"Everybody Wanted Tanks": Heavy
Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom
This article reviews the performance of U.S.
Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and British armored forces during Operation
Iraqi Freedom. Although much speculation on the future of warfare
tends to downplay heavy forces, this operation shows
that close combat remains inevitable and that tanks and mechanized
infantry still dominate close combat. Although the focus is on major
combat operations in Iraq from March 19 to May 1, 2003, the conclusions
have remained valid during the ensuing counterinsurgency-for example,
during combat in Fallujah.
Depending on how the Marine regimental combat
teams (RCTs) are counted, heavy forces accounted for either 4 or
8 of the 16 ground maneuver brigades/regiments committed to Iraq
before the fall of Baghdad in mid-April. There were four classic
heavy brigades (three in the U.S. Army's 3d Infantry Division [Mechanized]
plus the British 7th Armored Brigade). The Marine RCTs could also
be considered heavy forces since they included roughly 130 tanks
and over 450 amphibious assault vehicles (AAV-7s) serving as armored
personnel carriers. Of the infantry the Marines initially deployed,
all but three battalions rode in AAVs, with the remainder riding
in trucks. Three of the Marine RCTs were organic to 1st Marine Division,
while the fourth formed the basis of Task Force Tarawa, a brigade-sized
force from 2d Marine Division that was under direct control of 1st
Marine Expeditionary Force.
Total coalition tank strength was roughly 450
vehicles at the start of the operation. The 3d Infantry Division
included over 200 M1A1s in its tank battalions and cavalry squadron.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force had two tank battalions (virtually
all the tanks in the active Marine Corps), with some tanks being
provided to each of the three RCTs of 1st Marine Division. Additionally,
one company of Marine Corps Reserve tanks was activated to support
Task Force Tarawa. The British Army deployed two tank battalions
in 7th Armored Brigade with a total of 116 Challenger 2 tanks.1
The British had about 120 Warrior infantry
fighting vehicles in Iraq, comparable to the U.S. Army's Bradley.
The Warrior has a 30 millimeter (mm) automatic cannon but does not
mount an anti-tank guided missile as the Bradley does. The 3d Infantry
Division had approximately 250 Bradleys in Iraq including the M-2
infantry and M-3 cavalry versions of the vehicle. The AAV-7s of
the Marine Corps carry more dismountable infantry than either the
Warrior or Bradley (20 troops can be carried in the passenger compartment
of the AAV), but the Marine vehicle's armor is closer to that of
an M-113. Most of the AAVs mount a side-by-side 50-caliber machinegun
and 40mm grenade launcher in the turret. Unlike the U.S. and British
armies, where the infantry fighting vehicles are organic to the
mechanized infantry battalions, the Marines have a large assault
amphibian battalion at division level that attaches its vehicles
to infantry regiments based on the mission. Most Marine infantry
in Iraq rode in AAVs and were essentially mechanized infantry. The
Marines often refer to infantry battalions with attached AAVs as
being "mech-ed up," while the version of the AAV that
includes the 50-caliber and 40mm weapons is often called "up
gun" because earlier versions of the vehicle had only a machinegun.2
High praise for heavy forces appears throughout
the written reports and interviews on Iraqi Freedom. The 3d Infantry
Division After Action Report states:
This war was won in large measure because
the enemy could not achieve decisive effects against our armored
fighting vehicles. While many contributing factors helped shape
the battlespace (air interdiction, close air support, artillery),
ultimately war demands closure with the enemy force within the
minimum safe distance of artillery. Our armored systems enabled
us to close with and destroy the heavily armed and fanatically
determined enemy force often within urban terrain with impunity.
No other ground combat system currently in our arsenal could have
delivered similar mission success without accepting enormous casualties,
particularly in urban terrain. . . . Decisive combat power is
essential, and only heavily armored forces provide this capability.3
The authors interviewed personnel from the
U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and British army about main battle
tanks in Iraq. Without exception or qualification, they praised
the performance of tanks, describing them as vital to the quick
The United Kingdom Minister of Defence, Procurement,
stated, "Operation Telic [the British designation for Iraqi
Freedom] underscored the value of heavy armor in a balanced force."
He also stated that Iraqi Freedom confirmed "protection is
still vital" and reemphasized "the effect of heavy armor
in shattering the enemy's will to fight."4
Tanks were further esteemed during Iraqi Freedom
for several reasons.
