickly has developed a new package of protective gear called TUSK (tank urban survival kit).
"When you have a long endgame, a thinking enemy learns what to do," said Peter Keating, spokesman for General Dynamics Land Systems. "They have over time completely blown up a Bradley [fighting vehicle] and completely blown up a tank. You have enough time in the insurgency and build a big enough bomb, you can do the job."
The big-war-era tank was not supposed to be a key weapon in this new age of what the military calls "asymmetrical threats." When the 1st Cavalry Division left Fort Hood, Texas, for Iraq many of its tanks stayed behind. Doctrine dictated a lighter force for urban combat.
But a spring 2004 uprising by Shi'ites south of Baghdad and by Sunnis and foreign terrorists west of Baghdad prompted the division to summon more armor.
Now back at Fort Hood, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli is telling audiences that the M-1 Abrams tank is a devastating weapon for battling urban-embedded terrorists. Some officers now want Army headquarters to rethink a plan to shrink the tank armada as part of a transformation to lighter, faster-deploying brigades.
Mr. Keating said current Army plans will reduce the fleet in the active Army and National Guard by 223, to 2,195 tanks. Gen. Chiarelli's division will be lighter by 13 tanks.
Last November in Fallujah -- the most crucial battle in Iraq since the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime -- tanks proved their worth. The 1st Cavalry Division dispatched a special task force to fight alongside the Marines, a light force that uses fewer tanks.
The division featured the M-1A2, the most advanced Abrams with special gun sights and digital communications. If shots came from a building, the M-1's cannon took out the entire floor rather than Marines having to do risky room-by-room clearing.
"If they were taking heavy fire or RPG fire from a house, [the Marines] would call on our tanks," said an Army officer who fought in Fallujah. "Our guys would open up on the house with 120 mm main gun or .50 [caliber machine gun]. After five minutes of suppression fire, then the Marines would go into the building and clear it. There was rarely anyone left alive by that point.
"The problem is that we couldn't be there to do that for all the Marines, and when we couldn't and they had to clear the building without our help, they took heavy casualties because the insurgents didn't stop firing until the Marines got into the building and killed them."
The previous summer, the Army's 1st Armored Division used tank squads to retake four cities overrun by supporters of Shi'ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr. Precise gunfire let the squads spare the city's religious shrines.