Washington — A Pakistani policeman, keeping watch last summer on a road just over the border in Afghanistan near the Afghan town of Spinbaldak, handed his binoculars to an American newsman.
"Look over there, near that grove of trees," the policeman said. "You can see them!"
What the newsman saw was a group of Soviet T-55 tanks, their red stars clearly visible. A Soviet motorized rifle division, which had entered Afghanistan from the north six weeks earlier, had finally worked its way down to Pakistani frontier, and some of the USSR's older-type tanks were with it.
Half a world away from this scene, US Army specialists at Calfornia's big Ft. Irwin training area in the Mojave Desert were putting men and machines through a simulation of the kind of war the United States could face, some day, in the mountains of Pakistan or the deserts of the Persian Gulf area.
Everything about last summer's exercises in the Ft. Irwin area, as in similar maneuvers using tanks, artillery, helicopters, and strike aircraft in West Germany last fall, was directed toward one vital question: How does the US Army's armored fighting readiness stack up in quality against the numerically superior -- perhaps by 5 to 1 -- forces of the USSR and Warsaw Pact?
Equally important, what is to be the role of US armor, new and old, in the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) of 110,000 to 150,000 men for which Congress has been asked to provide billions of dollars?
Col. Sam Meyers, deputy for combat materiel in the Pentagon, says, "We have to decide what we want to do with the RDF."
If Army and Marine Corps mechanized and armored units are going to have to fight soviet tanks in a major land war in Europe or Asia, or both, one kind of strategy is called for. In such an eventuality, Pentagon planners say, the 7, 058 XM-1 Abrams main battle tanks, which the Army wants to procure as its principal heavy fighting vehicle of the future, will prove none too many.
On the other hand, if the Army's future is to fight with a light and highly mobile battle force, which might have to deal with rapid desert warfare or defending oil installations against Gulf guerrillas, or "presidential palaces against mobs," as one Army cynic put it, wuite different equipment and tactics are called for.
Two recently retired career officers, Army Lt. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Allan T. Wood, argued in a ground-breaking article in the January 1980 issue of Armed Forces Journal that the United States really needs a light armored corps, using vehicles of the HSTV- L concept -- standing for the long-winded name of High Survivability Test Vehicle, Light-weight.
This is a 16-ton, lightly armored buggy mounted on a chassis like that of a light tank and firing a 75-mm gun that the authors -- one of whom works with a firm manufacturing the HSTV-L prototype -- say "is capable of penetrating the heavy frontal armor of any Soviet tank now deployed."
Colonel Myers, not a strong advocate of the HSTV-L in its present, unproved state, compares a slugging match between the light vehicle and a conventional, heavier tank, with "Sugar Ray Robinson fighting Muhammad Ali -- he just has to keep moving fast, and not stop long enough to let the big guy get a shot at him."
In the meantime, the Army is forging ahead as fast as it can with development (and, it hopes, deployment by the mid- 1980s) of the 59-ton XM-1 main battle tank, and its "family" of fighting vehicles, including the XM-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Both are successors of that battle-scarred veteran, which has fought in most of the world's wars since the 1950s, the M-113 armored personnel carrier (APC).
The XM-1 has been nagged with bugs of all kinds which, Army tank men say, are in the process of being ironed out since the latest series of tests at Ft. Knox, Ky., last fall. The XM-1's many supporters in the Army say it can and will stand up to, and outfight, the Soviet Union's newest T-64 and T-72 series heavy tanks.
The Chrysler Corporation is building the XM-1 at its Lima, Ohio, plant and Detroit Tank Arsenal. The first few production- models rolled off the assembly lines at Lima Feb. 28 for presentation to the Army's brass, congressmen, and members of the public.
After winning in 1976 the Army competition for a successor to the M-60 tank family, which is still the standard battle tank of the US and a number of its allies, Chrysler delivered the first 11 pilot XM-1's to the Anniston, Ala., Tank Arsenal for the trials in early 1978.
The XM-1's assets, as one of its enthusiastic partisans puts it, are "almost overwhelming," at least on paper: Its crew of four is protected by Britain's top-secret Chobham armor (described by one leading US defense analyst, Tom Gervasi, in his book "Arsenal of Democracy," as "several layers of nylon micromesh bonded on either side by a plate of titanium alloy. The nylon micromesh, similar to that used in body armor and flak jackets, has the effect of laterally dispersing much of the energy inflicted by high-velocity antitank projectiles, so that fragments that have penetrated the outer plate have too little remaining energy to penetrate the second").
The first gun fitted to the XM-1 was the Army's M-68 105-mm. gun, but this is to be replaced, by agreement with NATO ally West Germany, with a more powerful German Rheinmetall 120-mm. cannon whose bore is not rifled, but smooth, reducing the projectile spin, say its backers. This gun, at considerable extra unit cost , is to be fitted to the tank at the federal arsenal at Watervliet, N.Y.
Under the kind of "two-way street" NATO agreements that US Defense Secretary Harold Brown would like to promote in many other fields and with many other allied countries, the Rheinmetall gun is to be adapted for other NATO tanks in NATO's standardization program: It is already standard for the West German Bundeswehr's Leopard tanks.
These are to use the Avco-Lycoming AGT 1,500 hp. P-C turbine engine built for the XM-1 and also the XM-1's fire-control system. US Army experts, while admitting the probable superiority of the Soviet-Warsaw Pact 125-mm tank gun, assert that this US fire-control system is far better than the Russian one.
However, it is the turbine engine of the XM-1 that has proved to have the most bugs and has drawn the strongest criticism. The US General Accounting Office, in a report of Jan. 29 titled, somewhat ominously, "The XM-1 Tank's Reliability is Still Uncertain," recommended "a full-scale diesel engine development program" if later tests of the turbine continue to show negative results.
