October 30, 2003


As discussed here previously, the Canadian government has agreed to buy 66 105-mm Mobile Gun Systems from GMC. This effectively ends the question of whether Canada would ever again buy new tanks.

It's not as big a loss in combat capability as you'd think. Since returning from Germany in the early 1990s, Canada's tanks have mostly stayed at home, being too large to transport on existing naval or air lift anywhere else. This meant that the 76-mm armed Cougar armoured car has been relied on for direct fire support by Canadian forces abroad. No matter how bad the MGS turned out to be, it couldn't be worse than a Cougar.

It's also got some obvious advantages, as a tank-hunter. That turretless silhouette is going to make for a very small target and increase crew survivability, assuming the MGS has time to find just the right spot. Plus it's made in Canada, which presumably gives us some control if flaws appear. Plus it's air and sea transportable, allowing it to actually leave the country. Plus it's the same vehicle that's the centrepiece of the new American Interim Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs). It, is however, almost wholly unlike the tanks that preceded it in the Canadian armoured regiments. This is going to require some changed thinking.

So what's the new model army? (Warning: extremely long essay to follow)

Well, the American concept for their Interim Brigade team is focussed on 9 combined arms companies of 3 infantry platoons and 1 MGS platoon... combined with a relatively large surplus of reconnaissance assets... 12 recce platoons in all, armed with 25mm LAVs. That's 21 platoons, or two regiments, of what Canadians would traditionally consider "armour" (which here has always meant tanks plus recce).

Given Canada's current brigade structure*, it'll be hard to man to that level. Currently each brigade has the one armoured regiment on paper... 9-12 troops (platoons). There are currently no plans to increase the number of armoured/recce regiments in a brigade, or give the MGS weapons to anyone else, even if more were to be bought... they're an "armoured regiment" thing. (And it's true, at the moment with their tanking background, they know best how to use them.) The upshot will be that the Canadian brigade must either skimp on reconnaissance, or fire support, or both, compared to the American medium-weight force.

The other big difference between the two forces could be seen to compensate somewhat: that the Canadian infantry LAV3 has a 25mm cannon, and the American LAV3 has a machinegun. The American vehicle is a straight-up battle taxi, which is abandoned by the infantry section to fight... the Canadian vehicle supposedly gives each infantry section commander the option of fighting from the vehicle (with the upshot that the infantry and vehicle must remain closely tied, even after the infantry have dismounted) or abandoned (which foregoes the advantages of the 25mm). (Some have said this is a bug rather than a feature.)

All these differences ride on an implicit schism in doctrine. How to correctly marry armour and infantry has been the central problem of army doctrine worldwide for decades. The infantry inevitably want the armour parcelled out in close support, and the armoured advocates want it grouped en masse for shock power. The NATO countries' combined arms concept squared the circle, by giving the formation commander the option of parcelling out his armoured unit into combined arms "combat teams" or keeping it grouped, or both, depending on his situation. Embracing that flexibility has been the central focus of Canadian army training past the basic level ever since.

The question is now going to be, though, whether that doctrine makes any sense anymore. There seems little value in massing the MGS, a vehicle custom-designed for low-profile ambushes on the defence, and overwatch fire on the attack. They don't have the onboard ammo load to fight independently, or punch through, or exploit. The sight of a couple dozen of them advancing in formation across the plain would be bizarre. If they are ever massed, it would be in a firebase, to support an advance by other elements, a task that could be as easily co-ordinated without the need for any elaborate armoured regimental structure to do it in. This is why the Americans are not having any MGS battalions in their concept, but rather just merging them right into the infantry companies.

It's similar to the problems with the "tank destroyer" concept in World War Two. Tank destroyers, just like the MGS a lightly armored and less expensive alternative to tanks, were grouped by the Americans in regiments, with the idea that they might need to fight independently in some circumstances. In the end, this wasn't necessary... the American armoured regiments, equipped with real tanks, fulfilled that "mass armour" role just fine. The tank destroyers ended up getting parcelled out to the infantry units despite their own protests, and more or less permanently assigned there, to give the infantry direct fire support.

The British and Canadians, it should be noted, with roughly the same force mix, did things a little differently. Their tank destroyers were manned by artillerymen instead, an arm that's more used doctrinally to being split up into small detachments from time to time. They correctly recognized that the weapons would only ever be massed when used for things like indirect fire support, and didn't waste their time with elaborate plans for independent tank destroyer action. Canadian tank destroyer troops operated under control of the infantry, or not at all.

