An M2A3 of 2-162 Infantry drives out of Patrol Base Volunteer in Sadr City during a QRF (Quick Response Force) mission. Note the prominent CIV, so vital to the Bradley’s effectiveness in urban operations in Sadr City and elsewhere in Iraq.
The familiar twin pillars of US armoured might in Iraq: an M1A1 Abrams and M3A2 ODS. Note the Bradley Reactive Armour Tiles, painted in CARC Tan, of this 1-4 Cavalry Bradley photographed during Operation Baton Rouge, an action designed to suppress the insurgency in the city of Samarra in October 2004
THE IRAQ WAR
On 20 March 2003 some 130,000 US soldiers, assisted by 45,000 troops from the United Kingdom, and smaller numbers from Australia and Poland, invaded Iraq. The initial offensive lasted just 41 days and on 1 May President George W. Bush announced “mission completed.” Yet before long the invasion had deteriorated into a long and bloody insurgency which would not end even with the withdrawal of US forces in 2011. During this long war, which cost 4,400 American lives and some $478 billion, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle played an important part and its role changed throughout the war reflecting its versatility and the adaptability of the men who served in it.
For the initial invasion the US Army’s Bradleys and Abrams were concentrated in Lieutenant General Wallace’s V Corps. This was comprised of the armour, cavalry and mechanised infantry regiments of 3rd Infantry Division and 4th Infantry Division, while 1-41 Infantry, detached from 1st Armored Division, served with the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. Early in the campaign the Americans were keen to avoid the kind of urban fighting that had relatively recently proved so disastrous for the Russians in Grozny during the First Chechen War. Instead the Americans conceived of a ‘Thunder Run’ into Baghdad, a massive armoured raid into the heart of the Iraqi capital designed to induce a sense of imminent defeat and the collapse of Iraqi resistance. On 5 April a battalion-sized taskforce of 1-64 Armor, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, spearheaded by thirty M1A1 Abrams and fifteen M3A2 Bradley CFVs, passed along the west bank of the Tigris River into the heart of the Iraqi capital. By midday 1-64 Armor had left the centre of Baghdad leaving some 2,000 Iraqi dead for the loss of a single Abrams to an RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) hit. The success of the first ‘Thunder Run’ led two days later to a second brigade-sized mission to seize the centre of Baghdad and its government buildings. The Iraqis had fortified the routes into Baghdad, yet it had no effect on the American advance and within a few hours of the Bradleys and Abrams of 2nd Brigade had secured the centre of the city, including the Republican Palace Complex and Ba’ath Party headquarters. The ‘Thunder Runs’ exploited the speed and survivability of the both the Abrams and Bradley. The scouts and mechanised infantry remained in their vehicles and the Iraqis had no opportunity to engage the American soldiers who refused to engage in the street fighting that had previously characterised urban operations. 2nd Brigade’s operations succeeded as well because of the training and discipline of the US forces and the flexibility afforded to the units to make tactical decisions on the ground.
Elsewhere during the invasion of Iraq the Bradley proved its worth. In the north of the country the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which had parachuted into Bashur Airfield were slowed in their advance to Kirkuk until they were joined by the Abrams and Bradleys of 1-63 Armor, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. 1-63 Armor was part of the USAEUR’s Immediate Ready Task Force, a heavy force that had been maintained in Germany since the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. The force included a Heavy Ready Company comprised of one M1A1 Abrams platoon and one M2A2 ODS IFV platoon with two additional platoons of M113A3s. The Abrams and Bradleys of 1-63 Armor were flown into Bashur Airfield on 8 April. Two days later, with Kurdish Peshmerga forces pressing the Iraqi army hard in Kirkuk and Irbil, the commander of 173rd Airborne Brigade decided to throw his limited armoured forces forward towards Irbil in a mini ‘Thunder Run’. Again, the psychological effect of heavy armour, both on the Iraqi army and the local Kurdish populace, was immense, but without the necessary logistics and mechanical support Task Force 1-63 Armor was unable to press ahead at once towards Kirkuk. Eventually TF 1-63 Armor continued its advance was instrumental in allowing 173rd Airborne Brigade to secure the vitally important Kirkuk airfields. TF 1-63 Armor showed the ability of the Bradley to be airlifted to a remote battlefield in support of light infantry and special forces and make an immediate impact. As one Special Operations soldier observed: “we have done all that we can do. We’ve bombed these guys for three weeks. We need tanks and heavy infantry to drive them off the ridge.”
