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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The M247 Sergeant York in Team Yankee

With the upcoming release of Stripes, the expanded American Army and Marine Corps lists for Team Yankee, it has been confirmed that one of the options will be the M247 Sergeant York Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun. The inclusion of this vehicle has ignited a small firestorm of controversy because despite 50 examples being produced, the M247 was never fielded abroad and the project was canceled for a variety of reasons - whereas other weapon systems that were actually fielded in 1985, such as the M2 Bradley IFV and ERA equipped Soviet tanks aren't yet in the game

Caught in a Landslide (of bad publicity!)

Finding unbiased information on the exact performance of the M247 is difficult - largely because of the political environment at the time of its development. The Wikipedia article on the M247 seems to echo the very critical party line on the system, but what happens if you peel the onion back a bit? Here's a snippet from an editorial about the Sergeant York from 1984's New York Times:
"...a man with a machine gun can bring down a helicopter. The Army should know: it lost 4,643 of them in Vietnam, nearly all to rifles and machine guns. Why does it need radar-guided guns, which cost $6.5 million each? Because, as Gregg Easterbrook has recounted in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1973 the Israelis captured a Soviet radar-controlled gun called the Shilka. Tested by the Army, the Shilka proved a poor weapon, incapable of hitting maneuvering aircraft. But the Army was envious. Ten years later it has a high-tech, armor-plated lemon all its own."
Contrast this to the Wikipedia article on the Shilka which states:
"The guns are useful against low-flying aircraft and lightly protected ground targets. Due to its effectiveness against ground targets, ZSU-23-4s have been used in urban environments (e.g., Afghanistan, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Syria and Lebanon). This is primarily because the guns can elevate much higher than a tank or APC cannon, enabling armored units equipped with ZSU-23-4s to return fire against ambushes from above."
So it is clear that some of the editorials from the time were looking at the M247 through the lens of it being a copy of the "failed" Shilka weapon system - which in retrospect seems inaccurate at best.

In addition, at least a fair portion of the negative press surrounding the M247 all seems to cite back to Gregg Easterbrook and a few of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly. Granted, there were many legitimate criticisms of the development and evaluation process around the Sergeant York, but these were sensationalized to a certain extent in the press making the York the poster child for military waste and cronyism in the early Reagan years, and that narrative has pretty much stuck with the system - especially after it was officially canceled.

As a counterpoint to the "it can't hit anything but a latrine fan and a grandstand" narrative, there is an article on Quora from Tom Farrier who claims to have actually flown against it in testing, and his experience is almost completely opposite what is reported in the Easterbrook articles:
"In 1982 I participated in both cooperative and non-cooperative tests at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, flying an Air Force CH-3E helicopter against a Sergeant York. I would have been dead many times over had it been shooting live rounds at us instead of just video."
So what's "The Truth" about the M247 Sergeant York? As with most contentious issues, it likely falls somewhere between the two extremes above. Was it good enough to be pressed into combat in a hypothetical World War III scenario in 1985? Honestly, we'll never know.

No Escape from Reality... 

In terms of its inclusion in Team Yankee, I see the following major questions and my thoughts on them...

  1. Was it a "fantasy vehicle"? No - not really - 50 of them were produced and accepted for service (hence the "M" designation), but they weren't deployed to Europe.
  2. Did it ever function as advertised?  Seems like it sort of depended on the day and the conditions. It seems clear that there were possibly some shenanigans in awarding the initial contract, but at least in some testing it functioned well.
  3. Would I rather see actual fielded systems like the M2 Bradley and ERA in Team Yankee than a marginal system like the M247?  Yes
  4. Does its inclusion turn Team Yankee into Warhammer 40K or some other sci-fi / fantasy game?  Nope
In the end the inclusion of the M247 will likely remain a controversial choice for a while. Yes - the weapon system was ultimately canceled, but it isn't a complete flight of fancy in a wargame exploring a hypothetical Cold War gone hot scenario in 1985. In our real timeline, the M247 wasn't actually canceled until August 27, 1985 - which is actually AFTER the start of the alternate Team Yankee timeline. So for all intents and purposes, the 50 M247 Sergenat York AA vehicles were technically in active service when our game starts.


