The U.S. Army has selected the Griffin II as its first new tank since the Cold War.
But will the new platform give the Army a lightweight but heavily armed vehicle that can support the infantry? Or like the history of light tanks suggests, it will be a liability on the battlefield? That depends on how you view the future of tanks – and the weapons that destroy them.
At the least, America buying a new tank is notable. The backbone of the Army’s armored fleet – the M1 Abrams – dates back to the late 1970s. Although much upgraded since then, it is essentially the same vehicle that was designed to take on waves of Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap.
The Army awarded a $1.1-billion contract to General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) for the new vehicle. GDLS’s Griffin II design weighs 40 tons – about half the weight of a 70-ton M1A2 Abrams – and has a four-person crew. It has a 105-millimeter cannon, rather than the 120-millimeter gun found in Western main battle tanks like the M-1, Germany’s Leopard 2, and Israel’s Merkava 4.
The new tank borrows much from the M1A2, including its fire control system and a turret that resembles that of the Abrams.
The new tank is part of the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) program, which aims to develop a tank to bolster Infantry Brigade Combat Teams and allow for better destruction of enemy tanks and bunkers. The two contenders for the award were GDLS and its Griffin II – whose chassis is based on the Austro-Spanish ASCOD armored vehicle — and BAE, whose design traced back to the 1980s-proposed M8 Buford.
“GDLS offered a new, lightweight chassis with a high-performance power pack and an advanced suspension, combined with a turret featuring the latest version of the fire control system found in the Abrams main battle tank,” noted Defense News.
The Army plans to buy 504 light tanks by 2035, as part of a program that may eventually total $17 billion in procurement and sustainment costs, according to Army officials.
The disadvantages of light tanks
Tanks should support infantry. In fact, that’s why the tank was invented back in the First World War, as a means to destroy the machine guns and barbed wire that had decimated infantry attacking across No Man’s Land. But tanks, like battleships, are compromises between three requirements: firepower, protection, and mobility. You can favor one or perhaps two of those factors, but only at the cost of the third.
And the Army’s MPF light tank sacrifices protection, given that it weighs only 40 tons. Even if it mounts an Active Protection System to shoot down incoming anti-tank rockets, the tank would seem likely to have protection closer to an infantry fighting vehicle like the M2 Bradley than a main battle tank like the Abrams.
Then there is the troubled history of the light tank concept. The major powers all used light tanks in World War II. The tanks included the U.S. M3 and M5 Stuart, the German Panzerkampfwagen I, and the Soviet T-70. They had smaller cannons and lighter armor, but they were cheaper to build than medium and heavy tanks.
The problem was that in combat, they often faced heavier enemy tanks. During the disastrous Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943, the M5 found itself outmatched by heavier, better-armed, and better-armored German PzKpfw III and IV tanks and anti-tank guns. General Patton “issued a directive that light tanks were only to be used for reconnaissance and flank security in view of their weakness in dealing with current German tanks and anti-tank guns,” notes author Steven Zaloga in his book on the Stuart tank. Against heavy German Tiger and Panther tanks, the results could be imagined.
By 1944, the U.S. Army had concluded that the “poor armor protection of the M5A1 resulted in a higher rate of crew casualties than in medium tanks, with a medium tank crew having about a one-in-five chance of becoming a casualty when their tank was knocked out, compared to a one-in-three chance in light tanks,” according to Zaloga.
The Stuart was eventually replaced by the somewhat more successful M24 Chaffee, some of which were air-dropped to the doomed French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. After World War II came the infamous M551 Sheridan, an air-droppable light tank built out of aluminum and armed with a powerful 152-millimeter cannon that could fire Shillelagh infrared-guided anti-tank missile. Deployed to Vietnam in 1969, the recoil of the gun was so hard that it knocked out the vehicle’s electronics.
This doesn’t mean that the new Griffin II light tank will be unsuccessful. But U.S. tanks already face a variety of deadly threats, including new Chinese and Russian tanks such as Russia’s T-14 Armata, as well as anti-tank missiles, long-range artillery, and missile-armed drones that have proved devastating in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Some experts are already writing obituaries for the tank. That’s premature because there is no substitute for a vehicle that combines firepower, protection, and mobility. Yet, it does suggest that the modern battlefield is a heavy burden for a light tank.
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