The US Army is acquiring light armored vehicles (LAV used by the Marine Corps) to support its airborne forces. The USMC’s LAV-25A2, armed with a 25mm automatic cannon, will provide reconnaissance and fire support for the 82nd Airborne Division until a more heavily armed replacement can be substituted. Considering its institutional history in this regard, as well as its ongoing budget challenges, the army is unlikely to move expeditiously to acquire the called for new tank.
For decades, the 4/68 (later the 3/73) Armor Battalion was the army’s only airborne light tank unit. Attached to the 82nd, the unit operated M551 Sheridan light reconnaissance tanks for decades before retiring them in 1996. With an aluminum hull and steel turret, the 15-ton Sheridan served from 1966 to 1996. They were used successfully in combat operations in Vietnam, Panama, Kuwait and Iraq.
The Sheridans were armed with a 152mm gun, which also served as a launcher for MGM-51 Shillelagh missiles. During the Cold War, the Shillelagh could penetrate the armor of all Soviet tanks.
With a six-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine capable of generating 300 hp, the Sheridans were capable of road speeds of more than 40 mph. They were also amphibious, able to “swim” at four mph.
The Sheridans used by the 82nd were improved while in service many times, maintaining an exceptionally high “operational readiness rate” for the battalion.
Those that deployed to the Middle East were equipped with thermal sights, and they could be airdropped from high altitude or via a technique known as the Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System. That involved having the tank be pulled off the exit ramp of its in-flight C-130 transport by the drag on its own deployed parachute.
When the 3/73 Armor was deactivated, it left US airborne and light infantry formations without their own class of armored vehicle. The House Armed Services Committee has therefore been pushing the army to accelerate the acquisition of an air-deployable “Mobile Protected Firepower Vehicle” for some time. Selection of the Marine LAV to fill the light armor gap is therefore only an interim solution, aimed at convincing the committee the army is indeed serious about deploying a new light tank.
The long-term solution will be the acquisition of a vehicle like United Defense’s M-8 Armored Gun System, which was already being tested by the 82nd before the retirement of the Sheridans. Constructed of a welded aluminum alloy, the 19-ton M-8 had a crew of three and was armed with an XM35 105mm rifled gun. It was powered by a diesel engine capable of generating 580 hp. Like the Sheridan, the M-8 could travel at more than 40 mph on land and four mph in water.
Even so, the M-8 was shelved in 1997. The rationale offered was that innovations in armor and firepower on the horizon would soon result in an even better vehicle with a more powerful gun and better optics. It was speculated at the time some of those oncoming innovations might even allow the army to move directly to fielding fully robotic light tanks. In reality, it was institutional politics by the army’s “Big Tank Mafia,” led by former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, which killed the Sheridan as well as its potential M-8 replacement.
Now, almost two decades later, little has changed. Though the army is trying to placate the powerful congressional committee, it’s unlikely to move swiftly in selecting a new light tank, especially considering anticipated budget cuts. The paratroopers of the 82nd will therefore most likely have to continue to deploy without the heavy mobile fire support they should and could have.
Editor’s Note. A master parachutist and jump master, Col. (Ret.) Gilberto Villahermosa served more than 30 years in the US Army, including two tours with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 73rd Armor Regiment as Battalion Motor Officer, Company Commander and S-3 Operations officer.
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