The Ballad Of Mike Sparks

By Colin Salt

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Kingsbury of a U.S. Army M113 Armored Personnel Carrier during exercise Allied Spirit

Mike Sparks is one of the most infamous internet commentators about military matters. He is known for his crazed conspiracies and in particular his love of the M113 armored personnel carrier, which he calls the "Gavin". (No one else, from the builders to the troops using them, has ever used that name). The sad part of his craziness is that it started with a pair of defensible ideas. The M113 armored personnel carrier, used most notably in Vietnam, existed for a reason and could have been reasonably repurposed for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

To explain, let's rewind time to the 1990s. The US military faced two related problems, one constant and one recent.

The constant one was the vulnerability of paratroopers. It's an irony that even though airborne forces are the most strategically mobile soldiers, they are among the least tactically mobile after they land. It's a matter of how they have to walk with an equipment load that's frequently even heavier than the heavy norm. This was attempted to be countered by air-droppable armored vehicles like the Soviet BMD series and the American M551 Sheridan. One can argue about their effectiveness, but it has been done and it can make at least conceptual sense.

The recent problem was the lack of what could be called a "medium motorized" force. The post-Gulf War US Army was a min-maxed force of capable but heavy and low-capacity M2 Bradleys and lighter infantry that had to be stuffed into vulnerable trucks to be even slightly viable in mechanized warfare. What was needed was something like the Soviet BTR or German Fuchs, an infantry carrier that wasn't as well armed, but could nonetheless hold more dismounts and have the speed and basic armor to keep up with the tanks.

If we add to this the post-Cold War budget crunch, which resulted in the (often correct, as proven in the case of the Crusader artillery piece) feeling that it would be hard to get a big acquisition through in that environment, then you can understand the merits of the argument. Reusing the existing M113s (which had, by the 1990s, been replaced on the front lines by the Bradleys but were still used in supporting roles as armored ambulances, command vehicles etc.) as a "good enough now" solution to the lack of medium motorized vehicles makes some sense.

The M113 had many limitations, it was slower and underpowered comparable to later armored vehicles, and its durability left, well, much to be desired. But there were many surplus ones laying around, and they would be effective enough as a stopgap in getting previously foot-bound formations (such as paratroopers) mobile basic protection. This is why Sparks fell in love with the M113 as a possible solution for the Army's problems.

The problem with his plan came with the elaboration of it, as detailed in the book Air-Mech Strike. The M113 plans adapted a kind of chameleon thinking regarding the APC, where in they were assumed to be able to be multiple contradictory things at once.

They would remain light enough to be air-droppable but have enough extra armor added that they would be valid infantry fighting vehicles. They would be heavily upgraded to modern standards but would still be cheap enough to deploy en masse. They would, in short, be all things to all people. And there was little willingness to "Stress-test" these proposals (for instance, a very risky deep strike with this isn't wargamed or even modeled, but is just brushed aside as succeeding).

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the proposal was never taken up and the actual medium motorized gap was successfully filled instead by the Stryker vehicles, manufactured in the early 2000s. Naturally, because this meant that his proposal was no longer needed, Mike Sparks began denouncing the Strykers at every single opportunity he got. It's at this point that he went off the deep end with things like flying M113s, and became the internet meme conspiracy theorist that people know him as.

But it's worth noting that even the craziest concepts can start from a viable foundation and there were reasons an Army might have gone with the M113s in another timeline.

Now it's also worth pointing out that, especially for the later irregular wars the US army would fight in the 21st century, the flaws of these vehicles could very well have proven fatal to many users. The M113 and Sheridan proved to be very vulnerable in Vietnam to exactly the kind of threats they would have faced in the Middle East. And in hindsight, with the adapted-from-the-proven-LAV Stryker, the quandary of "M113s or nothing" was a false choice. But having medium brigades in M113s would still be better than nothing, and airdroppable armored vehicles do exist.

Any implantation of the plan would, of course, have been a far cry from flying tank M113 "GAVINS" and having armies of GAVINS smash through what they couldn't roll around, unlike those weak vulnerable "Stryker Trucks" (Sparks' exact words). But good ideas can frequently spiral into bad ones.

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