It stands to reason then, that the Canadian armoured regiment with the MGS is likely going to end up planning to think and operate more like the artillery does now (and Canadian tank destroyer units did back then), if they're going to maximize the value of these new weapons... operating as a unit for garrison purposes, perhaps, but otherwise working in more or less permanent small subgroups attached to the infantry units in the field.

What this doesn't solve, however, is the sheer problem of numbers. For the Canadians to have a comparable density of 105mm platforms to an American medium brigade, they'd have to buy roughly twice as many MGS's as they have so far (around 120). Presumably a big part of the reason they didn't do this is because of the organizational problem it would present... there simply don't exist enough armoured units at present to put them all in, as the Canadian armoured units (which, as mentioned, also double in the reconnaissance task) are already relatively amply equipped at the moment with the 25mm-armed Coyote recce vehicles.

What I suspect the interim solution will be is the three armoured regiments will organize on a "two squadrons recce, one squadron armour" approach, with about 40 Coyotes and 20 MGS's each. This is a big shortfall compared to the Americans, who for the same sized formation (a brigade) would have about 50 Coyote-like recce vehicles and 40 MGS's. On the other hand, as mentioned, the 110-odd infantry vehicles in that brigade, if American, will only be machine-gun armed, while the Canadian ones will each have 25mm cannon.

Is this 2:1 split the best solution, though? It doesn't seem like it. When you're only talking a squadron of 20 105s per brigade, the possibility of massing armour vanishes completely, even if the weapons system doesn't have these kinds of limitations. To keep the regimental structure in these cases would seem to exactly repeat the American tank destroyer mistake. So... what?

The normally perceptive and inventive CASR 101 site suggests Canada start looking at a subsequent buy of the same machine-gun armed LAVs the Americans are getting. These, they suggest, would then be given to the infantry, and the current 25 mm LAVs be given to the armour. This would solve the vehicle-commander/team-commander doctrinal problems they claim the Canadian infantry have, and supposedly give the armour enough vehicles to exert their mass attacks again.

It's hard to see how this would be an improvement, however. You'd basically have to stand up an armoured and a recce regiment in each brigade (rather than one combined armoured/recce unit, as now) to take all the vehicles you've given them under this plan, and arm the recce unit with 25mm, and the armoured unit with a mix of 25mm and 105mm. You'd still have a lot of 25mms left over, even then. Plus it's a whole ton of new money. And obviously, it takes away from the Canadian infantry the one comparative advantage they have left over the IBCT... that handy-dandy 25mm gun.

The only way this could work is if some of the 25mms were kept at the infantry level, to provide the infantry with its own (25mm) fire support company, and three (MG-armed) maneuver companies. The recce regiment, way out front, would have the 25mm Coyotes. And the armoured regiment would have a 105/25mm mix that could be delegated out using standard combined approaches to make mixed combat teams.

This would seem, however, to be sacrificing efficiency for the sake of doctrine. (Two thirds of the "armour" would essentially just be more infantry support vehicles that wouldn't give the units they support any new capability). And again, it's a big buy (probably around $1.8 billion CDN, I'd guess). What other options are there?

Well, the obvious one, drawing on history, and the American doctrine, would be to wrest control of the 105 mm guns from the armoured units. Say the country buys a second allotment down the road of these MGS's... another $600 million worth, and parcels them out as MGS companies in the infantry battalions. (The cap badge they operate under isn't particularly relevant.) The remaining three companies would retain their 25mm-armed LAV3s. The brigade armoured regiment would keep its squadron of MGS as well, as well as 2 to three squadrons of 25mm armed Coyotes. All four major maneuver units in each of Canada's three brigades would then have a 25mm/105mm split, without any other major re-organization required.

Basically, what it would mean is that we, like the Americans --who have actually contemplated calling their IBCT units "dragoons," after the original mounted infantry -- would be going back to the idea of lightly armed, fast-moving all-in-one maneuver forces with a self-contained ability to fight, instead of the combined arms concept of the last 60 years. We'd be wholly foregoing the cavalry-esque idea of mass shock action by heavily armoured units (arguably, Canada did that decades ago, regardless) and infantry "hold ground until the tanks get here" philosophy, and replacing it with the "mounted rifles" idea of "getting there fast with the most," of integrating the functions of cavalry and infantry in the same battalion, as Canadians did successfully in the Boer War. The 105 MGS systems in this concept, equate to what Napoleon would have called the "horse artillery," direct fire support that moves as fast as the units it supports, even if it sacrifices some power by doing so. They also equate nicely, as was said before, with the artillery's tank destroyer units our infantry relied on in Italy and Normandy (largely because Montgomery insisted on massing all the real tanks for near suicidal cavalry-type charges like "Goodwood", but that's besides the point).

