2009/06/12

Challenging the IFV concept - Part 1

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Infantry fighting vehicle (IFV, Schützenpanzer/SPz in German) discussions are usually about which is better, whether the protection is sufficient, whether the new model is a good design or about the dismount strength.

We've become used to IFVs as self-evident combat vehicles, as self-evident as are main battle tanks (MBTs).


I tend to think way outside the box and often come to unorthodox conclusions (and surely don't hit the nail every time - a 3/5 hit rate would already be phenomenal). My thinking about the IFV concept was stirred up by several exceptions to the rule and by military history.

Let's begin at the origins.

The Germans deployed (similar to some French vehicles) Schützenpanzerwagen, SPW (SdKfz 251 and SdKfz 250) during WW2.

These were half-tracked vehicles to get a better off-road capability than all-wheeled vehicles. The off-road capability was indeed quite good because of the large tracks and therefore low ground pressure (the similar American half-tracks had much smaller tracks and inferior off road capabilities; they even needed front drums as aid to cross trenches).
Fully tracked vehicles required more elaborate gearboxes and were expected to be much more expensive. The compromise at the time was therefore a half-track.

This gave the infantry of armoured divisions (actually just a portion of it) protected mobility. The infantry was able to keep the pace of the tanks in all terrains and were available for the combined arms combat. These SPW were bullet-proof (except against AT rifle and equivalent bullets), but not shell-proof. Their protection wasn't superior to 1920's tanks, but they faced 40's anti-tank defences. Nevertheless, bullet-proof was better than no armour.

The rise of light shaped charge-based anti-tank weapons (Panzerfaust, Bazooka, Panzerschreck, Piat) during 1943-1944 provided infantry with deadly short-range anti-tank self defence weapons. Tanks were no longer able to easily overrun infantry without serious losses.

These infantry AT weapons were effective at ranges like 30-150 m and easily outranged by normal infantry weapons (rifles, machine guns), though.
The users of such AT weapons were difficult to spot by tanks (limited fields of view are still a problem for tank crews) and much easier to spot by infantry.

The solution to the Panzerfaust problem was to use infantry (and mortars, artillery) instead of tanks against their users and to support the infantry with tank weapons over a safe distance.
Mortars and artillery were able to kill infantry, but were poor at spotting it. The use of infantry support for tanks was therefore of utmost importance.

A normal infantry attack was dangerous and slow. Infantry dismounting from tanks (tank desants) was faster but exposed to extreme risks.
This was the point when the SPW concept proved its worth again; these vehicles carried infantry at high speed and enabled it to fight with its weapons and with good vision - still outranging the AT weapons. Even a hit by a shaped charge was not necessarily a disaster - shaped charges aren't very effective behind thin armour plates (much of their effect is based on turning the armour into fragments).

The only remaining problems at that time were the short range of the German flamethrowers (very effective weapon kit for SPW vehicles in WW2) and the SPW's vulnerability to shells.


WW2 ended, but the technical-tactical challenge didn't end in 1945.

The conclusions of German officers from WW2 were clear:
The Panzergrenadiere (~mechanized infantry) should get a vehicle that
- was as mobile as the tanks (full track, speed, power/weight)
- had a shell-proof frontal armour plating
- carried about eight Panzergrenadiere for primarily mounted combat
- had a serious weapon (12.7 mm MG or 20 mm autocannon) for ground combat and air defence

The intent was that the combat would happen mounted if possible - this enabled very quick actions at tank speed instead of infantry speed. The Panzergrenadiere had to defeat the enemy infantry (which had only short-ranged light anti-tank weapons). The mounted fight required good vision when mounted - this meant that the vehicle should be open.

The Heer (German army) finally got a technically flawed vehicle (HS30). The vehicle had also a conceptual shortcoming; it wasn't able to resist shells (or shaped charges). Costs and fuel consumption would easily have been twice as high if that tactical requirement was met. Germany wasn't rich at that time, so the HS30 (and all later IFVs) had to be protected inadequately.

The NBC battlefield plannings and the rise of proximity fuses for artillery and mortar shells also questioned the wisdom of an open-topped battlefield vehicle. It became necessary to provide a protective roof, but the Heer still stuck to the principle that the Panzergrenadiere were meant to fight mounted.

