American M3 Grant and Lee Tanks at Kursk

The American M3 Grant or Lee medium-tank was hopelessly obsolete by 1943 but that didn’t stop it from participating in the largest tank-on-tank engagement in history, the Battle of Kursk in Russia. You can read the history of the battle here, but the BLUF is that lend-lease M3 Grant tanks equipped several Russian units by mid-1943. Even though they were a generation behind the prominent tanks on the battlefield, notably the Russian T-34 and the German Panther, they were pressed into service by the Soviets to bridge the gap until T-34 production cold replace them. During Kursk, M3 Grants faced off against veteran Nazi SS units. As one would expect, losses were high, the average Russian solider hated it, but despite its faults, the M3 Grant gave decent service on one of the harshest battlefields ever seen.

This highly stylized image of an M3 Grant/Lee Medium tank is what most American’s saw of the tank in 1941, publicity photos. The M3 was a compromise of competing theories on what a tank should be and what it should do. In the end, it gave good service to the United States and its allies, even if it wasn’t the tank that any of them wanted. U.S. Archives Photo 196276

The M3 Grant/Lee tank was a stop gap. An easy to produce tank that was meant equip American armored forces until the arrival of the M4 Sherman tank. It came in two variants, the Lee, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was the one that equipped U.S. Armored forces for the early part of the war. The Grant variant named after Union General Ulysses S. Grant was built to British specifications and had a larger dome turret on top of the tank among other small changes. Upon its arrival in North Africa, the M3 was a match for most of the early German Panzers. As up gunned Panzer IV’s and tank destroyers like the Marder arrived, M3 losses started to mount and the tank was pulled from service as the M4 Sherman was arriving.

M3 Grant/Lee Tanks being produced at the Chrysler tank factory. It was production lines like this that allowed the United States to produce large quantities of tanks for its allies under the Lend Lease program. Image from www.worldwarphotos.info

Even though the M3 was obsolete, there was still a functioning production line for the tank. Russia was in desperate need of tanks while it ramped up production of its own T-34. 1386 M3’s, predominately Grant variants, were produced for Russia to help them bridge the gap until their own production capacity increased to meet demand. In what is a testament to the ferocity of the battle of the Atlantic, only 976 of these tanks made it to Russia through Murmansk. The rest were lost to U-boats and prowling aircraft that interdicted the transport ships while they were at sea. The initial Russian reaction to the M3 was lackluster. The hull was riveted and the main gun was side mounted in the fashion of World War I tanks severely restricting the arc of fire. The M3 also required a large crew of six people. This spread the work load to operate the tank, but if the vehicle was hit or worse on fire that was two additional bodies that had to get out through limited hatches.

An M3 Grant medium Tank is loaded aboard a cargo ship in 1942. Many of these tanks would go to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean when their cargo ships were sunk en route to Europe. Photo from www.worldwarphotos.info

With the need for tanks, the M3 went into service immediately and saw significant service around Stalingrad during the Russian winter offensive that trapped the German 6th Army. The M3’s operated together as homogeneous units and often in the company of M3 Stuart light tanks. Their service during this time was respectable as the majority of the German tanks it encountered were early model Panzer III’s armed with 50mm guns. In one-on-one combat with a Panzer III or early model Panzer IV, the M3 was more than a match. In combat with German tank destroyers or the feared Tiger tank though, it would almost always lose. What’s important to remember is that the life expectancy of tanks during this time was short regardless of what type of vehicle it was. The Russians never tried to retrofit their tanks with upgrades as they understood the tank would likely be destroyed before they could pull it off the battle line to make changes.

M3 Grant/Lee Tanks in service with the Soviet Union. Loathed by Russian tank crews, the M3 was nonetheless praised for its reliability on the Russian front. Image originally from www.theshermantank.com

By July of 1943, the M3 Grant was in service with multiple units that had been staged to counter what the Nazi’s called Operation Citadel to cut off the Kursk Salient. In the six months since the Russian Winter Offensive started, the entire nature of armored warfare had changed. The German’s still fielded some Panzer III’s but their armored forces were being reconfigured with up gunned Panzer IV’s, the Tiger I was fielded in force, the Elefant tank destroyer had arrived and the Panther tank, arguably the best tank of the war, had arrived in mass. The 50mm main gun of the earlier German tanks had been replaced by high velocity 88mm and 75mm guns that could kill any tank on the battlefield. The Battle of Kursk was more than just a battle. It was a campaign that lasted for weeks and one that would usher in the modern era of armored warfare.

