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National Defense > Blog > Posts > U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks
U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks
By Sandra I. Erwin


M8 Armored Gun System (left) and the M551 Sheridan (right)


Army paratroopers gave up their tanks in 1997. Now they want them back.

“The infantry needs more protection and more firepower,” says Col. Ed House, Army Training and Doctrine Command manager for the infantry brigade combat team.

Even in these times of deep budget cuts and a projected steep decline in purchases of military hardware, senior Army officials believe that a light tank is a high priority that should be funded. In a future war, they contend, Army airborne forces would parachute into a warzone equipped with only light weapons and might have to confront more heavily armed enemies.

Army leaders understand that, after 12 years of war, the infantry brigades have a “capability gap,” House says in an interview from Fort Benning, Ga. “The forcible entry forces we put in harm’s way lack sufficient protected firepower platform.”

The current plan is to provide the XVIII Airborne Corps — a fast-to-the-scene 911 force — a flotilla of light tanks that can be flown by C-130 cargo planes and parachuted into the warzone.

Light tanks existed in the Army’s inventory from World War I until the end of the Cold War. Production of the 16-ton Sheridan ended in 1970 after approximately 1,700 vehicles were delivered to the Army. The last unit to operate the Sheridan was the 3d Battalion, 73d Armor Regiment of the 82d Airborne Division, which was inactivated in July 1997 following a wave of cost cutting. The Army considered buying a replacement for the Sheridan, the Armored Gun System, but that program was terminated after the Army had bought just six vehicles.

House says the goal is to replicate the functions of 3-73 although he admits it will be hard to locate a modern version of the Sheridan. “The tough part of this is to find a vehicle that fits in the back of a C-130 and can descend by parachute,” he says. “The Sheridan did that pretty well back in the 1990s.”

Training and Doctrine Command officials are scoping the market for existing vehicles that could perform a similar role as the Sheridan.

Up to 140 candidates are being considered, says Col. Rocky Kmiecik, director of mounted requirements at the capabilities development and integration directorate.

Even though tanks are tracked vehicles, the Army is open to wheeled alternatives. The vehicle has to be air droppable, must have enough ballistic protection against 14.5 mm and .50 caliber rounds, and be able to drive off road.

“This is not what you would use for patrols in Iraq,” Kmiecik says.

Because of the budget crunch and a relatively tight deadline of 24 months, the Army does not intend to spend money on a new design and expects to choose a vehicle from the open market.

Kmiecik says the field of potential candidates will be narrowed down to 10 vehicles. Army officials will evaluate them in preparation for writing a “requirements document” that will inform a future solicitation to interested vendors. “There are a lot of good vehicles out there,” he says. “We are not set on a specific caliber gun.”

Whichever vehicle is selected will be turned over to the XVIII Airborne Corps for trials.

Air assault forces have made a convincing case that they need their own firepower, especially in urban fights where civilians and combatants are in close proximity, Kmiecik says. Infantry troops can call for fire support from Air Force or Navy strike fighters, but commanders worry about air-to-ground bombs killing civilians, he says. The other concern is that enemies are likely to be concealed in machine gun bunkers or in other covered position where “you can’t shoot naval gun fire or drop air force bombs,” Kmiecik says. “We do need a capability on the ground to fight localized threats. Light skinned vehicles with machine guns mounted are easier to defeat with a Sheridan.”

After a light tank is selected, the Army would buy a handful for testing. The tentative plan is called 4-14-44: Four vehicles at the platoon level, 14 at company and 44 for a full battalion.

The current effort to acquire a light tank brings flashbacks to October 1999 when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced the Army would put its heavy armor past behind and transition to a lighter force. He wanted light vehicles that could be more easily transported to combat zones, which would allow the Army to respond to crises.

Shinseki’s vision resulted in the Future Combat Systems, a projected $200 billion modernization plan to equip the entire Army with high-tech vehicles, robots and communications systems. FCS suffered from technological overreach, cost overruns and its inability to deliver a vehicle that could survive roadside bombs in Iraq. It finally got the ax in 2009.

