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Wrong Technology for the Wrong Tactics: The Infantry Fighting Vehicle

William F. Owen

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William F Owen is the Deputy Editor of Military Operations
Owen, William F., “Wrong Technology for the Wrong Tactics: The Infantry Fighting Vehicle”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 3, Winter 2012, pages 17-20.

Both the UK and the US have at the centre of their combined arms capability two broadly similar designs of infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), the Warrior (FV-510) and the Bradley M2. There are many other IFV types in service world-wide, but this article will assert that such vehicles are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of combined arms and the role of the infantry within that combination. Essentially, the advent of the IFV was based on a flawed conception of combined arms battle that failed to understand the real role of the main battle tank (MBT) and the existing armoured personnel carrier (APC). In doing so the IFV adopted a highly capable weapons set with no real regard to the negative costs of doing so. This failure was far more tactical than technical.

Comparison and Distinction

It obviously makes no sense to compare 1960s-era APCs, such as the M-113 and FV-432, with IFVs such as the Warrior and the Bradley M2. We need to compare like with like. We should compare vehicles which exist both as APCs and IFVs. For example, the Swedish-built CV-90 exists as an IFV (equipped with different cannon dependant on nation) and as a pure APC (in the shape of the ‘Armadillo’ variant). Alternatively you can take an IFV such as Warrior and remove the turret, allowing at least four more infantry to be carried within it. The comparison is based on vehicles with identical baseline chassis, power packs and running gear. Thus the comparison of an IFV and an APC is as follows:

  • An IFV has a 3-man crew of which 2 are in the turret and dismounts 6-7 men.
  • The APC has a 2-man crew and dismounts 8-10 men.
  • The APC version is lighter by virtue of not having a turret, and so will have the same or better levels of protection.

In essence, the question is: do you want to trade a two-man turret for four dismounts? There is another far more fundamental distinction when it comes to design: that is that the IFV has to mount what is believed to be an effective weapons set. An IFV must not only balance the criteria of firepower, mobility and protection, but also that between the firepower of a dismountable infantry section and the turret- mounted weapons. The APC faces no such dilemma. It merely has to allow enough space under armour for the carriage of the required amount of troops. Given the same chassis, an IFV will have less space for troops, and less armour for the same given weight.

Roles

The roles of IFVs and APCs differ in one essential way. The IFV is designed to fight; that is, to engage in direct-fire combat with the enemy: either with the infantry section or fire team mounted, or in support of a dismounted section. Some designs even allow for the infantry to fire their weapons from within the vehicle, or via roof hatches. In contrast, the APC is and was designed to deliver the infantry to a point where they dismount and fight on foot. The APCs then withdraw until required to perform support tasks (such as re-supplying ammunition, bringing up reinforcements, evacuating casualties), after which they might transport the infantry for subsequent tasks.

A simple example illustrates those differences. Given a combat team of 8 MBTs and 8 APCs (plus 1 x APC and 1 x MBT as the HQ) in the attack, the MBTs would fight in support of the dismounted infantry. Once the infantry dismounted, the APCs would retire into dead ground or out of the direct-fire engagement. If the APCs are replaced with IFVs, however, then the IFVs stay in the fight. From this we can draw some fairly simple conclusions:

  • The enemy will be subject to more weapons fire if the IFVs are present than if APCs were present or absent. Thus the enemy is likely to suffer more casualties.
  • If IFVs are present in the direct fire engagement then there is a risk of being lost or damaged by enemy fire. This risk is greater than for an APC because the IFVs stay in the direct fire zone to fight.

Therefore, the fundamental question is: what are the real costs and benefits of IFVs?

History

While many armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) historians and military thinkers are inclined towards seeing doctrine and operational experience as driving the development of the IFV, there is good evidence that improvisation based on perceived need is the biggest driver.

Almost every army that operates IFVs today has done so after having operated APCs. In almost every case it substituted those APCs with IFVs on a one-for-one or similar basis. For example, in the Soviet Army, the BMP-1 replaced the BTR-50, and BTR-60 replaced the BTR-152. The BMP-2 and BMP-3 replaced the BMP-1. In the UK the FV-432 was replaced by the Warrior. In the US the M-113 was replaced by the Bradley M2. The organisational changes are minimal, in that platoons are still three or four vehicles. However, in nearly every case the number of infantry dismounts has decreased. The main exception is the German Army, with the Marder 1 being able to dismount seven men compared to five for the Schützenpanzer Lang (HS.30). In general, IFV platoons now have the following characteristics compared with APC platoons:

  • Fewer dismounts but more vehicle crew members (with attendant increased training costs).
  • More complex vehicles, requiring greater logistic support and maintenance by virtue of the turret.

