Saturday, 29 June 2019

Tankfest 2019

Off to Bovington Tank Museum for Tankfest 2019. It's a rare chance to mingle with hundreds of middle-aged men wearing cargo shorts and Oakley sunglasses. In order not to arouse suspicion I dressed like one of them. I was one of them. I am one of them.

This is a remote-controlled Panther driven by a mannequin.

It was also a chance to see tanks, both static and in motion. A chance to spend £6 on a hot dog; a chance to wear a baseball cap without feeling like a wally, because it was very sunny and I burn easily. A chance to point my Canon 300mm f/4 IS at things, just like a real photographer. I'll write about that lens when I have more images.

Tankfest has been going on for several years. This year it was held in partnership with popular Belorussian video game World of Tanks, which was launched in 2010 and has made armoured warfare fun again.

I'm old enough to remember when tanks were a bit passé. They didn't play a major role in the Western wars of the 1980s, and even in the Middle East they were overshadowed by air power. Throughout the 1980s masses of tanks faced each other in Germany, waiting to meet their doom in the Fulda Gap, but fortunately the Cold War ended peacefully.

The Centurion entered service a few months after the Second World War came to an end. It was one of the best tanks of the early Cold War period, if not the best; at the very least it had the best gun.

The Gulf War of 1991 made tanks cool again, but only briefly, and they had to share space on bedroom walls with posters of stealth fighters. In the early 1990s I remember playing the heck out of M1 Tank Platoon, which was launched in 1989 and re-released on budget just after the Gulf War, but by the end of the 1990s war itself seemed old-fashioned, because we had won! There were no more enemies left to fight, or at least none that required tanks.

There was a demonstration of an infantry attack from a Warrior IFV. The soldiers dismounted and, under cover of smoke, attacked a hill.

There was something unsettling about aiming the autofocus point at a soldier and pressing the shutter button. It put me in mind of the scene from All Quiet on the Western Front where the camera pans along as soldiers are machine-gunned. If I had been carrying a sniper rifle with a big telephoto sight instead of a camera this man would be dead, and a few seconds later I would be dead as well, because his colleagues would have shot me.

And so tanks seemed destined for the scrap heap in the 1990s. On a battlefield dominated by air power they were easy prey for laser-guided bombs, and a new generation of man-portable anti-tank missiles meant that unless armoured forces kept far away from enemy infantry they were vulnerable. Non-state actors had relatively unsophisticated RPGs, but as was demonstrated in Somalia they had lots of them and knew that we had no stomach for casualties.

This a Sherman Firefly - an American Sherman upgraded with a long-barrelled British 17-pounder gun. Fireflies were priority targets for the Germans, so crews often tried to make the barrel look shorter, viz. Firefly crewmen didn't need to boast because they knew what they had.

The United States didn't deploy tanks to Afghanistan until 2010, nine years after the ground invasion, because the terrain wasn't suitable. On the positive side American M1s and British Challenger IIs were extremely effective in Iraq. They smashed Saddam Hussein's forces during the opening stages of the conflict and were used continuously during the occupation phase.

Over the course of the war tank losses were negligible, especially when compared to lightly-armoured "snatch" vehicles. There were few more effective ways of demolishing an Iraqi house than by shooting it at point-blank range with a 120mm gun. There were however grumbles that tanks were overkill for what amounted to police work.

The jury is still out on the future of tanks. When employed correctly they're a formidable striking force. After the initial assault has ended a tank can dominate open terrain in the face of sporadic artillery and missile fire, in an environment where an infantry fighting vehicle would be too vulnerable.

But when used incorrectly, perhaps for the lack of an alternative, they're inflexible deathtraps, easily outmanoeuvred by infantry and vulnerable to modern missiles. Liveleak has lots of videos of Syrian tanks being destroyed in narrow city streets because the missile team had ample time to set up their equipment unobserved while the tank milled around oblivious to its surroundings. In Libya, Colonel Ghaddafi's enormous tank force was rendered immobile by poor logistical support and was swiftly picked off by NATO air power.

A T-72. Russian tanks generally have an autoloader, so the T-72 only has a crew of three, instead of four as in Western tanks - the pros and cons of this arrangement are widely debated.

To complicate matters tanks have to share space with a bewildering range of rival armoured fighting vehicles - IFVs, AFVs, ICVs, AIFVs, LAVs, MGSs, some tracked, some wheeled. With the exception of the MGS, which is essentially a wheeled light tank, they all have a compartment for troops and a turret with cannon and missiles that can support soldiers during an assault. From a procurement point of view infantry fighting vehicles are attractive because they're cheaper than tanks and more versatile than armoured personnel carriers. They can replace both types in an army's inventory.

