The light army / heavy army cycle

By Bruce Newsome

History shows that Western states regularly regress to light forces, then regret it.

A guest article by Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D., a lecturer in International Relations at the University of San Diego and a veteran of both British and US Army reserves. He is the author of “The Tiger Tank and Allied Intelligence” (2020) and “The Rise and Fall of Western Tanks” (2021). A renowned expert on heavy armour, Bruce brings a level of academic rigour to this topic that is frequently missing. As NATO armies consider the requirement to prepare for high intensity warfare against peer adversaries, this article poses a timely question: will the proposed British Army of 2030 be too light?

To find out more about Bruce He is on Twitter as “The Tank Professor” (@bruce_newsome)

He also has his own website: http://brucenewsome.com/ and his books are readily available at Amazon.

English Mark I or II tank in 1917 shortly after it made its combat debut during the First World War. (Image: Media Drum World)

You’ll never hear a soldier complain, “My army is just too survivable and lethal.”

By contrast, armies repeatedly realise they’re just too light. History shows that armies cycle from one over-compensation to the other. In wartime, armies want more armour and bigger guns. But more armour and bigger guns make armies heavier, slower to deploy, more burdensome to sustain, more expensive to equip and to operate.

In peacetime, the decision-makers over-compensate. They emphasize agility, rapid reaction, deployability, transportability, efficiency. They buttress their argument with platitudes that are never wrong: we must change with the times, we must adapt, we mustn’t prepare for the last war, we can do more with less. Then war comes around and we find out we’re just not survivable or lethal enough. Then we rush to improve survivability and lethality – at more expense than if we had prepared in peacetime.

The latest British defence review is in a rush towards a smaller, more deployable army, with fewer tanks, more wheels, and more exotic fires. Is this yet another cycle back to lightness at the expense of hard edge capabilities? Before we examine the latest defence review in particular, compare the many times this commitment has been made before. After all, the light / heavy army cycle is particularly Western, democratic, and British.

During the Great War, Britain was first to deploy tanks; France deployed the most tanks; and the United States (US) trained practically as many tank personnel. One or more of them gifted, exported, or lent tanks to the armies of Italy, White Russia, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. All these armies required tanks for offensive operations. And they all required heavy tanks.

Indeed, the trend was even heavier. Both sides were planning for a decisive campaign in 1919, with heavier mediums than hitherto deployed, heavier heavies, and even super-heavies (weighing up to 126 metric tons, in the case of the German Grosskampfwagen). In fact, the Germans were already piloting light, medium, heavy, and super-heavy tanks that would have shocked Western forces if the war had continued into 1919.

Western victory in 1918 encouraged Western complacency. Peacetime Western armies over-invested in light tanks. Britain piloted the multi-turreted “Independent” in the 1920s, but would not pilot another “heavy tank” until 1940 (TOG) and would not issue another until 1955 (Conqueror).

France ended the Great War with the multi-turreted Char 2C in development, which remained in service into World War II. The Char B series was initially classified medium. Although reclassified as heavy in the 1930s, the product weighed about half as heavy as the Char 2c – and within the same range as the first British heavy tanks (either side of 30 metric tons). Most French acquisitions were two-man light tanks, albeit classified as infantry or cavalry tanks, respective to the arm procuring. Perversely, the French proliferated more types of light tank in the latter 1930s than in any other period.

This was at the time that Britain was belatedly rushing to acquire new medium tanks (albeit classified as Infantry and Cruiser tanks), having standardized only light tanks since 1923 (the Vickers Medium Marks I and II included, despite their reclassification as mediums).

The US Army had left Europe with design authority over American versions of the best French light tank (FT) and British heavy tank (Mark VIII), and with promises to try the latest British mediums. However, it wasted most of its efforts on light tanks. It standardized one medium tank in the entire interbellum (the M2, in 1939). It would not standardize a heavy tank until 1945 – and this was a reclassified medium (M26, Pershing).

Italy’s first tank had been heavy (in 1918), but Italy subsequently standardized only light tanks until 1939. The vast majority of these so-called light tanks were actually tankettes (turret-less machine-gun carriers, initially classed as “fast tanks”). The main influence here was British: Italy’s first “fast tank” was imported from Vickers. The first Italian developments from this platform were by joint venture with Vickers. The main British proponents of tankettes (Giffard le Quesne Martel and Basil Liddell Hart) were particularly influential in Italy.

