WASHINGTON — In a force that strives to be lighter, more flexible and expeditionary, one might assume heavy armor had fallen out of vogue for the US Army, but not so, according to one of the Army's top modernization officials. The service is putting the finishing touches on a combat vehicle modernization strategy that explores a range of vehicles.

"Armored vehicles are immensely important, unless you are building a force to re-enact World War I," said Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who runs the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) and is chief of "futures" for Training and Doctrine Command.

In a Thursday morning discussion with reporters, here, McMaster said the Army's nascent vehicle modernization strategy calls for each formation to have athe balance of mobility, protection and lethality for its mission. The document, he said, "endeavors to magnify the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses" in each.

The conversation comes as the Army plans to send an armored brigade's worth of heavy vehicles to Europe by year's end. Forces rotating into the region would fall in on the equipment as they train with troops in Poland and the Baltic states. Soldiers with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment are next, and then the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.

A year ago marked the return of US heavy armor to Europe, as the first Army M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2A3/M3A3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles rolled into the Grafenwoehr Training Area.

Tanks provide the advantage in close combat, McMaster said, and they are more agile than one might expect. The key to a nimble force is not necessarily fewer tanks, but a shorter logistical tail, and while the Army seeks to be more expeditionary, "lean and nimble" may not be right in every situation.

"Richard Simmons is lean and nimble," McMaster said, "but you don't send Richard Simmons to go fight anybody."

Guggenheim Securities analyst Roman Schweizer said the build-up of forces in Europe will have a near-term impact on US force structure and overseas contingency spending. What's unclear is whether there will be a lasting shift to armored and Stryker brigades in Europe and whether future budgets favor Europe over the Pacific.

"Retaining Air Force and Army force structure may increase the volume of upgrades, maintenance and technical support for companies that make those systems," Schweizer said, referring to the General Dynamics-made M1 Abrams tank and BAE-made M2 Bradley and M109A7 Paladin howitzer, among others.

"From a funding mix standpoint, the contraction on spending for ground programs seems to have bottomed and these new strategic challenges may reverse the generally negative consensus view that there is little to no upside for companies with significant Army lines of business [other than foreign military sales]," Schweizer said. "This would include companies such as GD, BAE and Oshkosh for tanks, fighting vehicles and trucks."

The US Army scuttled its 70-ton Ground Combat Vehicle last year and has since launched a Future Fighting Vehicle (FFV) program, likely aimed at science-and-technology spin-outs. The Army is pursuing its Humvee replacement, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and M113 infantry carrier replacement, the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, along with and upgrades to the Abrams, Stryker and Paladin.

An engineering change proposals would boost the Abrams power plant and up-gun the Stryker to a 30mm cannon.

"We know that bullets that explode are better than bullets that don't explode, and we want to have a firefight-ending capability across all formations," McMaster said.

Asked how to counter Russia's hybrid of conventional and unconventional warfare in eastern Ukraine, McMaster said there is a strong case to be made for land forces as a "forward deterrent," of the sort seen in South Korea against North Korea. Russia has used limited warfare to seized limited objectives at no cost and portrayed the response as escalatory.

"You can place forward deterrents at the frontier to ratchet up the cost of that action," McMaster said. "The deterrent role of land forces is something we undervalue at our peril. What we could in fact do by not recognizing land forces, you could make really dangerous and costly conflict more likely."

There has been a steady flow of Russian main battle tanks into separatist hands in Ukraine since June 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Footage showed the T-72BM, which is operated by the Russian Army in large numbers but not known to have been exported or operated outside of Russia, as well as T-64 variants and T-72B1s. The Ukrainian daily newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda reported Feb. 12 that 50 tanks, and various rocket launchers, had crossed crossing the Russia-Ukraine border.

As long as they are menacing Ukraine and the Baltics, Russia has been able to effectively use its old and plentiful T-72s and T-90s, according to James Hasik, a Brent Scowcroft Center resident senior fellow for defense. The tanks can take a beating from handheld infantry weapons and minor-caliber cannons, but would not withstand modern threats like tandem warhead missiles, top-attack missiles, aerial bombardment and smart artillery munitions.

Russia's military is one of the few in the region with heavy armor, aside from Poland. Equipped with Leopard 2 and PT-91 tanks, Poland is replacing its own BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle with 1,000 an eight-wheel-drive Patria armored modular vehicles.

Poland's war plan is to fall back on the Vistula River until the rest of NATO shows up, and it would happily build local bases for a US armored division, an option Hasik favors."Really heavy armor would usefully bolster that force," he said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of US Army Europe and the 1st Armored Division, said that as Russia's defense budget skyrocketed in recent years, he Hertlng and other generals fought to maintain the Army's dwindling presence in Europe, including heavy armor.

The conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces has become an artillery duel, with tanks used to gain ground.

"Are we going to get into a tank-on-tank war? I don't know and I don't think so, but it sure would be nice to at least have the capability," Hertling said. "A tank on a border, or Bradleys on the border, will certainly prevent people from coming across more than infantry will."

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @reporterjoe

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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