Iran Knows the Secrets of America’s Stealth Drone

Tehran tracked, captured, studied, copied RQ-170


In response to Saudi Arabia’s biggest-ever war game, in early May Iran’s revolutionary guard hosted its biggest-ever arms bazaar. The highlight of the show was a private presentation for supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei featuring Tehran’s copies of the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone that Iran captured near the border with Afghanistan in late 2011.

The presentation revealed many of the secrets of the wing-shaped spy drone—and also recounted Iran’s methods for capturing the robot … and reverse-engineering it.

At the presentation for Khamenei, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of Islamic Republic Guard Corps Air Force, announced that an Iranian-made 1:7 scale model of the Sentinel has already flew—and that a full-size copy would perform its first test flight in four months. That is, no later than September.

Iranians first encountered the Sentinel in the autumn of 2007, west of Isfahan, according to the presentation.

Iranian fighters scrambled to intercept the mysterious object. Isfahan is the main base for Iran’s American-made F-14s, and also boasts the country’s first counter-stealth radar, the Chinese JY-14.

The briefing for Khamenei included what appeared to be military electro-optical footage of an RQ-170 in flight. The footage purportedly dated back to 2009, and seems to prove that Tehran was capable of tracking the Sentinels two years before it captured one.

The RQ-170s flew from NATO’s Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan starting no later than 2007, and from the United Arab Emirates in 2010.

Footage of an RQ-170 under surveillance by an Iranian electro-optical system. IRGC-AF footage

Tehran’s engineers determined that the Sentinels plug into the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System network to maintain live coverage across the world. TDRSS is not new—its first spacecraft launched in 1983. It’s unclear why the RQ-170s rely on such an aged network.

Hajizadeh claimed that the IRGC-AF was able to jam the connection between an RQ-170 and the satellite network in December 2011 and then convince the drone that a dirt airstrip in Iran was actually the runway at Kandahar airfield. The drone landed hard, breaking one of its main landing gear.

Hajizadeh added that the robot’s optical package survived intact, but this seems unlikely considering the obvious delicacy of such hardware, which needs tens of hours of precise calibration to function in even the most benign conditions.

The general didn’t say anything about the advanced electronically-scanned array ground-mapping radar that the Sentinel apparently carries next to its optical sensors.

In the hours after the forced landing, the biggest danger to Tehran’s agents was an American air strike. After capturing a small U.S. Scan Eagle drone in 2004, Iranians learned that American unmanned vehicles have an independent emergency location system which responds to search signals with a radio beacon, potentially providing precise coordinates for a rapid bombing raid to destroy a crashed robot.

The Iranians came up with a simple solution. Immediately after the crash landing, they dismantled the drone into three parts—two wing sections and one main body.

In the Sentinel, each wing root contains a set of hard drives, computers and advanced processors. America would have had to destroy all three segments quickly in order to keep the drone out of Iranian hands—a prospect that apparently proved impossible.

The dismantled RQ-170 immediately after its crash landing. IRGC-AF footage

Separate trailers moved the three parts to different field bases where IRGC-AF Mi-17 helicopters awaited, having been sent there under the cover of counter-insurgency operations. The copters transferred the drone segments as sling-loads to an IRGC-AF base near Tehran.

There, engineers disassembled and studied the secretive Sentinel. The first interesting thing they learned was that the robot’s turbofan engine was adapted to use cold fuel. Cold fuels burn at a relatively low temperature, reducing an aircraft’s heat signature and making it very hard to detect with electro-optical sensors.

Hard, but clearly not impossible.

Another interesting fact is the RQ-170’s high level of compartmentalization in its electronics and software. The Sentinel runs a customized VX Works operating system with four separate main computers handling flight control, navigation, sensors and data-links.

An IRGC-AF analysis of the RQ-170. IRGC-AF photo

Hajizadeh said the Sentinel has two separate hard drives, both encrypted. After deciphering the hard drives, the IRGC-AF was able to access the data from 13 combat missions over Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. An RQ-170 reportedly flew overhead during the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.

At the end of the presentation, Hajizadeh said that Iran’s 1:7-scale copy of the drone has already flown, while half-scale and full-scale models would fly this year. The general also showed footage of a copy of the RQ-170 that for some reason had been painted black.

The black RQ-170 clone. Iranian state media capture

There are reasons to doubt Iran’s Sentinel clones will be as good as the American originals.

For one, the full-scale Sentinel clone at the arms expo exhibited a small circular shape just inside the air intake—probably its turbojet engine. The first lesson in stealth design is that the engine should not be directly exposed to radar detection. A stealthy air intake should be s-shaped to obscure the engine from direct view.

To be clear, there is some photographic evidence that the original U.S. RQ-170 design lacks the s-shaped inlet. But we know for sure that the Iranian drone copies omit this key feature. Given the position and visibility of their engines, even if the Iranian Sentinels fly on the schedule, they probably won’t be truly stealthy.

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Next Story — ‘Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’ Is About the Wars We Fight at Home
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They deserve it, trust me. SquareEnix capture

‘Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’ Is About the Wars We Fight at Home

Eidos takes on social justice and class war

by MATTHEW GAULT

Two years ago it was paradise. Today it’s a nightmare.

Workers never finished the lavish Dubai hotel and its ruins spiral on the Arab League’s man-made beach like the bones of some leviathan that washed ashore to die in the sun.

Two years ago, during The Incident, the augmented construction workers building the place went insane and flew into a rage, using their buzzsaws to rip apart everyone around them.

