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Why the U.S. Marines Want to Ditch Their Tanks

U.S. Marines Tanks
M1 Abrams Tank. Image: U.S. Government.

In preparation for a future fight in the western Pacific Ocean against a near-peer rival, the Marine Corps is undergoing some of the most radical change it has ever experienced in its long and storied existence. Along with getting rid of a number of artillery battalions, the Marines have also divested all of their tanks, to the consternation of some.

In the not-so-distant future, the Marines anticipate they’ll need to hop from island to remote island, somewhat like their island-hopping campaign of Second World War fame — though this campaign is updated for the 21st century.

Why the Marines Wants to Ditch Their Tanks

The logic behind the recent tank divestment is two-fold: the United States’ main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, has steadily ballooned upwards in weight, so much so that it now faces logistical hurdles due to being just too dang heavy. Especially in a maritime environment, getting 74-plus ton tanks from ship to shore would be challenging. Essentially the plan is, if it doesn’t swim, it doesn’t fight.

There is, however, another reason the Marines may have little use for tanks in the future: long-range, precision fire.

In the past, part of the Marine tank mission profile was to take out other enemy tanks in pitched armor vs. armor battles. Now however, Marines will be able to take out enemy armor from much father distances than a tank is capable of, and without a heavy 74-ton armored platform.

Marine Lieutenant General Eric M. Smith explained this idea further during the International Armoured Vehicles Conference, held online this year due to the ongoing pandemic. USNI News quoted him, stating “the experimentation that we’ve done now to date successfully using lightweight mounted fires – think the back of a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle – is killing armor at ranges, rough calculation, about 15, 20 times the range that a main battle tank can kill another main battle tank.”

Smith, who serves as the Corps’ Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, further explained that the United States’ tanks as they currently are, are just too heavy and too slow: “we can kill armor formations at longer ranges using additional and other resources without incurring a 74-ton challenge trying to get that to a shore, or to get it from the United States into the fight. You simply can’t be there in time.”

Additionally, the same JLTV platform could pull double-duty, as both an anti-armor platform, as well as an anti-ship platform. More specifically, what is essentially remote-controlled JLTVs could launch potent anti-ship missiles at unsuspecting ships, or cover islands in an area denial umbrella and deny their use to an enemy. In this capacity, JLTVS would bring much more mission flexibility — and more firepower — than a tank would be able to.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Caleb Larson
Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Michael D Woods

    February 12, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Last time we fought a near-peer in some of those same islands, we had tanks, artillery, and naval gunfire support, all of which are reduced or gone entirely. Those who participated have said in recorded interviews that those weapons were quite effective compared to the Japanese arms. What concept of engagement is being proposed to allow their disposition?

  2. Avatar

    Maaku

    February 12, 2021 at 8:42 am

    Chesty says no tanks.
    Then it’s no tanks

  3. Avatar

    SierraSam

    February 12, 2021 at 8:44 am

    MOOSE MUSS. Not sure if the “Principles of War” are still taught to young officers, but I remember thinking that they were inviolable. Divesting itself of tanks seems to go against the the first M = Mass, in favor of the exquisite solution of killing enemy tanks at 15-20 miles. That’s not a Simple kill-chain. Better yet, lets just bomb the enemy tank factory, or the ball bearing plants! The tank-v-tank argument is a bit of a red-herring as tanks fulfill many other roles. Take a look at the rest of the letters in MOOSE MUSS and a tank seems to satisfy a lot of them. Are we really building the Marine Corps around a handful of islands for a specific scenario in the Pacific? If so, our adversary may find a way around our 21st Century Maginot Line. They have a vote also.

  4. Avatar

    I.B. Swinks

    February 12, 2021 at 10:16 am

    The reason the U.S. Marine Corps is removing heavy kinetic centric equipment to due to the simple fact that the U.S. Marines will operate on fragile exterior logistic lines while aligned against potential opponents that will enjoy short interior logistic lines.

    Having a U.S. General speak on the “revelation” that the laws of logistics always apply is interesting. Hopefully, the period of “intense experimentation” centered on nothing more that reducing equipment mass/weight will not last long.

    Reinventing a lighter mass/weight Amphibious Doctrine based on the WWII model is going to take more than a simple reduction in current equipment mass/weight; then again, the 21st century Anti-Access-Anti-Denial (A2D2) reality coupled with exterior logistic lines will demand a transformation in current military leadership that actually “understands” strategic logistics embracing actual physical laws rather than the current military hierarchy that employs military art focused on unobtainium, glossy slides provided by contractors from the military-industrial complex, and smooth talking Generals positing on “how it could all work.”

  5. Avatar

    I.B. Swinks

    February 12, 2021 at 10:36 am

    Well reasoned argument focused on the utility of having a multi-function U.S. Marine Corps model that must shed mass/weight to even realistically generate credible kinetic power at the end of long exterior logistic lines.

    The future utility of the current “evolving” U.S. Marine Corps doctrine remains in the domain of the senior-level military artists while coping with strategic logistic reality will require professional logistic reasoning to counter the unrealistic desire to invest in “unobtainium” when equipment mass/weight become a hindrance to “selling” the bold new future.

    Offloading a 148,000 lb Main Battle Tank, in sea-state 2+, from the current inventory of amphibious shipping, into a semi-permissive environment is a simple logistical problem with a simple logistic answer: don’t do it.

  6. Avatar

    Pete Walton

    February 12, 2021 at 11:22 am

    to kill a tank or other target at 15-20 miles you first need to see the tank. That’s not a trivial matter and I’m not convinced it’s been conclusively demonstrated

  7. Avatar

    Jerome Barry

    February 12, 2021 at 7:35 pm

    The Marines seem to be aware that the longer we have peace, the nearer the peers are to having all the same technical skills as we do. With China now being recognized by NBC as an ally of Biden, we can be sure that the peaceful diminution of U.S. technical superiority over China will continue.

  8. Avatar

    Tony Miller

    February 14, 2021 at 1:33 pm

    Ah yes, it’s the all-or-nothing approach again. Yes the Marines are developing long-range anti armor weapons that can reach out from lighter vehicles, but there are three questions I’ve yet to see even asked:
    -At what phase of amphibious operations do these vehicles get ashore to support an opposed landing?
    -What’s the survivability of a JLTV and how maneuverable is it in a maritime/littoral environment?
    -Does the initial landing force no longer need the cover and defensive capability that armor provides?
    Armor is a force multiplier when used in a combined arms environment. Yes, I completely agree that the M1 family of tanks are NOT the appropriate weapon system for a nimble and versatile Marine Corps but, why must it be all or nothing? The Army is developing a brand new light tank for its airborne divisions. Why would that force need some kind of firepower and the Marines not? Why not test, evaluate, and modify the new Army light tank for Marine applications? No, it’s much easier and smarter (not) to completely eliminate the capability, drive out the currently trained and indoctrinated professionals, and eradicate the entire MOS with one swift peacetime decision. So once we figure out that that capability was actually needed, how long will it take to replace the personnel, train them, and find/deploy appropriate equipment? How many unneeded casualties will we suffer to relearn a lesson that we validated in countless Pacific island campaigns in WWII? Stop the madness and support the light tank development and retain the MOS, capability and professionals with a more reasonable and applicable combat system. As General Patton once said: No good decision was ever made from a swivel chair.

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