Obviously, this is not an ideal solution for all potential combat environments. A Boer War mounted rifles unit would have been slaughtered in the trenches of Flanders. But by the same token, however, a World War One infantry unit, even supported by the tanks of the day, would not have been as effective on the veldt or on the Saskatchewan plain as Canadian mounted rifle units demonstrably were. That kind of low intensity fighting (call it "peacekeeping") is what we DO now. As said before, the decision by Canada not to keep up in the tank procurement battle means we've foregone our place in the highest-intensity forms of combat already. If this were World War One again, we'd be volunteering to serve with Allenby and the Australians in Palestine, or against German auxiliaries in Africa, rather than sending a corps to Flanders. That approach makes us inherently less useful for some things, but more useful for others. On the other hand, a French wheeled 105 unit did quite well on the flanks in the 1991 Iraq war, by all accounts. And at this point, the Americans would be happy if an army just showed up in Iraq with its own vehicles. And there'd be little that could frighten a Canadian 25/105 unit in Bosnia or Kabul, or the Congo... all the places we've been sent or contemplated doing so since the Cold War ended. Coupled with some sensible naval and air buys to increase transportability, and the Canadian Forces would be more in demand than at any time in the last 40 years, and with 12 mounted rifle units to draw on, the depth to sustain 3 battalions overseas, even in a couple different places, nearly indefinitely. Plus the ability to ramp up production, given that the LAV plant's right here, allows us to actually mobilize the population with far more rapidity in the case of another major war, far more effectively than we've been able to in decades.

The main difficulty with this isn't the money (another $600 million is not in the bigger scheme, huge) or training. It's doctrinal and institutional. You'd be convincing both infantry and cavalry units to give up what they see as their traditions (and rivalry vis a vis each other) and buy into a new joint tradition. But as I've said, it's not all that new, in fact... and maybe better knowledge of that history could help smooth over the cultural changes that would be required. It's highly probable, though, that Canadian arms, in the next decade, by virtue of the characteristics of their equipment, are going to be moving to a place where the difference between the "armoured regiment" and the "infantry battalion" is less and less. So we might as well start reviving the appropriate meme.

*For the novice: the army has 3 deployable brigades (c. 5,000 men each). Each has four major combat units: three infantry battalions and one armoured/recce regiment. Each unit has four companies (the armour calls them squadrons), each comprising three-four platoons (troops.) Each platoon/troop has 3-5 combat vehicles, more or less. It's more complicated than that, obviously, with artillery and engineers and everything else. but that's the basic verbiage used.

UPDATE: If the number of wheeled 105s bought does ever look like it could go up, watch for the armoured establishment to suggest yet another possibility... parcelling out the recce task permanently between both infantry and armoured, so every battalion gets a Coyote (recce vehicle) company, and they the 105s for themselves in an ersatz tank regiment. I think this would be less effective, because recce at the brigade level is more useful than putting those assets at the battalion level would be (easier to co-ordinate finding the enemy with attacking him with artillery or air power that way, for one thing), and because, given the characteristics of the MGS, those 105s will inevitably just get parcelled out like tank destroyers under combat conditions regardless.

FURTHER UPDATE: The criticisms of the MGS system in the press today are of the lack of armour (even though the MGS is better armoured than the Cougar), and the lack of a 120 mm gun. In actual fact, it's looking more and more like the American "Future Combat System" replacement for their M1 tanks is going to end up with a (no doubt vastly improved) 105 mm weapon as well, in order to fit on the 20-ton frame that's been mandated. Likely this vehicle will use something like the Israeli LAHAT stand-off missile, as much as improved conventional tank rounds, and it's entirely likely those types of ammunition would then be available to our forces, as well. Critics are also talking about previous wargames where MGS vehicles, when deployed as tanks, did less well on the offence than Leopards would have. Obviously, the solution would be not to deploy them as tanks, which is sort of my point. No one to my knowledge has wargamed whether they'd be superior on the whole to Canadians armed with Cougars, or Canadians with nothing at all, which are the other two real options at the moment. Presumably everyone knows the answer to those questions, already.

Posted by BruceR at 01:17 PM