WASHINGTON -- After decades of reliance on tanks, the Army plans to equip its newest armored units with lighter vehicles that move on wheels, a radical departure that reflects the Army's changing missions and has generated intense controversy inside the service, senior military and civilian officials said Wednesday.
The decision may be announced as early as Friday. The "Medium Armored Vehicles" will go to a model brigade formed earlier this year as the centerpiece of the Army's effort to leave the Cold War behind and transform itself into a force than can rush to trouble spots within days rather than weeks or months.
The embrace of wheeled vehicles comes after more than a year of contentious deliberations on the Army's future and involves much more than just a new piece of equipment. It will require changes in the way the Army trains, deploys and fights. Rather than preparing primarily for an all-out land war, as it did during the Cold War, the Army is reshaping itself to engage in numerous smaller conflicts, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian relief.
Supporters in the Army leadership depict the choice of a wheeled armored vehicle as a historic step comparable to the advent of the battleship or the machine gun, which revolutionized warfare in their time. Critics, who still abound in the Army, especially in tank units, contend that soldiers' lives will be in danger without the firepower and protection provided by heavy tanks.
At an Army meeting last month, Gen. Eric Shinseki, the service's chief of staff, bluntly called for an end to the dissension. "If you chose not to get on board, that's OK, but then get out of the way," he said.
The selection reverses a half-century trend in which the Army, ever since adopting the tank between the two world wars, has bought ever bigger and heavier armored vehicles. Today's M-1A2 Abrams tank is considered almost unbeatable in open terrain, but at 70 tons is so heavy that it cannot be transported quickly to most parts of the world and cannot cross small bridges or maneuver on narrow roads in places like Kosovo.
The Army's requirements for the new vehicles set the maximum weight at 19 tons to ensure they can be carried by the Air Force's smallest and most common transport plane, the C-130. In the inevitable tradeoff, the Army gave up some of the protection provided by armor plating and the all-terrain capabilities of tank treads.
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