The Bradley Fighting Vehicle again proved its worth during the second battle of Fallujah during November and December 2004. 2-7 Cavalry fought alongside the United Marine Corps as part of Regimental Combat Team 1 in the west of the city, while 2-2 Infantry (Mechanized) served as part of the Regimental Combat Team 7 in the east. Small groups of buttoned-up Abrams and M2A3s drove through the city subduing the insurgents with their firepower. Earlier the same year the so-called ‘Baghdad Box’ formation had been used to effect against the Shia militias in Sadr City. Interviews with the ten Bradley battalions that had participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom up to the end of 2004 revealed a generally positive view of the vehicle’s contribution. The Bradley Reactive Armor Tiles (BRAT) in particular proved very effective in protecting the vehicle and its crew against RPG attacks and only three Bradleys were lost of enemy action. The firepower of the 25mm Bushmaster cannon was intimidating and often enough to deter insurgent attacks. The greatest success, however, was the superb situational awareness of the Improved Bradley Acquisition Sub-System (IBAS) and the Commander’s Independent Viewer (CIV) on the A3 variant. These allowed the Bradley to move buttoned-up through urban areas deploying maximum firepower with maximum survivability. The survivability of the Bradley was such that some units, such as 2-69 Armor, replaced the HMMWVs of the scout platoons with M2A3s from the line companies to provide reconnaissance.
There were some issues identified, however. Most battalions identified the need for a stabilised machine gun for the Bradley commander, enhancing the ability to give suppressing fire all around the vehicle. Several also reported that they had damaged the main gun barrel in confined urban operations and requested a shorter ‘urban operations barrel.’ The experience of combat had also identified issues with the internal stowage, while the lack of a proper air conditioning unit meant that long periods of operating buttoned-up could degrade the effectiveness of the crew. Despite the praise heaped on the Bradley and its obvious effectiveness, there were still those who considered it obsolete for the wars that America would fight in the future. November 2003 saw the first deployment to Iraq of the Stryker Interim Combat vehicle, a multi-role eight-wheeled armoured vehicle, part of the new ‘Objective Force’ designed eventually to replace the ‘Legacy Force’ Abrams and Bradleys in the US Army. The deployment of the Stryker and the continued investment in the Future Combat System (FCS) programme took money away from the Bradley and the heavy armoured forces in general. In 2003-4, for example, the decision was taken not to the upgrade the M2A2 ODS and M3A2 ODS of 3rd Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to A3 standard and use the money instead in the FCS programme. The developing tactical situation also put pressures on heavy forces in Iraq. The threat of IEDs and the need to up-armour the Army’s fleet of wheeled armoured vehicles, principally the HMMWV, squeezed the resources available to support heavy armour. Indeed, the second rotation of US troops immediately following the invasion had to fight hard to bring all their heavy equipment in theatre. General Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalary Division, was at first prohibited from bringing all his Abrams and Bradleys to Iraq and had to enlist the personal support of General David D. Mckiernan, commander of land forces in Iraq, to get the decision reversed.
As the war changed into an increasingly desperate and sectarian insurgency the role of the Bradley too changed. Configured in its traditional role as part of the Armored Brigade, it continued to be valued for both its lethality and survivability. In June 2006, for example, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, arrived in Ramadi in Al Anbar province with 70 Abrams and 84 Bradleys. Instead of clearing the city block-by-block, as the US Army and Marines had done in Fallujah, the brigade established eighteen fire bases from which to mount aggressive patrols with their M1A1s and Bradleys. Joint patrols, employing Abrams, Bradleys, HMMWVs and dismounted infantry and tactics developed in the streets of Al Tharwa, Fallujah, Najaf and Sadr City, engaged insurgents at range of typically less than 200m and by early 2007 the insurgents’ attacks on US forces had largely come to a stop.
From 2007, despite the introduction of improved belly armour, high power spotlights and other improvements as part of the Bradley Urban Survival Kit (BUSK), the Bradley was withdrawn from frontline combat in Iraq as the nature of the conflict changed. The prevalence of IEDs as the insurgents’ main weapon against the US forces led to an investment in MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) of which the US procured some 12,000 between 2007 and 2012 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Bradley had again proved its worth. Some 150 Bradleys were destroyed by enemy action in Iraq, most of them lost to IEDs, but its firepower and protection proved an integral part in the success of US armoured forces, both militarily and psychologically, especially in the opening phases of the war.
1-12 Cavalry, 3rd ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division, were the first unit to receive the new M2A4 IFV. This has the full BUSK III package and ECP II changes.
