- On Armor
Anyone who has followed the recent debate over the U.S. Army's Medium Brigades and the ideal armored vehicle with which they should be equipped will appreciate the timing and approach of this latest addition to Praeger's Military Profession series. The inclusion of the tank's less-studied cousins, including armored cars, infantry carriers, assault guns, and combat engineer vehicles, has aided series editor Gudmundsson in highlighting the sustainability versus combat power conundrum throughout the history of armored forces. He divides the history of armored warfare into three phases. Until 1944, the trucks, armored cars, and light tanks that could move soldiers to the battlefield faster developed separately from the heavier tanks, whose crews could inflict more damage once there. During the last two years of World War II, these two tracks merged in the up-gunned variants of the Sherman and T-34: prototype main battle tanks (MBT) expected to perform both infantry support and exploitation/pursuit missions. Throughout most of this second phase, as both sides in the Cold War trained and equipped to fight World War III in the German countryside, the MBT concept and its operative philosophies—engaging at the maximum effective range of one's weapons and scoring first-round kills—prevailed. But if the idea of the one-size-fits-all [End Page 555] tank held sway in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, design priorities diverged. While the heavier weight of Western MBTs stemmed from increased interest in crew protection, the Soviets favored lighter types that could be moved to battle and maintained more easily. With the conclusion of the Cold War and first Gulf War has come the third phase, in which new missions demanding enhanced strategic and operational mobility of Western armies have caused armored fighting vehicle development to diverge back into separate tracks. Gudmundsson's projection of an operationally mobile automotive system employing special purpose turrets that can be interchanged in the field fits logically into his broader historical picture; one in which geography plays a crucial role in the design of vehicles as well as armies.
By drawing on the entire range of ground forces mechanization for insights on technology, organization, tactics, and governing principles, the author not only provides a broader context in which to consider the main battle tank, but establishes with a few well-chosen examples what technocentric histories generally have not: that the other armored vehicles have been, and will be, far more than cheap ersatz tanks. The assault gun was not only less expensive than the Panther, but far more survivable in combat on the Eastern Front and a more successful tank killer when employed with "fire brigades" such as the Grossdeutschland Division. Its employment with the infantry did indeed free tanks for more concentrated operations on the Eastern Front, but Erich von Manstein's wish for one assault gun battalion per infantry division was never realized. Gudmundsson's brief look at the field expedient origins of the "Kangaroo" heavy armored personnel carrier provides an even clearer example of misplaced design and production priorities. Although it provided far better armor protection than the halftrack, this gun carriage without the gun was available only in small numbers for temporary attachment to British and Canadian divisions after mid-1944. Not only do recent developments in Iraq indicate that a long term fixation on the tank has left foot soldiers in built-up areas short of armor protection but, as Gudmundsson argues, the future heavy tank may, like its 1916 ancestor, serve primarily in an infantry support role.
Similarly insightful treatments of France's interwar emphasis on armored cars, in part a function of that nation's contemporary road building program, and Israel's development of sniper tanks, an effort to avoid collateral damage during the Water Battles of 1965, place technology and tactics in a context sufficiently broad for general readers, and with relatively jargon-free prose. At the same time, specialists will appreciate that Gudmundsson addresses neither armor's accomplishments nor...