This issue, we are reprinting the famous "lost column" by Gary Brecher, which readers have repeatedly requested. It was originally printed on May 13, 2004.
In my last column, I went through the history of the RPG-7, a simple, unguided, shoulder-fired Soviet anti-armor weapon that's been around for 40 years and is still going strong. And it just keeps getting better the older it gets. This little killer is responsible for more than half our casualties in Iraq, and it's made life Hell for American helicopters and Hummers.
But one big question still has to be answered: what happens when an RPG-7 goes up against our MBT, the M1 Abrams? Some people, especially the damn Europeans, are already saying the M1 has turned out to be vulnerable to RPG hits. I don't read German, but I know gloating when I see it, and this site I found sounds like good old Euro-Gloating to me:
NEITZEUNG AUSLAND: Der Mythos des Abrams-Panzers ist zer.
The trouble is, most of the sites talking about the RPG vs. M1 question are run by hardware fans who think everything depends on the quality of the tank design. I think it's a wrong argument. The fact is, the M1 is a pretty good tank, and it's running into trouble for the simple reason that we're using it in stupid ways. That can neutralize the best tank. Just ask the French, 1940-vintage. Their tanks were better than Hitler's, one-on-one, but his army understood tank warfare, and the French didn't.
The M1 has been in service for 20 years now, and so far it's worked out pretty well. You can see it's a good design -- like I said in my last column, sometimes one can look can tell you whether a design is any good. The Spitfire was a better design that then Me109 and the P-51 was a better design than the Spitfire -- and it showed. Apply that to the American tanks and you get the impression ours weren't as good as the Russians'-- until the M1. The M60, our pre-M1 MBT, was a tall, fat, clumsy- looking tank. Back when I was a kid (a tall, fat, clumsy kid, come to think of it) reading every issue of Aviation Week and Armed Forces Journal in the library (it was air-conditioned, for one thing, and my folks were too "careful with money" to get AC at home), I always got depressed by pictures of the M60. Every Russian tank from the T-55 on looked like a Corvette compared to our lousy Dodge.
Then came the M1. Finally we had a tank that looked wide, low, dangerous and fast. And it was. It stomped Iraqi armor in the few real tank battles we had in Gulf War I. I remember an Iraqi tank commander who said, "After two months of bombing, I still had 17 of my 24 tanks operative. After one battle with the M1s, I had three."
Still, some funny things have been happening this time around -- and most of them seem to involve the M1 meeting the RPG-7.
The Army is shy about releasing info on this kind of thing, so it's hard getting clear data online about how many RPG rounds have hit M1s in battle, and exactly what happened when they did. I do know at least one Min Iraq by an RPG anti-armor round, and hardware freaks are saying Iraqi insurgents found a serious design weakness in the armor at the "armpit", where the turret meets the chassis.
Fact is, no tank in the world is totally invulnerable to RPGs, any more than a1 has been killed ny knight was totally invulnerable to arrows.
If you think as a tank as an internal-combustion knight, you get a better sense of how it's meant to work. The armor is concentrated up front, so the knight/tank can attack without having to hold back. The idea is that he has to able to shrug off what they throw at him while he's spurring the warhorse full-speed over the battlefield -- then hit hard.
If he's unhorsed -- if the tank is forced to stop and deal with lots of dismounted enemy -- then it's all over. It's as easy as knifing a turtle.