FORT RILEY, Kan.—In the Gulf War 12 years ago, the U.S. main battle tank owned the open desert. In a new war against Iraq, the tank corps may have to dominate one of the nastiest kinds of combat—close-in urban fighting.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and other cities, the enemy can shoot from every window, rooftop or side street. He can disguise himself as a civilian or put innocents between him and approaching tanks.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has "already said he's going to try to pull us into an urban fight," said Lt. Col. Frank Sherman, whose Fort Riley, Kan., tank battalion is preparing to deploy as war looms.
A tank, working closely with probing infantry, can provide the most accurate, powerful weapon against enemy soldiers resisting in populated areas, Sherman and others say.
A tank can put a shell into a sniper's window at angles from which aircraft can't strike. A heavily armored tank can withstand fire that would down a helicopter.
The M1A2 Abrams tank—with its 120 mm main gun, one 12.7 mm machine gun, two 7.62 mm machine guns and accurate fire-control system—"will give you firepower, it will give you shock effect, and it will save lives," said Command Sgt. Maj. William Gainey, at Fort Knox, Ky., the Army's armor teaching center. U.S. forces are deploying a mix of Abrams tanks: older M1A1s with upgraded armor and newer M1A2s with enhanced computerization. Both are considered effective in urban war zones.
An armored assault in the tight confines of city streets would unfold like this:
Tanks would set up at a distance in staggered positions so they could fire at various angles. Armored Bradley fighting vehicles would then bring infantrymen as close as possible to the fighting or area that needs to be secured. The foot soldiers would rush through a back hatch on the Bradley and begin to spread out. Missions in the Balkans showed that the Bradley, smaller than a tank and armed with a 25 mm cannon, can maneuver where tanks can't.
As infantry advances, providing eyes and ears and clearing the flanks, tanks would provide fire support. When radios aren't effective, the infantrymen and tankers use hand and arm signals.
Although tanks are protected from chemical and biological weapons, a tank can be knocked out if just one enemy soldier sneaks through the infantry shield and attacks from behind with an anti-tank weapon. Tanks are most vulnerable from the rear where their depleted-uranium armor is less thick and air vents and exhaust pipes are located.
If civilians get trapped in the crossfire, a tank commander must pick the weapon most likely to kill the enemy without causing civilian casualties. "The preferred weapon would be the smallest possible," said Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky Pring, with Fort Riley's 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, heading to the Persian Gulf region.
Despite the effectiveness of tanks, a myth persists that they don't work well in cities, said Daryl Press, a Dartmouth College assistant professor who studies military issues and has consulted for the Department of Defense. "The Israelis have shown that nothing provides as good of fire support for infantry in a city as a tank," Press said.
Sherman, the Fort Riley battalion leader, saw what a tank could do during the 1989 Panama invasion. A tank used a single round to punch a hole through a 2-foot-thick reinforced concrete wall so soldiers could enter a building.
The Somalia experience, however, showed what can happen when infantry entering cities don't have tanks supporting them. In a 1993 battle in downtown Mogadishu, 18 U.S. soldiers died; 84 were wounded.
"I think we learned our lesson in Somalia," Sherman said. "Infantry need armor firepower. You had an infantry force out there trying to do it alone."
Along with securing Baghdad, tanks would clear surrounding deserts of enemy troops and guard infrastructure, including some of the world's most productive oil fields.
In open places, tanks can spot the enemy before he realizes he is a target. With a shell as broad as a two-liter soda bottle, 4 feet long and weighing 50 pounds, a gunner can shatter an enemy tank 2.5 miles away.
An Abrams tank carries up to 40 shells. The tank's thermal viewer—which works day and night—and laser rangefinder allow tank commanders to select new targets while gunners fire away.
Using hydraulics, computers and night-vision equipment, tank commanders can accurately fire on the move, in the dark. Technology now allows crews to digitally share battle plans and if nuclear, biological or chemical threats arise, crews can shut their tank's hatches and use an air filtration system to augment their gas masks and protective suits.
Of all the challenges tank crews could face, Press said, "Baghdad is the trickiest problem in this war. If we end up fighting our way into Baghdad, it would be a combination of infantry and armored units" that would win the urban war.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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