Two knocked out M3 Grants in Soviet service. Despite their damage, these tanks would have been quickly recovered by either the Soviets or the Germans and put back into service. Photo originally from www.theshermantank.com

The M3 probably saw extensive service at Kursk but there is only one known engagement that is documented. On July 5, 1943, M3 Grants of the 230th Separate Tank Regiment engaged elements of the II SS Panzer Corp. Nazi SS units during the war received better rations and material support than the regular Wehrmacht and the II SS panzer Corp was no exception. It had been built with SS veterans and was a hard fighting unit equipped with the best that Germany had to offer. The II SS Panzer Corps spearheaded the 4th Panzer Army’s attack on the Kursk Salient and the 230th Separate Tank Regiment was directly in its path. 32 M3 Grants and 7 M3 Stuart light tanks went into action to stop the II SS Panzer Corps. It is likely that all were destroyed. This isn’t a reflection of the M3’s performance as the 52nd Guards Rifle Division that the 230th Separate Tank Regiment was attached to at the time was almost entirely over run and destroyed in the opening of the battle.

A knocked out Soviet M3 tank at Kursk. The Soviets built layers of defenses at Kursk designed to blunt the German offensive. They held their best units in reserve for a counter attack. The M3 by 1943 was not particularly useful on the Eastern Front. It was for this reason that many of these tanks found themselves with units stationed as part of the force to blunt the German attack. Losses were heavy and on the wide open plains of Kursk, where super predators like the Tiger I and Elefant tank destroyer reigned supreme, the M3 could not be expected to achieve much. This picture originally came from a book, but was located on www.armchairgeneral.com

After Kursk, the M3 Grant was moved away from the front to other sectors where tanks were still useful but wouldn’t see the type of hyper warfare that was becoming common. In that capacity, the M3 Grant remained in Soviet service until the end of the war. While the M3 Grant may not have been the tank that the Russians wanted, it did exactly what it was designed to do. It bridged the gap until the T-34 could arrive in bulk and assume the fight.

Good enough for everyone! Captured Russian M3 Grants in service with the Nazi Wehrmacht. German units were known to press any working armored vehicle into service and many M3’s were impressed. Photo originally from www.worldwarphotos.info

Reforger Redux, Military Exercises in Europe

U.S. M1A2 Abrams tanks return to Germany for joint military exercises for the first time in decades. U.S. Army Photo

In what maybe a sign of the times, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called upon the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to boost military exercises in Europe. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that Russia’s continued aggression and increased military spending has Western leaning Baltic countries worried. Secretary Carter proposed that in addition to increasing defense spending in Europe, large scale NATO military exercises should return. During the Cold War era, large scale military exercises were conducted on an annual basis but were ceased due to costs and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now with a resurgent and aggressive Russia, NATO may see the return of a defensive strategy against Russia that was developed almost 70 years ago during World War II.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter being introduced to regional leaders by Commander U.S. Forces General Breedlove during a meeting of NATO in Germany. It was during this meeting that Secretary Carter called for the renewal of military exercises in Europe. DoD Photo.

NATO’s cold war defensive strategy against Russia came from Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, a Nazi who commanded various units and armies of the German Wehrmacht during World War II. It was Manstein who defied Hitler’s orders to stand firm after the Nazi Wehrmacht suffered its disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and began a fighting retreat. Russian General Georgy Zhukov believed the German Wehrmacht to be broken and kept pressure on Manstein’s forces, eventually retaking the strategic city of Kharkov. The Russians celebrated, not realizing that Von Manstein had been leading them into a trap. While falling back, Von Manstein had been rebuilding and resupplying his army. It was at that moment that Mansfield turned his army and launched a sharp counter offensive that destroyed three Russian armies and routed three more. By the end of March 1943, Manstein recaptured most of the territory that had been lost after the fall of Stalingrad and handed General Zhukov what may have been his greatest defeat. The tactic became known as a mobile defense and involved periods of fighting withdraw followed violent counter attacks into the enemies weak points. The strategy is still studied by military officers to this day.

