U.S. Army ARMOR magazine September/October 1993
Independent Operations

By Ralph Zumbro

Added into the "witches brew" are millions of leftover weapons in the hands of political splinter groups, warlords, and outright bandits. If, as things are shaping up, we are to be part of the world's 911 system, we'd better get ready for small-scale fractioned operations far from home.

In such places as Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, Cambodia, and others, we are now seeing that the "New World Order" is going to be very messy. The polarized world of the Cold War is giving way to a boiling pot of national catastrophes, some stirred by climate, some by politics, and most by both. Added into the "witches brew" are millions of leftover weapons in the hands of political splinter groups, warlords, and outright bandits. If, as things are shaping up, we are to be part of the world's 911 system, we'd better get ready for small-scale fractioned operations far from home. The armored civil action patrols and VC-chasing of the Vietnam era taught the tankers of that time a whole new bag of tank tricks that are in danger of being lost. We learned to do things that are impossible, and this article is an attempt to transmit that hard-won knowledge to a new generation.

My old outfit, A-1/69, was at one time the sole armor support of the 1st Air Cav. It is, I believe, the only tank company in history to get its own Valorous Unit Citation. We were 17 worn, battered M48A3s with double and triple the turn-in mileage on the clocks, spread out over the full AO of an airmobile division. We busted bunkers, escorted convoys, built roads and fords, responded to ambush calls, served as artillery, learned to run in rice paddies, and probed the green hell for Charlie, sometimes on our own with no infantry close by. When the monsoon hit, we drove those old tanks up the Annam Cordillera to the Central Highlands, back to the Fourth Infantry Division AO, which was even larger.

We literally ran from the South China Sea to, in some cases, inside Cambodia. We escorted trucks from Pleiku to places like Ban Me Thuot and Cheo Rio and Kontum, helped guard Montagnard rice and corn harvests, and moved their villages with our tanks. I have lived in a stone age village with a section of tanks, shared food and danger with the "Yards," hauled their grain on the back deck, and escorted the medic tracks that healed their wounds and infections. We also kicked two battalions of NVA out of Pleiku during TET and utterly destroyed NVA regiment 95B at Mang Yang Pass on April 10, 1968. We did all of this with company resources and detachments from the battalion headquarters company. The primary key to our success was the old TO&E that provided a large company headquarters section.

We had our own VTR, maintenance section, and motor sergeant, and we learned to send mechanics out with the platoons. The old TO had a large supply section, and ammunition NCO and helper, a mess section that could feed the company-plus, and a few clerks and armorers. This personnel pool gave us a very important capability -- company-level crew replacement. I have seen firefights where three TCs got medevacked out in one day. The gunners took over the tanks and cooks and clerks came out with the ammo resupply. We gave in-house cross-training. I got into serious trouble with the Top Soldier one time, for taking his company clerk for a loader.

Morale in that outfit was such that, when a platoon or section went out on patrol, there was always a cluster of cooks and clerks at the gate, hoping for a chance at combat. We even used some Air Force types, and one TC was caught training up the Montagnard/Chinese interpreter as a loader. The lesson here is that, if the present TO is going to be kept official, there are going to have to be semi-permanent detachments from HQ company made to the tank companies, in the line of motor and mess people, and the nearest transportation company has to be tapped for a few five tonners and drivers.

Just when I'd learned how to keep a tank going with controlled cannibalization, ingenuity, and outright theft, the old head died. The air filters had been leaking, and the bolts that held the sprockets to the final drive hubs were popping one by one, just for starters. As a result, I drew the Ammo NCO job in company HQ and really learned how the operation ticked. Our company commander at the time, Captain Allen, was one overworked officer. In order to handle our job, we'd had to set up a company-sized fire base out in Indian Country, and like Topsy, it just grew, by accretion, as more capabilities were added. It turns out that, to handle fractioned operations, even the old TO wasn't quite enough. Here's what we had working out of one tank company base, in order to handle strong point duty, probes and sweeps, convoy escort, and reaction force.

One 17-tank company, with one platoon detached out "near" the Cambodian border, one beating the brush and working MEDCAP (Medical Civil Action Patrol), and one running convoy escort. Of course, this required infantry we didn't have, so two platoons of 4th Infantry Division grunts moved in and set up their own tents....All those husky bodies for sandbag detail.

We developed a need for indirect fire support for such things as illumination fires and harassment and interdiction. The battalion's mortar tubes were shot out, and the APCs had been absorbed by the scout platoon and turned into ACAVs (home made cupolas, out of steel from the wrecking yard). As a result, we got a half-battery of 105s, with part of their battery's FDC. They set up on the west side of the perimeter, and presented me with an impressive ammunition list, and the use of one of their trucks. I eventually wound up with a three-truck flying resupply section, and when I got a new tank, did my own escort duty.