The IFV/SPz concept was in serious trouble during the late 50's and early 60's because of its vulnerability, but that was only the beginning.

The next problem - and this should have been a K.O. hit for the concept in my opinion - was that the effective range of infantry anti-tank weapons increased while the effective range of mounted infantry was stagnating.

It became eventually during the 70's obvious that an IFV with mounted infantrymen would be at high risk (and not the scissor to the paper) when facing infantry at short range.
IFV crews were - just like the main battle tank crews - better off with long-range fire tactics and a call for indirect fire support against infantry. There was no range any more at which mounted Panzergrenadiere were able to defeat enemy infantry without catastrophic risk.

IFVs were nevertheless improved - they got anti-tank missiles to assist the MBTs in tank battles (and to bolster their morale), sometimes at the cost of one infantryman less.
Passive low light and even passive infrared sights were introduced and fully stabilized main guns (autocannons of 20-40mm calibre) with laser rangefinders and ballistic computers became standard. The IFV became an autocannon-armed combat vehicle that complemented the MBTs with its dissimilar armament. It also happened to carry infantrymen, but they had ever less ability to fight mounted; they were often reduced to using firing ports with minimal vision, and even these were at times blocked by armour upgrades.

The IFVs became really expensive and therefore inevitably really few. Some Western armies didn't compensate for this with the provision of enough cheap APCs (armoured personnel carriers) for supplementary mechanized infantry, though. The armour and mechanized infantry brigades of NATO forces are often dangerously weak on infantry.

There's actually some hope for the survivability of IFvs today; active protection systems and many other advances (mostly against shaped charges, not so much against shells/kinetic energy penetrators) may finally give the equivalent of shell-proofing to future IFVs like Puma.

Mounted combat for Panzergrenadiere is nevertheless an anachronism. Some modern IFV designs provide only hatches for two dismounts, more for observation and last ditch defence than as offensive conceptual mainstay. Today's dismounts can be happy if they have seen the surrounding terrain before they're ordered to dismount.

Modern IFVs are reduced to autocannon combat vehicles - they should not be called IFVs or Schützenpanzerwagen at all.
Our armies are clinging to the IFV as mainstay of infantry power in armour and mechanized brigades - the result is a very weak infantry component, a weak link in combined arms warfare.


This got quite long, so I'll post my suggestions in a second part.
I'll place more emphasis on non-hardware topics in the next weeks.

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8 comments:

  1. Sven,

    The U.S. abandoned mounted combat for its IFV infantrymen early in the Bradley program. Infantry had trouble hitting the broad side of a barn with the firing port weapons.

    The Bradley is now meant to deliver dismounted infantryman, and support them with fires.

    It has proven very effective and even survivable in Iraq with appliqué armor.

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  2. I know. Mounted combat is nowhere much more than a fig leaf nowadays.
    The IFV evolved - that's not bad in itself.

    My intent was to point out that this evolution was on a kind of autopilot, we stuck to an obsolete concept and added incremental, evolutionary changes.

    My suspicion is that the concept is fundamentally flawed since the mounted infantry fire element became obsolete - and that we ended up with both suboptimal combat vehicles and (as a consequence) also suboptimal brigade structures.

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  3. So do you think it would be better to have a dedicated light-tank like platform for a nice big autocannon with maybe some anti-tank missiles and decent protection(at least from infantry AT weapons) to deal with infantry. You could up-gun the cannon a bit, maybe 40mm and maybe even use it in a light AA role(against helicopters, drones, and other slower moving aircraft). Then for infantry transport we could make something much cheaper for an armored personell carrier like those tracked boxes the American army used to use(M113?) with a large carrying capacity, protection from shrapnel, bullets, and at least some protection against RPG's etc., some sort of protected heavy machine gun armament, decent speed and off-road capabilities, and above all it must be cheap enough that we can mobilize large ammounts of infantry in support of armored operations.

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  4. The armour and mechanized infantry brigades of NATO forces are often dangerously weak on infantry.

    i was thinking at another reason. Western countries have very low fertility. So a very low number of young healthy mentally stable males - the material for infantery, no other was invented yet. This connected to stable and prosperous economies leads to an even lower number of available infantery human material. Plus being many only booy ar even child of the family makes society less willing to sacrifice their lives.

