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.
Related: Could the Panther tank once again be seen in Europe?
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.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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The MPF is certainly no MBT, but it should have notably better protection than a Bradley. The weight of the M2’s crew, ammo, passengers, and weapons are about the same as the weight of the heavier gun, ammo, and smaller crew on the MPF, but the MPF is 40 short tons (38 metric) to the latest version of the Bradley at about 30 tons, and moreover, its enclosed volume should be smaller as not having to carry an infantry squad is an even more significant reduction. Some 8-10 more tons of armor and protective gear on a smaller volume should help.
A late-model T72 is about 46 metric tons, so an MPF is about 80% of that. In contrast, a WWII Chaffee at 18 tons was only about 40% of the weight of a German Panther tank at 45 tons. A 20% lighter tank is somewhat disadvantaged… but it can win with good tactics; also, a 2025 US tank probably has better quality fire control, armor, active protection and ammo than the average Russian or Chinese tank. Those M14 Armatas aren’t getting mass produced…
A better comparison might be the Stug III assault gun (but with rotating turret) to the Panther., which the Germans used to provide armor to the infantry, much as the MPF is intended. Stug III was lighter than the German heavy and medium tanks at 28 tons to 40-50 tons, but it was heavy and well armed enough to give a good account against a T34 or Sherman, and it was successful enough that the Germans built more of them than any other AFV.
It’s probably better to think of it as a turreted assault gun (like a Stug III) or a medium tank than a light tank.
Tom Jenkins says
Our Army needs a complete tear down and rebuild like what Gen Marshall did before WW2. This idea of our main tank being lighter than the Abrams along with a smaller cannon is insane. I hope the next president does this before we waste more $$$ and get more of our sons killed.
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I think what they envision is being able to support rapidly deployed troops to secure bridgeheads (or airheads), crossing bridges (or flying in planes) where the Abrams can’t. Once they roll down the opposite side to a prepared crossing locations, follow on heavy echelons can cross at a bridgehead with a constructed bridge. They are designed for defense, fighting from hull down of defilade in that roll, but can be potent armor in swift strikes (always with infantry and follow on support). Of course, top down missiles are a problem…they are for everyone…but they can fill a vital role in maneuver operations faced by the Abrams armored formations.
They just can’t be employed like they are heavy tank formations…as long as commanders understand that (and too often in the past they haven’t) it will work.
Ethan C says
I see this doctrinal change and I feel like someone studied Operation Market Garden. I see the niche that we as an Army especially Paratroopers are trying to fill here but I wonder if maybe it is taking a step backward? Instead of dumping money and material into a new light tank wouldn’t it be cheaper and more effective to develop maybe a top down attacking Shoulder launched munition that is cheaper than our current Javelin systems? The Javelin was developed in 1989, surely we have progressed in munitions tech to create a cheaper better system. With the advent of top down attack munitions available for infantry I feel that supplying a cheaper, lighter and arguably same effect or more effective munition system is the answer. Now, while I do admit it is a step backward I would propose that with the way we conduct Combined Arms Maneuver in the Army that maybe this system could shine. I will admit though that it would shine best in below peer conflicts, or perhaps conflicts where there are lots of elevation changes. The last critique and then I will shut it is this, if we developed this vehicle asset with the idea of supporting airborne troopers on the ground, why on God’s green earth is it not air droppable? The fact that this system needs to land, which means a whole lot of logistical computation to get into action(while not being destroyed in a combat environment) creates the most significant hurdle in my humble opinion. As many have said on this thread we shall see, but out of the gate especially with our current and future operating environment I think this is a minor setback doctrinally.
Mike Johnson says
The question is what will they be used for? For reconnaissance and some light support against machine gun nests they might be great. In fact they might work even for taking out some pillboxes and lightly fortified bunkers but if someone has an anti-tank weapon….that’s an issue. Even an RPG-7 can be very dangerous for a light tank.I’m certain that the Griffin 2 might have some issues if it gets hit by an RPG-7. It can be used against IFVs and APC quite easily. There are uses for it but it CAN’T be used as a tank. It is also far more mobile so it can potentially reach places tanks can’t so there is that. We’ll see what happens.
Apparently little or nothing can withstand modern top attack shaped charges. 40 60 or 80 tons of armor, they all open like a can of beans under a sufficient quantity of the Munroe effect.
So the only salvation is in APS, like Trophy, or maybe one day lasers. You can hang a lot of that junk on your rig in exchange for 20 tons of armor.