Contemporary Operating Environment

Tank Action! The case for increased anti-armour capabilities

By Tavis McLaren June 2, 2020


Introduction

Due to its doctrinal framework, a majority of ADF exercises (Hamel/Talisman Sabre) have had participants encountering large mechanised or motorised forces. Within such constructs, both Red force and Blue force participants are instructed to develop a position on a feature and construct Engagement Areas (EA) for the defensive battle to follow. A training scenario often is based off the below construct:

“Enemy Situation; 9th Musurian Armed Forces (MAF) “insert DATE generated scenario” Mechanised Brigade is advancing towards “insert major city” and the vanguard is due to arrive in vicinity of your position in less than 72hrs.”

Scenarios like this take the appearance of a template brought out repeatedly over the training calendar, the depth of these scenarios are dependent on the effort exerted during the planning of training outcomes. Sometimes these scenarios are sewn into much larger exercises that have a greater strategic focus, but can still come across as templates - impractical or unrealistic for the participants facing the scenario.

Realistically, a light infantry battalion or a mounted infantry battalion facing a scenario like this would simply withdraw. Yet, exercise participants are constrained from taking this course of action. Even with tanks in support, recon assets providing early warning, and notional air support, an infantry battalion in a blocking position, or defensive position without anti-armoured (AARMD) assets at company level, would struggle to remain combat effective during an assault by an enemy that is fully mechanised, motorised and or armoured.

Yet, somehow, through exercise outcomes and constructs, Blue Force Participants succeed despite lacking correct force ratios and multipliers: every time the Blue Force miraculously achieves the Battle Group’s mission and main effort in spite of the force it is facing. Does this sound familiar? If so, it can be argued many at the tactical level have reached this same conclusion. Despite this, the tangible outcome is that infantry forces are not equipped or organised for such a confrontation, nor are they trained appropriately for it. Furthermore, infantry lack modern doctrine on how to defeat enemy armoured vehicles such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.

Infantry have long taken (or suffered from) pride in being the ones who are “better than the rest”. They see themselves as battalions in a regiment that “just makes it happen,” and continues to deliver results. That said, enemy armour is a threat that infantry are poorly equipped or organised to appropriately counter at the Battle Group Level, at least not without an exhaustive effort from supporting aircraft and other combat arms assets.

Lessons from history

Unpreparedness for enemy armour capabilities have resulted in the destruction of first response forces throughout history. For example, at the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States initial response was to assemble a battle group from the allied forces in Japan called Task Force Smith. This task force was underprepared and ill equipped to engage a mounted/armoured enemy. Task Force Smith was overrun by a handful of Enemy Tanks in a matter of hours. It was a brief engagement that has become synonymous with military unpreparedness. [1] The lightly armed Task Force Smith’s key capability gap was the lack of both effective anti-armour weapons and training of the unit. Task Force Smith was an emergency response force, a role the Army and Australian Defence Force (ADF) have fulfilled in the past and are establishing, if not already established within the Amphibious Task Group capability.

However, armoured units that underestimate their opponent's anti-armour capabilities can suffer a similar fate. Similar unpreparedness came in the form of the Russian/Chechen conflict of the 90’s and specifically the invasion of the city of Grozny. A well-trained, motivated and rehearsed dismounted force using anti-armour weapons defeated a hastily deployed armoured force which was critically short of dismounted infantry in support. Within the first few hours of Russian armour moving into Grozny, they were systematically engaged by anti-armour weapons utilised from well-sighted positions and from this, the Russian force was paralysed in the streets with their armoured vehicles destroyed.[2] The separation of infantry from armour coincided with poor planning and training which created conditions for the military disaster.

