October 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the first U.S. armored vehicles to Uruguay. The M24 Chaffee light tanks, along with the M41 A1 Walker Bulldog and the TBP M113 A1U, trained several generations of Uruguayan Army service members and play a very important role in national defense.
The tanks fell under the framework of the Military Assistance Program (MAP) the United States and Uruguay signed on June 27th, 1952. A total of 17 U.S. M24 Chaffee tanks arrived in Uruguay between October 1957 and September 1958. The units were assigned to the 13th Armored Infantry Battalion.
At the time, the Chaffee was considered an advanced technology tank. In 1980, diesel engines replaced the original ones. The tanks were also equipped with modern radio communication equipment, increasing the useful life of the armored vehicles that are still part of the fleet of the 13th Battalion. Despite their years, the M24 tanks are considered a very economical training platform for Uruguayan crews.
“We can train all our drivers, loaders, gunners, and commanders on an economical platform that still has combat value in a low-intensity conflict in which a possible enemy's anti-tank capacity is limited,” Major Alejandro Capeluto, second in command of the Uruguayan Army's 13th Armored Infantry Battalion, told Diálogo. “The firepower of the M24 can be very significant.”
Of the 17 units received, 15 remain in operation and two are in maintenance. The goal of the battalion’s command is to maintain an operational company of tanks. “We keep 15 vehicles operational in accordance with our needs. If for some reason it becomes necessary to have the entire fleet operational, that’s possible, since none of them are in conditions beyond repair,” Maj. Capeluto said.
In 1971, the 13th Battalion became a combined unit, comprising one company of tanks and a subunit of riflemen aboard infantry combat vehicles—a model other armies around the world later emulated, explained Maj. Capeluto. “It has been a venerated instruction tool for the Uruguayan Army, where a unique infantry breed was created, which is in fact the armored infantry.”
Unequaled power of the M41 A1 tank
Within the framework of MAP, in October 1980, 22 U.S. M41 A1 Walker Bulldog tanks arrived in Uruguay from Belgium, where they were part of NATO's reserve fleet. Prior to arrival in Uruguay, the tanks received an upgrade with 90 millimeter cannons replacing the former 76 mm ones, making them the Army's most powerful armored vehicles. The tanks were assigned to replace the fleet of M3A1 Stuart tanks at the Lt. Gen. Pablo Galarza Armored 2nd Cavalry Regiment. The 22 units are now operational and fulfill the dual role of training platform for the formation of different crews and defense exercises.
“This type of armored vehicle with caterpillar tracks is appropriate for the field and terrain that presents some difficulty. It’s a tank that has good movement, is easy to drive, and currently this equipment is intended for instruction of the regiment’s crews and how we should act during combat,” said Captain Martín Serres, commander of the Tank Squadron of the Uruguayan Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. “Also, since our unit is a symbol within the cavalry branch, the armored and mechanized instruction center which belongs to the 4th Cavalry Regiment—with its courses for tank section commander and tank squadron commander—comes to our unit to carry out a campaign and use this type of resource, since we are the only unit in the country that has a number of operational units for that purpose.” If necessary troops and assets have the capacity to deploy rapidly to any point in the country.
First incorporated armored personnel carrier
MAP also stipulated 32 TBP M113 A1U units, which arrived in Uruguay between May 1969 and June 1980. The armored vehicle is renowned in the world, with its Chrysler 75M, 209 horsepower, V8 water-cooled gasoline engine. The tank is equipped with a Browning M2HB .50 caliber roof-mounted machine gun. The Army upgraded the tanks’ systems—which deteriorated after nearly 40 years of use—to keep the combat vehicles among its fleet. In 2006, mechanic and maintenance personnel—after receiving training—elected to replace the engines with a 210 HP Detroit Diesel 6V53N and a Detroit Diesel Allison TX100-1 transmission. The tanks were assigned as follows: 16 units to the Lt. Gen. Pablo Galarza 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, eight to the 5th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the rest to the 8th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The TBP M113 A1U units of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment belong to the squadron of armored gunners, whose function differs from those of the tank squadron. “There are two jobs we consider very important in training, such as the driver and commander, and then the rest of the crew which is made up of armored gunners. This type of vehicle is not only used for instruction, but is also considered strategic for defense because of its capacity to move in an amphibious environment,” Captain Rodrigo Ramírez, commander of the Uruguayan Army Armored Gunners Squadron, told Diálogo. “Also, during adverse weather conditions—and in Uruguay it’s very common for rivers and streams to overflow, which affects the civilian population—it’s also used for humanitarian tasks, to evacuate people whose homes may have been flooded.” Maintenance on the TBP M113 A1U units is easier due to the availability of spare parts.
For the Uruguayan Army, U.S.-made armored vehicles have been very important tools to train personnel. They are also essential as strategic assets for national defense.