Omar’s Grandchild: In Praise of the M2 Bradley

The M2 Bradley is America’s standard infantry fighting vehicle. It’s much maligned; its long and drawn-out design process is the subject of a feature film starring Kelsey Grammar. You would think after such a well-done (and funny) shellacking, I would hate it.

But you would be wrong. The Bradley is actually a really nice IFV. Borgundy would procure them if they were still in production. Like all designs, they are a compromise, but the resulting compromise is a better jack-of-all trades vehicle than any of its competitors. To understand the compromise, and why the Bradley still hangs with the best of them despite its age, we need to go back to the design of the IFV.

In 1967, the Soviets unveiled the BMP-1, and it took the world by storm. The BMP-1 was originally designed for the nuclear/biological/chemical contaminated battlefield of The Future, and was designed to put all of the squad’s organic firepower into a vehicle that could move with tanks and protect the soldiers from the hostile environment. They were expected to fight from within; the BMP-1 had firing ports to enable troops to shoot out, and even had devices to remove the weapon waste gasses from the interior. It was a bunker that could move at the same speed as a tank, and it had a PKT machine gun and a 73mm low-velocity gun to match the squad support weapons that couldn’t be fired from the ports.

The west was terrified. Here was an APC with teeth! Here was yet more firepower for the Red Tank Armies that would come thundering through the Fulda Gap. Western APCs would be shredded, since they were armed with only a machine gun. The Germans promptly and sensibly designed the Marder IFV1. But America did not. We were too busy in Vietnam to give much thought to armored warfare. And counterinsurgencies are expensive. We in America stuck with our tried-and-true M113 APCs as the world moved ahead. The Soviets would eventually make improvements to their BMP, and unveiled the BMP-2 in 1980. The biggest change was a shift to a smaller gun, because a high-velocity, stabilized 30x165mm gun has a longer effective range than the 73mm low velocity gun on the BMP-1, and stabilization lets it be fired on the move. The BMP-2 entered service in 1980.

By then America had been working on an IFV of its own, and they unveiled the M22 Bradley in 1981. It featured a stabilized 25mm gun, a twin launcher for TOW missiles, space for 6 dismounts who could fire out ports in the sides, and was amphibious. Of course, the complaints started immediately. Even though it was better protected than the M113, people complained that it wasn’t protected enough. Even though it had to be kept small to be amphibious (and the original was just barely amphibious), people complained that it didn’t carry enough troops. Everything is a compromise, and the Bradley’s designers had picked one set. Those who complained about armor were listened to, and the Bradley’s armor was progressively increased. The amphibious capability had to go (those who advocate river crossings underfire can shut up), and eventually the firing ports in the side were plated over. This wasn’t much of a great loss though; even professional soldiers couldn’t hit much when firing without sights through the tiny ports. And it was awkward for those inside, even though the Americans had provided a really compact weapon for use in firing ports. Russians used their regular AKs, and this was very difficult in the cramped interior. No longer burdened by firing port access requirements allowed the designers to reconfigure the seating arrangement. The resulting more sensible layout allowed accommodating an extra man, and was generally easier to get in and out from. The original layout was still better than that of the BMP.

No one would ever complain about the firepower on the Bradley. Well, except the British, who thought it overly extravagant to stabilize the 25mm gun. ‘Why would anyone need to fire on the move?’ they wondered. They got their answer with a side of crow in 1991, when the Bradley killed more Iraqi tanks than the M1 Abrams. And the TOW missiles were another large part of this. The Bradley had some anti-tank firepower built in, so US Mechanized troops had tank-killing support down to the squad level to help them face off against the Red Menace. The Bradleys were designed to kill the large numbers of non-tank armored vehicles in the Red Army, leaving friendly tanks free to concentrate on killing enemy ones. The TOW missiles were added since the Bradleys might also encounter tanks. Part of the reason why the Bradley couldn’t carry a full squad of dismounts was because of the stowed firepower. The Bradley carries 300 ready rounds of 25mm, plus another 600 stored 25mm rounds. The coax machine gun has 800 ready rounds, plus another 1,400 stowed. There are also 5 TOW missiles carried internally, in addition to the two loaded in the launcher. Use of a roof hatch allows for (somewhat awkward) reloading without the troops having to get out of the vehicle and climb about.

Of course, by now there are many other competitive IFVs. The Bradley has been heavily upgraded to compete, and it’s still a world-beater in a lot of ways. The Bradley was one of the first IFVs to feature an independent commander’s thermal sight, allowing for hunter-killer type operations where the commander searches for a target and hands it off automatically to the gunner for engagement. The Bradley’s 25mm gun now features depleted uranium APFSDS rounds, which are about as effective as the 30x173mm APFSDS common among NATO members. Even so, in the late 90s the US Army debated switching to a larger round for more HE effectiveness and round commonality with our NATO partners. Once again, a war in Iraq3 showed that the original design had lots of merit. In urban warfare, the aforementioned large ammo capacity of the Bradley proved a significant asset. Bradleys proved to have great staying capability as a base of fire, and worked great at providing support. What they lacked in HE quantity per round, they made up for in numbers. The Bradley’s front armor has been upgraded to take the Russian standard 30x165mm APDS, and modern explosive reactive armor kits are available to increase protection against RPGs and ATGMs.

Electronically, the Bradley’s sensors are better than most of the competition, save the very expensive Puma. The M2A3 also has the latest battle management kit installed to maximize crew awareness. Its dismount capacity matches that of the competition as well. The firepower suite is what makes it stand out, being well suited to infantry support tasks and having enough rounds for long engagements.

1.) Not to be confused with the Marder I, Marder II, or Marder III tank destroyers from World War II. The uncreative Germans like to reuse names.
2.) Not to be confused with the M2 Browning heavy machine gun, the M2 Carbine (a select-fire version of the M1 Carbine), the M2 halftrack, the M2 light tank, the M2 Medium tank…shut up, Hans.
3.) Operation Iraqi Freedom

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