Behind the wheel of the Army's immense riding `lawn mower'

`IT handles just like a car. Really,'' says the M2 Bradley driver. I am dubious. The vehicle I am sitting in doesn't look like a car. It looks like a condominium with a cannon and tracks. I push down the accelerator, and the huge machine eases forward. I push down a little harder, and suddenly I am driving 25 tons at 30 miles an hour over terrain so rough it could crack a Jeep in half.

With the hatch open and the Texas sun in my face, I am getting a look at what is this year's most criticized weapon in Washington: the Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Fort Hood, a big dusty base, is home for some 350 Bradleys, as well as 450 M1 tanks, the Bradley's predecessor in controversy.

For years to come these two types of armored vehicles will be the backbone of the backbone of United States conventional forces: the heavy divisions of the Army in Europe. Do they work as well as the Pentagon claims?

There are limits to what an observer can learn in a day, especially an observer the Army wants to impress. Still, one thing quickly becomes clear. The Bradley, despite the driver's claim, does not handle like a car, at least not like my car. I feel instead as if I am driving an immense riding lawn mower.

The automatic transmission works smoothly, and acceleration is remarkable, considering the 25-ton Bradley seems to weigh as much as a small house. Top speed is said to be 40 m.p.h. or more, but I can't check this, as the speedometer in my Bradley happens to be broken.

Steering is not subtle. When the driver moves the half-moon steering wheel to the left, the Bradley simply slows its left track, the result being a combination of a lurch and a hop. ``You've really got to give it the gas on turns,'' says the gunner, as I wrestle the machine across an arroyo.

A Bradley's basic role is carrying a nine-man infantry squad around a battlefield. Its armor would protect the soldiers from relatively light ordnance. Its firepower -- a light 25-millimeter cannon, a machine gun, and antitank missiles -- would also make the vehicle itself a platform for fighting.

The cannon, stabilized by a gyro, can keep its cross hairs on a target even while the Bradley itself is roaring cross-country. Switching to the gunner's seat in the turret, I press my face against a sight that's like a scuba mask. I squeeze the pistol grip trigger. With a loud pop more mechanical than explosive, the $6 shell arches toward a moving plywood target. It lands wide. I fire again; it lands wider.

At about $1.2 million each, the Bradley is many times more expensive than the M113, the armored personnel carrier it replaces. Army officials report that the two vehicles are so different in capability as to be not comparable. The troops at Fort Hood appear to genuinely like their new Bradleys, even when their officers are not around. A scout troop private makes a typical comment: ``It's a lot better than walking.''

But the Bradley's alleged faults are not the sort of thing that would show up during peacetime garrison maneuvers. Instead, critics say the vehicle's design is flawed in a way that would make it vulnerable in combat.

The Bradley controversy is typical of that generated by many new US weapons. The military can generally make new planes or ships or guns work well in the field (the now-gone DIVAD antiaircraft gun being a major exception). The so-called military reform critics in Washington often concede this, and focus instead on problems of conception: Is this the sort of weapon that would really be useful in war?

At its best, this sort of criticism emphasizes that reliability and other supporting factors can be crucial, and that the country should buy weapons that fit into a realistic national military strategy. At its worst, it becomes a quest for the perfect weapon, a ``golden bullet'' that is also inexpensive.

Stripped of all subsidiary controversies, the basic charge against the Bradley is that in war it would blow up too easily. The troop-carrying compartment in the vehicle rear is lined with boxes of cannon and machine-gun ammunition. Thus almost any shot that penetrates the Bradley's armor, say critics, would set it on fire.

``It would be great to drive until somebody started shooting at you,'' says a congressional aide who has long criticized the vehicle.

The Army replies that surviving on a modern battlefield would be a function of speed and maneuverability as much as sheer hardness.

The M1 main battle tank, however, carries its ammo in a far different manner than does the Bradley. Its shells are stored behind the crew compartment. A thick steel door, open only for loading, would provide the men inside some protection if an explosion occurred.

Of course despite their physical similarity, the M1 is designed for different missions from the Bradley's. While fighting vehicles provide cover for modern armies, tanks are still intended to be the point of their force.

Approaching three M1s parked under some stunted Fort Hood trees, the tanks at first appear to be part of the earth. They are dusty and gray and somehow give an impression of great weight, as if they were boulders. At 60 tons they are more than twice as heavy as Bradleys.

Their engines whine into life. They are turbines, instead of diesels, which has been a matter of controversy since the M1 first entered service. Turbines provide great power and acceleration but they run hot: I am warned not to cross close behind the tanks, lest I be scorched. They also gulp fuel. To ensure that a section of M1s has the same range as a section of older diesel M60s, the Army will just have to buy more tanker trucks, officers here say.

The tank I am riding in is helping a fellow M1 spot targets, for gunnery practice. Things are not going too smoothly. ``Target up, target up!'' says my tank commander, Lt. Col. Richard G. Sayre, who happens to be the battalion chief. The shooter tank looks around, but it takes too long -- about 40 seconds -- to find and fire on the fake plywood Soviet truck.

From a dug-in defensive position, a tank crew should be able to lurch out, aim, fire, and duck back in about 15 seconds. If it takes longer than that it greatly risks getting hit by many sorts of antitank weapons: hand-held missiles, attack helicopters, other tanks.

``A really good crew can do it in three seconds,'' says my commander, Colonel Sayre.

The M1 has all sorts of high-tech tricks to aid it in its task: gun gyros, night-vision sights, computers that correct for wind and the droop of a gun tube heated by the sun, among other things. But a tank, or any armored vehicle for that matter, is, despite its brawn, a vulnerable object today.

The tanks and Bradleys worked well in the limited training maneuvers I saw. What would happen in a real fight? Ever more complex armored vehicles seem matched against ever more capable antitank weapons. Some shoulder-fired missiles automatically aim for thinly armored turret tops. Attack helicopters can hit from six kilometers away.

``You know,'' says a Fort Hood major, ``a modern conventional battlefield would be a very lethal place.'' Tomorrow: Flying in the B-1B

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