Gear is no Substitute for Training

Warning: war and death

The US has committed unknown numbers of ground troops into Syria,[stderr] and has placed them in position between Turkish and ISIS forces near Manbij to act as some sort of buffer zone.

Al Bab and Manbij

Al Bab and Manbij (source: google maps)

Meanwhile, at Al Bab, which is 10 miles down the road from Manbij, insurgents have been using Russian-made Kornet Anti-tank guided missiles (henceforth: ATGM) to destroy Turkish army tanks. The turks appear to be having a rough time of it. They have lost several German-made Leopard II tanks, in fact, which are considered to be as battle-tough as US-made M-1 Abrams tanks.

This is not a small thing: ISIS has destroyed over ten of the Leopard tanks. That would probably put the US Army to flight; the US Army is not accustomed to taking casualties like that since the Korean War. To refresh your memory, it was a Big Deal when a US Abrams tank was set on fire during one of the “thunder runs” through Baghdad during Gulf War II. Those, by the way, would not have been happening at all, had the Iraqi forces had the kind of anti-tank capability ISIS has now. The US would probably have failed to occupy and hold Baghdad, unless they had followed the Russian model and flattened it with artillery, then marched in over the bombed rubble.

The reason this is happening is because the Turks appear to be overconfident or fatally stupid. (Edit: could be both!) Observe below: (you can start at 1:03 if you are impatient)

We see two tanks silhouetted on a crest-line. Their turrets are traversed, exposing the maximum turret surface area and the thinnest armor. They are not moving at all, other than traversing their turrets around a bit. Another friendly armored vehicle (looks like a light tank or an old M-60) crosses, silhouetted on the crest-line, offering a slow-moving target. The ISIS kornet gunner takes one tank down, and the other remains sitting there, its only reaction to the explosion of its compatriot is to … sit there. In fact the rest of the Turkish tanks: sit there. The sudden violent explosion of one of your squadron is a sign from god that you are in range of something that can kill tanks – it doesn’t take a strategic genius to realize it’s time to get the old bus in gear and get hull down behind something that something can’t go through.

The second Turkish tank traverses its turret some (still sitting there) as the second kornet ATGM bears in on it and blows it to hell and gone. Meanwhile, one of the other tanks starts maneuvering so as to maximally expose its flanks. My assumption is that the only reason any of the Turkish tanks survived is because the ISIS gunners were out of ammo.

Excuses for the Turkish tanks’ performance are somewhat bizzare. [1] The Leopard is designed as a tank-on-tank dueller (no, it’s not) and it’s not designed for urban combat (this wasn’t).  What it wasn’t designed for was for some gomer to park it on a crest-line flank-on within a mile of someone with an ATGM. That’s what it wasn’t designed for. And, judging by the reaction of the rest of the Turkish tank squad, the tank wasn’t designed to be driven by the Turkish army. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo, and thought they were on a parade and they were going to be driving down a street covered with rose petals thrown by heavy metal groupies. Just to give you an idea: a kornet ATGM can punch a hole through practically a meter of steel; the way to survive something like that is not to get hit.

So, that’s the environment that those Americans in their strykers and up-armored humvees are maneuvering into, with their stars and stripes flying from the radio antennas.


There’s an old military dictum that tanks cannot survive without an infantry screen to protect them. That’s especially true nowadays but it was bad enough in WWII when a single holdout with a panzerfaust had a good chance of stopping a column of tanks. In today’s environment, you’d want to have a very deep infantry screen indeed. Something like a kornet can hit pretty reliably out to a mile and a half, so that means your infantry need to be out that far so they can suppress anyone firing missiles and yell for the tanks to move if they see a launcher (or worse: a launch). Those ranges shorten tremendously in urban terrain, of course.


  1. Siobhan says

    So the same logistical limitations which handicapped a technologically superior force in Vietnam have never once been actually resolved since?

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    That’s NOT how the manual says to do it. I’m pretty certain about that.

  3. says

    But with America’s super-modern super-expensive military technology, all of those vehicles have been equipped with active protection systems, right?


