Defense intellectuals have a way of making everything sound too complicated. Consider the notion of “asymmetric” threats. The term came into vogue in the mid-1990’s to describe aggressors who compete in niche areas such as chemical weapons or infowar — areas where they might achieve fleeting advantage over the better-endowed Americans.
Military experts now routinely sprinkle their writings with references to asymmetric threats, as if that phrase has some special import. All it really means is that the enemy has concentrated his military investments in areas where America is lacking. Since resources and resolve are finite, it’s a safe bet there will always be areas where a niche competitor can achieve temporary advantage over The Great Satan.
Which brings us to the subject of heavy armor. There’s a widespread view that main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers like the Abrams and Bradley have become passe in the age of infowar. Apparently no one mentioned this to likely adversaries, who continue to invest heavily in armor. The Serbs definitively disproved the idea that such weapons are sitting ducks during the recent Kosovo operation, when they successfully hid their armored force from the collective air power of NATO.
The U.S. doesn’t need as many tanks as it had during the Cold War. But it still needs to be able to match and surpass (“overmatch” in Army lingo) the armor of prospective adversaries. If potential enemies continue to invest in heavy armor and America doesn’t, then heavy armor will be tomorrow’s asymmetric threat.
America doesn’t need to keep building tanks to stay ahead. It simply needs to selectively upgrade the equipment on existing armored vehicles. The M1A2 System Enhancement Program for the Abrams can greatly improve targeting, rates of fire, communication and battlefield coordination without building a single new tank. It’s a smart insertion of digital technology, and a prudent hedge against the unknown.
The important thing is that all the remaining Abrams and Bradleys in the fleet have the same capability to match the emerging threat. The Army’s recent “DCX” warfighting exercise proved the potential of digital technology, but that potential cannot be fully realized with a mixed fleet of disparate systems.
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