No one cleaned up the place after The Incident. Corpses litter the crumbling construction site. The desiccated skeletons of indentured workers who bought their fancy construction augments on loan from mega-corporations rest next to the bodies of the unaugmented they tore apart in a blind fury.

Adam Jensen steps over the corpses, doing his best not to disturb the dead. He isn’t here for them. He works for Interpol and he’s here to stop an arms deal. An old merc named Shepard is here to unload a crate of military grade augmentations — super-powered limbs that can turn a human being into a walking tank.

If the sale goes through, the augments could upset the delicate balance of power in a world already on the brink of collapse.

This is the world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s 2029 and the augmented — once seen as the next step in human evolution — are hated, feared and persecuted. Developer Eidos crafted a great game here, but more than that, they’ve managed to make something rare — a big-budget video game that works as smart and interesting social commentary.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the latest entry in the long-running and critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. It’s the fourth game in the series and the first in years to feel even remotely close to the original game.

The world of Deus Ex is a cyberpunk dystopia in the vein of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. In the early 2020s, tech companies developed augmentations — cybernetic implants to improve the human condition. The blind could suddenly see, the legless could walk and the handless could touch.

One catch — the human body isn’t meant to take on so much metal and carbon fiber. To keep their bodies from rejecting the implants and extensions the augmented require constant injections of a drug called Neuropozyne.

Tech companies made billions, turned Detroit into a new Silicon Valley of augmentation manufacturing and people began to augment themselves, not just to make up for deficiencies but to improve their lives.

But everything went to Hell during The Aug Incident in 2027. At the end of the previous Deus Ex, a madman managed to take control of the augmented population. It’s a convoluted story, but the bad guy managed to force the augmented of the world to attack everyone in their vicinity.

Fifty million people died in one day. The augmented who survived came out of their murderous fugue state to learn they’d killed friends and loved ones. Now, two years on, the billion-dollar tech companies have collapsed, the world treats the augmented like second-class citizens and Neuropozyne is in short supply.

Mega-corporations and the literal Illuminati vie for control of the world while augmented activists agitate for basic human rights and terrorists on both sides use murder and fear to keep the populace on edge. It’s a horrifying, prescient and well-rendered setting.

The story follows Adam Jensen, the trench-coat-wearing, gravely-voiced protagonist of the previous entry. Jensen is a typical generic video-game protagonist. He looks as if he walked off the set of The Matrix, he’s more powerful than any of the other characters and his sunglasses are grafted onto his face. Literally.

But dark and brooding generic video game protagonists aren’t the reason people play Deus Ex. This game is about exploring a semi-open cyberpunk world and unraveling labyrinthine conspiracies with a rich combination of stealth, trickery and brutal combat. On that front, Mankind Divided delivers.

The level design is incredible, allowing players a wide range of options for tackling an objective. Want to creep through a warehouse murdering every gun-toting gangster you see with the flick of a nanoblade? Do it. Want to avoid it all together and sneak through the vents until you reach your objective? Go for it. Want to hack a gun turret then carry it around like a horrifying aug-tank? Yeah, you can do that, too.

The gameplay is great but Mankind Divided’s story and setting set it apart from other big-budget video games. The Deus Ex series is about conspiracies — and conspiracies make for great video-game plots.

The baroque and labyrinthine leaps of logic required to believe in a group such as the Illuminati makes perfect fodder for the kinds of stories a video game tells and the way they tell them. It works well for Mankind Divided, whoes bizarre main campaign plays out like a convoluted Alex Jones nightmare.

The mean streets of Prague. Edios capture

The real draw of Mankind Divided is the social commentary. In this world, the augmented are second-class citizens. Cops harass them. They live in ghettos designed to separate them from the normal population. The United Nations is talking about putting them on a permanent registry.

I’m not going to draw direct parallels between any of the social issues going on in society now, but publisher SquareEnix and developer Eidos certainly have. Games critics and bloggers took shots at both in the months leading up to the game’s release for exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement and South African apartheid.

In the game’s promotional material and the game itself, augmented protesters wear t-shirts and carry signs that read “Aug Lives Matters.” Some of the game’s literature calls the segmentation of augmented humans a mechanical apartheid.

It’s strong language that raises the hackles and makes people uncomfortable. Good. That’s what art should do. It should challenge assumptions, start conversations and even, maybe, change people’s mind. Eidos decided to use the language of a current social movement to create an emotional shortcut to its fictional social ill.

There’s an argument for that being a cheap tactic — but it’s certainly effective. It made reviewers, gamers and bloggers uncomfortable, which means Eidos is doing something right. What I find stranger is that many who have reviewed the game feel the social commentary falls flat.

They’ve argued that aug lives don’t matter because augs are dangerous. The Aug Incident happened and the persecuted people are, in fact, more powerful than normal humans. But not so fast. Adam Jensen, the player character, is certainly a murder-machine, but he’s the exception, not the rule.

Many people with augmentations got them to replace lost limbs, damaged eyes or broken body parts. It’s not just legs to make you run faster and arms to make you throw farther. People augmented their hearts and lungs to negate the effects of degenerative diseases. Construction workers took out loans for augmented limbs to remain competitive in their field. The terminally ill got augs to save their lives.

Two years ago, the world saw them as men and women on the bleeding edge of human advancement. Now they’re pariahs. Worse, they’re all addicted to Neuropozyne. If they don’t have it, their bodies will reject their augmentations and they’ll die. The drug is hard to come by now that the tech sector has collapsed. The drug’s user base often doesn’t have the cash to pay for the expensive treatment.

