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Saturday, April 5

Tanks play key role in war in Iraq

By The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

"Tankers! Tankers! All the way! Hey!"

It’s a marching cadence that’s been barked out by drill sergeants at Fort Knox, Ky., since the 1930s, when it became the military’s primary training ground for tank crews. That training has enabled U.S. tank units in Iraq to fight through the open desert all the way to Baghdad by using close air and artillery support in "blitzkrieg’’ tactics that were developed by Germany and perfected by the Allies during the massive tank battles in North Africa and on the fields of Europe in World War II.

Tank warfare, introduced by the British in World War I, was not as prominent in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but returned to the forefront during 1991’s Operation Desert Storm in one of the fastest military victories in U.S. history. After weeks of U.S coalition bombing attacks on Iraqi forces, allied tanks led a ground offensive that, in less than 100 hours, forced the surrender or retreat from Kuwait of all Iraqi troops and destroyed almost 4,000 of their tanks, more than 1,400 armored personnel carriers and some 3,000 artillery pieces.

"The tank is probably the most prominent force on the battlefield because of its mobility, the protection it provides and its firepower,’’ said retired Army Brig. Gen. John Reppert, executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "I’m not surprised at the success our tanks are having in Iraq. They’re fighting exactly the kind of battles they were designed for, and they’re technologically superior to anything the enemy has.’’

Tanks were ill-suited to the hilly terrains of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam, where air power, artillery and infantry were the main weapons, Reppert said.

"They were designed for European and desert landscapes, and they proved their value in Africa and Europe during World War II,’’ he said. "They were not important in the Pacific theater, where the war consisted largely of hopping from one island jungle to another, or in Korea and Vietnam, because of the terrain.’’

Retired Army Col. Robert Koon, a former tank battalion commander who is now an instructor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said U.S. tanks in Iraq "have performed their traditional role in what, so far, has been conventional warfare. They’ve spearheaded the ground assault and made a fast, audacious run to Baghdad, which is the main objective in this conflict. I have to say that they’ve done an amazing job.’’

While conventional military wisdom dictates that tanks are at their most effective when fighting running battles in open terrain, both Reppert and Koon say they will prove to be just as important if there is a street-to-street and door-to-door battle in Baghdad. U.S. tank units have been training for just such a battle at the $13 million urban combat center at Fort Knox known as "Doom City.’’

"Tankers don’t like urban warfare. Neither does the infantry, for that matter,’’ said Koon. "It’s just such a tough, dangerous, dirty job. It’s particularly hazardous for tanks because they’re vulnerable to attacks from above — say by someone on a rooftop with a rocket launcher. Land mines and enemy troops hiding in sewer systems or debris are also a threat. You won’t see massive numbers of tanks pouring into the city. You don’t want to use them too much because of the confined spaces you encounter in an urban environment. Tanks don’t operate as well in close quarters. But you will see single tanks leading squads of infantry — which is another classic World War II tactic. They can knock down obstacles, provide cover and secure streets while the ground troops do the dirty work, clearing each building.’’

Reppert said the same characteristics that make tanks so valuable on open land can be used for certain types of missions in urban warfare.

"In an urban situation I think the command will identify key targets and objectives. It might be a heavy gun position, a communications or command center, or even a presidential palace. Tanks can race to the objective quickly while affording protection to the crew, use its massive firepower to destroy the target, and return quickly to relative safety. They’ll also be used to safeguard enclaves we establish within the city for command centers and the like,’’ he said.

While the fighting will be more difficult, Reppert said, "We certainly can do it, and we certainly will be victorious if it comes to that.’’