The current outlook for ground forces

Threat armour and mechanised units are not niche capabilities that we should expect to avoid on the battlefield. The ADF, like most first world and second world countries, are up-arming and developing capability within their armies, bringing the armoured and anti-armour realm to a completely new level. China, Russia and former Soviet Bloc countries have thousands of tanks, both new and upgraded, in their inventory, which are used as the core of their ground forces. They do not solely field dismounted infantry; even their airborne units are fully mechanised and may be intending to incorporate more armoured assets into airborne formations.

China, being one of the major military and economical influencers in the region, fields an ever increasing number of main battle tanks and medium tanks of various types while also putting a premium on armoured and mechanised manoeuvre units. Some of the tanks fielded by our potential adversaries are outdated, but many are comparable or even superior in quality to the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank that the ADF currently employs.[3] That said, even outdated armour would be problematic to the ADF in a conventional conflict by placing a heavy burden on our weaponry and anti-armour assets.

As an Army and Defence Force, it needs to recognised that a return to conventional or high-intensity manoeuvre warfare does not only require improvements to combat and supporting forces in terms of cyber, and other strategic capabilities, but also requires our ground combat/tactical element must be equipped to face a large armoured threat and be able to respond accordingly.

Currently, an infantry battalion has only a handful of effective anti-armour weapons in its inventory. When engaging an armoured vehicle or Main Battle Tank with an anti-armour weapon, infantry require an optimal set of conditions to ensure success - either to destroy or neutralise the threat. However, inadequate resources in both number of qualified personnel and weaponry/ammunition availability undermine such success.

One solution includes engaging an enemy vehicle with multiple weapon systems that function at the same time, or a mounted Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) with a dismounted launcher unit. A superior weapon like this would increase the rate of success, although also use more ordnance. Ideally, an infantry battalion should have enough vehicles, weapons and AARMD teams to inject significant capability into each company to provide this effect.

This would give Company Commanders the flexibility to employ volley or mass surprise fires at a maximum effective range, a requirement in defeating emerging active/passive, protective/defence systems that are being developed and introduced by both our coalition forces as well other nations like Russia. Russia is developing the Arena system that utilises a Doppler radar to detect incoming threats and fires a top attack rocket to eliminate the threat. The follow on effect of this is that it causes us to develop new tactics, equipment and countermeasures.

Six to eight systems per mounted Rifle Company would enable a sub-unit commander to attach a pair of ATGMs or shoulder fired systems to each rifle platoon. The current 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle is highly reliable and versatile adding to anti-armour capability; however, it becomes less effective past a range of 350 meters and is limited to availability and types of munitions that are currently in-service.

This leaves infantry combat teams with a massive shortfall in sufficiently ranged anti-armour capabilities.[4] Even the Javelin, with a maximum effective range of 2,500 meters, cannot come close to out-ranging the tanks it is intended to be employed against. Additionally, the training required to maintain a competent level of proficiency on both weapon systems, as well as the understanding by commanders on how to employ these assets tactically, is a significant burden to the personnel posted to an AARMD PL.

 

 

Infantry battalions organise their heavy machine guns and anti-armour weapons into a platoon-sized group called Direct Fire Support Weapons (DFSW) Platoon in motorised battalions, and AARMD Platoon in mechanised battalions. DFSW and AARMD platoons use Bushmasters and M113AS4s as their basic platform. These vehicles were initially brought into service many years ago, and despite having been upgraded in the years since, are outdated when compared to the capabilities of near peer adversaries.

In addition, anti-armour weapon systems cannot be fired from these platforms, leading to a decrease in manoeuvrability and survivability. Furthermore, the DFSW or AARMD platoons are usually outfitted with a mix of heavy weapons including Javelin systems, MK47 automatic grenade launchers, 7.62mm MAG58 in the Extended Range Machine Guns (ERMG) role, and 12.7mm calibre heavy machine guns.

Heavy machine guns contribute to the AARMD platoon/team by providing a suppressive capability. This affords time for the ATGM team to engage armoured and mechanised assets; the logic, of which, is questionable, as current and even previous-generation adversary armour cannot be suppressed by 40mm grenades, or 12.7mm calibre rounds.