German Tiger 1 tanks advance on the Eastern Front. By pioneering a new form of mobile defense that combined a fighting retreat with sharp counter offensives to blunt the Russian’s numerically superiority, Von Manstein was able to recapture most of the territory lost by the Wehrmacht after its defeat at Stalingrad. German Federal Archives, Photo via Wikipedia.

After the war, Field Marshal Erich Van Manstein was rightly tried for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to 18-years in prison for murders carried out by his troops against civilians. His actual sentence would end up lasting four years as the world changed during that time. The newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization was looking across the border at thousands of Soviet tanks that were projected to reach the English Channel in only a matter of days if war broke out. Von Manstein may have been a Nazi war criminal, but nobody was better at fighting Russia and NATO hired him as an adviser. His mobile defense became the bulwark of NATO’s defensive strategy and large scale military exercises were developed that utilized Von Manstein’s mobile defense strategy. NATO member nations drilled their troops in the methodology of a fluid defense that allowed their numerically inferior troops to fall back and then rapidly counterattack to hit Soviet forces where they were weak. By the 1960’s this principle would be refined into what became the annual military exercise called Reforger.

Elements of a U.S. Armored Division is unloaded at a port in Europe to participate in Exercise Reforger 1990. National Archives Photo

Elements of a U.S. Armored Division are unloaded in Germany to participate in Exercise Reforger 1990. National Archives Photo

Exercise Reforger standing for “Return of Forces to Germany” was the realization that the United States couldn’t afford to keep a large standing Army in Europe with its commitments in Vietnam and other global hot spots. Instead, NATO forces would focus on delaying any Russian advance with Manstein’s mobile defense while the United States rapidly deployed its forces across the Atlantic to form the nucleus of a counter offensive. From 1969-1993, at least one division of actual fighting troops were rapidly deployed on an annual basis from the United States to Europe in what was a practice for a very possible war. The Soviet Union was concerned enough with the effectiveness of the strategy that it began a very costly submarine building program in the 1970’s to prevent American reinforcements from reaching Europe.

M1 Abrams main battle tanks move along a road with turrets trained, preparing to fire off of their left flank during Exercise Reforger '85.

M1 Abrams main battle tanks move along a road with turrets trained, preparing to fire off of their left flank during Exercise Reforger ’85. National Archives Photo and Caption

Exercise Reforger was discontinued in 1993 after the Soviet military disbanded. The presence of U.S. forces was reduced to a shadow of what it once was and many European countries all but shut down their armed forces, resting safe with the knowledge that the United States would come to their aide if there were ever a problem again. By the end of first decade of the 21st century, many European countries were lulled into a false sense of security. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia should have been Europe’s wake-up call but it wouldn’t be until the 2014 Russian Invasion of the Ukraine that Europe would be shaken to its core. The Ukraine had been in the process of becoming a member of the European Union. Now half of its territory, notably its industrial sector, is under Russian control.

The United States, the United Nations, and the European Union all pressed economic sanctions against Russia. Despite that, Russia’s 2015 defense spending ballooned to $84.5 billion, a 97% increase over 2014 and is expected to increase again next year. While that is still well below defense spending in the United States, it is well above any other country in NATO and Russia’s spending is all directed on one front. In terms of proportion, Russia’s military spending in Europe dwarfs that of the United States which is focusing the bulk of its defense dollars in the Middle East. Russia has rolled out new designs for tanks, APC’s, artillery platforms, aircraft, and infantry arms but also maintains a massive stockpile of cold war era weaponry that could be modernized and made combat effective for little money.

With the both Ukraine and Georgia mostly occupied, the nations that will bear the brunt of any future Russian aggression are Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Only Poland has a military of any note. The three smaller Baltic countries still rely upon Soviet era hardware and conscripted troops (Latvia now has a small professional army, but would be dependent upon conscripts in the event of any war). Not one has a defense industry to manufacture weapons and has traditionally relied upon the Ukraine for support. With Ukraine’s defense industry now in Russian control, the west is the only source of weapons and munitions for their defense.