-Tanks were highly resistant to fire. The most
common Iraqi antiarmor weapon was the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG),
especially the Soviet designed RPG-7. This weapon has both high
explosive and shaped charge warheads. The antiarmor shaped charge
can penetrate up to 300 millimeters (nearly 12 inches) of solid,
rolled homogenous armor plate under optimal conditions, but still
failed to penetrate the advanced armor of the Abrams and Challenger
2 in most locations. British army sources stated that one of their
Challengers operating near Basra absorbed 15 hits by RPGs with no
penetration. The only British Challenger knocked out during the
war was accidentally hit by another British tank.5
A tank battalion commander in the 3d Infantry Division stated that
one of his Abrams took 45 hits from various weapons, including heavy
machineguns, anti-aircraft guns, mortar rounds, and rocket-propelled
grenades, with no penetration.6 A few
Abrams were penetrated by cannons and RPGs, usually in the rear
flank or rear of the vehicle. In a few instances, enemy fire broke
open the fuel cells of the external auxiliary power unit, allowing
fuel to seep into the engine, causing a fire.7
No Army or Marine crewman died in an Abrams tank due to enemy fire
penetrating the vehicle during major combat operations.
-Tanks led the advance. Almost always, Army,
Marine Corps, and British tanks led force movements to contact.
Tanks were essential because situational awareness regarding enemy
forces was poor at the regimental/ brigade level and below. While
operational-level commanders often had enough situational awareness
to meet their needs, tactical commanders needed a degree of detail
that was rarely available. As a result, there was constant danger
of encountering the enemy without warning. Since the tanks could
survive hits from a concealed enemy, they were the weapons of choice
for the "tip of the spear."8
Indeed, this operation demonstrated the inverse relationship between
force protection and situational awareness. In circumstances where
situational awareness was poor, as it normally was at the brigade/
regimental level and below, there was a clear need for strong armor
-Tanks immediately took the enemy under fire.
Tanks were immediately responsive when contact was made with the
enemy. Compared to artillery that could respond in 2 to 4 minutes,
or fighters or bombers that could arrive on scene in 5 to 20 minutes,
tanks could open fire within seconds. The 3d Infantry Division and
1st Marine Division noted that their infantry fired few antiarmor
weapons because tanks were almost always in front and engaged the
enemy in timely fashion.
-Tanks were highly effective in urban operations.
According to conventional wisdom, tanks should be extremely vulnerable
in urban terrain, but in fact tanks led most advances into Iraqi
cities, most famously during the Baghdad "thunder runs."
This was true in the case of the Army, Marine, and British forces.
The Army's 3d Infantry Division developed an urban operations technique
in which two Abrams would be closely followed by two Bradleys with
mounted infantrymen and often an engineer vehicle behind the Bradleys.
The tanks would flush the enemy when Iraqi forces fired on the tanks
or ran from them, allowing the Bradleys to employ their 25mm cannons
and machineguns. The British used similar techniques in Basra where
tanks would lead the advance, often smashing holes in buildings
that allowed the infantry to enter and occupy the structure. The
Marines also used tanks as the leading element going into urban
areas. The most important difference between Army and Marine Corps
urban tactics was that the Marines employed more dismounted infantry
who operated close to the tanks. The British also made extensive
use of their armored vehicles in urban operations in the Basra area.
-Tanks had shock effect. Some interviewees
pointed out that "tanks got respect" and that many Iraqi
fighters ran from them. For example, one senior Marine described
an intense firefight at a bridge in An Nasiriyah on March 24. The
decibel level of the firefight was "about 90." When two
Marine Corps tanks rumbled onto the bridge, the volume of enemy
firing "immediately went to about a 20."9
However, some irregular forces pressed their attacks in nearly suicidal
-Fuel supply was less of a problem than originally
thought. The M1A1 has a well-deserved reputation as a "fuel
hog." Nevertheless, in Iraqi Freedom both the Army and Marines
were able to keep their tanks fueled without undue difficulty. In
the case of 3d Infantry Division, the maneuver brigades were provided
with extra fuel trucks prior to the offensive, thus making resupply
relatively easy. The Marines had a somewhat greater challenge, but
in discussions with all three RCTs in 1st Marine Division, fuel
was never critical despite the fact that over 450 miles was covered
from Kuwait to Baghdad.
Tanks had a few relatively minor drawbacks.
They were a greater maintenance challenge than the lighter armored
and wheeled vehicles. By the time they reached Baghdad, most tanks
were combat capable but far from fully mission capable, largely
due to an overall shortage of spare parts that plagued operations
in Iraq. In addition, the tanks needed a better antipersonnel round
for the main gun. Most of the threat in Iraq came from light infantry
and militia. The most effective tank weapon was the multipurpose
antitank (MPAT) round, which was used against enemy infantry, bunkers,
and buildings.10 Several Army and Marine
Corps tank units totally expended their MPAT load during the war.