When combined with no dedicated anti-armour doctrine or Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs), the result is a widening gap in the capabilities of an infantry battalion. However, this lack of capability extends beyond the infantry battalion. When it comes to a peer to peer or near peer conflict, the Army has limited resources and equipment. There is only a limited amount of anti-armour missiles, artillery, tanks and attack aviation. The 'so what' of this is that we need to be deliberate and conscious of how Army employ the assets available.

The movement of anti-armour in the future

In the future, new armoured and infantry fighting vehicles are coming to the infantry and these will provide the ground combat element a great advantage. However it does not negate the need for anti-armour capabilities and tactics, both in the understanding of how to defeat threat armour and also how our own armour could be defeated.

What is the answer to rebuilding and maintaining this capability? In short, the correct weapons, the correct platforms and the correct tactics. The reorganisation of support elements and AARMD units is needed. However, there is greater work required in terms of training and tactical employment.

For now, the Army continues to use the M113AS4, which, although it still crosses nearly any terrain at an appropriate speed, is aging. Also utilised is the Bushmaster, which is more designed to transport soldiers in a protected manner to an area of operation where units dismount and then advance.

These platforms are not as effective as they could be when being employed as an anti-armour platform, and as a start the Army should be looking at a systems approach that combines the vehicle with new and emerging ATGM systems and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) to enhance the lethality of these force elements.

Another possible improvement over the current cumbersome section construct piled into one lone vehicle (that requires company commanders to allocate resources to protect them) would be to use small and agile anti-armour teams mounted in two AARMD IFV’s for protection. Each team would be led by an experienced non-commissioned officer and consist of four soldiers: a driver, a two-man ATGM team, and a Crew Commander/Australian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (AUAV) operator flying an unmanned drone.

Possible tasks for these new AARMD teams would be to operate independently ahead of their attached company or parent battalion as an advanced guard or reconnaissance (recon) formation to provide battlefield commentary, screens and pathfinding. The teams would work closely with the battalion or brigade recon element to achieve the desired outcome.

An AARMD team with its superior mobility would enhance the lethality and capability of its company. The AARMD team operating as a separate entity can identify and engage HVT’s. An example of this could be when the company locates enemy armour, its preferred method of engagement would be a deliberate ambush at maximum range using both mounted and dismounted ATGM’s. This could safely be achieved by using the IFV platform's mobility and ability to fire ATGM’s remotely. The anti-armour team would operate ahead of the battalion, thus giving the company the advantage by engaging and destroying enemy armour in a screen before reaching the engagement areas of companies and battalions. Complimenting this would be in either offensive or defensive operations, to move into ideal terrain for an ambush ahead of enemy units. Further to this, an AARMD ground combat element with superior battle space awareness, provided via organic AUAVs as well as working with a dedicated recon element, would enable the battalion to locate enemy assets and manoeuvre into position to attack or ambush the enemy. This would be achieved with anti-armour missiles on the ground of their choice before they had an opportunity to detect and defeat our force elements.

The AARMD team would not mass fires, unless necessary, and it would work in coordination with other teams to disrupt, delay, and ultimately destroy enemy armour over a large and dispersed engagement area.

It would be employed, primarily, as a covering force intended to gain information, time and space for the commander while intercepting, engaging, and delaying the enemy. This low-cost force optimised for dispersed operations would potentially provide limited-support in constricting or difficult terrain.

The integration of SUAS is essential so that AARMD and Recon teams can find and identify enemy armour and mechanised assets within sufficient time to then manoeuvre and engage in the most favourable conditions; something a larger, heavier, or slower force cannot do.

Individually, the AARMD team’s superior speed and mobility would allow it to egress after firing with their small size and low-signature helping to prevent it from being identified and targeted.

To the adversary, it would appear there are dozens of dismounted AARMD teams along all of his manoeuvre corridors; consequently, whenever he finds a new route, the threat of anti-armour teams possibly waiting for him would alter the enemy tactics and slow their advance.