Japan also started its home developments in cooperation with Vickers. Its initial developments were medium-weight, but it subsequently procured only light tanks in peacetime (again, split between the infantry and cavalry).

Both the Italian and Japanese armies had some geopolitical justification for going light: their ambitions were in remote, undeveloped overseas territories; and their homelands were mountainous, forested, and marshy, linked by coastal highways and ferries. They had no immediate intent to confront a great power.

The Western great powers had no such excuse. All of them had fought both Germany and the nascent Soviet state during the 1910s. Germany and the USSR remained their primary concerns. Each had imperial distractions. Nevertheless, imperial wars came with great power competition: both the British and French Empires dealt with Italian, Soviet, and Japanese encroachments. In Europe, Germany remained their primary threat.

This illustrates the risks of going light when the threats seem light. The threats are incentivized to adapt, while your light force becomes sticky, non-adaptive, complacent.

In the 1920s, Western forces did not foresee either Germany or the USSR jumping ahead in tanks. Germany was prohibited from tanks by international settlement. It had given up territory and industry to its neighbours, and was partially occupied by international forces.

In 1920, Western forces had left Russia as an enormous, agricultural, failed state. They knew the early Soviet industrial boasts were exaggerated; and they heard of famines and purges. Yet Western forces had left behind their best light, medium, and heavy tank types with White Russian forces, which the Bolsheviks captured. Additionally, German forces asked for Soviet cooperation in 1919, as they departed the Eastern European territories they had occupied since 1917.

The Soviets certainly did not tend to lightness. The Red Army deployed some monstrous follies, including the multi-turreted 28-ton T28 of 1933, 54-ton T35 of 1934, 55-ton SMK of 1939, and 58-ton T100 of 1939, but its light (T26), light-medium (BT), medium (T34), and heavy (KV) series were the best of the period.

Weimar Germany was most internationally constrained. Nevertheless, its pilots of the 1920s were innovative, and certainly more lethal than Western competitors. Even its light tank (Leichttraktor) was superior to the Vickers Mediums. Ultimately, the Weimar tanks benefited the USSR most. Nazi Germany rushed to catch up. Consequently, Nazi Panzers trended lighter, but nonetheless culminated, during peacetime, in the five-man Panzer IV: the only peacetime platform to stay in production through World War II. Meanwhile, Germany made up its numbers with excellent Czechoslovakian tanks.

This image shows the metric tonnage of more than 500 tank prototypes and mass-produced tanks between 1916 and 1955. The best fit curve shows the decline in tank weight during the 1920s. What this doesn’t show is how modern wheeled armoured vehicles, including MRAPS, and 8x8s have contributed to a contemporary loss of mass since the end of the Cold War in 1990. (Source: Bruce Newsome)

Western tanks did improve during World War II, and proved adequate against Italian and Japanese enemies, but never caught up with German and Soviet competitors. If war had continued into 1946, German and Soviet tanks still would have had the edge. With the defeat of Germany, the Red Army was left dominant. The resulting Cold War kept Western armies heavy, at least in Europe. Elsewhere, wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and the Falklands revived old predictions of the uselessness of the tank.

Following the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s Britain dramatically reduced its heavy formations and focused (like the rest of NATO) on rapid reaction forces. The talk was all about wheels, modularity, coordinated fires, sensors, automaticity, networks, the Revolution in Military Affairs – and the unviability of the tank. Sounds familiar? Yes, the talk that is banded about today as novel is not novel at all.

Today, the MOD is once again talking about the need for deployability, even though the Army has been highly deployable in the last three decades. In the former Yugoslavia, the initial British deployments are best characterized as pedestrian and non-confrontational, with the embarrassing result that British soldiers were sometimes disarmed against their will. Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles and CVR(T) light tanks (the MOD doesn’t like this term) became critical assets in the difficult terrain, but Britain deployed no main battle tanks there. Interventions in Sierra Leone and elsewhere were even lighter.

British ground forces were quick into Afghanistan in 2001, and quick to seize Basra in 2003. The trouble was: they weren’t survivable enough for the subsequent counter-insurgencies. The Army withdrew tanks from Iraq after an easy invasion, then sent them back. It didn’t have enough tanks to send to Afghanistan. It urgently required what the Americans procured as Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) – reclassified in Britain as Protected Patrol Vehicles. Until then, some soldiers (and Marines) were riding inside SNATCH Land Rovers, whose thin composite body was designed to be proof against low-energy bullets and splinters produced by terrorist weapons in Northern Ireland. Even body armour was short.