The GAO's latest study of the XM-1 recalls that in February 1979 the tank achieved a mean of only 145 miles between failures, as against the 272-mean-mile goal the Army hoped to reach before conclusion of a test series at Ft. Knox last February.
In new mobility tests at Ft. Knox from June to October 1979, the Army, according to Lt. Col. Charles McClain of the Army's public information division at the Pentagon, managed to improve the rating to 299 mean miles between failures.
However, says the GAO, "The Ft. Knox tests were neither as comprehensive nor as rigorous as the operational and development ones, whose scores were either discarded or refined in the Army's latest evaluation."
The Army's ultimate goal for the XM-1 now is 320 mean miles between failures, which, according to Israeli specialists and others who have tested (and now operate) captured Soviet tanks of the pre-T-72 families, would be superior to Soviet performance. the earlier tests disclosed trouble in the turbine engine's air filtration, fuel control, and internal design, Air filter seals leaked, resulting in engine damage from dust and sand.
In tests at Ft. Bliss, Texas, the XM-1 often threw its track or broke it, sometimes in deep, moist sand.And there were occasions, too, when the hydraulic system of the gun turret failed to function properly, so that the crew could not swing the gun into the firing position it needed.
Tanks and antitank weapons are high- priority items on the Army's shopping list, shown in the fiscal 1981 defense budget request. To buy 569 of the XM-1 tanks (assuming the 325 tanks covered by fiscal 1980 are purchased), the Army wants $1.16 billion, plus $65.4 million for further development of the 120mm. gun. More accurate aiming equipment for the standard M-60 series of tanks -- the M-60A3 is the last best -- is to cost $54.2 million.
For 400 armored troop carriers, carrying the TOW antitank missile, the Army wants $538.4 million, along with $101.1 million for another 120,000 TOW missiles. Somewhere in the Army's research and development funding, apparently, is the money to improve protection against radiation as well as chemical and biological warfare (CBW). Soviet research and deployment efforts in CBW are said to be proceeding at a steady pace.
Also called for: 400 howitzers, at $102.3 million; 4,300 laser-guided artillery shells, which can zero in on a tank 10 miles away, for $121 million; $ 181.2 million for first large-scale production of large rockets, called GSRS, fired in salvos to spread thousands of deadly "bomblets" or antitank mines over an area.
What the Germans in World War II called "jagdpanzer," or "tank-hunters" -- called tank destroyers by the US Army -- generally is a rapid-fire artillery piece mounted on a fast, tracked or untracked vehicle. It now has taken to the air in a big way. The 1981 defense budget requests $222 million to develop a new antitank helicopter, called AAH, $75.6 million for developing a missile, called the Hellfire, to be carried by the AAH, and $506.8 million for 60 A-10 attack planes, functioning in a tank-destroying role.
One of the biggest problems, in linking the XM-1 tank family with the concept of the Rapid Deployment Force, will be the lack of enough big planes that can carry the tanks swiftly to remote parts of the world.
To remedy this, the Air Force plans to spend nearly $200 million to replace the wings on the giant C-5A Galaxy transports, making it possible to keep that once trouble- ridden plane in service until the year 2000.
C-141s, the mainstay of the Air Force's Air Transport Fleet, wil be strengthened to carry tanks and equipped for midair refueling (necessary to reach areas like the Indian Ocean), at a cost of $25.6 million. Finally, the Air force wants $78.9 million for its Civil Air Reserve Fleet -- modified wide- bodied passenger jets like the DC-10, for hauling tanks, vehicles, and other heavy Army cargo in wartime.
According to a joint report to Congress by Army Secretary Clifford Alexander Jr. and Gen. Edward C. Meyer, Army Chief of Staff, the old workhorse M-113 APC and its close relatives are to be upgraded. Remaining gasoline engines are to be converted to diesel, and improved cooling and suspension systems (also developed for the XM-1) added. Some 400 XM-2 infantry and XM-3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicles are to be purchased next year to replace, in later years, the M-113.
Facing the NATO forces in Europe, and deployed along the southern Asian frontiers of the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is a formidable soviet ground force that is built around a concept called the Motorized Rifle Troops (Motostrelkivyye voyska) and the Tank Troops (Tankovyye Voyska).
The motorized Rifle Troops, equipped with the highly mobile BMD and BMP light- armored vehicles, now include more than 100 divisions of 12,000 or more men each (as opposed to the eight elite airborned divisions, one of which is for training, of about 7,900 men each).
Whereas AMERICAN MILITARY DOCTRINE, whether for tank or infantry fighting, stresses the individual and replacement of individual tank crew members or infantry- men lost in battle, Soviet strategists, US intelligence experts say, plan for the eventuality that whole divisions might be destroyed in a nuclear war. Soviet contingency plans, therefore, call for replacement of whole divisions or regiments as units in mobilization arrangements.
With about 50 tank divisions, the mystique of the great tank battles against German forces at Stalingrad and elsewhere during World War II has not disappeared from the Soviet Army. This is true despite the failure of massed Soviet tanks of the Syrian Army in 1973 to break through Israeli defenses, after the initial surprise was over (and after those of the Egyptian Army failed to follow up on their initial victorious crossing of the Suez Canal and advance deep into Sinai).
In the 1975 edition of his classic book, "The Armed forces of the Soviet State," Marshall Andrei A. Grechko notes that tanks have become more vulnerable "while their use on the battlefield," in an age of electronic warfare and guided weapons, "has become more complex."
But if the ultimate test of these weapons should ever come, men would be sitting in them, facing an adversary encased in 50 tons of steel tank -- still the central machine of modern land warfare.