Keep Tanks with the MEU

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Robert B. Brown Jr.
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General James N. Mattis Professional Writing Award

Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) tanks raise the lethality and survivability of Marines on the ground across the spectrum of conflict.

Despite the maneuverability, lethality, and survivability that tanks provide, the 15th MEU will deploy without out its battalion landing team’s (BLT’s) M1A1s. 3 The unit will embark on the USS America (LHA-6), the USS San Diego (LPD-22), and the USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52); these ships lack adequate space for the unit’s equipment, driving the decision to deploy without the tanks. 4 According to “Expeditionary Force 21,” armored vehicles need an “effective balance of lethality and protection” when maneuvering inland after an amphibious landing. 5 Tanks are essential to providing that balance.

The tank mine-clearing blade, referred to as the mine plow, and tank dozer blade provide the BLT maneuverability advantages. Each tank platoon has one mine plow and one dozer blade. The dozer blade is used to create and reduce obstacles. The mine plow is the landing team’s only asset capable of mechanically breaching a minefield. 6 Without the M1A1s and the mine plow, the BLT will not have any mechanical breaching capability. Mine-clearing line charges and antipersonnel obstacle-breaching systems are not effective against blast-hardened mines. Tanks using the mine plow can remove both surface and buried mines by penetrating 12 inches into the ground and moving earth and mines out of the path. This cleared path is wide enough for all vehicles in the landing team’s inventory to maneuver safely. The mine plow and dozer blade provide the commander in-stride breaching capabilities, maintaining the team’s flexibility and mobility.

During military operations in urban terrain (MOUT), the M1A1’s ability to breach a building using a tank round gives the infantry access otherwise denied. The XM908 round, called the “obstacle reducing round,” can effectively breach buildings and reduce concrete structures. 7 The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory stated in their “Combined Arms in MOUT” pamphlet, “The primary role of the tank cannon during combat in urban areas is to provide direct fire against buildings and strong points that are identified as targets by the infantry.” 8 When doors, windows, and other entry points are not breachable by the infantry Marine, tanks can provide a responsive and effective alternate access points into and out of buildings. These tank capabilities reduce the gear and equipment the infantry Marine must carry, making him or her lighter and more maneuverable in the already restrictive urban terrain.

Lethality is another marked advantage the M1A1 brings to operations in urban terrain. The M1A1’s maximum effective range with its 120-millimeter smooth-bore cannon is 4,000 meters. Each M1A1 has three machine guns: one M2 and two M240s. The M2 has a maximum effective range of 1,800 meters and the M240 has a maximum effective range of 900 meters. 9 These weapons combined with the tank’s optics, which can magnify an image 50 times, make the tank platoon a formidable asset. The main gun, one of the M240s, and the M2 are gyroscopically stabilized, allowing the tank to fire with accuracy and precision while moving. Controlling the fields of fire is critical in urban terrain. The tank-mounted machine guns’ beaten zones—the elliptical pattern formed by rounds striking the ground or the target—are tightly focused compared to that of the equivalent gun mounted on a bi-pod or gun-tuck. The ability to identify and accurately engage the enemy at great distances forces an adversary to deploy early, bending the enemy to the will of the commander.

The only asset that can match the M1A1’s direct fire range is the tube-launched optically tracked wire-guided (TOW) missile. The problem with the TOW missile is that the gunner must remain exposed during the entire flight of the round—up to 22 seconds—to track the target. 10 In contrast, the M1A1’s rounds have a muzzle velocity of at least 1,400 meters per second, and the gunner does not have to track the target after firing. 11 This allows the tank crew to move to a position of defilade. Each M1A1 carries 41 main gun rounds, 900 .50 caliber rounds, and 11,400 7.62 rounds. 12 No other platform can replace the immense of firepower and lethality provided by an M1A1.

The presence of M1A1s increases the survivability of the BLT. An after-action report about Operation Restore Hope stated:

The tanks were simply the most survivable vehicles . . . it became Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the tanks to lead—either to detonate mines, or attract fire. If any part of the Task Force were engaged a tank would move to a position to draw the fire away from those less protected—be it an Infantryman, a HUMMER [high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle], an AAV [amphibious assault vehicle], an LAV [light armored vehicle], or even a helicopter. 13

Because tanks are high-payoff targets for the enemy they draw fire, allowing the infantry to maneuver to more advantageous terrain or out of the line of fire. Lieutenant Colonel Tariq Malik of the Pakistan Army observed during Restore Hope that tanks intimidated the enemy, provided psychological support to friendlies, and drew fire away from dismounts. He pointed out that “Marine casualties would have been much higher” without tank support. 14

Not everyone agrees that tanks are essential to the MEU in MOOTW. Ronald Woodaman argued, “Tanks and artillery detract from this low-intensity and MOOTW focus as they are not versatile assets. . . . Other assets, like combat rubber raiding craft, light armored vehicles, trucks, and engineers, enhance the versatility of the BLT in the MOOTW environment.” 15 But to suggest that tanks have a narrow application in military operations ignores the adaptability of the M1A1. All the benefits of the dozer blade apply in a MOOTW environment.