On top of that, the augs carry the shame and pain of The Aug Incident. Fifty million people died and they weren’t all normal. Aug turned on aug, too. Friends killed friends. Family slew family. The psychological trauma of waking up with your plastic hands covered in your wife’s blood must be immense.

But it’s okay to treat them like shit because they can jump higher than normal humans. It’s okay to herd them into camps and separate them from society because there’s a chance they’re dangerous. People are dangerous. Period. And making them feel like they’re the other doesn’t make them less so.

Mankind Divided understands that.

Next Story — In 1966, Israeli Intelligence Convinced an Iraqi Pilot to Defect With His MiG-21
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The MiG-21F-13 — serial number 534 — as it was shown to the international press a few weeks after Redfa flew it to Israel on Aug. 16, 1966. Tom Cooper Collection photo

In 1966, Israeli Intelligence Convinced an Iraqi Pilot to Defect With His MiG-21

Operation Diamond was a deadly honey trap

by TOM COOPER

It’s been 50 years since one of biggest — and most hyped — operational achievements by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service. On Aug. 16, 1966, Operation Diamond resulted in what is usually described as the “defection” to Israel of an Iraqi air force MiG-21-pilot, Capt. Munir Redfa.

Redfa took his MiG with him.

There’s been no end to the rumors surrounding this affair, and especially regarding Redfa’s reasons for defection. According to official Israeli version of the story, Redfa was an Assyrian Christian who suffered from religious and ethnic discrimination, had been passed over for promotion and was forced by his commanders to live far away from his family in Baghdad.

The Israeli government offered him $1 million, Israeli citizenship and full-time employment — and accepted his condition that the Israelis smuggle his family out of Iraq.

The MiG-21 Redfa flew to Israel enabled the Israeli air force to evaluate the aircraft and discover its strengths and weaknesses — knowledge that proved instrumental in the Israeli air force’s successes during the Arab-Israeli wars in the period 1967 to 1973.

Furthermore, in January 1968 Israel loaned the aircraft to the United States, which further evaluated it under the program Have Donut program housed at the infamous Area 51 in Nevada. The ex-Iraqi MiG-21 — re-designated YF-110 in U.S. service — proved to be a huge boon for the Americans, more so because Redfa reportedly delivered it to Israel together with several training and tactical manuals.

The Yak-11 flown by Mohammad Abbas Helmy to Israel in 1964. Tom Cooper Collection photo

All of the above reflects the popular version of Redfa’s story. These versions of the tale usually concentrate on the period immediately before and after Redfa’s flight to Israel. But with the help of retired brigadier general Ahmad Sadik, a former officer of the Iraqi air force intelligence directorate, and Egyptian historian Nour Bardai, we can bring to light fresh details about the circumstances leading up to Redfa’s famous flight.

It’s well-known that Mossad had long tried to convince Arab pilots to defect and fly their aircraft to Israel. The first attempt ended in a failure. Israeli informant Jean Leon Thomas approached Capt. Aid Hana of the Egyptian air force, offering him $100,000 to fly his MiG-17 to Israel, but the Egyptian quickly turned him over to authorities.

Thomas was arrested together with five aides, sentenced to death and hanged together with two others in December 1962.

Two years later, Israelis were somewhat more successful with another Egyptian pilot. Capt. Mohammad Abbas Helmy — widely regarded as corrupt and unruly — defected with a Yakovlev Yak-11 trainer after a dispute with his superiors. A few months later, he was assassinated in South America.

Very few — and all rather poor — photographs documenting the various persons involved in Mossad’s Operation Diamond have become available over the last 40 years. This is one of the better ones, showing Lisa Brat, the agent who followed Munir Redfa to Iraq. Nour Bardai Collection photo

With their efforts in Egypt remaining mostly fruitless, the Israelis began searching elsewhere. A new opportunity offered itself in Iraq when Ezra Zelkha, a Jewish merchant from Baghdad with connections to the Iraqi underworld — and codenamed “Yusuf” by Mossad — made it known that a group of 15 Iraqi air force officers would be traveling to the United States for a staff course at Randolph Air Force Base near Lackland, Texas in February 1965.

But why would a group of Iraqi MiG-pilots undergo training in the United States in the 1960s?

Remember, Iraq was not always a Soviet ally. The country was a close ally of Great Britain until the bloody military coup of 1958, after which a junta led by Brig. Gen. Abd Al Karim Qassim came to power. Qassim appointed Brig. Gen. Jalal Jawad Al Awqati — a staunch communist — as the new commander-in-chief of the air force.

Warmly welcomed in Moscow, Awqati rushed to place orders for plenty of new aircraft. Iraq became the first Arab country to buy types such as the MiG-19, MiG-21 and Tupolev Tu-16 bomber — years before Egypt got any of the planes for itself.

Qassim’s rule ended with another military coup on Feb. 8, 1963. The new government not only forced all Soviet advisors out of the country, but also arrested most of the officers it considered loyal to Qassim. Although trained to fly MiG-21s in the former USSR, Redfa was one of only five pilots the new regime trusted to continue serving with the sole Iraqi unit operating MiG-21s — No. 11 Squadron.

Following another military coup in Baghdad on Nov. 17, 1963, a new government consisting of British-trained officers established itself in power and instantly took great care to re-establish old ties to London and Washington.

During their own flight-testing of Redfa’s MiG-21F-13, the Israelis decorated his aircraft with fake Syrian insignia including a big roundel applied on the rear fuselage. Israeli Defense Forces release

In the course of their reorganization of the Iraqi military, they appointed Redfa as deputy to the commanding officer of No. 11 Squadron, Maj. Fahad Abd El Haley As Saydoon.