Next, we now needed APCs to move our infantry around, in addition to having some of them ride, WWII-style, on the decks of the tanks. What we go was part of our newly enlarged scout platoon, and a couple of PCs that somebody had put together at the scrap yard in Camp Enari. Then a Military Intelligence detachment moved in. Captain Allen and our XO Lieutenant Walker, somehow made all this work cohesively, and the composite unit was a success. Looking back, I'd say that operations like that need a TO&E somewhere between the company and the battalion, with a major for CO and a captain for the XO.

What we seem to be facing in the foreseeable future is an unending series of small-scale commitments that don't fit current training, TOs, or issued hardware. We not only have to hold the line in Korea and act as reaction force for what's left of NATO, we've now got to keep a nervous eye on Iran and Iraq, AND put out Third World brushfires, including civic action. The big divisions can watch the big problems, and DESERT STORM proved that they can do the job, but a 120-mm gun Abrams won't cut it in Somalia or points west and south. We are entering another age of LIC, but judging by the political climate, we'd better get ready for LI-LB (Low Intensity-Low Budget).

In fractioned operations, the entire ball game is changed, and the strains and demands of leadership and crew response get suddenly more intense. Instead of receiving order and support from on high, you'll find yourself on your own, virtually living-off-the-land. One or two tanks or IFVs might be turned loose in an AO with a few squads of infantry of local militia. Suddenly, you find that you're a combination of U.S. marshal and local medical clinic, and you'll soon attract a fairly loyal group of locals. These must be analyzed, harvested, and put to work as a personal intelligence sources, as the locals always know where the bandits are. They're your eyes and ears, both into the jungles and into the local communities.

There IS such a thing as a one-tank fire base. One of the first things you can get hit with is strong point duty, using the reach of your gun to dominate ten kilometers of road from a high point. We filled 55 gallon drums with sand, topped them with cyclone fence to stop RPGs, built a monsoon proof bunker, and moved a squad of infantry in for patrol and night security. You do NOT let the locals -- who'll be doing your laundry and trying to sell you local produce -- stay inside the wire at night, they'll set up their own camp outside. You can't get rid of them, so make sure they're below your line-of-fire. It's up to you whether you let them keep weapons, but if your catch one with an RPG, he needs an instant debriefing.

We used to say "thank God for helicopters," but in this day and age, the supply bird may be an endangered species. The advent of the SA-7, and commercially available Stinger-clones have changed the battlefield equation. All it takes is one reasonably competent guerrilla leader or warlord with modern equipment, and you're on your own. Now, as never before, a small mechanized unit must have the independent quality of the old horse patrols. That mean spare parts, tools and supplies, and stowage space.

You've GOT to stay mobile, so let's take a look at your running gear.

When something breaks or gets blown in LIC, you can't just pull over and let Battalion Maintenance come rescue you. You fix the problem yourself and continue the mission. Maintenance intervals need to be shortened considerably in hot, dusty, high mileage conditions. Depending on the vehicle, you should carry a minimum or two road wheel hubs or bearing sets, with the seals., and consider internal tankage for lubricants. We used to try to carry four road wheels, slung from the bustle rack to act as an extra armor. Anything that will set a shaped charge off before it hits your hull is welcome insurance. As all the old pictures show, we carried extra track sections, arranged as extra armor, especially across the front slope. Mine damage is going to be one of your greatest problems if the opposition is at all serious, and it is amazing how much damage. American equipment can sustain and still protect the crew. It does however, require spare parts, to include a spare pair of torsion bars lashed to the sponson boxes, and the skill and expertise to change them....or you're just going to sit and sweat until someone with the knowledge arrives. We had the entire left suspension blown off an M48 named Apostle, and our platoon put that sucker back together in two days and towed it home to Bong Son with no outside help. We had all the parts with us. The crew all survived and came back with a new tank several months later. The remains of the old tank provided spare parts for about two months. Since LIC combat is going to require many clearing sweeps, you will live a gypsy-like existence. A platoon or section will set up many temporary camps, usually for a week or two, while the political types are winning the "hearts and minds" of the locals and finding targets for you, such as the nearest nest of bandits or the fortified home of the local warlord. As a result, an unplanned-for strain will be put on your electrical system, which was designed for straightforward combat, not cruising the back country.

