M2 Bradley – Workhorse of the US Army’s Mechanized Infantry

The M2 Bradley IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) was introduced in 1981 and has served as the main vehicle for American mechanized infantry for over four decades. However, the M2 Bradley was the subject of severe criticism when it was first brought into service that was silenced by its outstanding performance during the 1991 Gulf War.

The M2 Bradley’s performance during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was not as successful due to the eventual asymmetric nature of that conflict, but any attempts to develop a replacement for the M2 Bradley have been unsuccessful so it will continue to serve in the US Army for some time yet.

Contents

Development

The origins of the M2 Bradley start with the introduction of the Soviet BMP-1 IFV in the late 1960s. It was one of the first infantry-carrying vehicles designed with a powerful armament that enabled it to provide fire support to the infantry once they had dismounted; unlike an APC that possessed a light armament and served merely as a battle taxi for infantry.

Although some IFVs existed in NATO when the BMP-1 was introduced, such as the West German Schutzenpanzer Lang HS.30 (one of the world’s first IFVs), most NATO armies of that period – including the US Army – did not use them. Therefore, the US Army launched a program to rectify this situation and develop an IFV.

American development of an IFV commenced in 1972 when the US Army requested proposals for a new MICV (Mechanized Infantry Fighting Vehicle). The FMC Corporation won and tested three XM723 prototypes in 1975. These vehicles were armed with a 20 mm autocannon and had a crew of 3 and 8 dismounts.

XM723 Bradley prototype.
An XM723 prototype during loading tests in 1977.

However, when the the XM800 Armored Reconnaissance Scout Vehicle was cancelled, the Army re-examined the MICV project and now wanted a common platform for an IFV and a scout vehicle.

The new vehicle would have many of the characteristics of the XM723 but was now armed with a M242 Bushmaster 25 mm chain gun and a TOW anti-tank missile launcher. The IFV would be dubbed the XM2 and the scout vehicle named the XM3. In 1979, the first orders were placed and both the XM2 (now M2) and the XM3 (now M3) would be named after Second World War American General Omar Bradley in 1981.

Although the M2 and M3 Bradley are very similar vehicles, this article will focus on the M2 Bradley IFV.

The M2 Bradley

Designed to fight alongside the M1 Abrams tank in combined arms grouping, the M2 Bradley is a rather large vehicle for an IFV; with a height of nearly 3 meters and weighing 28-33 tons. Despite its size, all versions of the M2 Bradley are fully amphibious. The M2 Bradley has a crew of 3 (commander, gunner and driver) and can carry 6-7 soldiers, depending on the version.

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The M2 Bradley is well-protected for an IFV, offering protection against 14.5 mm machine-gun to 30 mm autocannon, depending on the version. Experience from the insurgency phase of OIF, resulted in the ability to add ERA and slat armour to the M2 Bradley for protection from RPGs. Further protective/survivability features include a fire suppression, missile countermeasures and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) filtration systems.

M2 Bradley.
An M2A3 Bradley. This version has many upgrades over the first iterations of the Bradley.

The US Army is also in the process of testing and eventually fitting an APS (Active Protection System) to its M2 Bradley fleet, but these efforts have been delayed due to technical and budgetary issues. The M2 Bradley is equipped with two M257 smoke grenade launchers with four smoke grenades for each launcher and is fitted with an engine smoke-generating system.

After the Gulf War, a laser range finder, GPS, digital information display and combat identification systems were added to the M2 Bradley. The stabilized turret of the M2 Bradley is equipped with thermal imaging devices for the gunner and commander with the M2A3 variant being equipped with an independent viewer for the commander at the right rear of the turret.

The armament of the M2 Bradley is the M242 Bushmaster chain gun that is capable of firing single shots or at rates of fire of 100 or 200 rounds per minute. The M242 has a dual-feed mechanism that provides for rapid change from armour-piercing to high-explosive ammunition, depending on the nature of the threat that is being engaged.

Troops leaving an M2 Bradley.
Aside from its offensive abilities, the Bradley can officially carry six soldiers. More can be squeezed in more desperate situations, however.

The M242 has two ammunition boxes; the primary ammunition bin that can hold 230 rounds and a secondary bin holding 70 rounds while a further 600 rounds are carried in the vehicle for a total of 900 rounds.