Asked whether the light tank program picks up where FCS left off, Kmiecik insists that is not the case. “This is absolutely not FCS,” he says. “This is not the end-all be-all combat vehicle of the future.”

While it seeks a light tank for the infantry, the Army continues to pursue a replacement for its heavy armor under a separate program called Ground Combat Vehicle.

Although the light tank is not meant to fill in the FCS void, Army officials acknowledge that there is still an unmet need for a powerful gun that can be transported by C-130 and move fast in all types of terrain. The Iraq War and the advent of the improvised explosive device put that pursuit on hold. To survive in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. vehicles were loaded with tons of armor, at the expense of speed and off-road mobility. “Over the last 12 years of conflict, on the materiel side, we’ve been moving to protection, protection, protection. And justifiably so, given the environment we’ve been in,” Kmiecik says. “We are looking at going back and achieving that balance among protection, mobility and lethality.”

House cautions that the light tank program only meets a niche requirement. “Let’s not confuse this discussion as some sort of Army modernization effort or modernization strategy,” he says. “This is going to be a very deliberate process. This is an opportunity to provide a capability in support of a specific mission. It is not some huge undertaking to change the ICBTs [infantry brigade combat team] in the Army,” he adds. “We do not see every IBCT riding around in light tanks.”

One of the vehicles that might be considered a light-tank candidate is the eight-wheeled Mobile Gun System, a 105 mm tank gun mounted on a light-armored Stryker vehicle made by General Dynamics Land Systems.

The current MGS, however, would have to be hardened with additional blast protection and upgraded with a new suspension to make it more mobile, Army officials say.

General Dynamics spokesman Peter Keating says the company could make those modifications to the vehicle at the Army’s request, but will have to wait for the final requirements. To save time and money, he says, the Army should make an open call to vendors and have a shootout. If a suitable vehicle is found, Army officials have to “be disciplined enough to not modify it, as that is what drives cost up,” he says. “You are not going to find a light tank out there with MRAP [mine resistant ambush protected] like protection. Someone could build one but it’s not available now.”

Photo Credits: Defense Dept.

Comments

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

I think the "Light Tank idea" is a lot more political than the article portrays. 

The United Defense tracked M8 AGS won "hands down" over the General Dynamics MGS and was well-discussed and analyzed in Jane's "International Defense Review" as being the superior design.  So what happened?  The Army Generals *did not want the M8 AGS,* meaning those "heavy armor and infantry" generals that commanded the Pentagon didn't want it compared to the "Airborne and Light Infantry" generals.  The political motivation wasn't there because at the time, the philosophy of "Go Big, or Go Home" was "in," meaning any conflict should go in heavy and not "poke fingers at the enemy, but hit him with a fist."  Now the War on Terror is showing that enemies have a lot of IFVs and armored cars that regular troops cannot handle with a few rockets and ATGMs.  So without the political commanding motivation, the money went to Heavy Armored and left the Light and Airborne forces without an AGS.  What's even worse are rumors of the M8 AGS prototypes were rusting away at Ft. Knox or wherever they are now.  The prototypes were never preserved, or so I read.  That just goes to show the DoD support for "Light Tanks"...if the prototypes are left to rot than stored in a museum or barn, then proof that DoD (i.e.: Army) didn't want them in the first place.

The M8 AGS could also be uparmored with packages to 14.5-30mm AP threats and also come with reactive armor....the other "Light Tanks" cannot do that, which is why the M8 AGS won. 

Again, I think if the AGS concept resurrects, journalists will have to look to see if the Regular U.S. Army really wants the AGS, and by that I don't mean the Light and Airborne generals, but those three-four star generals commanding the Army.