The batteries will be called on to provide lights for bunkers and hooches, radio watch, infared and passive search, powering searchlights, ventilators and turret power. Night work and the perennial demands of next higher for status reports all take their toll on the batteries, which are also expected to crank the beast on a moment's notice. Our half-solution was to install a knife switch that would isolate the starting batteries from whichever paid was acting as the "service bank."

The ability to generate electricity is critical to the small base camp, especially since the light infantry and mortar platoon that may be your artillery won't have it either. We sorely felt the absence of the "Little Joe" featured in earlier tanks. Of course, the men who designed the diesel powerpack couldn't have known of the LIC situation, where we spent thousands of hours on overwatch at strong points, as bridge guards, or wired into the phone net at some remote fire base.

The decision to eliminate the auxiliary generator set was based on two factors. The low fuel consumption of an idling diesel, and the known consumption of the gasoline generator in the M48A2. I do not believe the designers had a small diesel set to experiment with, as there are none made in the U.S.A. Having personal experience running a 60-foot cruiser off one, I can attest to their economy of operations. A 3kw petter (British), burns 1/4 pound of fuel per developed horsepower, per hour. That's not much, and in today's tanker's world, it could make a lot of difference.

First, it makes extremely long endurance missions more feasible. Second, it eases the problem of thermal signature, because you're only having to diffuse about six horsepower worth of heat while charging batteries. Remember that high-tech, including thermal imaging sights, is filtering down to the third world, just like Stingers. Third, its air discharge can be used to heat both the main engine and crew compartment in colder environments. Anyone who's had to get a diesel cranked in Grafenwhor in winter will appreciate that capability. A small genset won't burn as much fuel as the current tank personnel heater.

Extra radios are another priority. There are just too many local nets for a crew to keep track of, and somebody needs to think seriously about getting scanners into a tank's radio suite. When some infantry platoon leader sticks his point man into an ambush, he needs help instantly, not the next time some tanker feels like fiddling with his radio. Almost every tank in old "A" Company had an auxiliary receiver, because we'd turned controlled cannibalization into an art. Also, by one means or another, most of us had acquired a small portable, such as the PRC-6. These were necessary because, many times, the TC had to go out ahead of the tank to test a stream for trafficability. It helps to be able to reach your crew if there is enemy traffic in the bushes.

You will also be periodically required to send one of your crewman as liaison or spotter with the infantry, and he'll need his own radio. If the troops in question are American, I guarantee that you won't be able to get a word in edgewise on their frequencies. We used to have to use the feedback shriek to break in. If they are local militia, they may not even have military radios. In many third world countries, the old CB is used for military communications, good buddy, and a commercial scanner could save lives. Another use for the portable radios when you're sent out as FO for your own guns. There'll probably be an absence of several things in LIC, including large base camps with dedicated artillery, and when that happens, somebody is going to figure out that a tank's main gun is a creditable artillery piece. Your azimuth indicator is as good as the one found in many SP guns, and by putting the gunner's quadrant on the witness marks, you can do some very accurate long range shooting. That's if you've kept the data cards that came with the ammo.

There will be a mix of vehicles in any LIC operation, and the capabilities of the tank will be used to the fullest. The M1 Abrams is probably the version that will be sent, if not rehabbed M60s, because of the multi-use capability of the 105-mm cannon. As yet, there are only two rounds for the 120-mm gun, severely restricting its utility. You have GOT to have the use of specialized ammunition types when you aren't facing enemy armor. In the whole of Africa, there aren't any T80s yet, and we ought to discourage their importation.

With the 105mm and its ammunition, the capabilities are endless. As with the 90mm before it, it is a creditable artillery piece. When you get a stable position, range and record all suspicious areas in daylight, and put them on your range card. This allows the interdiction of roads and trails at night. One of the standard administrative practices in these Third World brouhahas is to declare a sundown curfew, and you have almost free-fire at night. In RVN, many captured VC said that the sudden arrival of a tank shell at a stream crossing or a pass in the hills in the middle of the night had cost them many comrades.

We even registered the parking slots in company base and made range cards for them. That way, any tank in for repairs need only range and traverse to one target on the card to be able to be part of the fire plan. Even a tank with its pack pulled could work the turret manually and keep that quadrant covered. What we really lacked was someone organic to the company with artillery FDC experience. If that lack is repaired by cross-training, any platoon on base camp duty can act as the resident artillery battery. The dozer tank can build you a ramp that will get the necessary elevation for long range work.

There are some rounds available for the 105mm with which you may not be familiar, as they have not been used in normal training. APERS-M494, for instance, puts out 5000 flechettes at 2700 fps. It can be set for muzzle action or any distance up to 4400 meters. The shell delivers a 30-50 meter footprint. Two shots will effectively erase a platoon of infantry in assault formation. This cannot possibly do the hostile commander's state of mind any good at all.