Army and Marine officers both stated that tanks need a better weapon
to engage dispersed infantry. Coalition tankers expended huge amounts
of machinegun ammunition from their co-axial and turret-mounted
In summary, the tank was the single most important
ground combat weapon in the war. Tanks led the advance, compensated
for poor situational awareness, survived hostile fire, and terrorized
the enemy. These attributes contributed much to the rapid rate of
advance from Kuwait to Baghdad. A senior Marine Corps infantry officer
offered an appropriate summation of what the authors repeatedly
heard: "Everybody wanted tanks."
Infantry Fighting Vehicles
Mechanized infantry worked closely with tanks
in small combined arms teams. The Army employed the Bradley (mostly
the M-2, but also the cavalry M-3); the Marines used the AAV-7;
and the British used the Warrior. The Bradley and Warrior both have
stabilized automatic cannons and good protection against light cannon
fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Both vehicles carry roughly
nine personnel, who may dismount or fire from the vehicle. Exploiting
poor Iraqi marksmanship, Soldiers often fired from atop the Bradleys.
The Marine AAV is primarily an amphibious tractor
that is optimized for ship-to-shore movement. It has light armor
protection against small arms fire and artillery or mortar fragments.
The AAV is a large vehicle that can carry some 20 infantrymen in
the rear. Although Marine infantry fought outside their vehicles
far more often than the Army infantry, the large number of AAVs
in 1st Marine Division meant the Marine rifle battalions were for
the most part mechanized infantry.
The Army, Marines, and British forces all employed
their armored infantry carriers in a generally similar manner. During
movements to contact-the most frequent tactical operation in Iraqi
Freedom-tanks would almost always lead. Close behind would be infantry
fighting vehicles, or AAVs in the case of the Marines. The tanks
would usually make contact with the enemy first. When the Iraqis
fired on the leading tanks, they would give away their positions,
creating targets for the Bradleys, Warriors, and AAVs. The Marines
dismounted their infantry from their vehicles more often than the
Army, especially in built-up areas, for several reasons.
Marine tactics stress dismounted operations,
and the AAV is not as well protected as the Bradley. Importantly,
the Marines who rode in the AAVs were essentially temporary passengers
since the Marine regiments do not normally have organic infantry
fighting vehicles as do the mechanized units of the U.S. and British
armies. The Marines believed there were advantages to dismounting
their infantry in built-up areas since they could then provide close
support for armored vehicles. Officers of 1st Marine Tank Battalion,
supporting RCT 7, thought that no tank in their battalion was hit
by rocket-propelled grenades during the campaign because of dismounted
infantry support. In contrast, 2d Marine Tank Battalion's tanks
suffered numerous hits while operating with RCT 5. Compared to this
dismounted technique that relied heavily on infantry, the Army tended
to keep mechanized infantry mounted inside their Bradleys longer
than the Marine infantry stayed in their AAVs.11
The weapons of the infantry fighting vehicles
(25mm cannon in the Bradley, 30mm in the Warrior, plus machineguns,
or the 50-caliber/40mm combination in the "up gun" AAVs)
often proved more appropriate than the main guns of the tanks. Because
the most frequent targets in Iraq were small groups of infantry
dashing between covers, the fast-reacting, stabilized 25mm gun on
the Bradley proved highly effective. Its high explosive round was
excellent against personnel, while the armor-piercing rounds could
easily deal with light armored vehicles. At times, Iraqi infantry
approached too close for the Abrams tanks to depress their weapons
sufficiently to engage them. In these cases, the following Bradleys
would open fire. The automatic cannons and grenade launchers of
the infantry fighting vehicles were also excellent against lightly
constructed buildings. Against better-built, larger structures,
tank main guns, aircraft-delivered weapons, or artillery were more
useful. In addition, there were a few tank-on-tank engagements.
In those cases coalition tank main guns were the preferred weapon.
The main disadvantage of infantry fighting
vehicles was that they had less protection than tanks. While RPG-7
rounds would only rarely penetrate tanks, infantry fighting vehicles
were far more vulnerable. That led to the technique of placing tanks
in the lead and, in the case of the Marines, the use of considerable
amounts of dismounted infantry around vehicles, especially in built-up
areas. The high explosive version of the RPG-7 could not penetrate
any of the infantry fighting vehicles, but the shaped charge version
normally would. Army and Marine personnel cited numerous cases in
which external gear on the Bradleys and AAVs (such as sea or duffle
bags) often caused RPGs to detonate prematurely, usually negating
the shaped charge effect against the hull. Additionally, the front-mounted
engines of the Bradley and AAV protected the crew and passengers.