At the time, the Iraqi military didn’t care much about ethnic and religious backgrounds of its officers. It was their loyalty to the government that mattered. Correspondingly, it didn’t matter that Redfa was an Assyrian Christian or underwent conversion to the MiG-21 in the USSR.

Indeed, Redfa was subsequently selected to attend the staff course in the United States and then appointed commander of No. 11 Squadron in July 1966, underscoring the air force’s trust in him.

However, once in the United States, the unsuspecting Iraqi officers were targeted by several female Mossad agents. Presenting herself as “Zainab,” Jean Pollan approached 1st Lt. Hamid Dhahe in March 1965, but the Iraqi refused her offer to help him defect.

The title page of the English translation of the tactical manual for MiG-21F-13 and MiG-21PF, as prepared by the USAF’s Foreign Technology Division. Notable is the date of issue — Nov. 5, 1965 — meaning that the original document must have been obtained much earlier. Tom Cooper Collection photo

Outraged, the Israeli agent gave the young Iraqi pilot three days to leave the United State. Failing to obey this command, Dhahe was found shot to death in a bar on the evening of June 15, 1965, following a short power outage that provided an opportune black-out.

Following this incident, the Iraqi air force decided to withdraw its officers from training in the United States. However, three of them — Capt. Shaker Mahmoud Yusuf, Capt. Mohammad Raglob and Redfa — returned to Iraq followed by attractive “lovers.”

Yusuf’s “girlfriend” arrived in Baghdad just a few days after him and they met in an apartment on the evening of July 6, 1965. When Yusuf refused the invitation to defect to Israel with his MiG, Ezra Zelkha, who was filming every one of the meetings, entered the room and shot the Iraqi officer to death.

Raglob survived the Mossad’s pursuit only a little while longer, and was killed not because he refused to defect, but because he demanded too much — $1 million. He was caught by two Mossad agents and thrown out of a high-speed train during a trip to Germany on Feb. 11, 1966.

Redfa was followed to Iraq by a supposed American girlfriend, too. Very little is known about her except her name — Lisa Brat. A few days after her arrival, Brat arranged a meeting and presented Redfa with a choice — “silver or lead.”

Once the Iraqi made his decision, other Mossad operatives took over. Three days after his family of 17 evacuated via Iran, the Iraqi squadron commander took off for a training mission from Tammouz air base, west of Baghdad, and then flew via Jordan to Israel.

While there is no doubt that Redfa delivered important intelligence to Israel, other results of his defection are often massively overstated — especially in the United States.

Because Baghdad re-established its cooperation with London and the United States in late 1963, U.S. intelligence services not only received the opportunity to test-fly MiGs in Iraq, but also received all the related technical and training documentation.

That’s how the famous Foreign Technologies Division of the U.S. Air Force was able to obtain and translate the tactical manual for the MiG-21 as early as 1965.

Because the Iraqis knew about this, it’s unsurprising that their official investigation of Redfa’s defection concluded that he was simply the number-four on Mossad’s list and, if he had refused to defect, the Israelis would have gone on blackmailing and assassinating pilot after pilot until one finally gave in. Therefore, none of Redfa’s superiors or colleagues was punished.

The Americans were granted permission to test-fly MiG-17s in Cambodia around the same time, and in the early 1970s the Americans obtained no fewer than 13 MiG-21F-13s from Indonesia. This enabled the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy to establish an entire training squadron equipped with the type and successively expose not only few hand-picked test-pilots, but thousands of fleet pilots to the MiGs.

Next Story — The U.S. Army’s Tank-Destroyers Weren’t the Failure History Has Made Them Out to Be
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An M10 tank-destroyer in action near St. Lo in June 1944

The U.S. Army’s Tank-Destroyers Weren’t the Failure History Has Made Them Out to Be

Lightly-armored and heavily-armed, tank-destroyers proved effective against panzers

by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN

During the 1940s, the U.S. Army developed a special weapon to counter the tanks of the German Wehrmacht. Most of these vehicles had the hull of a Sherman tank and a turret with a long-barrel cannon.

But don’t dare call them tanks. These were tank-destroyers.

After the war, the U.S. Army concluded tank destroyers were a waste of time. Official histories excoriated the failure of the program.

But a look at historical records shows that tank destroyers actually did their job well.

The tank-destroyer force was the Army’s response to the wild successes of German armor in Poland and France in 1939 and 1940. Panzer divisions would concentrate more than a hundred tanks on a narrow front, overwhelming the local anti-tank weapons of defending troops and rolling deep into enemy lines.

In 1941, the Army concluded that it needed mobile anti-tank units to intercept and defeat German armored spearheads. Towed anti-tank guns took too long to deploy on the move and it was difficult to guess where the enemy would concentrate for an attack. Instead, self-propelled anti-tank battalions would wait behind friendly lines.

When the German armor inevitably broke through the infantry, the battalions would deploy en masse to ambush the advancing tank columns.

The Army didn’t intend for its own tanks to specialize in defending against enemy panzers. The new armor branch wanted to focus on the same kind of bold armored attacks the Germans were famous for.

The Army tested the concept out in war games at Louisiana in September 1941. Tank-destroyers performed extremely well against tanks — perhaps because, as the armor branch alleged, the “umpire rules” were unfairly tilted in their favor. Tanks could only take out anti-tank units by overrunning them, rather than with direct fire.

