Best Defense

Rules of innovation (10): Don’t build your doctrine on incorrect lessons drawn from poorly researched and designed exercises

That’s the cautionary lesson of the tank destroyer, which was meant to be a relatively inexpensive, light, mobile weapon to counter German tanks.

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That’s the cautionary lesson of the tank destroyer, which was meant to be a relatively inexpensive, light, mobile weapon to counter German tanks. It became one of the most famous failed innovations in U.S. military history.

In exercises the tank destroyer proved adept at picking off single aggressor tanks and then moving quickly. But the people designing it didn’t understand how the Germans were using tanks. They expected Panzers to be found singly and ambushed by tank hunters, either mounted or on foot with RPGs. Alas, “neither the German panzer divisions nor the U.S. Armored Force after 1942 conducted the sort of blindly aggressive all-tank operations” used in the exercise, writes Christopher Gabel.

The problem, he wrote in his 1985 study, “Seek, Strike and Destroy: U.S. Army Tank Destroyer Doctrine in World War II,” is that those designing the weapon and writing its doctrine were incorrect in their understanding of what was happening on the battlefield. Even in North Africa in 1942, he notes, the Germans mounted “an integrated, combined arms force.”

The British could have told the Americans that “German tanks almost invariably operated under the protective fire of a superb antitank screen. Typically, fearsome 88-mm antiaircraft-antitank guns, flanked by lighter pieces and protected by infantry, covered all German tank movements from concealed overwatch positions.”

Photo credit: Archives Normandie/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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