THE BRADLEY TODAY
The withdrawal from Iraq and the decision of the US Army to deploy only Stryker Brigade Combat Teams to Afghanistan might have been thought by some to have been the final chapter in the long decline of US armoured forces that had been apparent since the end of the Cold War. Despite the cancellation of the Future Combat Systems in 2009, the Bradley and the Abrams seemed to have had their day. In 2013 seven of the US Army’s seventeen armoured brigades were de-activated. That policy changed in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and their interference in the subsequent civil war in Ukraine. Once again, the US and its NATO allies faced the prospect of a future conflict with a near-peer adversary. Operation Atlantic Resolve, the United States’ show of commitment to their NATO allies saw American heavy armour return once more to Germany and a new emphasis on the Abrams and Bradley as the chief warfighting systems of the US Army’s Maneuver Units in the shape of the Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT).
The US Army currently fields eleven ABCTs. This number was reached in 2019 by the conversion of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division from Strykers to heavy armour. This is an increase in the 2016 projection made to Congress of a force of nine ABCTs by 2021. One of these ABCTs is stationed in South Korea, part of the US VIII Army, while another ABCT is stationed in Germany as part of the ongoing Operation Atlantic Resolve. To the end of 2020 there have been seven rotations as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve and 1st ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division is, at the time of writing, serving in this role. These regular units are supplemented by five ABCTs of the US Army National Guard which regularly serve alongside their regular counterparts on exercise in both the United States and in Europe.
The Armored Brigade Combat Team is a formidable fighting force of 4,700 soldiers. Its mission is simple: ‘to disrupt or destroy enemy forces, control land areas … and be prepared to conduct combat operations to protect US national interests’. It currently fields four types of Bradley Fighting Vehicles: the M2A2 ODS or M2A3 IFV, the M3A3 CFV, the M7 BFIST and the Bradley ESV. Each ABCT contains two IFVs in its Brigade Headquarters, fourteen Bradley ESV in the Brigade Engineering Battalion, nine CFVs in the Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron, three CFV and two IFVs in the Headquarters Company of each armor and mechanized battalion, fourteen IFVs in each Rifle Company of the four mechanized infantry battalions, and four M7 BFISTs in the Fire Battalion. In 2015 there were 1,199 M2A3s and 453 M3A3s serving across the US Army’s ABCTs, while 162 M2A3s, 62 M3A3s, 377 M2A2 ODS and 197 M3A2 ODS served in the National Guard units.
The Armored Brigade Combat Team is also a highly dynamic unit which responds quickly to changes identified in a rigorous and high-intensity training environment. For example, up until 2016 the ABCT’s IFVs and tanks were organised into combined arms battalions. The change to armored and mechanized infantry battalions saw the reduction in strength of two rifle companies per brigade and an increase in the size of the brigade’s reconnaissance squadron. This was mainly driven by a shortage in manpower, but it also led to changes in tactics across the brigade. The first unit to change its organisation was 3rd ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division and it tested the new formation at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, CA, in the autumn of 2016.
Since 2015 US Army Bradleys have trained alongside Ukrainian armoured forces in Germany and alongside former Warsaw Pact adversaries and now NATO allies in Poland and Romania. They have trained in the former Soviet republic of Georgia as part of NATO’s Georgian Defense Readiness Program. They continue to serve as a deterrent to aggression in the Korean Peninsula and have most recently begun to conduct high-profile patrols in north-west Syria as part of the continuing war against the Islamic State. In October 2020 3rd ABCT, 1st Cavalry Division became the first unit to accept delivery of the latest M2A4 IFV. The Bradley then remains, and is likely to remain for some time, at the heart of the Armored Brigade Combat Team and the US Army’s warfighting capability.
The best introduction to the development and early history of the Bradley is R.P. Hunnicutt’s Bradley: A History of American Fighting and Support Vehicles (Novato, CA, 1999). In a similar vein, and somewhat more accessible, is Steve Zaloga’s M2/M3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle 1983-1995 (Osprey New Vanguard 18, 1995). A good photo album, covering the same period, is Jim Mesko, M2/M3 Bradley in Action (Squadron Signal: Carrollton, TX, 1992). A later, similar photo album which covers the period up to the war in Iraq is David Doyle, M2/M3 Bradley (Squadron Signal: Carrollton, TX, 2015). Michael Green and Greg Stewart’s M2/M3 Bradley (Concord Firepower Pictorials 1010, 1990) is also a good reference for early Bradleys. Hans Halberstadt’s Bradley Company (Crowood Press: Marlborough, 2001) is worth a look too.