With the support of the Army’s chief of training and doctrine Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, tank-destroyers became their own branch in the army, just like armor and artillery already were. A tank-destroyer center began training units at Fort Hood, Texas. Fifty-three battalions of 842 men each initially mobilized, with plans to grow the force to 220 battalions.

Each battalion had 36 tank-destroyers divided into three companies, as well as a reconnaissance company of jeeps and armored scout cars to help ferret out the disposition of enemy armor so that the battalions could move into position. The recon company also had an engineer platoon to deal with obstacles and to lay mines.

The first tank-destroyer units made do with hastily improvised vehicles. The M6 was basically an outdated 37-millimeter anti-tank gun mounted on a three-quarter-ton truck.

The M3 Gun Motor Carriage, or GMC, was an overloaded M3 halftrack — a vehicle with wheels in the front and tracks in the rear — toting a French 75-millimeter howitzer on top. Both types were lightly armored and lacked turrets.

Destroyed M3 tank-destroyers at El Guettar

Scooting and shooting in Tunisia

Though some M3 GMCs resisted the Japanese invasion of The Philippines, tank-destroyer battalions first saw action in the deserts of North Africa starting in 1942.

Their most important engagement pitted the M3s of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion against the entire 10th Panzer Division in the battle of El Guettar in Tunisia early in the morning on March 23, 1943.

Deployed in defense of the 1st Infantry Division just behind the crest of Keddab ridge, the 601’st 31 gun-laden halftracks moved forward and potted off shots at the panzers as they rolled down Highway 15, then scooted back and found new firing positions. They were bolstered only by divisional artillery and a minefield prepared by their engineers.

Two companies from the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion reinforced them at the last minute, one of them suffering heavy losses while approaching.

The panzers advanced within 100 meters of the 601st’s position before finally withdrawing, leaving 38 wrecked tanks behind. However, the 601st had lost 21 of its M3s and the 899th lost seven of its new M10 vehicles.

The heavy losses did not endear the tank-destroyers to Allied commanders. Gen. George Patton said the tank-destroyers had proved “unsuccessful.”

In fact, the battle of El Guettar marked the only occasion in which U.S. tank-destroyers were used in the manner intended — deployed as an entire battalion to stop a German armored breakthrough concentrated on a narrow front.

The German army remained largely on the defensive in the second half of World War II, and failed to achieve armored breakthroughs like those in Poland, France and Russia. As a result, the U.S. Army scaled back the number of tank-destroyer battalions to 106. Fifty-two deployed to the European theater and 10 to the Pacific.

Another problem was that tank-destroyer doctrine presupposed moving into ambush positions after the German tanks had already overrun defending infantry. In practice, nobody wanted to consign the infantry to such a fate, so tank-destroyers deployed closer to the front line for forward defense.

An M10 Wolverine at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Raymond Veydt photo

The first proper tank-destroyer was the M10 Wolverine, which featured the hull of the M4 Sherman tank and a new pentagonal turret. General Motors and Ford produced 6,400 M10s.

The Wolverine mounted a long-barrel high-velocity 76-millimeter gun thought to have good armor-piercing performance. However, it had less effective high-explosive shells for use against enemy infantry — at least, compared to the 75-millimeter shells fired by Sherman tanks.

Naturally, tank-destroyer units carried more armor-piercing shells than high explosive shells, while the reverse was true in tank units.

Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia all fielded tank-destroyer vehicles, as well. Some were simply anti-tank guns mounted on a lightly-armored chassis, such as the Marder and Su-76, while others were heavily-armored monstrosities with enormous guns, such as the Jagdpanther and the JSU-152.

None had turrets. These were seen as expensive luxuries unnecessary for the defensive anti-tank role. American doctrine envisioned a more active role, thus the turrets. However, the M10’s hand-cranked turret was so slow it took 80 seconds to complete a rotation.

While Sherman tanks had three machine guns, the M10 had just one pintle-mounted .50-caliber machine gun that could only be fired if the commander exposed himself over the turret. Movie star Audie Murphy won the Medal of Honor when he repelled a German assault near Colmar, France using the machine gun of a burning Wolverine.

The M10’s biggest deficit lay in armor protection. The Wolverine had an open-top turret, meaning the crew was exposed to shrapnel and small-arms fire from above. Its armor was also thinner overall than the Sherman’s was.

These shortcomings had their rationales. Even the heavier armor on a Sherman could be reliably penetrated by the long 75-millimeter guns of the standard German Panzer IV tank, let alone the more potent guns on German Panther and Tiger tanks.

Therefore, the Wolverine’s inferior protection made little difference against those vehicles. It did leave the M10 more vulnerable than the Sherman to lighter anti-tank weapons, but these were no longer very common.

Likewise, the M10’s open top gave the crew a better chance of spotting the enemy tanks first — usually the factor determining the winner of armor engagements. It would rarely be a weakness when only fighting tanks. Of course, it would be a problem when engaging enemy infantry and artillery, but that was meant to be the Sherman’s job.

The M10 fully replaced the M3 GMC by 1943, but its superior gun proved less of a panacea than the Army had hoped. The Sherman tank’s short 75-millimeter gun was unable to penetrate the frontal armor of German Tiger and Panther tanks, which accounted for roughly half the Wehrmacht tank force by 1944.

The Wolverine’s 76-millimeter gun supposedly could — but experience in combat showed it failed to penetrate the frontal armor of Germany heavy tanks at ranges greater than 400 meters. A problem known as shatter-gap meant that the tip of the 76-millimeter shell deformed when it hit face-hardened armor plate at long distances, causing it to explode before penetrating.

The tank-destroyer’s inability to take out the best enemy tanks heightened the branch’s generally negative reputation.

In the Italian campaign that began in 1943, German armor was rarely encountered in large numbers, and M10s were often asked to provide fire support for the infantry. They were even used as indirect-fire artillery. Though firing lighter shells, a tank-destroyer battalion had twice as many gun tubes as 105-millimeter artillery battalion did, and longer range.

Instead of holding tank-destroyers in corps reserve, it became standard practice for commanders to attach a tank-destroyer battalion to front-line infantry divisions. Rather than fighting as unified battalions, companies or platoons of tank-destroyers would detach to provide direct support to infantry and combined arms task forces. For every anti-tank round the tank-destroyers fired, they fired 11 high-explosive rounds.

Doctrinaire officers complained that the M10s, vehicles in most respects similar to a tank, were being employed as if they were tanks. Gen. Omar Bradley suggested that the Army should instead use heavy towed anti-tank guns, which could be more effectively concealed in dense terrain.

As a result, half of the battalions converted to towed, 76-millimeter M5 guns similar in effectiveness to the M10’s own gun. These supplemented the companies of lighter 57-millimeter guns integrated in each infantry regiment.

As tank-destroyers were drawn increasingly into infantry support roles that exposed them to artillery and infantry fire, their crews piled sandbags on top of them in order to detonate Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets. Other field-modifications included additional machine guns and even armored panels covering the tank-destroyers’ vulnerable open tops.

The arrival of new Sherman tanks in 1944 sporting their own 76-millimeter guns further blurred the distinction between tank-destroyers and tanks. There were now Sherman tanks just as effective at tank-hunting.

An M5 gun in action

Busting panzers in Normandy

Tank-destroyers fought in two major engagements in Normandy in addition to numerous smaller skirmishes. On July 11, 1944, three panzer battalions of the Panzer Lehr Division, supported by mechanized infantry, launched a counterattack to relieve Allied pressure on the city of Saint Lo.

The two wings of the attack ran into dispersed M10 platoons of the 799th and 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalions near the village of Le Désert, supported by abundant air power. In a series of sharp engagements in the claustrophobic hedgerow corridors of the Normandy countryside, the Panzer Lehr division lost 30 Panther tanks.

Three weeks later, four panzer divisions attempted to pinch off the Allied breakout from Normandy in the Mortain counteroffensive. The Panzers ran into the towed guns of the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. In the dense early morning fog of the opening engagement, the 823rd was forced to fire at the muzzle flashes of equally-blind Panther tanks.

Unable to pull back the entrenched weapons, the 823rd lost 11 guns but succeeded in taking out 14 tanks. Self-propelled tank-destroyer battalions rushed into help. U.S. forces held Mortain and the German armies in northern France collapsed into a full retreat.

New tungsten-core, high-velocity, armor-piercing ammunition began to arrive for the 76-millimter guns in September 1944. The new rounds could reliably pierce German armor at range. Each Wolverine received only a few rounds of the rare ammunition, but it at least gave them a fighting chance at penetrating the German heavies.

Eleven tank-destroyer battalions were designated “colored” units. They were manned by African-American enlisted men and, mostly, white officers. The third platoon of the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, equipped with towed guns, won a Distinguished Unit Citation for beating back a German infantry counterattack after losing three of its four towed guns.

Charles Thomas, then a captain, being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945

Its commander, Lt. Charles Thomas, stayed to direct the fight even after his M20 scout car was knocked out and his legs were raked with machine-gun fire. He was awarded a Distinguished Cross that was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 1997. By contrast, the 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion was infamously plagued by poor leadership.

M10s and M18s also saw action in the Pacific, serving notably at Kwajalein Atoll, Peleliu, The Philippines and Okinawa. Facing only limited enemy armor, they specialized in destroying Japanese pillboxes, though some apparently took out tanks in the Battle of Saipan.

More than 1,600 M10s would also serve in Royal Artillery anti-tank regiments of the British Army. Almost two-thirds were eventually given extra armor plates and up-gunned with the superior 17-pound anti-tank gun, and were known as M10C Achilles. The 17-pound — also 76 millimeters in caliber — was a reliable Tiger- and Panther-killer. British doctrine treated the Achilles as a fast-deploying defensive weapon rather than as an active tank-hunter.

The Achilles acquitted themselves well. In a battle near Buron, France, they knocked out 13 Panzer IV and Panther tanks for the loss of four of their number. They often escorted heavily-armored Churchill tanks that lacked adequate anti-tank firepower.

Some 200 Wolverines served in the Free French Army, where they were well-liked. Famously, the French M10 Sirocco fired across the two-kilometer-long Champs-Élysées boulevard of Paris from near the Arc de Triomphe to knock out a Panther tank at the Place de la Concorde.

Even the Soviet Union operated 52 M10s received through Lend Lease. These served in two battalions that saw action in Belarus.

French civilians inspect a Panther knocked out by a French M10 at the Place de la Concorde in Paris 1944

The new blood

In 1944, two additional tank-destroyer types entered service. Buick designed the M18 Hellcat for pure speed. Lightweight and powered by a radial aircraft engine, it could zoom along at 50 miles per hour in an era that tanks rarely exceeded 35 miles per hour.

However, it had only an inch of armor and was armed with a 76-millimeter M1 gun that was little more effective than that on the M10. Several units in Italy refused the upgrade to the M18 — armor was more important than speed in the cramped mountainous terrain. But the M18 was popular in Patton’s hard-charging 3rd Army.

While speed is useful for getting armored vehicles where they’re needed, accounts differ as to whether it provided the M18 much benefit at the tactical level. An Army study concluded it was unimportant in tactical combat. Other sources maintain the Hellcat’s speed enabled it in using hit-and-run tactics.

An M18 Hellcat of 824th Tank Destroyer Battalion in Wiesloch, Germany on April 1945. U.S. Army photo

The M36 Jackson — or Slugger — on the other hand, had the hull of the M10 with additional armor and finally upgraded the armament to a heavy 90-millimeter gun. Not only were the heavy shells effective Tiger- and Panther-killers at long ranges — one once knocked out a Panther nearly four kilometers away — but they were significantly more effective against infantry.

2,324 were converted by the end of the war from various M10 and M4A3 vehicle hulls.

The new tank-destroyers acquitted themselves well in combat. In the Battle of Arracourt, two platoons of Hellcats — eight in total — from the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion moved swiftly into ambush positions behind a low ridge on a foggy day, only their turrets poking over the rise.

When a battalion of Panther tanks from the 113th Panzer Brigade entered their sights, they knocked out 19 for the loss of three of their own number. At the Siegfried Line, M36s excelled at knocking out fortifications and helped beat back Tiger tanks that had decimated Shermans of the 9th Armored Division.

M36s countering German armor in Werbomont, Belgium on Dec 20, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. U.S. Army photo

The Battle of the Bulge, a massive German counteroffensive in the frozen Ardennes forest, was the swan song of U.S. tank-destroyers. The Hellcats of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion helped the 101st Airborne repel German armored assaults at Bastogne.

A detached platoon of M18s escorting Team Desobry helped take out 30 German tanks in Noville. M36 Jacksons of the 814th Tank Destroyer Battalion took 50-percent casualties in a delaying action at Saint Vith, knocking out 30 Panther tanks in the process.

The towed tank-destroyer battalions didn’t fare so well. Several battalions had to abandon their guns in the face of the German advance. Others got stuck in the mud and snow. While M10s of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion destroyed 17 tanks in two days in the ill-fated defense of Elsenborn ridge, the towed guns of the 801st fighting in the same battle lost 17 guns.

Of the 119 tank destroyers lost in the Battle of the Bulge, 86 were towed guns. Meanwhile, the tank-destroyers claimed 306 enemy tanks. In January 1945, it was decided to re-convert the towed units to self-propelled battalions.

By the end of the war, the writing was on the wall for the tank-destroyer — particularly when the first of the early M-26 Pershing tanks armed with the same 90-millimeter guns as on the M36 began to see action in early 1945.

Tank-destroyers were pretty much just tanks with inferior armor and better guns. Contrary to doctrine, commanders in the field asked them to perform most of the same tasks as regular tanks. Why invest in a whole separate branch of the army and different class of vehicles when you could simply give tanks the same gun?

Just three months after the end of World War II the Army disbanded the tank-destroyer branch. While the U.S. military did develop a few more specialized anti-tank vehicles, such as the M56 ONTOS, Army doctrine would go on to assert “the best means of taking out a tank is another tank.”

World War II was not quite the end of the line for U.S. tank destroyers. The M36 Jackson and its 90-millimeter gun were hastily called back for use in the Korean War five years later to counter North Korean T-34/85 tanks.

Surviving tank destroyers were resold all over the world. M10s and M18s saw action with the Nationalist army in the Chinese civil war. Wolverines cropped up in the Arab-Israeli conflict and Pakistani M36s battled Indian tanks in 1965. Croatia and Serbia used M36s and M18s in the Yugoslav civil war of the early to mid-1990s. Yugoslavia even deployed M36s as decoys against NATO airstrikes during the Kosovo War. Upgraded M18s remain in Venezuelan service today.

The shortcomings of U.S. tank destroyers are clear. They were intended to fight in a specific context that largely failed to materialize. They had inferior armor protection. With the exception of the M36, they weren’t reliably capable of taking out the scariest enemy tanks.

Post-war Army historians roundly lashed them for these shortcomings. Yet here’s the funny thing. Operational records show that the tank-destroyers actually rocked.

Active, self-propelled tank-destroyer battalions were judged to have killed 34 tanks each on average, and about half as many guns and pillboxes. Some units, such as the 601st, reported more than 100 enemy tanks destroyed. This led to an average kill ratio of two or three enemy tanks destroyed for every tank-destroyer lost.

The ultra-lightly-armored M18, with its unexceptional gun, had the best ratio of kills to losses for any vehicle type in the Army!

Why? Ultimately, it may come down to how tank-destroyers were employed, even though it was not the manner intended by Army strategists. While Sherman tank units sometimes embarked on risky assaults and unsupported rapid advances, tank-destroyers usually deployed in support of combined arms task forces with infantry.

This cooperation with friendly forces meant they showed just where they needed to be, spotted the enemy first and got off the first shot. And being the first to shoot usually determined the outcome of armored engagements in World War II, regardless of the quality of the vehicles involved.

Tank-destroyers also taught the Army not to over-specialize. There was no need for multiple classes of tanks that were strong in one respect and weak in another. The post-war concept of the main battle tank embraced this idea to the fullest.

As such, the U.S. tank destroyer branch constitutes one of the most curiously successful failures in U.S. military history.

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‘White Tiger’ is Like ‘The Horse Whisperer,’ But With Tanks

There’s surprising depth in this movie about a man who can talk to armored vehicles

by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN

White Tiger is an artsy, Oscar-nominated film about a man who can talk with tanks. Other titles that could apply to it — The Tank Whisperer. Moby Tank. God of Tanks. Nightmare on Tank Street.

