A recent competition hosted in part by the U.S. Army and designed to test core tank crew skills saw European crews take the top honors, while crews from the U.S. Army failed to place. The results raise the question of whether the Army—after more than a decade of focusing on guerrilla warfare—has devoted adequate training to address "big war" skills.
Held from May 10 to 12 and jointly hosted by the U.S. Army and the German Bundeswehr at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, the the Strong Europe Tank Challenge included challengers from six NATO countries: Denmark, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Slovenia—which sent tank platoons of four tanks each to compete— and the United States, which sent two platoons.
The competition involved tank crews conducting both offensive and defensive operations, and both mounted and dismounted activities. Crews fired ten main gun rounds from various positions. In one event, crews had to correctly identify 25 friendly and unfriendly (read: Russian) vehicles while traveling a course. Other events involved operating in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack, dealing with improvised explosive devices, and medical emergencies.
A German tank crew from Mountain Panzer Battalion 7, Panzer Brigade 12 took top honors, followed by a Danish crew from their country's 1st Tank Battalion in second. Third place went to a Polish crew from the 34th Armored Cavalry brigade. It's unknown where the American crews placed, only that they weren't in the top three.
NATO sponsored tank challenges like this were routine during the Cold War—including the famous —but the Strong Europe Tank Challenge is the first multinational tank challenge to take place since 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved.
As for the tanks themselves, the German platoon brought Leopard 2A6 tanks. An upgrade of the Cold War , the -A6 model features modified turret armor, giving the turret a more angular appearance. The -A6 also features enhanced mine protection and a 20 percent longer main gun barrel, imparting a higher velocity to projectiles.
Both Denmark and Poland brought Leopard 2A5 tanks, slightly older models but ones with largely with the same capabilities as the -A6. Italy brought a platoon of home-grown tanks. Slovenia brought , a copy of the Russian T-72 manufactured by Yugoslavia before the country's civil war. The United States brought its tanks.
This isn't the first time U.S. Army tankers have found themselves in an embarrassing situation. North Carolina National Guard tankers —and crews from the U.S. Marine Corps and Canadian Army—at the U.S. Army's 2016 Sullivan Cup. A tank crew consisting of an insurance adjustor, Pepsi truck driver, college student, and aspiring police officer beat fifteen other reserve and active duty tank crews to place first.
For decades, the U.S. Army's Armor Corps was a pillar of land power expected to fight the tank forces of Soviet Union on the European battlefield. After 9/11, with the exception of the invasion of Iraq, fighting so-called "high intensity conflict" took a back seat to fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. While most of the countries involved in the Strong Tank Challenge also sent ground forces to both countries, their commitments largely allowed their tankers to stay oriented on training and operation related to more traditional tank missions—i.e. fighting in big wars against other tanks.
The results in both competitions echo recent by Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley and published in last Sunday's New York Times. Milley stated, "Today, a major in the Army knows nothing but fighting terrorists and guerrillas, because he came into the Army after 9/11. But as we get into the higher-end threats, our skills have atrophied over 15 years."
The primary "higher-end threat" is Russia. Russian land power is clawing back from two decades of neglect. Moscow is building several new families of armored vehicles, including the, heavy infantry fighting vehicle, , and family of wheeled armored personnel carriers. Russian campaigns in Ukraine and Syria, and aggressiveness against border states, has shown that President Vladimir Putin can and will use his army to achieve state goals.
Suddenly, the skills tested in the Strong Tank Challenge are more relevant than they've been in fifteen years. Although the loss must sting, it's at least a list of places to start when making much needed improvements. And, hopefully, making them fast.