The Moment of truth may be soon for the military's armored vehicles No amount of testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground can simulate war, the experts say. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 12, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun

As Eddie Meadows shows government films of M1 tanks cruising across test ranges, he displays an almost childlike fascination with the awesome firepower of the weapons.

Meadows and his colleagues at Aberdeen Proving Ground know that a major battle of infantry and armor in the Persian Gulf would be bloody and unforgiving. No matter what tests the latest U.S. tanks and other armored vehicles have been put through at the huge Harford County installation, nothing can simulate war, they say.

For some expensive and controversial weapons, says Meadows, chief of the proving ground's combat vehicle division, "the moment of truth may be coming soon."

The Army's two basic armored vehicles, the M1 Abrams tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, have undergone years of testing at Aberdeen.

"But, when the bullets start snapping around you, there's kind of HTC qualitative change," says Lt. Col. Piers M. Wood, chief of staff at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, a private group that analyzes U.S. military policy.

"Until you test these things under fire, you really ought not to predict their performance," Wood says.

Just as U.S. military planners relish the success of high-tech weaponry used in the air war, experts on ground weapons systems are anxious about the equally complex - and often finicky - gadgets doing their jobs in the sands along the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border.

A ground war would mean the debut for the M1 tank, a $3 million, 67-ton monster that, like the $1.4 million Bradley, has seen only mock battles in war games, critics stress.

Critics also say the tank is a gas-guzzler that requires too much maintenance. They question the reliability of its night-fighting gear and computerized gun-siting equipment.

Thousands of defense-plant workers across the country must be watching, too. Factories in 45 of the 50 states supply parts for the M1.

The Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which can be used for ferrying troops or scouting missions, looks like a tank but is only ,, lightly armored. A long-running political debate about the Bradley centered on its light armor, which was eventually improved, and its high profile. It was designed as a companion to the M1 tank. It's the only armored personnel carrier in the Army that can keep up with the tank.

Technicians and scientists at Aberdeen maintain confidence about the reliability of tanks, armored infantry carriers, gear to protect against chemical warfare and other tools of modern ground warfare. From boots to battle tanks, it has all been developed or tested at the 72,000-acre proving ground on upper Chesapeake Bay.

Tank crewmen, called tankers, and soldiers operating in other armored vehicles also defend the new weapons.

"When the vehicle starts breaking down, it's not necessarily the equipment" but the attention to maintenance, says John McKelvey, a former Bradley driver who also has experience in M1 tanks.

McKelvey, 24, of Ellicott City, acknowledges the potential for lots of casualties in a ground war. But, adds the purchasing agent for a paper and packaging distributor, "I think everybody ought to take the casualties in stride."

Nearly 20 years have passed since the last big meeting of armor on a desert battlefield. Some U.S. military officials say lessons should be learned from the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Sinai Desert between Israel and Egypt.

Analysts say the Israeli forces initially relied too much on tanks while the enemy made good use of anti-tank weapons. A complacency about night fighting also was said to hurt the Israeli forces.

Chaim Herzog, a former official in the Israel Defense Forces and former director of military intelligence in that country, chronicled the short-comings of the Israeli military in his 1975 book "The War of Atonement." The book is recommended reading for U.S. armor officers.

"The Israeli infantry lacked mobility, and its weapons - with few exceptions - were no match for the Soviet equipment," he concludes.

Army weapons experts and others say U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf are better prepared for a desert battle, with much faster tanks able to shoot on the run with pinpoint accuracy and equally nimble Bradleys. They also say they have countless ways to defeat enemy armor, such as TOW (tube-launced, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters and "smart" artillery rounds that can be guided to their targets by lasers.

Analysts and military officials add that allied forces have other advantages that have already been important in the air war and will be critical to success on the ground. They include more than 40 satellites to intercept Iraqi transmissions and follow enemy troop movements and far superior air power.

Military officials and proponents of the M1 tank say it compares well with the best tank the Iraqis can offer, the Soviet-made T-72.

M1s can operate at night and in bad weather, using thermal imaging. Iraqi tanks have limited night-fighting capability, U.S. analysts say.

They also claim that the T-72 must slow nearly to a halt or stop to fire its 125mm cannon, which is accurate to about 2,100 meters. On the other hand, the M1A1, the newer, better-equipped model in the M1 series, can fire its 120mm cannon accurately to nearly 3,000 meters while traveling at top speed - about 40 mph.

But experts caution laymen against viewing weapons such as M1 tanks as solitary, indestructible machines.

Tanks may be the most "survivable" thing on the ground, says Maj. Ron Mazzia. "Armor doesn't do it alone," adds Mazzia, a former armor officer and spokesman for the Army Armor Center at Ft. Knox, Ky., where Army and Marine tankers train.

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