Clearly exceptions can and will apply, based on specific vehicle characteristics, but the basic trend is undeniable. To date, almost all IFVs have had better levels of protection than the vehicles they had replaced, but they have also been larger and heavier. That is not the point. The issue here is taking any IFV and turning it into an APC by removing the turret. Employing the space for more dismounts, and the weight of the turret for more armour, would produce a vehicle that was just as mobile but better protected (for the same weight) than the original IFV. It would also be simpler to employ and cheaper to operate.

With an IFV, more weapons capabilities are being given to the vehicle. That assumes that the infantry are more effective if they are given a more capable vehicle to support them. It may be more useful to consider that, if given a force of 8 IFVs and 8 MBTs, the IFVs may well dismount fewer men to protect the tanks. However, if the IFVs remain, the dismounted infantry will have twice as many AFVs to protect. It is a choice between 8 MBTs protected by (or working with) 64-80 dismounts, or 8 MBTs and 8 IFVs protected by (or working with) 48-56 dismounts. The ratios of men to AFVs are 8-10 per vehicle and 3 respectively. In close country, IFVs need protecting just as MBTs do. They work in exactly the same space. Closed down, IFVs have restricted vision – just like MBTs. In order to protect AFVs (be they MBTs or IFVs), infantry have to dismount.

Quite bizarrely in 1977, US General Don Starry suggested that one of the main roles of the IFV was to give the enemy something to shoot at so that the tanks were less likely to be engaged:

It (the IFV) could, in short, unstress our tanks in the main battle, first by defeating enemy armor vehicles and antitank systems and second by joining in with the tanks, a target obviously so dangerous as to require the attention of more enemy systems, drawing them away from our tanks.[i]

Of note, the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command based the need for an IFV on their analysis of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They stated that the war illustrated the requirement for a vehicle that was able to produce large volumes of fire to suppress anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) teams. What they failed to realise, however, was that while the Israel Defense Forces agreed that ATGM teams needed suppressing, experience showed that the best way to do it was with tank fire, MGs and even light mortars mounted on main battle tanks.[ii,iii]

The tank was originally and explicitly designed to support the infantry. Over time the requirement evolved for dismounted infantry to protect armour in close terrain. Thus, we have a near-symbiotic relationship in the modern concept of combined arms. As previously shown, with the advent of the IFV you have AFVs which are less capable than tanks and which carry fewer infantry; but those infantry are now required to protect both sets of vehicles once dismounted. If the objective is to have more vehicle-mounted weapons immediately available to defeat the enemy, then this supposed benefit is gained at substantial cost for no real advantage.

Infantry Tanks and Assault Guns

The IFV is essentially attempting to fulfil the role that was previously given to infantry tanks and assault guns in Second World War British and German armies respectively. Given the need for an AFV to support the infantry in the attack, the British chose a heavily armoured but slow tank. The Germans opted for the ‘sturmgeschütz’, or assault gun, which was a greatly simplified tank with a casemate-mounted weapon. By the end of the Second World War, the infantry tank had become a liability. The assault gun, which was successful as a cheap but less-capable and even less flexible tank, was largely replaced by the emerging main battle tank. Arguably, by the 1960s the extant MBT and APC (such as the M-113 and M-60 in the US Army and the FV-432 and Centurion in the British) provided a sound conceptual basis for employment – even if the APCs themselves had relatively poor protection. The necessary level of armour was not much more than that which existed, given the technology of the time; but little effort seems to have been made to ascertain that. Instead it appears that the UK and US looked at the BMP-1 and perceived capabilities that were simply not there. The BMP-1 was an APC with a 1-man turret that mounted an ATGM launcher and a 73mm anti-tank gun with a co-axial MG. The intent was for an APC to protect itself against tanks.

The role of the APC is to deliver infantry to a point where they dismount to fight. If this sounds simple, then this is because it is. Moreover, the APC is simple to command. Not so the IFV. Dismounted infantry can, and have, become extremely proficient at fighting alongside MBTs in close terrain. In our ‘8 APC and 8 MBT’ model, there are 64 infantrymen in two platoons, fighting with two tank platoons. C2 is thus fairly simple. The APCs are not part of the fight. Replace the APCs with IFVs that are integral to the fight and the C2 problem multiplies substantially; if only by virtue of the number of call-signs on an all-informed net. Add to this the co-ordination of twice as many weapons and the problems are easy to imagine.

