WHILE HE WAS ROARING through the Siegrfried Line in the lead tank, in the fall of 1944, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. is said to have sent back a message to GenComZone in Paris: "Have just p---ed in Rhine. For God's sake send gasoline."
You'll get no such message from any Patton of tomorrow. He'll be trying to cope with the Army's new M1, a $2.5 million baby, which goes into battle with a butler and a nanny following close behind.
The M-1, if it were a child, would be Little Lord Fauntleroy. If it were a dog -- and some people think it is -- it would be a thoroughbred greyhound, fleet-footed but high-strung. It is so finely bred that it cannot dig a hole, which it needs if it is to stop and start firing its guns at the enemy, which is all that coarse, old-fashioned, unchaperoned tanks ever had to do.
Why not, you ask, put a hole-digging capability on the M-1, so you wouldn't need the ACE, the Armored Combat Earthmover, to accompany it to the front like a stage mother. Hear a general explain to a congressional committee:
"It would mean radical changes. It is not just adding a blade. There are a lot of other things you would have to do."
The ACE only costs $1.1 million, for heaven's sake. And how in the world is the Pentagon going to spend the $258 billion that Ronald Reagan is sending it if it's going to nickel and dime itself to death looking for practical solutions to expensive mistakes?
The M-1, for all its beauty and speed, has another slight defect which requires another vehicle in its supporting cast. It gets very low mileage on its gasoline. The cost of sending fuel trucks with tank battatlions would be a mere $63 million more. Patton would not have to send salty wires back to headquarters for more gasoline. He would have the fast- lunch van for his tanks right with him, providing, of course that the tank, the earthmover and the fuel truck could manage to stay together in the heat of battle.
This of course, raises the question of command structure. Who would be in charge? The bulldozer -- excuse me, Armored Combat Earthmover -- would presumably have to race ahead to scout out a berth for the tank. I am assuming they will have an elaborate radio-communications system among the three vehicles, but that may be just the beginning of the problem.
What if he hears on his earphones orders from the tank to dig in at a certain coordinate on the map. The ACE finds the spot, radios back that it is solid rock and besides the view is rotten. The fuel truck comes in. It is running out of gas. Does it give its remaining drops to the tank or the ACE?
They might have to wire the commander-in-chief for decision on that one. Getting that message encoded and back and forth to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could mean the loss of valuable digging time.
Gen. Erwin Rommel used solo tanks with great effectiveness in the desert of North Africa in World War II. How will the clinging-vine M-1 perform in the sand? Also in the desert it is plainly visible from above. Apparently, the ACE could dig it a grave deep enough to provide over night cover. But what about the ACE, which, weighing in at 34,000 pounds, is somewhat noticeable? After burying the M1, what would it do with itself until dawn?
Would it have to be dismantled and reassembled in the morning? But hark! It is, its fans say, "air-droppable," which means it could be flown back to Saudi Arabia and catch an early return flight in the morning.
But we still have the fuel truck. Could it hitch a ride on the ACE and be dropped off in Saudi Arabia for the night? Would they drop the vehicles with the people in them, or do the personnel parachute? This could start a jurisdictional war with the Air Force, but when you are talking about Rapid Deployment Force, you have to take risks.
But anyone who has ever driven a party of more than three on a long journey knows where the real rub comes. Deciding when and where to put up for the night can produce acrimonious stalemate.
Someone wants to keep going until dark. Someone says it's better to quit early and get a decent hotel. In the sands of the Persian Gulf, this would be no problem. But in Germany -- and aren't we going to stop the Reds at the Oder? -- some fuel truck jockey is going to insist that the best Wiener schnitzel on the continent is only a village away, and the ACE operator says the local beer is better right where they are. The tank commander will have to be more diplomat than warrior.
Our only hope is that the Soviets also have an M-1,that they are even now patting it on the turret, telling it not to be afraid in the dark, that it will never be alone, that the butler and the nanny will take care of it, even when, assuming both sides solve their logistical problems, the guns are going off.
I think if Gen. Patton had ever met an M-1, he would have slapped it in the face.