Tankfest covers three days, Friday-Saturday-Sunday. I went on Friday, which is a preview day with a limited selection of vehicles and a looser schedule. There were only a handful of Axis vehicles; shown here a Panzer III and an early, short-barrelled StuG.

IFV combat experience in the Gulf War and the War on Terror was generally positive, albeit that the M2 Bradleys and Warrior IFVs of NATO forces were used by well-trained, well-equipped experts against poor-quality opposition.

The problem is that IFVs aren't designed to take a lot of punishment. In the 1980s more than one tinpot dictator in Africa and the Middle East found that using cheap Soviet BMPs as if they were battle tanks was a waste of money and manpower, and as mentioned earlier the West doesn't like casualties. Any democratic leader who chooses to deploy IFVs has to weigh the low cost of replacement with the high political cost if the enemy scores a few hits.

It was one of the hottest days of the year. The show ended with an imaginary engagement between a Panther and some T-34s and Shermans, with smoke bombs representing shell impacts - at one point the dry grass caught fire.

In a way the rivalry between tanks and infantry fighting vehicles parallels the rivalry between battleships and battlecruisers during the first decades of the twentieth century. Like battleships, tanks have a strategic dimension. They aren't employed on a whim; they require constant maintenance in order to cover long distances and have to be accompanied with a train of fuel and ammunition trucks. Anyone who has eyed up a second-hand Alvis Stalwart will tell you that military surplus armoured vehicles are surprisingly cheap to buy but cost a fortune to maintain and fuel. The deployment of main battle tanks is a major event and can be politically controversial, which raises the question of why a nation should spend a fortune on a weapon it will never use.

A Daimler Dingo and Daimler Armoured Car respectively. They were made in large numbers and released to the surplus market in the 1960s and 1970s, but half a century later the vast majority have been scrapped, or were dumped in a field after seizing up.

IFVs on the other hand are cheaper, easier to deploy, and require a simpler logistical tail than battle tanks. They have a greater range on the road and without troops they can carry their own spares, as per the Israeli Merkava, which is essentially a tank with a small troop compartment used mostly to carry extra tank rounds or jerry cans. With only three crewmembers versus a battle tank's four they can be fielded in greater numbers than tanks, and can thus guard a greater expanse of terrain, but as with battlecruisers they have a thin shell and are vulnerable to determined opposition.

Battleships and battlecruisers were eventually made obsolete by something Jackie Fisher could not have anticipated - the aircraft carrier - which raises the question of whether the replacement for tanks and IFVs exists today, or whether it is decades away. Remote-controlled armoured vehicles have been around since the Second World War, but until recently they required line-of-sight from the operator to be effective. Some modern fighting vehicles have remote-controlled turrets, festooned with visible and night-vision sensors, and it can only be a matter of time before someone thinks of hooking up the VR version of World of Tanks to a remote-controlled tank chassis.

The next step will be to remove the human controller and replace him with the self-driving module of a Tesla Roadster, modified to drive towards pedestrians instead of avoiding them. There will still be a need for soldiers to attack and hold terrain, but in a world of networked AI drones they won't have to hurry, and they won't be armed with rifles; instead they will be armed with wheelbarrows, so they can carry the bodies of enemy soldiers away for hygienic disposal.

From top a Stuart light tank, a broken Churchill waiting for a tow - and a Panther.

So that was Tankfest, or at least the first day. Before the tanks went out on parade they were gathered in a tank park, where people could inspect them up close - in the image below you can see that by the end of the day the park had emptied out:

There were hamburgers, hot dogs, pulled pork burgers, doughnuts, fish and chips, curry etc, and I have to say that £6 is actually quite cheap for festival food. There was also an extensive range of surplus stores. I was tempted to pick up some more MREs, but in the end the heat put me off eating. There was some kind of live World of Tanks event, probably with lots of Youtube World of Tanks streamers that I haven't heard about.

There were also military reenactors engaged in the age-old debate as to which uniforms are the most ally. When I was young everyone gravitated towards the Germans, because their uniforms were more dramatic-looking, whereas our khaki and camouflage gear looked shapeless and utilitarian. However in the wake of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and countless military shooting games the US / British paratroop-style WW2 uniform has come back into fashion, because few things look more cool than a big smock, lots of pouches, and a helmet with webbing. Will Soviet gear become fashionable next? Who knows.