U.S. Armored Personnel Carriers cross the border from Estonia into Latvia during Operation Dragoon Ride, a military exercise to show U.S. Support for the Baltic NATO members in March 2015. U.S Army Photo

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been members of NATO since 2004 and the United States and every other member of NATO is treaty bound to help them in the event of a conflict with Russia. It is with this realization that NATO is starting to hold some military exercises in the Balitic states, but nothing on the scale of a Reforger type exercise. While it is expensive, NATO is working to reorganize the armed forces of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to become more mobile, and use combined arms tactics to make their fighting forces more self-sufficient. The hope is that these capabilities would enable the Baltic countries to practice a mobile defense and buy time for NATO forces from Germany, France and the United States to be brought forward and help. This was exemplified on a small scale when the United States sent a small armored column through all three countries in 2015 to show its support. While a token force may not have made much impact, the effect would be bolstered by a division size element or larger that actually operated with local forces in realistic combat training on an annual basis.

Mechanized infantry dismounts as part of military exercises in Germany. U.S. Army Photo

At the conclusion of his visit with NATO, Secretary Carter said that no decisions had been made regarding how to counter the Russian aggression seen in the Ukraine. While military exercises may not seem like much, they’re expensive and usually require some type of answer on the same level of significance from your adversary. Planting a large contingent of NATO troops on Russia’s Baltic border would require an equal response from Russia and take pressure off the Ukrainian front as Russia diverts troops. Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein was the only man that General Zhukov considered a worthy opponent. It also happens that Von Manstein and the early NATO planner’s strategy for countering and containing Soviet aggression worked for the better part of four decades.  It would be interesting to see how Vladimir Putin would react to some large scale Reforger style exercises.

The Strange Second Life of the M551 Sheridan Light Tank

The M551 Sheridan Light Tank had a checkered career during its service with the United States Army. You can read the details here, but the BLUF is that the M-551 Sheridan was envisioned as a lightweight aluminum, air transportable tank. It was equipped with a massive 152mm short barreled main gun that could fire anti-tank missiles in addition to conventional rounds that could defeat any known armored system at the time. It was a good idea in theory, but that was about as far as it went. The anti-tank missile never proved practical and the cumbersome one piece shells for the 152mm main gun were prone to split in two, spilling large amounts of propellant inside the tank which could lead to an internal explosion. The M551 Sheridan proved invaluable in Vietnam as its light weight allowed it to traverse mud better than most vehicles but suffered from a low rate of fire in combat. This resulted in the M551 Sheridan spending much of its time as a tow truck pulling heavier vehicles out of the mud as the tropical humidity tended to short circuit its electrical firing system.

An M551 Sheridan Light tank preparing to be forward deployed for a live fire exercise in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. Arrayed around the tank is 20 x 152mm ammunition, 8 x MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missiles, several thousand rounds of .50 cal and 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, 25 gallons of drinking water, three cases of meals ready to eat (MRE) totaling 36 meals for nine days of rations for the crew, two large tarps with framing , and radio gear for establishing a radio post. All of this equipment would be loaded onto the M551 Sheridan light tank before it deployed for combat operations. National Archives photo 6471195

An M551 Sheridan Light tank preparing to be forward deployed for a live fire exercise in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in December 1990. Arrayed around the tank is 20 x 152mm ammunition, 8 x MGM-51 Shillelagh anti-tank missiles, several thousand rounds of .50 cal and 7.62mm machine gun ammunition, 25 gallons of drinking water, three cases of meals ready to eat (MRE) totaling 36 meals for nine days of rations for the crew, two large tarps with framing , and radio gear for establishing a radio post. All of this equipment would be loaded onto the M551 Sheridan light tank before it deployed for combat operations. National Archives photo 6471195

After Vietnam, the U.S. Army had large numbers of Sheridan light tanks available that only airborne units wanted. There were proposals to scrap the M551 Sheridan program but cooler heads prevailed and in 1980, the bulk of the M551 Sheridan light tanks were sent to the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California. The NTC was tasked with providing realistic ground training to U.S. Military units that involved simulated tank on tank armored combat in a desert environment. This was an early recognition that many of the U.S. Military’s future battles would be in the Middle East. The M551 Sheridan was an ideal vehicle to form the nucleus of the Soviet opposition force (OPFOR)  and early exercises had the Sheridan’s operating in conjunction with local infantry from Army and United States Marine Corps units to test the combat effectiveness of U.S. and NATO Military units from around the world.

