Leadership: September 10, 2004

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The U.S. Army has encountered another uncomfortable reality check. The fighting in Iraq has made it clear that the heavy tank still plays a critical role in modern combat. In the 1990s, the army began planning a new family of lighter armored vehicles, that depend more on smart weapons, better communications and air power to take the place to heavy tanks (like the M-1) and infantry vehicles (like the M-2). In theory, this should work. New types of lighter armor (using electronic, composite or explosive techniques) could provide the same degree of protection that the M-1 and M-2 now have. But these new armor technologies are not ready for combat use yet, at least not in the U.S. Army. And soldiers, being soldiers, have learned to do the best with what theyve got. This has caused some critics of the armys plans (there are always critics of the armys plans) to use this as evidence that the heavy tank isnt dead. Well, unless we assume that new, lighter, armor technologies wont appear, then the current heavy tank is the tank of the future. But the development of armor technology in the past three decades has shown that you can get more protection for less weight. It's reasonable to expect that lighter, better protected, tanks are possible. 

What the troops want is some new vehicles, using the new technologies, to test in combat, before they junk their current stuff. Thats whats going to happen, or should happen. There is concern that the army will just rush off and buy a lot of untried (in actual combat) new vehicles. Thats never actually happened before, although the military has come close. The only good aspect of the painfully slow military procurement process is that the development and purchase of new major items (like armored vehicles) takes so long that theres always an opportunity to try out the new stuff before you build a lot of them. 

The debates go on not just because there is not always a war to decide the arguments between the politicians, pundits, armchair generals and the troops themselves, but because no one pays attention to the wargame and simulation people who do have the tools to sort these things out without a war. But wargames have long had a shady reputation in the Pentagon. After World War II, the scientific community convinced the army to drop history based wargames, in favor of those that would use just measurement and calculation to recreate combat situations. In most cases, this did not work. But it took three decades before the generals got fed up enough to go back to history based games. The scientific wargames, in the meantime, were still the official vehicles for determining what the present, and future, needs of the army would be. Insiders knew that these wargames didnt work, and the compromise solution was to find out what the politicians and generals would agree on, then tweak the wargame results to produce the desired results. Totally bogus, but it did the job.

After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, where Russian and American weapons got a thorough workout, many generals noted that the results could have been accurately predicted with history based wargames, but not with the "scientific" ones. In other words, the historical trends, on which the historical wargames are based, were more accurate than the current batch of "scientific" wargames. Thus the Pentagon wargames now have a much larger historical component, even though, officially, these predictive tools still make a fetish of validation (scientific proof that elements of the wargame accurately represent reality.) This validation has become a bad joke, with the old habits of just making it up in a pinch continuing. Fortunately, after three decades of experience, the Department of Defense wargaming community contains enough history based wargamers, and the military has enough senior people who are well read in military history, that many of the wargames currently used are pretty accurate. 

However, the bad reputation of wargames, as predictive tools, continues. Thus the importance of actual warfare to provide the ultimate test of what works, and what doesnt. It doesnt go unnoticed that the wartime experience tends to be more accurately represented in the historical wargames. So, over time, confidence in wargames is slowly returning. This, however, has not helped the current debate over the worth of the armys FCS (Future Combat System) of armored vehicles. Wargames are being used to analyze the FCS, but theres still enough wiggle room for anyone to claim anything they want.

 


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