There is also an anti-helicopter round under development. Designated XM945 HE-MP, it uses a light HE shell from the 105 howitzer, mated to a tank gun powder casing and fitted with a Navy Mk 404 fuze. It was designed to pick helicopters out of treelines but, fitted with an impact/delay fuze, it would make a dandy bunker-buster. Willie Peter is another underused round. In addition to masking targets or designating them for an air strike, the shell gives a remarkably good approximation of the effects of a flamethrower. It will burn anything combustible, including human flesh.

A combination of APERS, WP, and a good hosing down with the coax will dismantle the average guerrilla ambush in short order. With practice, you learn to spot potential ambush sites and recon-by-fire. We always considered that anyone lurking in the underbrush by a fording site was up to no good and should be bounced out on general principles.

It is possible to "Armorize," any AO, to quote Colonel Riggs, our battalion commander, by using the tank-dozers to smooth out entrances and create quickly usable fords. You do run the risk, however, that the hostiles will spot your work and plant mines and lay ambushes. Now you KNOW where the ambushes will be, and can plot H&I fires and artillery concentrations. You've actually sucked the buggers in. Remember the curfew? Go ahead and shell the hell out of those brand new fords at night, there will be no civilians there, only hostiles trying to plant mines.

This still leaves us with the problem of all those secondary non-tank targets. If the mix of hardware includes enough Bradleys with the Bushmaster, the problem is solved by that combination. If the tactical mix is tanks and M113s, we have got a problem. What is frequently lost sight of is that, in the absence of enemy, or when that armor is destroyed, that tank must revert to the role of battlefield bully, and that takes a LOT of ammo. Trucks, buildings, light wheeled APCs, troops in coax-proof cover, and so on, aren't worth one of your few cannon rounds, but your MG won't dig 'em out. Again, a Bradley's 25mm will take care of the situation, but it won't handle bunkers or a full scale MBT. The 105 will do the job, but feeding a main gun can be a bear. When we took out regiment 95B, I had to take an ammunition truck in to a platoon that was, at the time, beating up infantry in a woodline, because they were out of everything except canister, and the NVA were too far away for that.

What's needed is an intermediate weapon like the 25mm or a 30mm for either the TC or the gunner, or both. Some experimenting needs to be done on this. In LIC, the TC is usually too busy spotting for artillery, directing air support, shooting hostiles off the back deck with a pistol, etc., to use .50 effectively, and there should be a way to get a .50 or an ASP-30mm under the gunner's control. With an Abrams, it will take something like a Telfare mount to do the job. If rearmored M60s are used, there is an easier solution.

In RVN, in hundreds of little firefights (when working as ammo/POL sergeant, I got feedback from all crews), we never found a need for the gunner's telescope. A number of crews found a way to get a .50 mounted in that hole, and research tells me there is a cradle that will put a Browning there. There's at least two 30mm guns that are designed as a direct replacement for the venerable fifty. This would give the crew another option for semi-hard targets.

Mounting a LMG for the loader was a common trick, and some of the crews welded half a ringmount to the turret top. Any crew with a few months on patrol duty will develop some definite opinions as to hardware modifications. I saw loader's guns with ACAV shields, and my own driver cobbled up a homemade bow gun out of quarter inch plate and a spare M73. We were always looking for more ways to cover the close-in area where our guns wouldn't reach, and many crews welded claymore brackets in various places and ran the wires in to the driver, through the unused bilge pump hole.

Coverage of close-in areas is imperative in LIC, as the problem is not the T80 on the horizon; it's the fanatic in the bushes with an RPG or a satchel charge. One of the first lessons I learned is that the hull and tracks are part of the weapons system, and the driver can take out infantry all by himself. The infantry version of the Bradley, with its close-in firing ports, may be a better vehicle for LIC than anything else we've got in the inventory. There's always some nut willing to board a buttoned-up armored vehicle, and once they're on the back deck, the only cure is for your wingman to "scratch your back," and hope he doesn't riddle the beer cooler. Another auxiliary weapon which quickly became indispensable was the M79 and its variants. Each tank carried one, and when stuck out in the hills alone, we used to fire close-in H&I with the "Bloop Tube." They were good for recon-by-fire too, and more than one RPG artist got sent to the promised land by a 40mm. There's also a tear gas round for the weapon. It's useful in LIC, as it's non-lethal. After all, the object is to separate the sheep from the wolves, not de-populate the area.