  4. says

    Reactive armor helps, so does the ceramic/depleted uranium stuff that the not-for-export Abrams tanks carry. Even with all the good fancy high tech stuff, it’s a crapshoot when you get hit with pretty much anything packing a shaped charge. Armor’s the #2 line of defense: not getting hit is #1.

    A not-for-export Abrams sitting flank on like that, probably would not withstand a hit like that either.

    BTW – the strykers the US forces down there are riding around in, offer as much protection against a kornet as two layers of flattened aluminum can.

  5. says

    So the same logistical limitations which handicapped a technologically superior force in Vietnam have never once been actually resolved since?

    Don’t you know, the US lost in Vietnam because of the media back home and Jane Fonda. It was nothing to do with a poor strategy leading to a war of attrition.

  6. says

    Raucous Indignation@#2:
    That’s NOT how the manual says to do it. I’m pretty certain about that.

    Yeah, maybe the crew of Tank #2 were looking up “what to do when the tank next to you blows up” in the manual, and couldn’t find it in time.

  7. says

    The USA lacks the will to win a modern war. Properly, to my mind. Modern asymmetrical warfare can be viewed as an exercise in forcing the other guys into acts too atrocious to stomach. You can view this as “basically, the USA is still too decent of a bunch to do >that<" or you can view it as "the weaksauce media and the liberal elites won't let us manly men do what is needful" and both are in some measure true.

    However it falls out, the USA lacks the will to win these things. The USA *should* lack the will to win these things.

    For roughly the same reasons that IBM could not succeed in the candy bar market, and Cadbury would likely fail as an aircraft supplier, the USA is not longer capable of winning wars.

    This is actually a desirable outcome for the military-industrial complex, since it's half of what you need to enable Endless War. It's not so hot for the economy or the grunts.

  8. says

    Sorry, I meant stuff like the Trophy system and it was supposed to be a sarcastic comment about how the US doesn’t have anything like it operational. At least I don’t think they do…

  9. Brian English says

    In the video someone yells out god is great in arabic. Little do they know that god has uncle Sam’s back, so kornet or no kornet, those strykers will be more durable than Chuck Norris in an ’80s action flick.
    If only they had deployed motorbikes with missiles driven by Chuck! War over at a fraction of the cost, and no enemy survivors to gum up the works.

    Linguistic trivia. Kornet in some languages means Trumpet.

    I’m too lazy to look it up in Russian, so I’ll assume it means ‘missile that creates bugle shaped hole in enemy tank and sounds like a brass section played by angry elephants when it hist the target.

  10. cartomancer says

    It seems quite fitting that this little display occurred where it did, about halfway between the sites of the Battle of Issus (333BC) and the Battle of Gaugamela (331BC). It was in these battles that Alexander the Great demonstrated that Persian heavy chariots were no match for properly trained Macedonian pikemen.

    It’s also not too far from Mount Amanus, where Cicero, in his capacity as Proconsul of Cilicia (51-50BC), led his troops to put down an uprising of insurgents against Roman rule (the Pindenissitae, a free people who had never been subjected to Roman rule and were causing trouble in the wake of Persian victories over the Romans in Syria). Even when commanded by a self-important celebrity lawyer with a penchant for inappropriate jokes the Romans were well enough trained in mountain and urban warfare to put the Pindenissitae to flight. Cicero even had himself hailed as Imperator at the site of Issus before buggering off home to get embroiled in the civil wars again.

  11. Brian English says

    Carto, I read in a historical novel that the Persian chariots where scythed, or something similar. The novel was in Spanish, and the term was carros falcados I think, so I may be mistaken.
    That would’ve scared the average infantryman I’d reckon. A couple of horses pulling a big-arse chariot with sharp bits out the sides. If I recall, the Macedonians just opened passage for the lumbering chariots, and then closed behind them and made mince out of the drivers. I didn’t think the pikeman, or the dudes with the big arse sarissas did the chariots in.

    What did Cicero have imperium over? I thought as proconsul, he’d have command in the stead of the consul, or imperator, but it would be a bit uppity to declare your self as imperator. Of course, I’m loading a lot of ignorant assumptions in that question. Such as, an imperator has imperium. It’s uppity to declare oneself imperator, unless you have a lot of legions behind you and so on….