What the enemy doesn’t see is that it’s only one team of a few soldiers manoeuvring around him using their IFVs mobility and drones to pinpoint armour in order to deny the enemy commander the ability to shape his own axes of advance.

This new “team” or multiple teams approach has been imagined in a contested environment where external support may be unavailable or unreliable.[5] If significant artillery, mortar, and close-air support are available, the anti-armour team’s support can be leveraged by including a trained joint fires team to both the Company headquarters and the AARMD team.

Furthermore, a Company Fire Support Team mounted in another AFV or IFV travelling in coordination with the ATGM teams could also be utilised to coordinate supporting fires and dramatically increase the team’s lethality.

Infantry would never go alone or want to be isolated against enemy armour or mechanised forces. Nevertheless, that does not mean the ADF should avoid using or delivering the capability that give infantry combat elements the capability to do so, if needed.[6] The Ready Combat Brigade has envisioned a future in which infantry will need to fight and win in environments where ‘even the non-state actors will further challenge the ADF’s use of low-altitude airspace for manoeuvre, supply, and fire support’ - therefore, the ADF needs to be prepared and equipped to meet the threat.

In Conclusion

This organisational or tactical recommendation draws on many similar and earlier proposals. The argument for integrating UAS and other support capabilities into both combat and combat support units at the tactical level units is compelling. Most DFSW and recon soldiers understand the need for an amalgamation of capabilities to fill our anti-armour gap, [7] both within an infantry battalion and the wider ADF. As an Army, if we cannot create a credible anti-armour capability organic to the infantry, we limit our operating ability, preparedness and create a gap that our adversaries could exploit.

The trend towards increasingly dispersed operating concepts, such as smaller combat task groups and smaller battle group concepts (including amphibious and air mobile combat elements) further underlines the need for battalion and company-size units to have and maintain organic anti-armour capabilities.

However, by integrating the tactical recon potential of UAS, leveraging the speed and mobility of our IFV’s, and further increasing the number of ATGM systems fielded by our infantry units, we can create an effective anti-armour capability while integrating it into any new systems.

To develop a competitive anti-armoured capability against peer and near-peer adversaries for the ground combat element of the ADF’s Ready Brigade, we need to significantly increase the organic anti-armour capabilities of the infantry battalions at the company level. Failure to do this is a significant risk that our small force cannot afford in a complex and increasingly lethal operating environment.

 

References

1. Walker Millls and Michael Rasmussen, Bringing Anti-armour back: Fixing a critical Capability Gap in the Marine Corps. Modern War Institute, January 11, 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/bringing-anti-armor-back-fixing-critical-capability-gap-marine-corps/

2. Author unknown, Battle of Grozny (1999-2000). Wikipedia, February 13, 2020.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Grozny_(1999–2000).

3. Oliker, Olga, Russia's Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1289.html.

4. Alexander, Bevin (2003), Korea: The First War we Lost, Hippocrene Books, ISBN 978-0-7818-1019-7

5. Ron Soodalter, Rush to Disaster: Task Force Smith. Military History July 2014. https://www.historynet.com/rush-disaster-task-force-smith.htm

5. https://www.britannica.com/technology/antitank‐guided‐missile 

6. https://www.army‐technology.com/features/featurethe‐worlds‐deadliest‐anti‐tank‐missiles4159253/ 

7. Infantry Plan 2028, Royal Australian Infantry Corp Foundation Document

 

End Notes

[1] Ron Soodalter, Rush to Disaster: Task Force Smith. Military History July 2014.
https://www.historynet.com/rush-disaster-task-force-smith.htm

[2] Author unknown, Battle of Grozny (1999-2000). Wikipedia, February 13, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Grozny_(1999–2000).

