Murphy's Law: September 5, 2003


Like any wartime experience, Iraq provided vivid reminders of the way things really worked. Case in point was the effects of artillery on tanks. For decades, it's been conventional wisdom that high explosive 155mm artillery shells (the most common type fired), do not have much effect on tanks. Battlefield evidence in Iraq told another story. But some artillery officers remembered artillery firing tests performed in 1988 that revealed how lethal artillery is to tanks. It had been over a decade since such tests had been performed, and it was time to see what new ammunition could do against typical battlefield targets. A variety of bunkers, earthworks and structures were built out in a firing range. Also hauled out were various American and Russian armored vehicles and trucks. An artillery battery then proceeded to fire various types and quantities at the various targets. After each firing, an evaluation team went out to take pictures and measure the damage. What was found in 1988, was also found in 2003. As always, hitting a tank with a 155mm shell will knock the tank out of action, and usually destroy it. That, however, is a chance event, as artillery is not accurate to get direct hits on demand. However, whenever a 155mm shell, using a fuze that detonated it on the surface, and landing within a hundred feet of a tank, usually immobilized tanks by damaging road wheels and tracks with shell fragments. Those portions of the fire control system that were outside the tank were also damaged, often enough to disable the tanks ability to fire its main gun. Damage often did the same for machine-guns mounted on the tanks (one atop the turret and the other mounted next to the main gun.) Antennas and anything else outside the tank were also subject to damage. Shells using airbursts, and within a hundred feet of the tank, were less likely to damage the road wheels and tracks, but more likely to damage the engine, the main gun and fire control system, as well as anything else that was outside the tank. Other armored vehicles, having less armor, suffer even more damage. Armored personnel carriers are supposed to have armor that will protect the troops inside from shell fragments. But the 1988 tests, and poking around the 2003 battlefield, showed many of these vehicles (both U.S. and Russian made) with 155mm shell fragments inside the vehicles, and holes ripped in the armor to show how the fragments got there. It's important to note that many, if not most, artillery use a fuze that sets the shell off after it has buried itself in the earth. This does more damage to troops in trenches, foxholes, bunkers and buildings, but much less to armored vehicles in the vicinity. But many artillery officers know that, in a pinch, 155mm shells with PD (point detonation) or VT (air burst) fuzes) will damage a group of tanks and armored infantry vehicles enough to take the fight out of them.


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