Sunday, May 1, 2011

Force Multipliers, Ballistics Software and the Tank Battle of 73 Easting

I heard stories for years about a near mythical Desert Storm tank battle, where every Iraqi tank was destroyed while all of the vastly outnumbered American tanks survived. A long search revealed this as the Battle of 73 Easting (3 minute documentary clip here).  Eight M1A1 'Abrams' and 12 Bradleys destroyed "28 tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 39 trucks in 23 minutes. With no American losses."
The story continues though, because the American Cavalry unit was attacked for the next 6 hours, calling in help from attack helicopters and hundreds of artillery barrages as they lost one tank and slowly ran out of ammunition (having run out of anti-tank missiles early in the engagement). At some point reinforcements arrived for the Americans, trebling their total force so I am unsure how many of the "160 tanks, 180 personnel carriers, 12 artillery pieces and more than 80 wheeled vehicles" destroyed are attributed to the original  20 American tanks.

Such a remarkable story begs the question, How did they destroy so many tanks without losing any themselves?

Documented Advantages

Most articles talk about the importance of surprise in the Battle of 73 Easting, but other sites emphasize that tanks are loud, so they rarely surprise enemies. Other articles mention the M1A1's superior firing range over enemies, but the Wikipedia entry mentions the Americans "cresting a low rise and surprising an Iraqi tank company" thereby implying that some engagements were in close quarters. Others cite American tanks' rapid refire rate of 3 seconds per shot as the reason, but the engagement lasted hours. The book Warrior's Rage explains that a sandstorm preceded the engagement, so attack helicopters were not the cause. Some articles cite the superior imaging and targeting capabilities of American tanks, but this equipment only existed in M1A2 tanks which were not in the fight. If none of these capabilities were the reason, then how did they destroy ten times as many of the enemy?

Fire Control

When I heard the 'myth' of this battle, I was told that American tanks' ability to fire while moving was the critical advantage. The Iraqi tanks needed to stop, aim and fire to destroy their opponents. I can't find a single article on the internet that says U.S. tanks can fire while moving, but I have found lots of indications this is true.

Tank personnel call the targeting software 'fire control'. On YouTube I found a video demonstration of the M1A1 Abrams tank fire control simulator. Interestingly, it shows many simulations of firing while moving. Furthermore, there is a quote from Warrior's Rage (written by the Major in command of the 73 Easting force) which says, "The idea of diggin in tanks and armored fighting vehicles designed to fire on the move and smash through enemy defenses at 35 or 40 mph made no sense to me."

If this evidence of "fire on the move" capabilities wasn't enough, the following excerpt mentions that "The fire control computer automatically calculates the fire control solution based on: lead angle measurement; bend of the gun measured by the muzzle reference system; velocity measurement from a wind sensor on the roof of the turret; data from a pendulum static cant sensor located at the centre of the turret roof. The operator manually inputs data on ammunition type, temperature, and barometric pressure." The reference to velocity measurement clearly indicates that the tanks' speed and direction are factored into firing solutions.

This last excerpt clearly states that computers make these adjustments, but at its core though, this capability is a combination of elaborate and complex physics equations... and therefore is a Competitive Advantage via Quantitative Methods.

Moving Targets Are Hard to Hit

If you're moving at 40 mph and can hit a stationary enemy tank which can't return fire becase you're moving, you'll win every time. To fully appreciate the complexity of this capability, I would ask, "Can you sink a basketball while you're jumping left to right?" Do you think you can do it while you and the basket are moving? Do you think you can do it when you and the basket are moving in opposite directions? Well, that's what this fire control software does.

Benefits and Value Quantification

Force multiplication, in military usage, refers to an attribute or a combination of attributes which make a given force more effective than that same force would be without it. The expected size increase required to have the same effectiveness without that advantage is the multiplication factor. So a force multiplier is a competitive advantage.
  • 10 to 1 kill ratio
  • Kill ratio is even higher: Virtually zero American losses, which indicates the kill ratio would be higher if the enemy had more tanks.
  • Game Theory: Firing Speed Matters. A LOT. 1 tank that fires 10x faster than the enemy is worth 10 enemy tanks (if it survives the first barrage). This includes aiming time as well as loading time.
  • Game Theory: Accuracy and Lethality Matter: For every round that hits home, you have one fewer enemy shooting back at you. So any investment that increases firing accuracy, or the lethality of each round is well worth it. This is probably why the U.S. Army uses depleted Uranium shells while other countries use tungsten. 
  • Greater survivability = greater return on existing capital: Allows you to exhaust your opponent financially (strategy a la Charlie Wilson's War).
  • Psychological Warfare Benefit - The Iraqi Tank Divisions didn't bother to fight in 2003. They just surrendered.
  • Dollar Efficiency: After you've invested $5 million in metal, treads, engines, etc, why not spend a few extra bucks on software that makes you invincible?


What is most interesting is that the fire control (aka targeting) software that creates these competitive advantages is not cited as important anywhere in the media. Is the U.S. not emphasizing the 'fire on the move' capability because then enemies would use countermeasures (stay moving, rapid changes in direction, pinning American tanks before firing, always traveling at top speed when under attack and never traveling in straight lines)? 

To change topics and talk about U.S. military spending, perhaps the U.S. doesn't need anymore tanks? I'd support the development of more sophisticated fire control software, but increasing quantity just seems like overkill at this point.

Warrior's Rage. By Douglas MacGregor. Copyright 2009. Naval Institute Press, Maryland.