[3] Walker Millls and Michael Rasmussen, Bringing Anti-armour back: Fixing a critical Capability Gap in the Marine Corps. Modern War Institute, January 11, 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/bringing-anti-armor-back-fixing-critical-capability-gap-marine-corps/

[4] Walker Millls and Michael Rasmussen, Bringing Anti-armour back: Fixing a critical Capability Gap in the Marine Corps. Modern War Institute, January 11, 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/bringing-anti-armor-back-fixing-critical-capability-gap-marine-corps/

[5] Walker Millls and Michael Rasmussen, Bringing Anti-armour back: Fixing a critical Capability Gap in the Marine Corps. Modern War Institute, January 11, 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/bringing-anti-armor-back-fixing-critical-capability-gap-marine-corps/

[6] Walker Millls and Michael Rasmussen, Bringing Anti-armour back: Fixing a critical Capability Gap in the Marine Corps. Modern War Institute, January 11, 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/bringing-anti-armor-back-fixing-critical-capability-gap-marine-corps/

[7] Walker Millls and Michael Rasmussen, Bringing Anti-armour back: Fixing a critical Capability Gap in the Marine Corps. Modern War Institute, January 11, 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/bringing-anti-armor-back-fixing-critical-capability-gap-marine-corps/


Portrait

Biography

Tavis McLaren

Tavis McLaren is a infantry Platoon Sergeant from the 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. Travis specialisation is DFSW/ AARMD. He is currently posted to the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Hi Tavis, You point out that “… infantry lack modern doctrine on how to defeat enemy armoured vehicles such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers”, and argue that “we need to significantly increase the organic anti-armour capabilities of the infantry battalions at the company level”. You’ve presented your case commendably and I hope you don’t mind if I add a little more to the narrative. In a previous life I was a member of the British Parachute Regiment. When I returned to Australia, I joined the Army and qualified as a tank commander. On a subsequent visit to the UK, I visited my old unit while they were on exercise. Knowing that I had had some experience with armour, I was asked to give some guidance as to how infantry could use their characteristics to best advantage against tanks. Surprisingly, I had never before had to put myself in an infantryman’s position when confronted by armour and I realised that my training had been lacking. What are the vulnerabilities of tanks? Lack of vision for one, especially if forced to close down. Their speed and shock action effect can be reduced by difficult going and obstacles. The underside, top and rear of the tank are its weakest points. Armoured forces are controlled by electronic means and are, therefore, vulnerable to EW measures (though this usually something initiated by higher command). How can infantry capitalise on these weaknesses? It follows that the more early-warning systems and anti-armour weapons (both indirect and direct fire; long range and short range), the greater the defensive capability. What else can be done, however? There is a fallacy that if tanks are not stopped beyond the range of their main armament, then the battle is lost. Indeed, it can be said, that it’s just starting. Where possible, the use of ground (and creation of obstacles) to channel the AFVs is an obvious tactic. This can be combined with measures such as indirect fire to keep the crews closed down, reducing their visibility further with smoke. (Tanks breaking through a smoke screen make ideal targets.) While the ability to rapidly deploy mines is a defensive asset, infantry can also use mines locally to good effect (especially in conjunction with obstacles). An infantryman’s main advantage when confronted by tanks is his difficulty in being seen. Shoot and scoot tactics are useful in this respect. Where should infantry direct fire weapons be located? There will always be areas of ‘dead ground’ which tanks are unable to observe. This could be in the lee of a hill, which tanks will skirt around (rather than driving over the crest) … allowing a flank-on engagement. It’s to be expected that tanks, when closing with an objective, will be advancing behind supporting artillery and with infantry following in support. Such a deliberate combined arms situation will limit the use of initiatives such as listed above. In conclusion, my advice to my former para mates, was to capitalise on the limited visibility available to tanks and take full advantage of the ground which slows their movement.

The following is a PS to my earlier comment: PS. I forgot to mention the value of snipers in both inflicting casualties and forcing tanks to operate closed down

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