If an RPG penetrated the front of the vehicle, the engine would
absorb the shaped charge effect. Although the vehicle would then
be a mobility kill, few personnel casualties would result. Although
the infantry fighting vehicles were more vulnerable than tanks,
there were few catastrophic kills. Probably the worst vehicle loss
occurred when a Marine AAV near An Nasiriyah was struck in the rear
by an RPG, exploding a large load of mortar ammunition and causing
Mechanized infantry and tanks formed an inseparable
team, with infantry fighting vehicles closely following tanks. For
the Army, Marine, and British mechanized infantry and armor played
to each other's strengths and compensated for each other's weaknesses.
The U.S. and British armies both augmented
their light infantry with armor. The British stated that their light
infantry in 3d Commando and 16th Air Assault Brigades always wanted
support from Challenger tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles
from 7th Armored Brigade. Challenger 2 tank platoons and companies
were attached to light infantry battalions, especially when required
to enter urban areas where heavy resistance was expected. Similarly,
V Corps withdrew two armor/mechanized infantry task forces from
3d Infantry Division to provide armor support to 101st Airborne
(Air Assault) and 82d Airborne Divisions as they cleared built-up
areas behind 3d Infantry's advance.
Insights for the Future
Every operation has distinct features. Iraqi
Freedom was unusual in that the enemy had large conventional forces,
yet fought mostly as smaller unconventional elements that had little
antiarmor capability (probably due to the collapse of most Iraqi
conventional units). Even so, the operation suggests the following
insights for the future.
Heavy forces were decisive. In Iraq, the United
States used a full range of land forces-light, medium, and heavy-but
heavy forces were the most important ground combat element. They
led the ground advance and destroyed the enemy with direct fire.
The heavy land forces received excellent support from artillery
and tactical air, including help from attack helicopters. Heavy
forces broke enemy resistance in the major cities, leading to collapse
of the regime. Light and medium ground units also played important
roles, but they generally supported the armored formations. Light
units occupied areas bypassed by the fast-moving heavy units, while
the British and Marine Corps medium elements performed a reconnaissance
Until recently, the Army envisioned equipping
all its forces with medium-weight combat systems. That concept now
appears premature. The Army still needs the full range of light,
medium, and heavy forces to accomplish its missions. Trying to prevail
with one force type would be difficult and unwise. Heavy forces,
developed to fight similarly equipped Warsaw Pact forces, are still
dominant in terrain that permits their use, which includes built-up
areas. Indeed, most terrain in Iraq was ideal for heavy armor. Since
the Army and Marine Corps must be prepared for operations anywhere
in the world, retaining a mix of heavy, medium, and light forces
will provide commanders with maximum flexibility.
Judging by the Iraq experience, the Army should
plan a heterogeneous force that includes light infantry, medium
forces (today equipped with combat systems in the Stryker class
and later the Future Combat System), and heavy forces, meaning for
the foreseeable future the Abrams- Bradley team. The Future Combat
System should replace today's heavy forces only if it offers comparable
combat power in close combat, including the sort of messy, unpredictable
fighting encountered in Iraq. The British army was planning to retain
a mixed heavy-medium-light structure before the recent war in Iraq.
British army leaders believe the Iraq experience vindicated that
decision.12 The Marine Corps should
also retain Abrams main battle tanks to give its forces the needed
punch. Indeed, Marine infantry were probably more dependent on tank
support than their Army mechanized counterparts. The Marines need
a better infantry carrier than the AAV-7. During Iraqi Freedom,
Marine infantry suffered from lack of a vehicle with the firepower
and protection of a Bradley. The introduction of the Expeditionary
Fighting Vehicle will give Marine infantry a more heavily armed
and better-protected vehicle.
Armor compensated for poor situational awareness.
The experience in Iraq should deflate expectations for high levels
of situational awareness at the lower tactical levels. Army and
Marine Corps commanders in Iraq universally agreed that they had
poor information about enemy forces. That resulted in U.S. forces
usually making contact with the enemy with little or no warning.
Eventually, ground units may enjoy much better situational awareness
at the tactical level, but only when sensors can penetrate all kinds
of cover and concealment, including buildings.