Tanks also act as a deterrence against hostilities. U.S. Marine Captain Joe Buffamante in his after-action report for Operation Enduring Freedom affirmed, “The tank’s armor protected firepower and maneuverability allowed the company to go places most other units could not go and for the most part acted as a deterrent to enemy forces.” 16 Tanks also allow the BLT the flexibility to adapt to the situation if things change from low-intensity conflict to high intensity, and vice versa.

Some Marines suggest that aircraft can provide the same armor-defeating capabilities as tanks. An aircraft can easily eliminate an enemy armor threat well outside the enemy’s maximum effective range; however, aircraft are not all-weather capable. Though pilots are skilled and trained to operate in adverse conditions, some weather conditions restrict aircraft from launching. This constrains the landing team’s antiarmor protection. Fuel also limits the amount of time aircraft can stay in support of the Marines on the ground. In contrast, the M1A1 is an all-weather platform that is organic to the BLT. Control and tactical employment of the tanks and their armor-defeating capabilities rest with the ground commander and are not limited by weather or “on-station” time. The MEU should use aircraft to supplement the armor-defeating capabilities of the tank, not the other way around.

Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Lamont, recently stated, “As we continue to look for the best way to equip the landing force, the capabilities of the M1A1 provide a solid starting point from which to [grow] our warfighting strength.” 17 “Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-3” demands that Marine formations combine “the effects of various arms—infantry, armor, artillery, and aviation—to achieve the greatest possible effect against the enemy.” Combined arms tactics are required across the entire spectrum of conflict. The combination of tanks, infantry, aviation, and artillery in all levels of conflict, including MOOTW and MOUT, is what makes the MAGTF successful.

When MEUs are considering equipment to embark when space is limited, the M1A1 should not be the first asset to go. The strengths provided by the M1A1 cannot be found in any other asset. Removing tanks from the MEU would greatly reduce the BLT’s organic mine-clearing capabilities, long-range direct fire lethality, and all around survivability.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, “Tank CO a 2S Tank BN 2D MarDiv,” in Unit TO&E Report, United States Marine Corps Total Force Structure Management System (16 August 2016), 1, https://tfsms.mccdc.ucmc.mil .

2. Gary L. Bash, et al., “The M1A1 Tank Platoon: The MEU’s ‘Jack’ of Many Trades,” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 82, no. 12 (December 1998), 41.

3. Joseph DiPietro (tank platoon commander, 15th MEU), interview by Martin F. Wetterauer IV, 14 December 2016.

4. Joe Fontanetta, “15th MEU AMAARG COAs,” 15th MEU Headquarters (Camp Pendleton, CA), 14 December 2016.

5. GEN James E. Amos, USMC, “Expeditionary Force 21” (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps), 4 March 2014, 33.

6. Fontanetta, “15th MEU AMAARG COAs.”

7. LTGEN K.J. Glueck Jr., USMC, “Marine Corps Tank Employment, MCWP 3-12” (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps), 17 February 2005, D-9–D-11.

8. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, “Combined Arms in Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain, X-File 3-1.1” (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory), 7 November 2006, 46.

9. Glueck, “Marine Corps Tank Employment, A-1.”

10. Headquarters Department of the Army, “TOW Weapon System, MCWP 3-15.4” (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army), 28 November, 2003, A-3.

11. Headquarters Marine Corps, “Marine Corps Tank Employment”, D-1–D-11.

12. Ibid, A-1.

13. Anonymous, “A Tanker’s Lessons Learned During Operation Restore Hope,” After Action Report (Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned), 3 October, 2016, 6.

14. Ibid, 7.

15. Ronald F. A. Woodaman, “Artillery, Tanks, and LAVs, Oh My! Another MEU Viewpoint,” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 82, no. 7 (July 1998), 40.

16. Joe Buffamante, “After Action Report for Operation Enduring Freedom 13.2,” 8.

17. Robert W. Lamont, “Armor Protected Firepower: Tanks and EF21,” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 100, no. 12 (December, 2016), 64.

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