  12. says

    Brian English@#11:
    When I was in college I did some medieval reenactment, and participated in the reenactment of Hastings that they used to put on every year at University of Maryland. At one point, we got to stand a “cavalry charge” consisting of a half dozen fat and comfortable horses cantering toward us with guys atop with spears doing the stabbity stab. It was … terrifying. Even knowing that the horses were going to (in theory) sheer off and not mash us – still very impressive. I’d bet that a chariot charge, driven home by experts, would be extremely unpleasant indeed. If I recall how they were fought, the charioteer was somewhat protected behind the front of the chariot, and had a spearman next to them, doing stabbity stab, or an archer doing pewpausepew. I think that, much like tanks, they were vulnerable in the rear arc once they went past.

  13. says

    This seems like maybe a good time to mention Gaius Mucius Scaevola. Compare with the modern conception of a military hero. The modern hero is armed with tremendous skills, or weapons, or something that gives him a huge, albeit surprising, advantage, which he uses to destroy his enemies.

    Scaevola, armed with nothing (apparently) but an utterly horrifying will, sent the Etruscans packing on account of “holy shit, we want no part of THESE motherfuckers”

    How much of it is literal truth is irrelevant, the point is that this is the Roman conception of a military hero. And so, no wonder they won a lot.

  14. cartomancer says

    Brian English, #11

    As well as being used in a general sense to imply a commander (and later, of course, an Emperor), the word imperator also had a specific use during the Republic as a formal title of honour for someone worthy of a Triumph. The troops were supposed to spontaneously acclaim their general with the title, and then he could append it to his name until he set aside his formal imperium at the end of his magistracy and celebrated his triumphal procession. In practice the troops were probably heavily prompted to do so most of the time, especially if they were relying on their general to secure them land and pensions upon finishing their service. Cicero seems to have enjoyed the opportunity to use the title in his brief time between finishing off the Pindenissitae and returning to Rome, introducing his letters with M. Cicero Imperator. Though doing so was probably a bit tongue in cheek – Cicero knew full well how silly his little military adventure must have looked next to the exploits of his contemporaries.

    As for the Macedonians dealing with the chariots, the trick was to open ranks and use the pikes on either side to corral the horses pulling the chariot into position, preventing it from going anywhere but directly forward (whereupon both horses and crewmen could be dealt with, either by the pikemen themselves or attached units of peltasts). You could do something similar with regular spears, but it’s much easier (and safer) with big long sarissas. It does, however, take considerable training to pull off.

  15. Brian English says

    You’re a font of information.

    Regarding the Macedonians, I just remember they opened ranks, and then closed behind them and got a bit stabby, as Roberto from Futurama might say.
    But is makes sense that with your several meter long sarissas, you can get stabby from a safe distance and also to keep the horses and passengers at bay/corralled.

  16. cartomancer says

    Andrew Molitor, #13

    It’s a bit more complicated than that (when is it ever not?!)

    As you rightly point out, the story of Scaevola is pretty much just a story. It may even have started as a folk etymology for explaining the name of the gens Scaevola (which means “left-handed” – and what Roman aristocrat wouldn’t want a famous ancestor who burned his right hand off to show his bravery to the enemy, rather than just one who happened to be left handed?). It is one of a whole collection of stories about the bravery of the Romans of the early Republic (Cocles, the Horatii, Cloelia and many others), most of which we know from the first books of Livy’s history. In the form we have them they are very much the product of the first century BC and the fears, hopes and paradigms that Romans at the end of the Republic brought to their understanding of history.

    So yes, it is a Roman model of military heroism, But it is a model of military heroism that Romans of Livy’s day very much regarded as lost. The broad historical approach that Livy brings to his work is the standard Roman complaint that in the good old days Rome was lean and hungry and virtuous, whereas now it is fat and decadent and corrupt. Scaevola was so brave because he was defending his homeland (patria, pro which he very much thought it dulce et decorum to mori), and one simply cannot expect the same sort of bravery when it is greedy imperialistic conquest at stake rather than national survival. Virtually no Roman writer seems to have told the stories of the early Republic’s great heroes without comparing them unfavourably to the sorry lot of venal careerists of his own day. In a way these heroes and their stories exist in popular memory primarily to shame their descendents into feeling unworthy and lesser.

    Machiavelli picks up and runs with the theme in his commentary on Livy (the Discorsi), applying this moral to the Florence of his day under the Medici, who were similarly corrupt and greedy. And it is not a theme that has ever entirely left Western understandings of war and military heroism. One can hear echoes of it in certain people asking why we aren’t winning anymore, like we were in the good old days…

  17. Brian English says

    Scaevola means left-handed?

    Damnit, I thought Sinister was left handed. I’ve been telling people for years that I’m sinister….

    Dexter and Sinister I thought. Anyway, I bow to your greater knowledge.

  18. John Morales says


    The troops were supposed to spontaneously acclaim their general with the title, and then he could append it to his name until he set aside his formal imperium at the end of his magistracy and celebrated his triumphal procession. In practice the troops were probably heavily prompted to do so most of the time, especially if they were relying on their general to secure them land and pensions upon finishing their service.

    Is it true that often a slave was set the duty during such a triumph to remind the general of their mortality, so their head wouldn’t swell too much?

    (I’ve always taken that with a grain of salt, so I can’t resist seeking your expertise)

  19. Brian English says

    Forgive me fine readers, but in my urge to summon the Classics teacher. (It’s almost like the middle-ages, or high-dark ages, or some age thingy, where Aristotle was called the philosopher, but not really, ’cause Carto isn’t trying to systematize superstition for Dummies. ;))
    Cicero: O tempora! o mores! Quare non me dabatis imerium? Mei pueri, si me amabatis!
    Caesar: Veni, vidi, accipi imeperium. Superavamos Rubium, aut quid?

  20. Brian English says

    Shit that makes sense. I meant Aquinas et alia called Aristotle the philosopher, not that Aristotle was systematizing superstition for Dummies, which was what I was jocularly accusing Aquinas of….I mean to compare Carto with Aristotle: the Classics teacher versus the philosopher.
    There will come a day when I learn the English language, but it is not this day. Oaths may be broken and all bonds of fellowship broken, (before I learn to speak the my eponymous* surname), but it is not this day!

    *I’m sure I used eponymous wrong there. Bed time. Jusqu’a la prochaine fois mes amis!

  21. felicis says

    Couple of notes on tactics here:

    (1) When you take fire, respond with concealment, movement, and _return_fire_!
    (2) It is remarkably easy to kill tanks with modern AT missiles – and far cheaper than buying tanks to fight other tanks with.

    That said – Daesh got lucky too – 2 hits in 2 shots – well done, it was luck their enemy was being stupid, and somewhat lucky they managed to get the second hit. But they had no followup – if they had more missiles, they could have kept pounding them until all the tanks had been killed. If they had some mines, they could have ensured the tanks were pinned in place (their luck was the crews weren’t using the tanks’ mobility – they had not apparent plan to force immobility). I am not sure they were outside the range of the tanks’ machine guns – so they were lucky the tanks’ crews were not returning fire. Also – why the hell did those tanks still have what appears to be woodland camouflage instead of being painted tan?

    Find – fix – kill. Easy to find, no need to fix – two thirds of their work was done for them.

  22. says


    Yep, living to fight another day is job 1.


    It’s remarkably easy, and it’s really really easy to hide when you’re attacking a target from a mile away with infantry. It’s very depressing but if you look on youtube there is a lot of footage from various insurgents – footage of people with RPGs sneaking up to within rock-throwing distance of Saudi bradleys – much much footage of mile-range missile shots against tanks. Given how incompetently some of these tanks are being operated, it’d be pointless to send tanks to fight other tanks because they’d spend all their time searching for a parallel line of hill-crests with no cover that they could fight eachother from.

    Daesh got lucky too – 2 hits in 2 shots

    I think they got lucky by praying Voltaire’s prayer, military version: “lord, make my enemies incompetent”

    Will the American forces that have moved into that region do better?

  23. cartomancer says


    Sinister meant left-handed too. Scaevus/a/um (and laevus/a/um) are less common synonyms.

    Also, you’d need the dative “mihi” rather than the accusative “me” for the recipient of “do, dare”. The recipient is the indirect object of the verb, the thing given the direct object. I have no idea what you were doing with superare though – superaverimus (we conquered/overcame/defeated – 1st person plural perfect subjunctive active) perhaps?

  24. says

    It seems possible that the crew of the second tank didn’t know the first one had blown up.

    You’re sitting in an invulnerable fortress, looking out through very very small devices for bad guys. Maybe you hear a boom, but you probably do NOT initially think that the other tank has just exploded and go to the trouble of swiveling the whatsit over there to look. It’s a theory, anyways.

    Back to Rome.

    My father used to say “It wasn’t the short sword or the shields or the catapults, it was TWENTY YEARS” that being the length of a hitch in the legions. Steeped in stories like Scaevola, experienced as hell, these guys were the very epitome of “training, not gear”.

    Their awesome gun was not going to save them. Their awesome Army Ranger training ditto. What was going to pull them through was hardheadedness and loyalty. That, plus, I dunno, an average of many years experience fighting part-time soldiers made them pretty good. How many hours did those Turks have in those tanks? Not 20 years worth! They got dropped into a metal box, told that they were invulnerable, and sent out to blow shit up. Some hours, days, weeks later, they exploded.

    They didn’t have some 40-something Centurion from hell explaining that the little bastards are always inventing new ways to kill you so keep your fucking head down, that invulnerable metal boxes are also traps, and so on. Well, I don”t *know*, maybe they did. But if they did, they didn’t listen closely enough.

  25. Brian English says

    Carto, I was intending to summon the classics teacher through improper and agrammatical use of Latin! I think I succeeded.
    With Superavimus, I was thinking ‘Let’s overcome/get over’ I was going to guess ‘Crucimus’ as gibberish version of ‘Let’s cross’. Really, it was just to tweak your sense that Latin was being abused.
    As for dative/accusative I was vaguely remembering a phrase that I hadn’t seen for a decade or so from Wheelock’s Latin attributed to Cicero. My misuse of Latin has backfired and I’ve had to dig out my Wheelocks to find the phrase. ‘Amabo te, cura filiam meam’ where the Amabo te is used as an emphatic please, and not ‘I will love you’ I got subject and object backwards, but the idea was meant to be ‘Give me an imperium, my lads, please!’

  26. felicis says

    Marcus @ 22:

    Once upon a time I was an anti-tank platoon leader.

    Killing tanks with infantry is not impossible, not even terribly difficult, especially if the tank crews are weakly trained and not protected by an infantry screen.

    Andrew @ 24:

    When buttoned up, it is hard to see out of a tank, true, but standard armor doctrine on contact is:

    “Actions on Contact. When enemy fire is encountered, the platoon leader should execute the following actions on contact:

    Return fire and alert the rest of the platoon.
    Initiate a battle drill (action drill or contact drill). If no drill is specified, the platoon should seek cover and concealment.
    Send a contact report to the company commander.
    Develop the situation through fire and movement to determine the size, type, and location of enemy forces.”

    From what I can see of the video, _none_ of that occurred. The sound of an explosion is almost certainly contact of some kind (whether it’s fire from the other tank, a miss or near miss, a mine, or another tank blowing up – if you hear a large explosion you don’t just sit there doing nothing. I see one tank in motion the entire time – it heads to the right, then turns around and passes in front of the second hit.

    Another tank starts moving slowly after the first hit – moving slowly towards the right.

    No fire is returned.

    If they were buttoned up – that would indicate they were expecting contact, and so should have been in some kind of overwatch – meaning they could (to some extent) see each other, as well as looking towards the expected direction of contact.

    If they weren’t expecting contact – why button up? Have someone looking around with binoculars – you would have at least seen the incoming missile and been able to say which direction to return fire.

    Poor training on the part of the tank crews (along with poor leadership/intelligence prep).