The art of tactics is the combination of movement and fire. Some cities will take months to take, and then give way to hundreds of miles of free terrain. This implies that the military have to deal with two main different situations, with two sets of troops, vehicles and equipment.
The 2003 allied offensive in Iraq shed clear light on the dual nature of military operations. While being no match for the joint forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, Iraqi forces did put up a fight and give the coalition a run for their money. Their forces were concentrated in cities and strategic points, including some which had civilians intertwined with forces, which excluded air strikes and artillery barrages. Marine expeditionary forces confronted with Iraqi forces, mainly in the battles of Nasiriyah, Najaf, Basra (where resistance was as fierce as unexpected), and Karbala. In all of those areas, a combination of infantry and tracked armour was needed, for its tactical manoeuvrability and firepower. In Basra’s old quarter, the parachute regiment even had to clear streets, house by house, without support from vehicles, which just wouldn’t fit in the tight urban pattern. But between cities and major defensive knots, the time frame changed, where fire was no longer at stake and speed was the game. When each city was lost to Iraqi forces, they fell back to the next city on the coalition’s roadmap and set up a new defence. This implies that allied forces needed to move as quickly as possible between cities, through strips of open land, to limit the time Iraqis had at hand to build defences. When those phases came, the manoeuvrability and firepower was no longer useful, and wheeled vehicle were much more useful to race through the desert at high speeds. Mounted on Warrior tracked IFV, British cavalry experimented something quite similar in 1999, but on the wrong side, during the raid toward Pristina Airport in Kosovo: Warrior were outpacedby soviet paratroopers with old but wheeled BTR. In addition, as Napoleon learned at his expenses, logistics is the key, and logistics problems rise with the speed of manoeuvre. With motor vehicles, the problem has gotten worse, as fuel-hungry track-vehicle drivers know too well.
The complementary vehicles worked perfectly well together during the fast offensives in Iraq. Once a city was secured, and Iraqi forces were falling back to organize defences in the next one, wheeled armour raced through the open areas to the next battlefield, leaving the slow tracked armour behind, to catch up. Once in battle positions, the wheeled armour simply locked the situation in place and prevented enemy movements, waiting for the tracked vehicles reinforcements. Without the M1 tanks, the invasion force would have lacked the ability to enter hostile areas, endure high-intensity fire and manoeuvre tightly. But if the wheeled vehicles, such as the LAV-25, had not limited the enemy’s ability to build defences, the resistance which met the M1 tanks would have been much more solid and damaging.
In the French operation in Mali, codenamed Serval, tank commanders have experienced the opposite, with wheeled VBCI deployed. Their more modest fuel consumption and higher speed has been essential to the manoeuvre: more than 1500 miles a week in harsh conditions. The operation aimed at rooting out small terrorist groups from the mountainous area of the North, amounted to more than half the 46 000 square mile country. Once intelligence units manage to pinpoint enemy combatants, time is of the essence, and there is neither need nor time for slow tracked vehicles. Wheeled armour is perfectly able to take rough desert terrain, can stretch further out with their light consumption and the last thing a commander needs is for his armour to run out of gas, while “en route” to a raid.At no point in that operation, or in recent similar ones, did Western forces face a lack of fire-power; the problem was always mobility and speed.
In 2008, just months after the signing of a non-aggression pact, Chadian rebelswho had sought refuge in the rogue region of Darfur were reported to have cannonballed through Chad, from east to west, and were undetected by the time they reached N’djamena, despite the large concentration of pick-up trucks used by the irregular force. Chad, Iraq, in the recent past, and France, in the present, give a good perspective on the dual role of tracks/wheels in projection and deployment power. Finally, before and after vehicles can deploy on a battlefield and do their job, they have to get there and back. The mobility of vehicles, there again, becomes a central parameter.
In the logistics around the pull-out of the Afghan theatre, Americans are learning the hard way what lack of mobility can cost. Extreme ruggedness of the terrain, and distance from the sea, places logistical with a difficult alternative: driving the vehicles from the mountainous Afghanistan (where tracked vehicles have much difficulty moving) to Pakistan and boarding cargo ships there, or emplaning directly in Afghanistan for an airlift back home, but at extreme cost. A C-5 Galaxy has a large payload of about 80 tons, which will allow for only… one main battle tank. On the way in, US logistics officers had to tackle the problem of trickling equipment into the battlefield, facing ever less secured roads into it, to the point that commanders turned their strategic view to Uzbekistan. The construction of the logistical route wasn’t achieved in time to be used in the operation, but if it had, speed and mobility again, and not firepower, would have been of the essence.
World War 1 tactics prepared infantry onslaughts with artillery strikes for hours. In modern warfare, an army with only heavy tracked vehicles will be able to fight the big fight, but unable to catch or outrun an enemy. A light-wheeled vehicle only army will catch anything, but runs a risk of biting off more than it can chew. Winning a war will take both.