The Bunker: About Those Awfully Slow Tanks

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This week in The Bunker: why the U.S. is slow-walking its M1 tanks to Ukraine; artificial intelligence is making killer robots a sure thing; the Army cuts an original planned buy of sophisticated dummies that could save soldiers’ lives; and more.


The artificially long road to the Ukraine front

Twenty-six days after Iraqi troops rumbled into Kuwait in 1990, threatening Saudi Arabia, U.S. M1 Abrams tanks rolled off ships and onto sandy Saudi soil. That showed just how fast the U.S. could deliver the 70-ton behemoths when cheap gas is at risk (some things, alas, never change). But no one can drag their boots like the Pentagon. That’s why, despite the recent announcement by the White House that it will send M1 tanks to Ukraine to battle Russian invaders, it will take months — perhaps as long as a year — to deliver the armor.

And that’s just how the Biden administration wants it. In a head-spinning reversal, the White House announced January 25 that it will be sending — after they’re built! — 31 tanks to Ukraine, enough to outfit a battalion. The decision came despite internal U.S. opposition to such a move. The U.S. tanks, along with other support, will cost around $400 million. The M1s represent the most powerful weapon in the $27 billion(PDF) arsenal the U.S. has provided to Ukraine since Russia invaded a year ago this month. The tanks are the latest in a ratcheting roster of arms the U.S. has provided to Ukraine. It began with defensive weapons, followed by long range artillery and air-defense systems. Ukraine wants at least 300 tanks — and F-16 fighters — meaning big gaps remain on its weaponry wish list.

The M1s will be delivering less of an offensive punch than hope to win (added bonus: the prolonged delivery might also induce Ukraine to negotiate). The decision gave Germany cover to provide Ukraine with 112 Leopard 2 tanks, some of which could begin fighting within 90 days. The military utility of the M1s is questionable. Their turbine engines are fuel hogs, and M1s are too heavy for many Ukrainian bridges. Such challenges are why the U.S. is sending eight M88 tank tow trucks, along with the 31 tanks, to rescue M1s in trouble.

The U.S. government cloaked its slo-mo delivery in words rarely heard about a can-do military — unless it’s something it, and its civilian leaders, want to can’t-do. The tanks are “extremely complex to operate and maintain,” President Biden cautioned. “The M1 is a complex weapon system that is challenging to maintain,” Pentagon Briefer #1 Pat Ryder said. “We just don’t have these tanks available in excess in our U.S. stocks, which is why it is going to take months to transfer these M1A2 Abrams to Ukraine,” Pentagon Briefer #2 Sabrina Singh added.

In technical terms, that’s plainly Pentagon procurement poppycock. If the U.S. wanted to speed things up, it could send Ukraine some of the 87 U.S. M1s already in Europe, Ben Hodges, a retired Army three-star general, toldBreaking Defense. “If the administration had the sense of urgency to help Ukraine win, then they’d bring Ukrainian tank crews and commanders to Poland or Germany to match them up with these tanks for training and then put them on a train to Ukraine to be employed how and where and when the Ukrainian General Staff is ready,” Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army troops in Europe from 2014 to 2018, said. “This could all happen within the next two or three months.”

Fact is, the U.S. Army has 6,200 M1s in its inventory, including 450 once owned by the Marines, who, in an effort to slim down for a Pacific war, have given them up. The 31 M1s bound for Ukraine represent 0.5% of that total. It’s a sure bet that the administration’s go-slow approach pleases tank-builder General Dynamics, if not Ukraine.


AI enlists in the Pentagon’s robowar handbook

The Pentagon’s growing reliance on artificial intelligence led it to update its policy on killer robots January 25. Slowly but surely, as the technology evolves, the Pentagon is ceding battlefield authority to silicon chips embedded in its growing fleets of sensors, drones, satellites, and missiles.

Contrary to what many think, the Pentagon doesn’t ban the use of robot weapons capable of killing without a human in the loop — and neither does revised DOD Directive 3000.09(PDF),Autonomy in Weapons Systems. New rules, it says, will strive to reduce killer robot “failures” that “could lead to unintended engagements.” They’ll be overseen by the Autonomous Weapons Working Group. Speaking of “unintended engagements,” The Bunker is sure former colleague Dave Barry would agree that Autonomous Weapons Working Group would be a great name for a rock band.


Sometimes, they’re the good guys

In addition to killer robots, the Pentagon also has life-saving versions. The Army, for example, has bought 10 Warrior Injury Assessment manikins (WIAMans) to help reduce the debilitating wounds and deaths(PDF) caused by the improvised explosive devices that killed roughly half of the 5,413 U.S. troops who died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq up to 2020.The electronics-crammed manikins are used to design safer vehicles for U.S. troops.

But the Army has cut the number of the $900,000, sophisticated dummies it planned to buy, from “up to 40(PDF) down to 10. “Some vehicles seat more than 10 occupants,” the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) noted(PDF) January 20. “DOT&E assesses that the current Army inventory of 10 WIAMan ATDs [anthropomorphic test devices] is not sufficient” to “improve the accuracy” of projected casualties and the resulting design changes they would dictate.

More million-dollar manikins wouldn’t dictate blueprint changes, of course. All they could do is generate insights that would recommend changes. Every day, the Defense Department makes decisions like this, justifiable or not, that compromise the health and lives of U.S. troops. That’s something to keep in mind whenever Pentagon leaders insist they are doing everything possible to protect the young Americans they send into combat.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Women at war

The Pentagon will have to recruit more women, experts say, in part because of the criminal records and drug use that bar some men from enlisting, Meghann Myers reported January 26 in Military Times.

Pacific outpost

The Marines opened their first new base in 70 years, CNN reported January 27. It’s basically a lily pad on Guam that the Corps calls a “strategic hub” to thwart Chinese ambitions in the region.

Time for Tums!(PDF)

A top Air Force general says “my gut” tells him that the U.S. will be at war with China in 2025, according to a draft of his February 1 memo. “Aim for the head,” General Michael Minihan advises his troops.

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