M551 Sheridan light tanks operating in their intended role as an air transportable light tank. Here, two M551 Sheridan light tanks are being airdropped from a C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The drop is a two stage process, both stages can be seen in this photo. A Sheridan light tank is in the process of being pulled out of the aircraft by its smaller and stronger deployment parachutes which represents the first stage. The tank already in the air has just separated from its deployment parachutes which deployed much larger second stage descent parachutes which are unfolding in the photo. This two stage process was done to prevent damage to the more delicate descent parachutes as the tank is being pulled out of the aircraft at high speed. National Archives photo 6462244

M551 Sheridan light tanks operating in their intended role as an air transportable light tank. Here, two M551 Sheridan light tanks are being airdropped from a C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The drop is a two stage process, both stages can be seen in this photo. A Sheridan light tank is in the process of being pulled out of the aircraft by its smaller and stronger deployment parachutes which represents the first stage. The tank already in the air has just separated from its deployment parachutes which deployed much larger second stage descent parachutes which are unfolding in the photo. This two stage process was done to prevent damage to the more delicate descent parachutes as the tank is being pulled out of the aircraft at high speed. National Archives photo 6462244

One of the early changes made to the M551 Sheridan was to make the tanks look more like the Soviet made equipment that the U.S. Military would encounter in the Middle East. Some of these changes were as simple as replacing the 152mm main gun with a fake barrel to make the vehicle look like a Soviet BMP-1. But other changes were as radical as adding  fiberglass body panels so that a Sheridan light tank looked like a Soviet T-72 main battle tank. Each tank was equipped with sensors to pick up laser signals indicating if the vehicle had been hit by a simulated round. A red light on the tank would light up to indicate a kill.

M551 Sheridan light tanks cross the desert during an Opposing Forces exercise at the National Training Center. The tanks have visual modifications designed to make it resemble Soviet armor.

A group of camouflaged M551 Sheridan’s travel in a convoy at the National Training Center. The lead tank has been mocked up to look like a Soviet BMP-1, the second tank has been concealed to look like a ZSU-23, the remaining tanks have been reworked to look like T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks. National Archive Photo 6425040

The combination of highly experienced Sheridan tank crews with infantry that practiced a radical form of combined arms maneuver warfare shocked many of the early units that went to the National Training Center. Exercises would be repeated until the visiting unit could master the OPFOR and this highly realistic training did much to prepare the U.S. Military for the 1991 Gulf War. The Soldiers and Marines who went to Kuwait and then into Iraq found themselves fighting an enemy less capable than the one they had been fighting in the Mojave desert for the previous decade.

The ultimate evolution of the M551 Sheridan OPFOR aggressor tank at the National Training Center was a highly realistic looking mock up of the Soviet T-72. This tank continued to serve in the aggressor role until 2003, a full 36 years after the Sheridan light tank first went into service. While the Sheridan had limited combat utility for much of its life, the Sheridan will be regarded as one of the most useful post World War II tanks operated by the United States Army. National Archives Photo 6425276

The ultimate evolution of the M551 Sheridan OPFOR aggressor tank at the National Training Center was a highly realistic looking mock up of the Soviet T-72. This tank continued to serve in the aggressor role until 2003, a full 36 years after the Sheridan light tank first went into service. While the Sheridan had limited combat utility for much of its life, the Sheridan will be regarded as one of the most useful post World War II tanks operated by the United States Army. National Archives Photo 6425276

The M551 Sheridan was retired in 2003 from the NTC, but it did get it’s day in the sun. During the 1991 Gulf War, there was concern that the Iraqi Republican Guard would cross the border into Saudi Arabia. This led to a hasty deployment of U.S. Army airborne forces with their Sheridan light tanks which then deployed along the border. The reality was that the M551 Sheridan wouldn’t have fared well against an Iraqi T-72, but that was something the Iraqi Army didn’t know. The sudden appearance of large numbers of American Sheridan light tanks along the Saudi Arabian border was enough to cause the Iraqi Army to pause and gave the Allied coalition enough time to mass sufficient forces in Saudi Arabia to prevent an invasion. For the second time in its career, the M551 Sheridan proved its worth by never firing a shot in anger.

Ship Mounted Lasers, The Way of the Future

The U.S. Navy is making a big step into the future with ship mounted laser systems. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that the U.S. Navy has successfully mounted a powerful chemical laser aboard the USS Ponce. This system is called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS for short) has the ability to function as an air defense system, a point blank missile defense, and target small water craft. The actual weapon is a 30 kilowatt laser that uses heat to incapacitate or destroy targets. Despite being a relatively new weapon, the U.S. Navy’s LaWS system has exceeded expectations in trials and has successfully shot down drones and simulated missiles, all at the coast of .59c a shot.

