Marine Corps Tank Battles in the Middle East
Oscar E. Gilbert
Casemate, Philadelphia, 2015, 312 pages
Book Review published on: March 17, 2017
On the evening of 29 January 1991, twenty-six U.S. Marine Corps light armored vehicles engaged lead elements of the Iraqi 6th Armored Brigade, 3rd Armored Division. Known as the Battle of Khafji, it was the first major engagement of Operation Desert Shield between coalition and Iraqi forces. The Marines managed to disrupt the enemy attack and alert coalition forces that would drive the Iraqis from Saudi Arabia, losing two vehicles and crews to friendly fire. Veterans in Oscar E. Gilbert’s Marine Corps Tanks Battles in the Middle East provide first-hand accounts of the Marines’ employment of tanks and light armor vehicles. While Gilbert’s book is largely comprised of war stories, he enables readers to understand the Marine Corps’ challenge in projecting armored fighting systems with the Corps’ finite lift capabilities and when faced with the realities of operating in hostile austere environments.
The Marine Corps is charged with providing a “middle weight” force that can deploy worldwide on short notice. Rapid deployment by sea and air conjures images of riflemen, lightweight wheeled vehicles, and aircraft. A seventy-ton main battle tank appears out of step with the Marines’ profile. Gilbert implies in his book that the Marines are somewhat ambivalent about tanks while displaying a more favorable tone toward their light armored vehicles. The light armored vehicles are practical and sufficient for most conditions, while tanks are maintenance and resource intensive.
Although the light armored vehicles demonstrate their worth in most Marine Corps’ operations, tanks have proven theirs in other key situations. Gilbert highlights their actions during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. Faced with penetrating the Iraqis’ prepared defenses, tanks with plows and rollers led the way into Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Years later, with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force advancing on Baghdad, tanks were often the instruments that defeated areas of determined resistance. The Marines’ M1 Abrams tanks would repeat their performance the next year, destroying insurgent strongholds in Fallujah.
Having effectively described the M1 as the “hammer” for high-intensity combat, Gilbert includes its unexpected relevance for lower-intensity operations in Afghanistan. In an environment dominated by dismounted riflemen and armored mine-resistant vehicles, the M1s proved excellent for detecting insurgent forces and delivering accurate fires with minimum collateral damage. Marines noted the M1’s intimidation factor, as insurgents would often avoid engaging tank units after understanding the vehicles’ capabilities.
Gilbert does not oversell tanks, but provides a good argument for their relevance in the Marines’ integration of ground and air forces. He acknowledges that the M1 Abrams main battle tank does not fully fit the Marines’ desire for rapid deployment when one weighs, and probably consumes as much JP-8 fuel, as five LAV-25s. The Marine rifleman remains the centerpiece of the Corps, but an armored fighting vehicle with heavy firepower is still needed for projecting combat power.
Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas