What Bradley Fighting Vehicles Will Mean for Ukraine
The Biden administration yesterday confirmed reports that it will include Bradley Fighting Vehicles in an upcoming tranche of weapons and ammunition for Ukraine. Coming soon after French President Macron’s announcement of the transfer of its wheeled and highly mobile AMX-10RC anti-tank vehicles, and along with confirmation that President Biden persuaded German Chancellor Scholz to provide a number of their Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles, the first week of the new year has looked momentous for Ukraine.
Giving Ukrainians Bradleys and other armored vehicles will transform the tactical capability of a technologically advanced maneuver force. More importantly—from a commander’s perspective—it’s also a solid approach to establishing the kind of advanced logistical, maintenance, and repair capability Ukraine needs for future deliveries of advanced vehicles.
As a tanker who fought in a Bradley during Operation Desert Storm, as an assistant division commander for support for a tank division during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and as an armored division commander in northern Iraq in 2007-8, I can say that the fighting systems are important, but supporting them is critical.
Without proper maintenance and supply, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle quickly becomes a useless rusting vehicle, wasting its combat capabilities, which are considerable.
In 1990, I joined the 1st Armored Division’s Cavalry Squadron—an organization of about 800 soldiers with the mission of conducting reconnaissance and security for a division of 18,000 soldiers. That unit, positioned on the old East-West German border, had just transitioned from the thin-skinned and boxy M113 personnel carriers from the Vietnam War era to the new M3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles (CFVs). The Bradleys were slightly different from the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The infantry variant had a 3-soldier crew: a vehicle commander, a gunner, and a driver, plus six additional infantry soldiers—called, appropriately, the “guys in back” or “GIBs.” The cavalry variant had the same crew, plus a scout, the junior-ranking soldier of the crew who was usually called “JAFO,” meaning “Just A F**king Observer.”
The Bradley turret is awesomely powerful. The gun protruding from the center is officially designated M242, but soldiers call it a 25mm Bushmaster chain gun, or autocannon. The barrel of the gun itself is about seven feet long and takes two people to clean and install. The rounds it fires—up to 200 of them in a minute thanks to an electrical drive system—are about an inch in diameter and leave the muzzle at about 3600 feet per second. The ammunition comes in several types for several purposes, but two are particularly useful in combat: an armor-piercing fin-stabilizing discarding sabot, and a high-explosive incendiary with tracer known colloquially as “heat.” The gun can hurl these projectiles beyond 3000 meters.
For Ukrainian soldiers who are trying to dislodge the Russian military from positions it’s been hardening for months or even years, the difference between advancing on foot with a rifle in hand or advancing with Bradleys over trenches and across fields is huge. In combat, our crew destroyed enemy trucks, Russian-original Iraqi infantry fighting vehicles, and even early-model Russian tanks—and that doesn’t even include the Bradley’s main tank-killing weapon.
On the side of the turret is a rectangular box which holds two Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire Guided (or TOW) anti-tank missiles. The name says it all: It’s launched from a tube, the gunner or commander has to track the flight of the missile to the target, and the missile remains connected to the vehicle launcher with a spool of copper wire. The published “range” of these missiles is 3750 meters—after that, you’re out of copper wire. The Ukrainian military has already been using TOW missiles from standalone launchers—the Department of Defense announced that it would send 1500 TOWs to Ukraine. It’s unclear how many of these missiles the Ukrainians have already used, but restocking should be relatively straightforward: The TOW (in various versions and variations) has been around a long time and is plentiful. Several NATO members use the TOW, as do other countries like South Korea that have been eager to sell arms on the international market.
We launched several of these missiles during combat, and each hit their targets at very long range. By comparison, most Russian tanks have an effective range of between 1900-2500 meters (this is for a well-trained tank crew, which I have yet to see in the Russian army), so the TOW provides significant standoff.
In addition to the main gun and the TOWs, the Bradley’s turret has a coaxially mounted (which means offset from and parallel to the chain gun) 7.62mm machine gun, which, like the cannon and the missiles, is also fired from the gunner or commander’s station site system, which is like a video screen inside a set of binoculars. The rear of the vehicle has room for additional ammunition, including several large TOW missiles.
Of course, shooting is only part of the Bradley’s job. It needs to move, too—and move it does. The weight of the vehicle is between 30-40 tons (depending on the variants and the application of new add-on armor), but it can still reach about 40 miles per hour. It’s relatively easy to maintain the 600-horsepower Cummins diesel engine, the transmission is sturdy, it can go over 400 miles on a full tank, and it maintains an exceedingly smooth ride even over rough terrain (which helps with firing the weapons on the move). The space-laminate armor (steel and aluminum) isn’t as thick as that of a Russian tank, or the strength of the Abrams main battle tank’s Chobham armor, but it’s enough for a vehicle that’s designed to kill tanks from a distance.
In addition to punching through defenses with its armaments, mobility is the other great advantage the Bradley will give the Ukrainians. Even if 40 miles per hour isn’t fast by the standards of road cars, it’s well beyond what any soldier can do on foot. Moving fast is the key to avoiding stalemates, and decisive mechanized advances have featured in every major European war since World War I. The Russian army has no shortage of tanks, although their quality often leaves something to be desired. Giving Bradleys to the Ukrainians will help them move faster than the Russians can adjust, which will be key to victory.
Many will be adamant that giving Bradleys to the Ukrainians still isn’t enough. They’ll demand that Ukraine needs tanks, like the technologically advanced German Leopards or the American Abrams. Some will castigate the United States and its allies for slow-rolling the delivery of advanced weapons systems, regardless of the reason.
Yes, the Abrams would be even more of a boon to the Ukrainians than the Bradley. But the Abrams is a more complicated machine. Each Bradley needs not only soldiers to operate it, but soldiers to repair it, fuel it, and deliver spare parts and tools and ammunition and fuel to where the Bradleys are, which, hopefully, is constantly moving. For the Abrams, the fuel requirements are greater, the ammunition is heavier, there are more parts, and the turbine engine is more complicated than the Bradley’s diesel. Moreover, at up to 74 tons, the thing itself is harder to transport.
The Ukrainians may well be capable of operating the logistics systems required to maintain a fleet of Abrams, and it helps that neighboring Poland also uses them. But logistics networks don’t emerge overnight; they have to be designed, developed, tested, and optimized. Giving the Ukrainians Bradleys will begin the process of developing those logistics networks for a vehicle they can use in the immediate term. As has been the pattern with the Biden administration’s weapons transfers to date, small steps beget bigger ones.