When Russia subsequently challenged the West in Ukraine, Britain (like the West as a whole) was quick to send advisers, but took years to organize paltry reinforcements of NATO’s eastern members. Russia went unchallenged by the West in Syria, until the US deployed some MRAPs and artillery. The British Army has deployed no equivalents there.

Nominally, Britain has three division headquarters, but 6th Division actually administers signals and electronic warfare formations. Only one of the other two HQs is supposed to be available as a “heavy” division – which is not the same as an armoured division. Its main ground manoeuvre element would be one or two armoured infantry brigades, with one tank battalion per brigade. The main battle tank (Challenger 2), tracked infantry fighting vehicle (Warrior), and light tank (Scimitar) have missed out on their promised upgrades so many times they are officially obsolescent. Meanwhile, the infantry and cavalry are over-dependent on wheeled AFVs (Foxhound for the infantry, Jackal for the cavalry). Foxhound is not large enough to count as a squad-carrier. Most infantry units have no armoured carriers at all.

Amazingly, the latest Integrated Review doesn’t mention the Army. It is rhetorically strong on a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, but the only rotational commitment to that region is one new aircraft carrier group. No land forces have been allocated.

The MOD’s latest Command Paper (titled “Defence in a Competitive Age” – as if defence was not previously competitive) does mention the Army, but doesn’t specify much. The key promise is as follows: “The Army of the future will be leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats…Through a more productive integration of the Reserves, increased lethality of weapons, and survivability of platforms, and a specialized workforce fit for the digital age, the Army will continue to be world class.”

Yes, the Army will be “leaner.” It will have fewer personnel, fewer main battle tanks, no tracked infantry fighting vehicles, and a few medium tanks. In addition to its legacy air assault brigade, it will have an aviation brigade. In addition to its security assistance brigade (trainers and advisers), it will have a special forces brigade (rangers, trainers, and advisers).

But it won’t be “more lethal” unless new classes of platform, such as unmanned vehicles (both aerial and ground), prove themselves. And I fail to see more “survivability of platforms” relative to the main battle tank, although Boxer is certainly more survivable as a wheeled platform than we’re used to.

Perversely, despite declining lethality and survivability, the Army won’t be much “nimbler.” The Warrior will be replaced by Boxer wheeled ICVs and Ares tracked APCs, which are heavier, without better lethality than the now-cancelled upgraded Warrior. The CVR(T) will be replaced by Ajax (in the same family as Ares), which is much heavier but not much more lethal. Indeed, Ajax is medium-weight, but without the lethality of a medium tank. More lethal variants of both Boxer and Ajax could be acquired, but the MOD remains uncertain about requirements. The uncertainty can best be gauged by revelations that the decision to delete Warrior was made just before the Command Paper was due – more for financial than doctrinal reasons.

Yes, I agree: light, small, cheap, and deployable are virtues. Yes: we should recognize that survivability and lethality come with costs and trade-offs. However, history shows that the Western bias is to light over heavy, to deployability over survivability and lethality – until war comes around.

There’s no point making British ground forces nimbler unless they are more lethal and survivable. Britain has made that mistake too many times before.

7 comments

  1. The British army is now in the same position it was in during the early to mid nineties when the requirements for wheeled protected mobility was identified from our experience in the Balkans, Angola etc coupled with the first Gulf war and then reinforced again when the mission in Bosnia ratcheted up from peace keeping to peace inforcement. The term at the time was ‘Too fat to fly and too light to fight’ which eventually evolved into the FRES concept.

    So after decades of money and time we are back to an army we had 30 years ago, with the requirement identified and a concept envisioned still to be implemented.

    This would not be so bad but our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has reinforced our requirement for a medium weight wheeled force capable of being more strategically agile than the heavy armour but also capable of delivering firepower when required.

    The force we are creating is not even a result of careful analysis and doctrinal change (that was FRES) but as a result of not completing projects on time and to budget.

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  2. Boxer, cheap? Small? 38 tonnes?
    I am not convinced there is a coherence to your history lesson.
    And lack of political support left the British Army sitting on their hands outside Basra. On the other hand the SAS were massive force multipliers in Baghdad.
    MRAPs were needed in Afghanistan.

    And as I am sure correspondents know only to well, the army have made a dogs breakfast of its procurement since 20+ years ago.