Armor in LIC operates in a unique environment, in that the mission is as much hearts and minds as lethal combat, and you have to be able to deliver graduated nastiness. To that end, we mounted EE-8 tear gas projectors on our searchlights. This allowed the package of 24 little teargas bomblets to be elevated and traversed for crowd control. Unfortunately, that particular weapon is chain fire, you can't just use part of them. Once the cord is pulled, they're all gone. Another "weapon" that's not often thought of is the muzzle blast of the main gun. Put the muzzle next to any building containing stubborn hostiles and fire, (check where it's pointed) and the argument's over. You don't have to kill to win arguments, just be creative. The turret hydraulics, for instance, are powerful enough to simply knock mud and bamboo walls out of the way with a few wings of the gun tube (this may affect your sight alignment). LIC is, by definition, close combat.

Extended running in harsh climates and over rough terrain will inevitably wear out many items which would normally last much longer, so you'll wind up carrying spares for the electrical, hydraulic and mechanical systems, as well as ordnance spares. The "bolt box' will get expanded to a sophisticated inventory of spare parts. This is going to require the knowledge of just how to use those expensive third echelon parts, and that means either you find a place to carry extra people, or cross-train your crews. This is another argument for the Bradley or a M113-based force...there's simply more room aboard. The vehicle could be looked at as a tank with cargo space, like a small Merkava. You can cross train your people and have specialists on board.

Any crew with over a thousand miles behind it doesn't really need a track mechanic, so your platoon needs only three specialists, commo, engine, and turret mechanics. So, pull three men out of the crews and send them off to school. When they come back each man will add a selected list of parts to his vehicle and become the resident specialist. We also carried an oversupply of demolitions gear too, and there was always somebody with the skill to use it.

Medics too, are a necessity. Here there should be cross-training in every crew for several reasons. First of course, to take care of damaged tankers. With the advent of the SA-7, we may have seen the last of instant medevac. Second, and really very important, is that in all Third World populations, a U.S. Army medic is seen as a doctor. Drive into a village, run off the political fanatics and outright bandits, set up a decent clinic, and you OWN the place. They'll tell you where the guerrillas are and wash your fatigues just to keep the doctor around. Our normal MO was to drop the medics off in a Montagnard village to work on local health problems while the MI people asked questions. Then we would run uphill aways and sit there and exude menace...or give rides to the kids, whichever seemed best. "Hearts and minds" begins with the kids, and many times, we would get good intelligence for the cost of a little diesel fuel as the kids pointed out the trails the VC had been using.

Out in the boonies with the locals, pioneer work takes on a whole new meaning. When you have to construct temporary bases, build bridges, and clear fields of fire, an axe and shovel are not enough. Some special engineer items, such as chainsaws and earth augers should be added to the basic load, along with basic carpenter tools, concerntina wire, and so on. The percentage of dozer-equipped vehicles should also be increased and, now that the engineers have their new combat tractor, it might be possible to get some of those CEVs assigned to armor. They're more than half tank retriever already.

The larger the unit, the longer it can stay out, but the more gear it must carry, and the more flexible it must be. In case of a platoon, that includes some things that are normally company or battalion property. Engine slings, for instance, allow engine removal by a five-ton boom truck or even a civilian wrecker. Where you're up against it, use what works. We even carried barrel pumps because it was possible to buy fuel from the locals. You had to have a filter on the pump of course.

We also bought food off the local economy to extend issue rations, which consisted of C-Rations and the then-new freeze-dried Lurp rations. We kept a 20-lb bag of rice and fresh fruit and eggs as menu extenders, and usually had a spice rack behind the radios. Battalion or company mess began to issue some rations, such as bread and canned meat, directly to the platoons and let the troops do the cooking. Out of any platoon, these is always one good cook.

Food of any sort, and personal hygiene, requires potable water. Sometimes, though, that meant washing in the streams with the natives and the buffalo, in order to conserve the safe, engineer-supplied water. With modern technology, that shouldn't be necessary. There are plenty of good, high capacity water filters on the market, and one should be part of every tank's equipment. They are expensive, but not as costly as a man down with amoebic dysentery or some other tropical blessing.

The farther you get from home base, the more independent you must be, and the existing TO&E needs some radical adjusting for long ranger ops. Some experiments should be done now at the NTC or some similar location. A good start would be to marry up a tank company, a mech infantry company, an engineer platoon, and maybe a Special Forces "A" team, put a major and a captain in charge of it, and see what shakes out of the combination. It might be a small combined arms unit that's never existed before, something between the company and the battalion. It ought to be tried now, before we have to do it by OJT....again.