This 2012 production will appeal not only to tank fans, but to anyone intrigued by a slow-paced, sumptuously-composed and quite bizarre movie examining war from a mystical, uniquely-Russian point of view.

White Tiger begins in 1943 with one of many long, masterful takes, as Russian troops wearily pick over the shattered remains of one of their armored units.

Amid the burned-out hulks there’s a lone survivor, his skin mostly burned off. The triage nurse nearly turns him away, but the survivor miraculously makes a full recovery after only two weeks in the hospital.

He can remember neither his name nor whether he has any family — he only knows that he is a tankist. Though clearly off in the head, he gets sent back to the front line. “You don’t need any memory to load a cannon in a tank,” an officer growls.

His handlers give him a new name — Naydenov. “Unknown.”

Naydenov can confirm what other Soviets and captured Germans are reporting — a mysterious Tiger tank, painted all white, is wreaking havoc on Russian armored units. Appearing suddenly out of impassable forests and swamps, it wipes out any Russian tanks it encounters.

A skeptical intelligence officer, Major Fedotov, recruits Naydenov and two other crew members to pilot a souped-up T-34/85 tank on a mission to take out the rampaging Tiger.

White Tiger just gets weirder from there. Naydenov is convinced he can speak to the spirits of knocked-out tanks — and even worships an, uh, “tank god.” The White Tiger, he says, has no crew — it is a ghost tank that hunts with inhuman precision.

Despite being about giant steel war machines blowing each other up with enormous cannons, on the screen White Tiger is actually a study in stillness, silence and long ominous pauses. The first battle doesn’t occur until a half hour into the film.

The camera angles are elaborate. The setting is a primeval pine forest scarred by war. The score is heavy on Wagner — and not “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Here, at top and below —screen captures from ‘White Tiger’

The film doesn’t try to recreate the experience of the Eastern Front — in fact, no human physically harms another on-screen in the film. Evidence of human suffering abounds, however, and the characters behold it with deadened eyes. It’s as if the war has made people like the war machines they crew.

White Tiger’s second act adopts the tense cadence of a horror film as Naydenov stalks the Tiger and Major Fedotov confronts the evidence of the German tank’s supernatural nature. When the White Tiger appears out of the mists to slaughter a Soviet tank company, disappearing and reappearing at will, its unstoppable assault is like that of a killer in a slasher flick.

The film features real tanks and no CGI, and the director knows how to treat the vehicles as characters in their own right — whether alive and running, or burned-out and dead. The White Tiger, however, is actually a modified IS-2.

The final confrontation between the White Tiger and Naydenov’s T-34 is as suspenseful as the best Western gunfight, involving a cat-and-mouse chase in a rural town involving vehicles weighing a hundred tons between them.

Unfortunately, the film then trails on for another half hour in a vein utterly unrelated to the plot. We witness humiliated German officers struggling to enjoy strawberries with cream. Next, there’s a soliloquy by Adolf Hitler as he tries to justify his war crimes.

While some of these scenes reinforce the themes of the movie, their languid pacing bloats an otherwise taut film.

That said, White Tiger’s bizarre tank-obsessed mysticism is rooted in Russia’s historical experience and communicates a clear message.

The hundreds of miles stretching between the Germany and Russia’s Ural mountains are largely open, flat ground on which tanks thrive. German tanks nearly destroyed Russia, and Russian tanks certainly saved her.

The Tiger tank and the T-34 are national icons of Germany and Russia, respectively. Pop culture fetishizes the Tiger as a product of expert German engineering, efficient and powerful, with armor that most Allied tanks were incapable of piercing and an 88-millimeter cannon that could effortlessly destroy any opponent.

In reality, the Tiger was over-engineered and expensive to produce, broke down frequently and by 1944 was at least matched by Russia’s Josef Stalin tanks and even the America’s M-26 Pershing. But that never tarnished the Tiger’s reputation.

Likewise, the T-34 is renown for being rugged, reliable, uncomfortable to ride in, and numerous — Russia built more than 80,000 of the tanks, compared to the mere 1,347 Tigers that Germany produced. In addition to being fielded in vast numbers, the T-34 was in fact far superior to early German tanks. Even though it later lost its technological edge, it remained a viable tank up to the very end of World War II, and even into the Korean War.

The Tiger and the T-34 thus function as immortal metaphors for the German and Russian nations, doomed to seemingly eternal struggle. The tank god Naydenov worships embodies the mechanized armies laying waste to wide swaths of Eastern Europe, leaving behind wastelands of burned-out wrecks.

Discussing Naydenov’s peculiar religion, two Russian officers bring up God, the Devil, Communism and ultimately Darwnisim and finally agree — the tank god represents survival of the fittest.

Hitler’s speech at the end further underscores this theme. “We simply had the courage to carry out what Europe dreamed of doing,” he ruminates. “Their whole lives they were afraid of Russia, gloomy country to the east. That centaur, wild and alien to Europe.”

“War is eternal,” Hitler concludes. “War is the natural state.”

The speech teases the stereotypically resigned Russian outlook toward history, learned over centuries of devastating foreign invasion, that war is indeed unending. The German Tiger — or perhaps the entire West — will always be lurking in the forest, waiting for the opportunity to pounce.

“He’s waiting,” Naydenov warns. “He might wait 20, 50, even 100 years. But one day he’ll crawl out … You know what has to be done.”

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