Of note is that the armour-piercing ammunition for M2 Bradleys in US service is that it uses a depleted uranium (DU) penetrator that has better penetration than a tungsten penetrator.14 A coaxial 7.62mm M240C machine gun (US built FN MAG) is also located in the turret with 2,200 rounds of ammunition.

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The M2 Bradley also possess a significant anti-tank capability with the twin missile launcher attached to the left side of the turret with the launcher being hydraulically raised when preparing for firing. This launcher contains two BGM-71 TOW guided anti-tank missiles (range of 3,750 metres) with a further seven being carried inside the vehicle.

Bradley firing a TOW missile.
A Bradley firing a TOW missile. These missiles are capable of dealing with heavy armor.

Early versions of the M2 Bradley contained six M231 5.56mm firing port weapons, which were compact assault rifles intended for infantry to fire from inside the vehicle. However, this concept worked better in theory than in practice as the M231 possessed a very high rate of fire (cyclic rate of 1,225 rounds per minute) and there was no proper way for aiming the weapon, so firing the M231 consisted of “spray and pray” tactics and the weapon was subsequently removed from upgraded M2 Bradleys.

Additionally, the M2 Bradley has proven to be extremely versatile as its chassis has been the basis of several vehicles that include the M270 MLRS and the AMPV (Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle) designed to replace the dated M113 in specialist roles, among other vehicles.

In service

As mentioned, the M2 Bradley started to be issued to US Army units in 1981 and was surrounded in controversy regarding its costs, combat role, reliability, survivability and that its turret was too high. The M2 Bradley would deploy to the Middle East for the 1991 Gulf War, where its outstanding performance alongside the M1 Abrams would silence previous criticisms as only three vehicles would be lost to enemy action, with most M2 Bradley casualties (17) resulting from friendly fire incidents.

The M2 Bradley’s firepower was demonstrated during the Gulf War, using its TOW missiles to destroy Iraqi tanks. There were even reports from crews of using the M242 chain gun to destroy tanks, although this was likely due to close range engagements that targeted a tank’s more vulnerable areas.

The M2 Bradley would also deploy on OIF in 2003 and enjoyed early success in combined arms conventional operations alongside the M1 Abrams. However, as the nature of the OIF conflict transitioned to an insurgency, the M2 Bradley (which was designed for conventional warfare) would prove to be vulnerable to Iraqi insurgent tactics of employing IEDs and RPGs in a complex, urban environment. Some estimates claim that 150 M2 Bradleys were destroyed with hundreds more damaged during OIF and its subsequent protracted insurgency.

M2 Bradley IFVs in a German town during  the 1980s.
Bradleys of Exercise REFORGER’85 parked up in a German town, as locals pass by.

However, while there have been several programs since the turn of the century to replace the M2 Bradley, such as the FCS (Future Combat System) and the GCV (Ground Combat Vehicle), these have been cancelled due to budget cuts. A third replacement attempt, the OMFV (Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle) is currently underway, but even that program was briefly cancelled in 2019 before being rebooted in 2020 and three competing defence companies will be selected later in 2023 to design prototypes.

It is very likely that the OMFV will not enter US Army service for some time, provided that it is not cancelled again. This means that the M2 Bradley will continue to serve in the US Army for the foreseeable future.

With over 4,600 vehicles produced (most being the M2A2 Bradley) and combat action in two well-known conflicts, the M2 Bradley is mainly known for its service in the US Army. However, the M2 Bradley has been exported to Saudi Arabia (400 M2A2), Lebanon (32 M2A2) and Croatia to receive 89 M2A2 variants in the future.

M2 Bradley with BTR-80s.
Bradley alongside Hungarian BTR-80 APCs. With the Bradley’s future, it may find itself in this situation more often.

Recently, it has been announced that the US will transfer 50 M2A2 Bradleys to Ukraine in support of its ongoing war against Russia. Included will be 500 TOW missiles and 250,000 rounds of 25mm ammunition. While 50 M2 Bradleys is only enough IFVs to equip 1-2 infantry battalions, there are hundreds of M2 Bradleys in storage so there is the possibility of the US transferring more of these vehicles to Ukraine in the future.

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Further, although not a tank, the M2 Bradley should be an excellent addition to Ukraine’s IFV fleet as the M2 Bradley has improved mobility, protection and fire control systems compared to the other APCs and IFVs that Ukraine currently employs. After all, they were originally designed for warfare in Europe. How they fare there, we have yet to see.