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Jack Kelly: Heavy metal

Army hits a discordant note on armor plan

Sunday, February 24, 2002

There is no good idea that too much bureaucracy can't distort, kill or turn into a bad idea, as the Army is proving in its plans for an Interim Armored Vehicle.

  Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com). 

The IAV is a product of the desire of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki to provide the Army's light divisions with more tactical mobility, firepower and some armor protection.

Six of the 10 divisions in the active Army are "heavy" divisions, designed to meet the Soviet hordes on the central German plain. Armor and mechanized infantry divisions have great firepower and tactical mobility, but can be moved only by ship or by rail, which poses a problem when the war is in a landlocked nation like Afghanistan with no direct, and easily interdictable, rail communication.

The Army needs some strategically mobile armored vehicles -- tanks or armored personnel carriers light enough and small enough to fit on our tactical airlifters, the C-17 and the C-130. Ideally, the IAV also would be air droppable and light enough to be carried externally by the Army's medium lift helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook.

The lighter an armored vehicle is, the less armor protection it will have, and the smaller a gun it can carry. But now that we are no longer worried so much about fighting Soviet motor rifle regiments, this isn't such a big deal.

What we have to worry about most is the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), as ubiquitous in the underdeveloped world as weeds in an untended lawn, and heavy machine guns. If an armored vehicle can protect against these, it can deal with almost any threat in the war on terror, short of duking it out with Iraqi Republican Guard divisions.

It says something unpleasant about the Army that more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it still hasn't fully decided upon an IAV. But the direction in which the Army is (sluggishly) moving is more disturbing.

Basically, the Army has a choice between a more tactically mobile vehicle with superior armor protection that can be lifted by a Chinook, and a less well-protected vehicle critics say can't be carried by a C-130, much less lifted by a helicopter.

The better armored and more tactically mobile vehicle can be had right now for not much, which may be why the Army bureaucracy prefers the less capable vehicle. It will cost a ton of money.

The choice is between a slightly upgraded M-113A3 armored personnel carrier, and a new armored car, the LAV (light armored vehicle) III.

Until it was replaced by the Bradley fighting vehicle, the M-113 was the mainstay of our mechanized infantry. It's a tracked vehicle that weighs a little less than 21,000 pounds empty. The Army has about 17,000 on hand, mostly in war storage. It has 1.5 inches of aluminum alloy armor, enough to protect against small arms and grenade and mortar fragments. When upgraded with applique armor, the M-113 is bulletproof against RPGs and heavy machine guns.

The LAV III will weigh at least 20,000 pounds (up to 24,000 pounds in some variants), and has only half an inch of armor, which means that if somebody shoots at it with a 14.5 mm heavy machine gun, the basic Soviet model, the crew is toast. It is higher and wider than the M-113, which makes loading on a C-130 problematical, and airdrop impossible.

The great virtue of the LAV III is that it will require a brand new procurement program. This means lots of jobs for otherwise superfluous staff officers; more revenues for defense contractors (in this case, chiefly General Motors of Canada); more campaign contributions for congressmen; and more post-retirement employment opportunities for Army procurement officers.

A disadvantage of the LAV III to some is that since the Army doesn't have them yet, they can't be used in the war we're fighting now, whereas M113s could be sent to help protect our troops in Kandahar in a matter of days.

A soldier whom I will describe as "Khaki Throat" said that in a meeting in the Pentagon on Feb. 11, Army muckety-mucks decided that it won't be necessary to conduct the comparison test Congress has asked for the LAV III against the M-113A3. Khaki Throat thinks this is because those attending the meeting were pretty sure the LAV III would come up short.

For some in the Army, winning the war may not be the foremost priority.

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