Abrams Is The Best Main Battle Tank In The World. But Improving It Should Still Be A Priority.
Fighting in Ukraine has settled into a stalemate reminiscent of the Western Front circa 1916. Lots of artillery barrages and trenches, but little real movement. A favorite adjective of observers for describing the current fighting is “grinding,” as in two adversaries grinding each other down.
Short of using nuclear weapons, there are two basic solutions for escaping this kind of attrition warfare. One is to use aircraft to fly over the front lines and attack the enemy’s rear. The other is to use massed armor to drive through those lines.
Western nations have now opted for the second option by delivering tanks and other armored vehicles to Kyiv. America will send the Abrams main battle tank, Britain will send Challengers, and Germany will permit the transfer of Leopards.
There isn’t much mystery which of these systems is superior in terms of lethality and survivability. It’s the M1A2 Abrams, named for Vietnam-era General Creighton Abrams.
While other Western nations let their arms industries decay after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. Army continued upgrading the Abrams. When the service became distracted during the global war on terror, Congress stepped in to keep the nation’s last remaining tank plant in Lima, Ohio running.
As a result, the Abrams—of which roughly 10,000 were built—has undergone half a dozen upgrades since the Cold War ended. Each upgrade has introduced important improvements such as advanced sensors for targeting, secure communications for connecting to the rest of the force, and enhanced armor for better protecting the vehicle and crew.
Today’s Abrams M1A2SEPv3 (SEP standing for “system enhancement package”) is a 76-ton behemoth of which 600 have been ordered by the Army. About half of those have been delivered by General Dynamics
The tanks don’t look all that different from the vehicles with which the Army began the new century—General Dynamics typically rebuilds the hull from tanks already in inventory—but internally they are thoroughly digitized, often with technology far superior to anything Russia has fielded.
You might not know this from following the debate about whether to send Abrams to Ukraine, because a number of half-truths about the vehicle made their way into public media.
For example, it was said that fueling the vehicle at the front would be difficult because its Honeywell gas-turbine engine runs on JP-8 jet fuel. That is only true because the Army elected to use the same fuel in both its tanks and its helicopters to simplify logistics. The engine can also run on gasoline or diesel (like the Leopard)—you just need to change the fuel filter.
It has also been suggested that the M1A2 could not be used without extensive training because it is so complex. Actually, the computerized targeting system for the main gun simplifies the gunner’s role, and has an over 95% likelihood of hitting its target.
The engine is highly reliable and the rest of the tank is ruggedly constructed, so it is unlikely to break down in conditions where other vehicles might fail. If the engine does falter, its powerpack can be removed and replaced in 30 minutes. And because it is a gas turbine, it is much quieter than a diesel engine.
Electronic equipment on the Abrams consists largely of line replaceable units, boxes that can be switched out quickly when the tank’s on-board diagnostics identify a problem. The logistical packages that accompany exports of the tank typically include provisions for the necessary backup equipment.
In other words, the logistical and training challenges associated with introducing Abrams into Ukraine are not all that imposing, especially given the availability of spare parts and repair facilities in neighboring countries. It is worth noting that Poland, a country with similar terrain, opted to purchase Abrams when it could have simply kept buying Leopards from Germany.
That decision was presumably driven by a desire to field the most formidable main battle tank available anywhere, a combat vehicle fully capable of defeating its Russian counterparts.
However, that does not mean that the Army can forego further upgrades to Abrams. Quite the opposite: new threats such as hunter-killer drones are appearing on the battlefield, and new technologies such as hybrid-electric engines have emerged that could make Abrams more survivable, lethal and mobile.
In terms of survivability, the logical next step is to integrate an active protection system into the tank’s architecture that can intercept incoming missiles before they reach the tank. It also would benefit from technology for countering overhead threats, especially unmanned aerial systems.
In terms of lethality, Abrams will benefit from the introduction of an all-purpose round that eliminates the need for specialized rounds in defeating different types of targets, but it should take the next step to using autoloaders, autonomous firing systems and loitering munitions.
In terms of mobility, removing a human gunner from the turret would lower weight by eliminating the need for some armor, and introducing a hybrid-electric engine would reduce fuel consumption, increase range and enable the tank to run quiet in contested areas.
There are other refinements that could boost performance, many of which are reflected in a technology demonstrator called AbramsX that General Dynamics Land Systems has developed.
Depending on how the refinements are implemented, fuel consumption could be reduced by 50% and weight could be reduced by 20%—weight being a significant constraint on using local infrastructure in places like Eastern Europe.
It’s really up to the Army what comes next, but given the pace at which threats are evolving, it makes much more sense to treat any improvements as an extension of the ongoing upgrade program rather than a new start.
Starting over, with all the attendant risks and complexities, would greatly increase the time needed to field an advanced version of Abrams—probably to the better part of a decade. Refining the existing design through the same production system could compress the required time to a fraction of that duration.
If technology and doctrine were in place to build a fully robotic main battle tank (or whatever it would be called), then perhaps starting over would be warranted. But the Army isn’t there yet: operating autonomously on the ground is a much tougher task than flying an unmanned drone through the air.
Robotic armored vehicles have a future, probably beginning around mid-century, but in the meantime there are other steps that can be implemented sooner to keep Abrams the most formidable combat vehicle in the world.