    So in conclusion there is an attempt to compensate this weakness through material means. To use machines instead of people.

    Of course efficiency is debatable as you showed. Arguments are rational and objective and I personally agree with you.
    But is a different approach possible?
    Due to demography I think not.

    Present course of action is the only possible one in the present configuration. It's not doctrine at fault which affects efficency, but demographic reality.

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  5. CIA World Factbook excerpts for Germany:

    Manpower fit for military service:
    Field info displayed for all countries in alpha order.
    males age 16-49: 15,027,886
    females age 16-49: 14,510,527 (2010 est.)

    Manpower reaching militarily significant age annually:
    Field info displayed for all countries in alpha order.
    male: 405,438
    female: 384,930 (2010 est.)


    Plenty personnel available.

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  6. At first glance yes. For a survival war ala SU in ww2.

    But the conscription - last years - and the professional army now absolutely not enough.
    Number of young males is very small for the entire activities which a society needs.

    That 400 000 can be deconstructed very easy.
    Like 1/5 are not citizens - not sure but somewhere in this range, can be checked.
    Out of the remaining you get at least 1/3 who do not have the IQ or physical abilities or had some encounters with law enforcement agencies.
    You get roughly 200 000 males .... but these are all the boys DE has. All of them.
    They are the future doctors, engineers, workers etc so they have to go through college, trainings etc or else the country is finished.

    And the number decreases year by year. New born ones are under 350 000.

    The idea is that the country is capital rich but has very poor human resources. So using capital instead of boys is a quite logical line of action. The only one in fact. Even if it leads to an inefficient use of machines humans are simply not there so somehow they have to be replaced.

    A german guy wrote a lot about this very subject - Gunnar Heinsohn.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunnar_Heinsohn#External_links

    As an example the afghan case for comparison - used it because NATO armies are doing some sort of imperialism or something over there, but in a such an incompetent way that it becomes pretty unclear what:
    Available for military service
    6,800,888 males, age 16 to 49[3],
    6,413,647 females, age 16 to 49[3]
    Fit for military service
    3,888,358 males, age 16 to 49[3],
    3,641,998 females, age 16 to 49[3]
    Reaching military age annually
    378,996 males,
    357,822 females

    Notice the difference of proportions. Between global number and the one per year. That identifies how many available young males society has to spare for whatever activities might be needed.

    By the way the age bracket is a quite nice trick. It is a new invention 16-49. Before it was 18(?)-34 years old - don't remember exactly in 18 or 17. The new one is just to hide the collpase in numbers. What are you going to do with 43 year old in infantry role? It's just statics and it works until well it confronts reality but that is a different story.

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  7. Combat roles like infantry are rare in modern armies (too rare). A fatty with diabetes can serve well in a supply unit, he doesn't need to march 25 km a day as in 1942 and his skill with numbers and keyboards would be a bigger plus than the need for medication a minus.

    The conscription numbers dwindled for political reasons, and for the same reason we had so many "unfit" boys in our KWEA. The Bundeswehr had been reduced to such a size that few conscripts were needed, so pseudo-pacifism was easily accepted and boys were graded unfit for much lesser reasons than during the 80's.

    My point is that while in the great picture manpower isn't exactly a huge strength in comparison to some big countries, we're still far away from having manpower as the bottleneck.

    We could have an army of 80 tank battalions again if we wanted to; we just do not buy the 4,000 new MBTs at € 40 billion cost that would be needed for such a force. Right now, we prefer to bail out bank shareholders with that money instead.
    Manning 80 tank battalions would be no real problem; we would just need to pay well and take years for build-up.

    By the way; 6.7 million foreigners in Germany (population 81.4 M). That's far less than you assumed ("1/5"), even among young people. The German-Turks with German passport would be subject to our conscription if it gets re-activated.
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ausl%C3%A4nder#Deutschland_2

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  8. Many of the foreigners who immigrated to Germany gladly joined the armed forces during the conscription time, especially people of Turkish descent.
    It's not bad to invest less money into a military, but their should be a good concept.

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