  1. Nice contribution to the debate, and I agree they would have been pressed into service in the summer of 85, though so rare that they should cost a fortune in points. Ultimately, as a West German player I have to suspect that Battlefront is issuing them because American players are wicked envious of the a Gepard's awesome ability to wax the Soviet BMP Spam Lists! ;)

    1. Rarity has never figured into the points cost in FoW or TY - that's usually handled via the force organization chart. That being said - there may be something to the "game balance" argument.

  2. Sadly true, Fingolfin. If it did, armies would be much more balanced.

  3. Thing is, there are likely to be more Sgt. Yorks in play in the Stripes campaign than actually existed.

  4. Same could be said of NVA BMP-2s and T-55AM2s as well, though... There were 50 Yorks out there, and I'm guessing most armies won't be able to field more than four of them... so that seems legit to me... depends where the slot them on the force organization though.

  5. Rule of Kewl, of course.
    I did a survey of air support for Europe 1985 thanks to FlightInternational's World Air Power Survey for that year. Many of Battlefront's choices make little sense in the face of the evidence. For example: A-10s were relatively rare in the USAF, as opposed to the F-4 Phantom, which was the main ground attack type and outnumbered the Warthog EIGHT TO ONE. For every Lynx gunship the Royal Army had at its disposal, there were THREE Gazelles deployed. For every Harrier, there were SIX Jaguars. For every Frogfoot, there were FOUR Fitters and FIVE Floggers. Go figure.

    1. I think that's part of it, but remember Team Yankee is still a relatively new game with a very limited product line. If you're going to release ONE ground attack aircraft for the U.S. - are you going to release an F-4 or an A-10? Pretty easy calculus there...

      That being said, I'm working up a bunch of Fitters for my NVA force and will use them "as Frogfoot" (Frogfeet???).

    2. I saw all 50 of them on flat cars at Fort Bliss shortly after the program was cancelled, I always wondered why we just didn't buy the Gepard turret
      and stick it on an M60 or M1

    3. Probably a fair amount of "not invented here" syndrome...

    4. Thanks for the article Mike, it's a great read.

      While I appreciate some of the arguments with respect to the "never saw service" pitch, the thing that has really gotten me worried is how the side of the community in "opposition" to it's inclusion forget that the game is theoretical and not based on actual events.

      Well, that and it's a game....

    5. The Gepard turret on an M48 was Raytheon's entry for the ARGADS/DIVAD competition. It lost out to Ford and General Dynamics, Ford with the Sgt York and GD with a new turret that mounted the same guns as the Gepard in a side-by-side position and used the radar from the Phalanx CIWS. The Army was quite insistent on using M48 hulls because they were out of service but still preserved, whereas M60 and M1 were still in service.

    6. It should be noted that the US Army wanted the Ford/GD entry because of the 40mm guns.

      In Vietnam, M42s sending HE ammo down-range tends to turn infantry into a fine paste.

      Then Bofors came out with the HEPF (High Explosive, Proximity Fuse) ammunition... which is quantum in terms of AAG capability. Please note that the 35mm GDFs wouldn't get anything equivalent to that until the 1990s (AHEAD).

    7. The GD entry was 35mm. Out of the five entries, three (GD, Raytheon, and Sperry Rand) used NATO-standard 35mm, one (Ford) used 40mm Bofors, and one (General Electric) used 30mm from the GAU-8.

  6. Interestingly enough, BF fixed the cries for more Gepards to counter BMPs by making allies.
    Also it became apparent that one of BF employee's father worked on the Yorkie and it was added at said employee's insistence.

    1. Where did you get that bit about the York??? I never saw anything like that in any official (or unofficial) communication.