One day in the late 1970’s, when I was a defense staffer for Senator Gary Hart, I got a call from an Armed Services Committee staffer asking if I knew anything about Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs), which are what we used to call armored cars. A bit, I replied. What did I think of them, he asked? I said I liked them for operational maneuver, because they are wheeled, and most operational (as opposed to tactical) movement is on roads.
That was the beginning of the Marine Corps’ LAV program. We soon roped in a one-star at Quantico named Al Gray, and within a few years the Corps had some LAVs. The concept for which they were purchased was very clear: to form soviet-style Operational Maneuver Groups for use against Third World countries. We all knew that LAVs are tactically fragile, and must be used in ways that avoid heavy combat. We also knew that the tank the U.S. armed forces were then buying, the M-1, was too heavy and used too much fuel to be able to maneuver rapidly over operational distances. The LAVs could fill the gap.
As one of the Urvater of the Marines’ LAV program, I was pleased to hear a couple years ago that the Army was now also planning to buy LAVs. Good, I thought; they too have recognized that the M-1 is more a Sturmgeschuetz or a Jagdpanzer than a real tank, and they need something else for operational maneuver.
I should have known better, given that we are talking about the U.S. Army. Nonetheless, it was with unbelief, then horror, that I learned what the Army was really buying LAVs (called Strykers) for: urban combat. And now, the first Stryker units are to be sent to Iraq.
The magnitude of the idiocy involved in using Light Armored Vehicles in urban fighting, where they are grapes for RPGs, is so vast that analogies are difficult. Maybe one could compare it to planning a fireworks display on board the Hindenburg. Urban combat is extremely dangerous for any armored vehicle, including the heaviest tanks, as the Israelis can testify after losing several Merkavas in the Gaza strip (to mines–real big ones). Why? Because for opposing fighters, regular infantry or guerillas, the old sequence from the German “men against tanks” is easy. The sequence is, “blind ’em, stop ’em, kill ’em.” Armored vehicles are already blind in cities, because distances are short; the safest place near a hostile tank is as close to is as you can get, because then it can’t see you. Stopping is also easy, because streets are narrow and vehicles often cannot turn around. And with LAVs, once they are blind and stopped, killing is real easy because the armor is, well, light. That’s why they are called Light Armored Vehicles.
In the first phase of the war in Iraq, the jousting contest, the Marine Corps lost M-1 tanks and it lost Amtracks, its amphibious personnel carrier. But it lost no LAVs. That is a testament, not to the vehicles, but to how they were employed.
But now, in the second phase of the Iraq war, and in future phases as well, there will be no role for operational maneuver. And there will be no role for LAVs or Strykers. If the Army insists on sending them into Iraqi towns and cities, they should first equip them with coffin handles, because all they will be is coffins for their crews.
When I first came to Washington in 1973, I was quickly introduced to an old saying about the American armed forces: the Air Force is deceptive, the Navy is dishonest, and the Army is dumb. It seems some things never change.
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism.