Wheels versus Tracks

In the last year and a half I’ve had the opportunity to observe first hand the performance of various vehicles during training operations. Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Abrams, M113s, CV90s, Leopard 2 Tanks, BTRs (various models), Strykers, ROSOMAKs, BMPs (various models), on down to Land Rovers, Mercedes 4x4s, Iveco 4x4s, and HMMWVs. All in the wonderful mud, pavement and dirt roads.

1. Any 8×8 armored troop carrier is every bit as good as a HMMWV for off road work in the mud. Land Rovers and Mercedes 4x4s are dang near as good as thin skinned HMMWVs. Up armored HMMWVs are the least maneuverable off road because of the weight.
2. Tracks are best off road. CV90s and M113s will get up muddy hillsides that HMMWVs can’t, and sometimes even pull an 8×8 up behind them.
3. Tracked vehicles are no benefit for deployment. Tracked vehicles get loaded up on wheeled trucks and driven to a dismount point essentially requiring two vehicles to deploy one.
4. Wheeled vehicles are a great benefit to deployment as they can drive themselves which frees up a logistics truck to haul fuel, food, and ammo.
5. Tracks are loud, really loud, even at a standstill.
6. Wheeled vehicles are quiet, the “turbo whine” is often the loudest thing you’ll hear.

What this means in terms of military capabilities:

The offroad performance of a vehicle is one aspect that leaders need to consider, but it NOT the only aspect that they need to consider. The logistic requirements to deploy a tracked mechanized unit are exceedingly high compared to a wheeled formation that can deploy itself, and this factor alone shows why so many smaller nations are choosing wheeled fighting vehicles in order to lean out their logistics. When you have a small army and have to choose between tooth and tail, it makes good sense to choose more tooth and less tail.

The onroad performance of a vehicle does need to be considered if you are going to ask your military forces to do something other than “high intensity conflict.” A BFV or CV90 is utterly wasted doing peacekeeping patrols in the Balkans, and it is also a waste of resources. What you are asking your military to do should also affect how you equip them.

Tracked vehicles are better in the offense against a deliberate defense as they can use more terrain to maneuver tactically.

Wheeled vehicles are better in the offense to capitalize on a break through into the enemies rear areas, and better as an operational reserve because of their ability to quickly displace along internal lines of communication.

Neither tracked nor wheeled has any marked advantage in the defense. There are differences on a system per system basis, but that has more to do with armor and firepower, not whether a vehicle is wheeled or tracked.

4×4 vehicles are useful to support infantry, and while they give the infantry more tactical/operational reach they don’t give the infantry more punch. It is very easy to over extend “mounted infantry” forces if a leader is not careful. 4x4s are not a replacement for an armored vehicle. I have yet to see how the new JLTV fairs in the mud, but I expect it will be better than the up armored HMMWV by a bit.

The question shouldn’t be “wheeled or tracked?” the question should be “what is the best mix of wheeled and tracked vehicles for our military?” which also happens to be a much harder question to answer. Had Congress asked the question, “what is the right mix of F-35s with our current fleet of aircraft?” instead of buying wholesale “how many F-35s do we want?” the forces might have had a much better capabilities mix on hand instead of last minute Service Life Extension Programs (SLEP) to keep legacy airframes in service well beyond the point of diminishing returns.

And finally, EVERYTHING will get stuck in the mud eventually for some reason. At least until some sort of “hovercraft” fighting vehicle is built that avoids the vehicle to dirt interface completely.

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