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  3. Extremely well written, a pleasure to read.
    Isn’t the Western history of the tank (light, heavy or otherwise) also largely the history of the tank? If so (for us at least), is its history not partially defunct?
    Put simply, will we be fighting Germany? Because the near entirety of that hundred year history has been Germany.
    You see it said that the British could equip to fight light on the flanks of Europe, leaving the heavy work to our central European allies and that this approach would correspond to our expeditionary needs outside of general war. If we consider our two main threats to be China and Russia then the former will be a containment exercise and the latter might reasonably be approached through sympathetic NATO tasking, so it might be entirely plausible for us to be right in our lightness.

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  4. Great article, thanks Bruce!

    I think you missing one major element in your critique of current thinking – context.

    Before I get to that context, I have to state I am not disagreeing with your basic concept. From comments about being able to tell US lines of advance in European by counting the number of MG armed Willys Jeeps (a comment made in the context of using armoured cars or Shermans), through the US Army’s Cavalry’s well documented journey from the NTSC’s to Gulf 1 – bouncing from Thermal Imager equipped HMMWV, to M2 CFV, all the way up ‘recce by fire’ in M1A1’s and back again (and then back to heavy again), there are lots of examples to back up your main argument.

    However, I would suggest your argument is made without discussion of the full context. You almost dive in with your comments at the end of the article, by mentioning the elephant in the room which is budget! Heavy is great, unless you can’t afford it. Whether or not you should be able to afford it is a whole different article/conversation. However I have argued many times in the past that the main reason the British Army is obsessed with Light Infantry (and now Light Cav in Jackals) is purely one of expense, not one of doctrinal purity.

    Doctrine does have a place in this discussion though. In essence the British Army is a fairly light “expeditionary force” – more akin to the USMC than it is to US, Polish or German armies; and of course the USMC has just decided it is too heavy and got rid of its MBT’s! The difference being of course that USMC did not have “heavy” tracked IFV’s to accompany those M1’s.

    So if we are not going to be based in Germany or Poland, should we be heavy? Or should be we in fact be lighter because the Army considers itself an expeditionary force, and of course because of budget? A Boxer is hardly ‘light’ in terms of tonnage, and apparently has base level protection similar to that of the much older Warrior, the difference being it can self deploy more easily once it has rolled of the Point Class that has delivered it to where it needs to be?

    The counter to this argument, is that if we are going to be lead nation for a NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Estonia, then that needs to be heavy, so we need at least a small core of heavy to sustain it. Maybe, maybe not. There are many other ‘value add’ items the British Army could declare to NATO beyond a handful of heavy armoured vehicles, which brings me to your other comment – that about “exotic fires” – surely the other item that needs to be heavy, beyond protection, is fire power? The British Army, from infantry platoons up to Armoured Brigades is somewhat anemic where it comes to blowing shit up!! So again, can we look to the USMC pivot to being lighter and more mobile in footprint, but “heavier” in fires ?

    Again, don’t get me wrong, I dont think the tank is dead, I believe there is a place for heavy armour, and I think both the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper are low quality pieces of work that show zero imagination in how to achieve greater effect for a given budget. I just wonder if this time, lighter is right, or at least OK, especially if the heavy comes in the form new artillery sytems and other ‘firepower’ enhancements.

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    1. The USMC does not operate in a vacuum, they are part of a larger military and therefore quite literally have the luxury of being able to dispose of a capability knowing that one of the other services can plug the gap.

      I agree that fires could to some extent offset for mass and some firepower but what is our plan? £800 million investment ( if I recall correctly) that is not a lot of new equipment.

      Regardless of whether it’s down to money or doctrine the British army has a fetish for non mech light infantry and still does.

      One thing I will point out from the article is that although the weight of armour increased slightly during the second world war it was not due to producing massive amount s of heavy tanks but on improving (And in the case of the British designing) the medium tank.

      The Allie’s completed the war with mostly medium armour ( and so did the Germans) supplemented with AT, fires and air power etc. Heavy tanks were developed with a specific role in mind such as breakthrough tanks and were produced in small numbers compared to other systems.

      IMO it always reverts back to medium for the mainstay of your army. At the end of Telic and Herrick the army was pretty much a mech medium capability on those ops.

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  5. One small comment about fitting a quadratic: it has the drawback that it always starts with a decline and then ends with an increase, or vice versa. A more careful fit of the data in the figure above would show a different trend after WW2. That trend would better fit the more recent data, including that regarding the wheeled vehicles.

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