Every once in a great while, something extraordinary happens in military vehicle design. To describe the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) as "ubiquitous" really does no justice to the term. Really: with over eighty thousand vehicles produced in over fifty-five years, and still going, there are very few locales that have never met an M113's tread.
Developed in the late 1950's by FMC, the first M113's entered service in 1960, and deployed to South Vietnam in 1962. Although currently manufactured primarily by BAE Systems of England, the US Army ceased its own procurement of the vehicle in 2007, there are no plans to even begin replacing the M113-series before 2018, with full replacement not coming until sometime in the 2020's...
...In other words, the United States Military - for once - developed a vehicle so good, so reliable, so dependable, so flexible, that it is highly likely to still be using its later models some seventy years after its initial deployment.
The only class of vehicle in the modern inventory that even approaches this record is the USAF's B-52 bomber and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft...and, given the state of military R&D in the last few years, there is an even chance that a new procurement contract for the M113 could be let, as the c.6,000 vehicles remaining in the US Army's inventory will need replacement by 2030.
How did this happen? Why is the M113 the quintessential "war ride"?
The M113 is a very - VERY - basic combat vehicle. Like the original Willys MB 'Jeep' and the nearly-as-ubiquitous M3 Half-track of World War 2 fame, the M113 - it has never been called a 'Gavin' - is a basic, simple vehicle, whose simplicity of design lends it the ability to be ceaselessly modified. The M113's primary mission has always been simply to deliver it's load of infantry soldiers close to the fighting, with minimal fatigue, dry, with no sore feet, and reasonably well-protected from both the natural elements, as well as machine gun fire and artillery fragments. That is all.
An APC - M113 or not - is not a tank. However, it is frequently mistaken for one by observers lacking an understanding of the differences. "Tanks" are large, heavily-armored vehicles, armed with large (100mm+ bore diameter) guns that are not dissimilar from heavy artillery. In contrast, APC's have very light armor (usually made of aluminum and/or lightweight composites) and only light weapons, such as heavy machine guns, among others. In contrast, modern tanks use massive slabs of steel or very heavy composites, capable of at least deflecting heavy cannon rounds.
The failure to grasp this simple principle has frequently resulted in unnecessary deaths in combat.
But, during its combat debut in
Vietnam, observers of the M113 noted that its simple, box-like hull, as well as its drive chassis, were able to adapt to many missions...Soon, variants began to appear. While this is common for many military vehicles, the sheer number of variants that quickly began to appear boggles the imagination: everything from anti-tank to two separate anti-aircraft versions, one armed with a rotary cannon, the other with missiles, to command, ambulance, supply and engineering and recovery vehicles. The list of possible variations to the basic design are nearly endless.
There was one successful attempt to at least partially replace the M113 with the M2 "Bradley" "infantry fighting vehicle (IFV)". The only real advantages the Bradley has over the M113 are in its speed and firepower, the latter being a dangerous acknowledgement - "dangerous", because it implied that Bradley's could "hold the line" against tanks, if needs be, which it definitely cannot, the Battle of 73 Easting notwithstanding - of the fact that the M1 Abrams tank was simply too expense to deploy. The speed issue was valid, however, as was the Bradley's better armor layout.
However, the Bradley was very expensive, in comparison to the M113, so the 'Green Dragon' - the nickname given the M113 by the Viet Cong - continued to quietly soldier on, year after year, until there are few Western soldiers who haven't been around one, somewhere during their careers.
The M113 is a rather comforting sight to see, simply because of its solid history and reputation. The US military will have a hard time effectively replacing it.