Last week’s dust-up regarding the armoring of Humvees got me to thinking. I’ve always been a bit of a military/military hardware buff, and the issue of armor has been around for hundreds of years.
(This is another long one — continued at great length in the extended section)
Back in the Middle Ages, armor was the deciding element in warfare. Crossbows and longbows put a dent in the invincibility of armor (so to speak), but it was gunpowder that finally finished it off.
But I’m more familiar with naval warfare. For the first half or so of the 20th century, the argument of armor vs. speed was key. England’s First Sea Lord, Sir Jackie Fisher, put forth the idea that “speed was armor” and pushed the concept of “battlecruisers” forward. These were big ships armed with battleship-caliber guns, but lightly armored and a lot faster. Fisher described their mission as to “outfight what they can’t outrun, and outrun what they can’t outfight.” Critics called them “eggshells armed with sledgehammers,” and were proven right at the Battle of Jutland. There three British battlecruisers were blown up with nearly complete loss of life, and the shift moved back towards armor.
In World War II, armor reached it’s peak. Battleships had up to 16″ of steel protecting them, but navies soon found armor against naval guns didn’t do much good against bombs. Decks simply couldn’t be armored enough to protect ships, and the move away from armor began. Today, no United States active warship carries any but the lightest of armor. (With the possible exception of the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. I’ve read rumors that they have armor around their vitals, but it’s classified to the “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” level.)
A brief (promise!) aside. The bomb that nearly sunk the U.S.S. Cole several years ago did so much damage precisely because she doesn’t have armor. I went digging through my reference books, and found a comparable World War II-vintage ship, the light anti-aircraft cruiser U.S.S. Juneau. (The Juneau was 40 feet longer, but the Cole is about 2,300 tons heavier, so I called it a wash.) The Juneau wad an armored belt 3″ thick. I’m no expert, but I strongly suspect that that plating would’ve helped reduce the damage from the bomb.
That brings me back to my main point — the armoring of Humvees. Simply slapping on armor isn’t a magic cure-all.
First, armor adds weight. I realize that may seem blindingly obvious, but it has many more consequences than most people realize.
1) Added weight adds stress to the vehicle. Parts wear out faster and break down more often. When the vehicle becomes more unreliable, troops tend to rely on it less.
2) Added weight cuts the vehicle’s mileage. This isn’t strictly a matter of costing more at the gas pump; this directly affects the vehicle’s useful range. Longer trips require more frequent refueling, and that’s more time sitting still to be attacked.
3) Added weight cuts down on performance. When troops find themselves in a bad spot, they can’t get out of it as fast any more. Also, they can’t maneuver as well — the weight of the armor cuts down on quick turns and, in some cases, might even widen the vehicle.
4) Added weight lowers the vehicle. The Humvee had great ground clearance, letting them run over rough terrain. With the extra armor, they run a greater chance of getting “hung up” on obstacles and reduced to sitting targets.
Another thing armor does is reduce visibility. Passengers can’t see out as well, meaning they can’t prepare as well for attacks that they can’t see coming. They also can’t fight back unless they have a way to stick their weapons out.
The Humvee was never intended to be an armored transport — that’s what Bradleys and APCs are for. The Humvee replaced the Jeep, which had a windshield that folded down and often didn’t have doors or a roof.
Again, I’m no expert on these matters. But I do know that the balance between armor and performance is a fine one, and simply slapping hunks of metal on the vehicles isn’t necessarily the best solution. But it definitely is something that needs to be addressed.