Equipment versus tactics

Previously in this article we asked whether the weapons carried by an IFV made it more likely that it would defeat the enemy compared to an APC. Naturally, an unsupported attack conducted solely by IFVs is more likely to succeed than the same attack conducted by APCs. Even more simply, an IFV with a turret-mounted 30mm cannon and ATGM is far more likely to damage a target than an APC armed only with a machinegun. That capability comes at substantial cost, both in terms of procurement and training. The idea that an IFV crew are merely infantrymen with another skill-set is as sound as suggesting the same for a tank crew. Within the scope of a campaign they are more likely to be dedicated to employing the vehicle they crew.

A MBT, however, is far more likely to damage any given target than an IFV, with the possible exception of the range associated with some ATGMs. Furthermore, the MBT is far more likely to survive than an IFV, but this should not be an argument just about equipment.

The theory, or concept, of combined arms is the use of each arm to support the other in order to ensure the defeat of the enemy in battles and engagements. Combined arms works best when each arm has a clearly defined role, which compliments the way in which the other arms support it. Having vehicles designed to carry infantry engage in direct combat is bad tactics. It asks them to do what tanks are designed to do, and which by virtue of physics and engineering they are barely adequate to do. To suggest, as some doctrine does, that they will be engaging different targets makes little sense. It suggests that a gunner or a commander in a MBT will dismiss an available yet fleeting target on the basis that an IFV nearby will deal with it, and vice versa.

Tactical doctrine for IFVs places a vehicle less protected than a MBT in approximately the same place on the battlefield. That place allows the MBT to use its weapons effectively. If the intention is to have a vehicle that can accomplish its role without MBTs, then that is also bad tactical doctrine. Tanks are armoured vehicles optimised to employ direct fire weapons. Armoured personnel carriers are designed to deliver infantry to a point where they can fight on foot. IFVs are a compromise able to do neither role well. If this is about tactics, then it would be possible to employ an IFV as an APC, but that would result in an expensive and complex vehicle where a cheaper and simpler one would suffice.

There is an argument which suggests that the armoured or mechanised units may have to perform missions without MBT support. In such cases APCs would have to compensate through changes in tactics, more indirect fire support, or both. Any combined arms organisation will be less effective without one of the ‘teeth arms’. An IFV company given the same task would have to make the same adjustment, but might place their vehicles in the direct fire fight; unless they are going to compensate the same way as the APCs. One would hope that even the most stupid commander would be less inclined to separate APCs and MBTs than they would IFVs and MBTs.

Conclusion

The weapons fit on an IFV places it in a role that it is neither tactically or technologically capable of fulfilling as well as either a MBT or APC. Weight for weight, a modern APC can have better levels of protection (including against mines or IEDs) than a turret-equipped IFV for the same if not better mobility, given the same chassis. An APC will be cheaper to operate, and simpler to employ, than an IFV since its task is fundamentally simpler. As previously stated, the ‘firepower’ or striking capacity of an APC resides in the infantry it dismounts and the weapons and sensors they bring to the combined arms fight. Tanks co-operate with those dismounted infantry using well-established and simple command and control measures.

Sadly, today the logic and simplicity of this argument is lost because simple facts about combined arms operations have become lost. During the last 25 years or so, British and American armed forces have encountered enemies that possessed minimal capabilities, both in terms of equipment and/or training. The Israeli experience of the Lebanon War of 2006 confirmed their opinion (from 1973) that an APC with MBT-like levels of protection offered the best fit to combined arms tactics. That is not to say that MBT levels of protection are required, but there must be a judgement as to what is adequate. Tactics tell us how to employ the APC, because its role is to deliver the infantry to fight. From a technical standpoint, its mobility and protection must merely be equal to that task.

Footnotes

[i] Page 238, ‘Press On.’ Selected Works of General Don A. Starry, Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
[ii] Ibid, p236.
[iii] There is evidence that some Israeli units had begun to increase the number of mortars in armoured units just before the 1973 war. See page 23, ‘The Yom Kippur War 1973 (1), The Golan Heights.’ Simon Dunstan, Osprey Publishing, Campaign 113, Oxford, 2003 [Ed].