The U.S. Navy Laser Weapon System or LaWS mounted aboard the USS Ponce (LPD-15) during exercises in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. military has been trying to make lasers practical for decades due to the lower cost of operating them. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Navy set the gold standard for air defense by pairing the AEGIS air defense system with the RIM-67 Standard SM-2 missile which had an average cost of $409,000 per a missile when produced in 1981. Thousands of SM-2’s were built to equip the cruisers and destroyers that utilized AEGIS  but over the past few decades combat aircraft and anti-shipping missiles have improved in capability. The U.S. Navy now fields more sophisticated and more expensive missiles like the new RIM-161 Standard SM-3 Missile and RIM-174 Extended Range Missile but these munitions come at a massive cost. Its still unsure how much these programs will cost but the Department of Defense has already given a preview of what the financial impact may be when it recently acquired PAC-3 Patriot Missiles at the cost of $2-3 million per a missile. Those procurement figures don’t include life-cycle costs such as upgrading missiles when new technology becomes available and replacing propellant when it reaches its shelf life. The U.S. Navy updated and upgraded the RIM-67 SM-2 missile 6 times over the course of it’s 25 year service life.

The destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) fires a Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) during a missile firing exercise. U.S. Navy Photo

While lasers are massively less expensive to operate, they had serious obstacles to overcome before they were practical. The first major obstacle was miniaturizing the technology to the point it was mobile. In the early 2000’s, Boeing developed the YAL-1 which was an airborne anti-missile system that utilized a chemical laser to destroy ballistic missiles while they were in flight or still sitting on the launch pad. It was the first practical application of a mobile air defense laser but the laser occupied the entire body of a Boeing 747 which is almost as big as the ships the U.S. Navy uses for air defense. The other problem was damage done by lasers tend to punch holes in targets rather than destroy them. The only way a laser causes an explosion is if the beam makes contact with something flammable like a fuel tank or a munition.

Fast forward a decade and some practical mobile laser weapon systems are already being used on the battlefield. Israel has been a leading advocate of laser development and uses the Tactical High Energy Laser as a part of its Iron Dome Missile Defense shield which can down missiles and mortar shells at $3000 a shot. The system has given decent performance but in an effort to develop an even better system, Israel is now working with Rafael Advanced Defense to develop Iron Beam, a complete replacement for the Iron Dome system that will exclusively use lasers to down entire swarms of missiles and drones. The U.S. government is footing a large part of the bill as a successful defense shield for Israel could mean a useful anti-ballistic missile system for the United States.

For now though, the U.S. Navy’s LaWS system is a gigantic step into the future and is a major advancement toward the fielding of the Littoral Combat Ship, which despite its small size, would be capable of fielding the LaWS system. One of the chief complaints about the Littoral Combat Ship is that it lacks air defense capability and would be almost defenseless near an enemy shore where anti-ship missiles are plentiful and cheap.  The Littoral Combat Ship lacks the space for a large magazine of anti-aircraft missiles but could mount a LaWS system that stored its chemical fuel in underwater blister tanks added to give the vessels greater stability in rough seas, a solution for another complaint against the Littoral Combat Ship. The current 30 kilowatt laser wouldn’t be of much use except for anti-missile defense but the projected future 150 kilowatt LaWS system could vaporize most of an aircraft with one shot.

Littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) underway in the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy Photo

While the LaWS system has potential and lasers will undoubtedly revolutionize warfare, we are still several decades from lasers becoming the dominate weapon of warfare. Still though, the years ahead of us look to be an exciting time of changes. To quote Shakespeare, it’s a brave new world.

The Medal Of Honor and Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing

On November 6, 2014, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor 151 years after being killed in action at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that Lieutenant Cushing was commanding a battery of Union artillery on the day of Picket’s charge and refused to leave his post despite being grievously wounded. Lieutenant Cushing kept his artillery firing until he was killed by a bullet to the mouth. At the time of Lieutenant Cushing’s death, there was no provision for the Medal of Honor to be awarded posthumously. This made it so an act of congress was required to award him the medal.