It's kind of silly considering that there's the ERC-90, AMX-10RC, Centauro 105mm, LAV-300 105mm, MGS 105mm, Delco 120mm turret...a whole slew of 90-120mm gun turreted "Light Tanks" and the M8 AGS design won over all of them.  Come 10-15 years later and the same contest will be held again?
Peter at 10/8/2013 1:19 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The Army should be embarrassed,   the Stryker meets the entire mission capability that was described.   Just order more of those.

There is absolutely no need spend tens of billions on developing and supporting another platform where the Stryker will probably meet 90% of the mission requirement or more.   I do not have any skin in this game except as an American Tax Payer.
John at 10/8/2013 2:13 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The M-8 bufford has not seen a match here or overseas.  Strip down the design reboot it with modern materials for the amour suit, modern electronics, and add APS trophy. 

You get a light gun that can air drop in, go anywhere once it hits the ground, defend against modern ATM, eat the blows from everything short a MBT, and best of all kill the whole enemy kit.

We are pivoting to the Pacific well Marines and Airborne is the ground elements you will need.  Marines have Abrams that are to heavy to get numbers to the shore with in a timely fashion.  The Airborne have been gutted into infantry with maybe some humvees.  We need light tanks in both the Marines and Airborne especially.  The myriad of small islands in the PACOM theater would be perfect for airborne or marine operations in both offensive to retake enemy captured positions or defense to hold or reinforce our allies positions. 

C-Low at 10/8/2013 5:22 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

Strykers are not air droppable and have to be partly disassembled to fit in a C-130.  The M-8 is.
Mike at 10/8/2013 5:49 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The M8 Buford was approved by both Congress and the Pentagon for production in the early 90s, for use by the 82nd Airborne Div, 2nd Cavalry, and for later production in foreign markets (Taiwan was very interested in this platform).  As the 82nd's very strategic use of the tanks was well know there was more support for the vehicle than some allege.

The M8 was cancelled because congress wouldn't give Pres. Clinton a war authorization budget for Bosnia in 1996. Instead the Pentagon gutted the M8 program to get the funds to transfer to its operational budget. 

The irony of this is of course that the M8 is very well suited for wars like Bosnia, or Somalia, or Afghanistan, or a lot of other places we've been going to recently. In killing the M8 the Army lost real capability that it actually need in future battlefields.  Yet another strategically poor decision by DOD.
EVA-04 at 10/8/2013 10:48 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

@John
Perhaps the very fact such a contest is on is a hint that your anger is better directed at the Stryker rather than this new contes.
Kazuaki Shimazaki at 10/9/2013 1:27 AM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The required quantities do not justify an indigenous development, probably not even an indigenous production.

The Pentagon should override the NIH syndrome and simply buy a few dozen foreign AFVs.

Paradrop capability is rare and mostly available with Russian designs, but there are a couple 90+ mm gun-armed 6x6 vehicles as well as APC-based designs and of course the old M8 design of the 90's.

Last but not least, the vast stocks of TOWs and their versatility thanks to a large blast effect offer the possibility of using a couple dozen relatively small AFV with TOW launcher as an effective AT and fire support vehicle. This would enable even really light and air-droppable AFVs to fit the role (4x4, for example).
S O at 10/9/2013 11:04 AM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The ARMY needs to use lighter materials such as the metal matrix nanocomposites from Eck industries in armored vehicles. Explosive reactive armor and active protection systems such as quickkill from Raytheon could be added for additional protection. These vehicles could be large enough to carry a whole squad and still light enough to be carried by a C-130.
Edward Randall at 10/9/2013 12:32 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