Heavy forces compensated for poor situational
awareness by having a high degree of passive protection and overwhelming
firepower. It mattered little when Fedayeen Saddam fired first because
their weapons only rarely penetrated an Abrams' armor and the act
of firing on U.S. armor invited a devastating response. The Fedayeen
should, of course, have allowed armored vehicles to pass and opened
fire on thin-skinned support vehicles. However, they would have
needed enough popular support to keep civilians from warning U.S.
forces of their positions, not a sound assumption during Saddam
Hussein's regime. Particularly in the Shi'ite south, many Iraqis
initially regarded coalition forces as liberators and willingly
provided information about pockets of Ba'thist resistance.
After the fall of the Ba'thist regime, the
insurgents became more sophisticated. They learned not to attack
in ways that invited devastating responses. They avoided contact
by using mortars and improvised explosive devices rather than direct
fire. When they did use direct fire, they soon broke contact, having
learned that U.S. forces welcomed and always won protracted firefights.
Their primary tactic was to halt convoys using an explosive device,
take the convoys under fire for a few minutes, and then recede into
the populace. It was during this stability phase of operations that
the Army introduced its first Strykerequipped units into northern
Against this tactic, U.S. forces required wellprotected
vehicles with considerable firepower, especially general-purpose
machineguns and grenade launchers. There was less use for the heavy
firepower of an Abrams tank and for fixed-wing air support because
of the need to minimize collateral damage. However, support units
discovered that they needed at least some armor protection for vehicles
due to the constant threat of ambushes and roadside mines. Today,
heavy forces continue to play central roles in protecting convoys
and conducting combat patrols.
Situational awareness at the tactical level
will continue to improve as land forces acquire new systems, such
as unmanned aerial vehicles, to reconnoiter before contact. But
for the foreseeable future, especially against irregular forces,
land forces will still need protection against enemies who go unseen
until they detonate a device or open fire. Armor will continue to
play a key role not only for major combat operations, but also during
Some pundits predicted the demise of heavy
armored vehicles after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Advances in shaped
charge weapons, including shoulder-fired rocket launchers and antitank
guided missiles, were supposed to make armor, including the main
battle tank, obsolete. The prediction may come true someday, but
30 years later, heavy armored vehicles still dominate the land battle
in most terrain types.
Against a better-armed enemy, armor would be
more vulnerable than it was against Iraqi forces in 2003. The frontal
arc of an Abrams currently resists almost anything an enemy ground
force can throw at it, but other parts of the Abrams and all of
a Bradley are far more susceptible to damage. For example, modern
top-attack missiles could present a severe challenge. However, armor
has survived decades of proliferation of antiarmor systems, and
remains irreplaceable. The high protection and awesome firepower
of heavy forces was a chief reason for the rapid rate of advance
and low casualties during Iraqi Freedom.
Warfare is evolving rapidly in the computer
age, especially in sensing technology, precision guidance, and control
of forces. Heavy forces benefit from these advances while continuing
to offer the advantage of survivability. They were developed during
World War I to solve the problem of crossing terrain swept by enemy
fire. Ninety years later, they still solve this problem despite
a wide range of efforts to make them obsolete. It should be no surprise
that heavy forces are useful in conventional combat. In Iraq, heavy
forces have also proven just as useful in combat against irregular
forces employing swarming tactics, even in urban terrain. They were
the key to a rapid victory over the Ba'thist regime that saved the
lives of not only coalition soldiers but also Iraqi civilians. As
transformation plans are refined, it is likely that heavy forces
will retain an important role.
1. Anthony H. Cordesman, The
Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics, and Military Lessons (Washington, DC:
Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2003), 37-39.
2. Insights on the Marines'
use of tanks and AAVs were obtained during interviews with 1st Marine
Division, Camp Pendleton, California, October 1-3, 2003, and 2d
Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, February 2004.
3. "Operation Iraqi
Freedom, 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized) 'Rock of the Marne' After
Action Report," final draft, May 12, 2003.
4. "UK Forces'
Iraq Lessons Learned Reviewed," International Defense Digest
(September 2003), 14.
5. Interviews with British
army officers, British Army Doctrine and Development Command, Upavon,
UK, July 2003.
6. Interviews with 1st
Brigade, 3d Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia, October 28,
7. "Operation Iraqi
8. David Talbot, "How
Technology Failed in Iraq," MIT Technology Review (November
9. Interviews with 2d
Marine Division, February 2004.
10. Interviews with
3d Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division, October 2003.
11. Interviews with
1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton and 29 Palms Marine Base, California,
12. Discussions with
British Army Doctrine and Development Command, Upavon, UK, August
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