An 1861 photo of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing as a West Point Cadet before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Lieutenant Cushing would see service in almost every major battle of the American Civil War leading up to his death at the Battle of Gettysburg. U.S. Army Photo

The Congressional Medal of Honor was not always what it is considered today. At the start of the American Civil War, there were no medals in existence to be awarded for gallantry and to rectify this congress created the Medal of Honor. Despite the intention that the Medal of Honor be awarded for gallantry, the medal was often times given under dubious circumstances. The gold standard for earning the medal in the Civil War was to capture a Confederate flag, even if all you did was pick it up off the ground, or to recapture an American flag that had been captured by Confederate forces. But you could also be awarded the Medal of Honor for simply reenlisting. In some cases, the Medal of Honor was awarded to entire units and was given to service members who were not present during the action that caused the medal to be awarded. Because of these disparities, in 1916, an Army board of review revoked 911 Medals of Honor that had been awarded during the American Civil War.

The Angle today does not speak to the violence that played out here in 1863, but this is the location where Lieutenant Cushing won his Medal of Honor. U.S. Park Service Photo

Despite the Army’s 1916 attempt to correct the disparities in how the Medal of Honor could be awarded, there were still circumstances, like that of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, where soldiers had performed acts of utmost bravery, but were still left without any form of recognition. For the most part, these soldiers have continued to go unrecognized. Today’s standard is much more stringent for being awarded the Medal of Honor and the Medal of Honor is far more prestigious than it was considered during the American Civil War. There are also now tiers of medals for gallantry with the Medal of Honor as the ultimate award for valor. There has been some criticism that the Army and Congress shouldn’t be rewriting history but what is known for sure is that Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing qualifies for the medal under today’s standards. The real question is whether this awarding of the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing will lead to a wave of Medals being awarded to men who were otherwise ineligible for the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, like Lieutenant Cushing. Time will tell.

A monument to the neighboring 1st New York Battery Artillery speaks to the violence seen at the Angle, double canister fired into Confederate lines at 10 yards.

A monument to the neighboring 1st New York Battery Artillery speaks to the violence seen at the Angle, double canister fired into Confederate lines at 10 yards.

Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing’s Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, United States Army. First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War. That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge.  Using field glasses, First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery.  He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment.  As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again — this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen. Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Major General George E. Pickett’s charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces.  As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun. His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge.  First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.

Union and Confederate Artillery at Gettysburg

I made a trip with the family to Gettysburg Battlefield for my birthday this past August. The only thing more shocking than the unseasonably cool temperatures was the sheer abundance of Civil War-era artillery sitting around the park. Every type of cannon used during the Civil War is on display, but the 12-pounder Napoleon is the most widely represented gun on the battlefield. The 12-pounder Napoleon was the M777A2 of its day. It was light, easy to service, and fired a heavier shot than cannons that weighed noticeably more than it did. The Napoleon was so valued for its utility that General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, ordered that all of their smaller 6-pounder guns be sent back to the foundry to be melted down and turned into 12-pounder Napoleon cannons. This leads to an interesting discussion about the differences between Union and Confederate 12-Pounder Napoleon cannons.

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Union 12-Pounder Napoleon at Gettysburg

Union guns enjoyed the benefit of Northern industry. They’re beautiful weapons with a high degree of finishing, including a distinct muzzle swell at the end of the barrel that has become iconic of what the 1857 12-pounder napoleon is supposed to look like. Surviving Union 12-pound guns are often found with an assortment of engraving at the end of the barrel that detail the guns production and many units personalized their cannons with unit markings.

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Confederate 12-Pounder Napoleon at Gettysburg. This particular gun was cast in Macon, Georgia.

Confederate 12-pounder Napoleons on the other hand are a model of efficiency. While Northern 12-pound guns exhibited a high degree of finishing, Southern guns had almost none. A confederate 12-Pounder Napoleon can most easily be identified by its straight barrel as seen in the image above. While the casting may look crude, the 12-pound guns were no less effective than their Union counterparts and gave good service during the war. Some Confederate 12-pounders had the muzzle swell at the end of the barrel and additional finishing but they were the exception. It’s unknown how many 12-Pounder Napoleons the South produced during the war, but what is known for sure is that they couldn’t produce enough.

The confederacy lacked adequate artillery and many of their batteries were composed entirely of artillery that had been captured from the North. While the North deployed their artillery in batteries of 6 guns each, the Confederacy deployed theirs in batteries of 4 guns each. This gave the union a distinct firepower advantage over the south.