First off, I don't believe XM8 was rated for HVLAD, could be wrong, I know it could be rolled off.  IMO, you are better off using a highway landing on one side of a border or another, for the simple reason the -everyone- should be mounted.  'Air Assault' as a function of parachute delivery is beyond stupid it's not even a speed bump anymore as you cannot keep up with the threat.
Second, this is an opportunity to get away from the monumental inefficiencies of wheeled fighting vehicles by designing a baseline light tank that has universal levels of protection as both infantry carrier and fire support vehicle.  Stryker is enormous, it is top heavy, it is ineffectively armored vs. the most basic RPG threats and it cannot be delivered with slat.
I think the lack of specs is telling because if you have no specs then you can write specs based upon submissions which none can beat 'better than what you have already' See: M16/M4 replacement IWS.  Admittedly, this is going to be hard when we effectively _have nothing_ but the refusal to see airborne as equivalent to IBCT means that the Army will simply shift missions so that 82nd and Ranger units are APOD seizure assets and 'you bring the heavies in after' Operation Airborne Dragon /became/ Operation Option North I think it was when Airborne could only drop and sit in the mud while the task force sent in only 2 Abrams tanks to secure all of the Kirkuk oil fields.
Brilliant.
If we have to go into Syria to secure chems.  Or into Pakistan to secure nukes in the wake of a regime failure, we will need to be able to put _air mechanized_ units of company level strength (4 planes, 20 vehicles) down all at once to DRIVE to the sound of gunfire and sieze and hold without delay of securing an APOD.
It is because I don't think the Army has a proper doctrinal appreciation for what they NEED a light airmech force for that I seriously doubt if they have the means to write a spec which will result in a useful vehicle.
I do.
And it looks nothing like M8 Buford or Thunderbolt.
M&S at 10/9/2013 4:53 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

We must remember the M8 AGS was designed to replace the aging M551A1 Sheridans within the Early Entry Forces (XVIII Corps).  The Stryker MGS would never met the AGS requirements.  The Stryker units came about after the Russian Airborne forces embassed the US Forces in Yugoslavia.
 The AGS retains the US/NATO standard 105MM with Modular Armor Packages to support our Airborne & Early Entry Forces until the APOD/SPODs are secure.
 We have yet to provide the XVIII CORPS or our Early Entry Forces with a Mobile Direct Fire Systems since the retirement of the M551A1s.
Randy Stevens at 10/10/2013 10:17 AM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

Why couldn't the new light tank use missiles instead of a cannon? The missiles could either be mounted on a remote weapons station with a M806 or Mk47 machine gun or in vertical launchers within the vehicle. Javelin and DAGR missiles would cover a wide range of threats. The vertical launching system could also house active protection missiles.
Edward Randall at 10/12/2013 10:18 AM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The AGS was been air drop from a C-130 and then driven to a range to hit targets.  This is the vehicle that the 82nd needs.
Scott at 10/18/2013 2:02 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

You want shells instead of missiles.  Missiles are too expensive compared to a shell.  And you can need to fire many shells before the rest of the army shows up.
tethford Guana at 11/15/2013 4:58 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

The M-8 design was tested and it passed.  The need for armor and firepower that can be air dropped from a C-130 to support the troops on the ground in a timely manner without waiting for a heavy tank (M-1A1) to be flown over in a C-5, transported by truck and then driven to the combat area, bridges permitting.  If you are in a firefight, support is needed now.  If your firepower makes the jump with you, you are in a better position.  To upgrade the M-8 with newer existing electronics, update the drivetrain and use what the Army has learned about tank operations in combat for the past 10 years, the M-8 would be a hit with congress, not a costly search for perfection and mission. The US Army would have to commit to the idea of, updating an existing concept to speed deployment to the troops.
If it can kill a T-72 in the 1990s, then the design must be effective and ready for production.
Why re-invent the AGS/M-8, it is what is needed for the airborne and US Army.
Eugene Brusin at 11/17/2013 3:03 PM

Re: U.S. Army in the Market for ‘Light’ Tanks

Don't reinvent the wheel.
As Tamerlane said "It is better to be in time with 1000 men than to late with 10,000."
The M-8 will fit the bill just fine as is.

In addition to the 82nd there is the 173rd in Italy about one company's worth.
The CAV regiments could use a tank Bn each to augment the Strykers fire power.
I would think the other Stryker brigades would like some additional fore power also.
The total order could easily go to 200. Which would drive the cost per vehicle down.
Murf at 3/24/2014 11:37 PM

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