Written by Felix Randall exclusively for SouthFront
The M-1 Abrams main battle tank is notorious for its killer reputation on the battlefield. However, in recent years it has seen minimal upgrades in the most important fields of protection, mobility, and firepower. As such, if deployed in a modern setting, it is unlikely the Abrams could live up to its much-vaunted reputation.
The concept of the Abrams was a result of developments in, of all places, the Soviet Union; where in 1964 the Soviets first entered the – at the time unrivaled – T-64 tank into service. The T-64 featured composite armor for the first time on a main battle tank, excellent fire control and a formidable armor package. To combat this, the United States and Germany embarked on the joint Kampfpanzer-70 and MBT-70 project. This project was groundbreaking in many respects, and incorporated the most cutting-edge systems of the time. However, the prototype main battle tank soon proved too expensive to be feasibly fielded in large numbers, and program cost overruns resulted in its cancellation in 1971. However, still needing a new main battle tank, the United States embarked on designing a new vehicle. Building on the lessons learned during the MBT-70 project, and incorporating a significant amount of the technology, the Abrams was developed with a state-of-the-art fire control system, excellent mobility and an armor package capable of withstanding nearly anything the Soviets could throw at it.
In 1980 the first M-1 production models were rolled out of the Lima Army Tank Plant, sporting capabilities that surpassed their peers in nearly every respect. At the time, it had a significant technological edge over the (still fierce) soviet T-72A introduced a year prior, and was easily on par with the T-80 introduced that year. However, even in this early stage it still presented a number of weaknesses. Firstly, it’s Upper Front Plate was, and on the SEPv2 version still is, only 51mm thick, and is not made of the same cutting-edge composite armor that comprises the rest of the tank’s frontal profile. Secondly, it’s weight. The initial M-1 Abrams weighed in at approximately 60 tons, which for the time was still extremely heavy. While made up for by its extremely powerful AGT-1500 gas turbine engine, the strategic mobility and logistical sustainability of the tank was seriously diminished by the amount of fuel it had to consume to maintain its tactical mobility. Third, the firepower in the initial M-1 variant was lacking, as there was a compromise struck to install the dated, but plentiful M68 105mm rifled cannon on the first version, and to later upgrade to a more powerful 120mm main armament. Finally, the cost was extreme compared to its contemporaries in the Soviet Union. The Initial M-1 Abrams sunk cost can be estimated at nearly 1 million USD per tank, whereas the T-72A cost half that much even as late as the 1990s.
In 1985, production of the M-1A1 variant started; which was when the M-1 truly became a force to be reckoned with. Refitted with a M256 120mm smoothbore cannon, a licensed copy of the Rheinmetall 120mm L/44, the Abrams gained astonishing destructive power, and could penetrate nearly any spot of any tank that it could encounter at the time of its introduction. It also featured the integration of Depleted Uranium into its turret cheeks, which significantly increased their protection against both Kinetic Energy projectiles, namely Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) rounds, Chemical Energy projectiles such as High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds, and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs). It also featured improvement of its fire control systems, electronics, and an overall modernization of the tank’s systems.
Despite making significant advances, all of these upgrades came at a cost. The weight increased drastically to 63 tons dry, and even heavier with a combat load. The top speed dropped to 42 miles per hour over ideal terrain, the ground pressure increased to nearly 14 pounds per square inch, the width of the tank increased, thus making it a larger target, and the cost to replace or upgrade each original M-1 rose to more than 4,000,000 USD.
When in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Abrams was locked into a course that would give it the fearsome reputation it still holds to this day. In late 1990, to deter further military action from Iraq, the United States and its coalition partners began the largest deployment of NATO troops since Vietnam. However, transporting the lumbering 60+ ton beasts proved to be a significant logistical burden, with the C-5 Galaxy super heavy transport aircraft being the only airborne means of transporting the tanks, two at a time. Even with the months upon months of troop deployments, the United States was able to send less than 2,000 M-1 Abrams tanks to Northern Saudi Arabia before the invasion began.
During the invasion, the Abrams received high praise for knocking out vast swathes of Iraqi armored vehicles, and suffering extremely few losses. While it is true that the Abrams destroyed a significant number of armored vehicles, a more detailed analysis reveals that the vast majority of the work was done for the tankers by the US Air Force, who accrued vastly more destroyed enemy armored vehicles than the Abrams crewmen. Furthermore, the tanks that the Abrams went up against were not, in fact, the T-72s that many claimed they were.
While it is true that there were some export variant T-72s in Iraq during the invasion, those were not only a dumbed down export variant lacking most of the sophisticated fire control mechanisms, reliable autoloaders, and many other systems of the native Soviet T-72s; but they were an exceedingly small minority of the tanks Hussein wielded. The vast majority were further downgrades such as the Assad Babil and the Saddam. These were Iraqi indigenous copies of the already downgraded export T-72 that not only lacked composite armor, but also passive infrared gunsights, and in some cases any night vision capabilities at all. Not only were the Iraqi tanks horrendously obsolete by the time they rolled off the production line, but they were also crewed by a demoralized, undertrained, and ill prepared Iraqi crew that had undergone an aerial bombardment not seen since the Vietnam War.
Despite all this, when the general public saw the thousands upon thousands of destroyed Iraqi tanks, and the American M-1 Abrams triumphantly lumbering past them, it soon stuck in the minds of many that the American tank was an invincible killing machine. This was furthered by the enormous propagandization of the conflict and the dubbing of the Abrams as a, “Super-tank” and its ammunition as the, “Silver bullet” by the media and the public relations directors in the Pentagon.
In 1992, there was another increase in the M-1’s capabilities with the service introduction of the M-1A2. This upgrade sought to harness the digital revolution ongoing at the time by digitizing a significant proportion of the Abrams’ systems, updating its computational capabilities, and increase its lethality through the introduction of a Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer (CITV). It also slightly expanded the ammo storage, and upgraded the gunner’s thermal sight to allow target tracking at a farther distance.
These upgrades did not come without downsides however. The weight of the M-1A2 skyrocketed to more than 70 tons at combat load, making it a logistical juggernaut in terms of fuel, maintenance, and operational transportation. The ground pressure increased to more than 15 pounds per square inch, the cross-country range dropped to less than 100 miles in some cases, the ground clearance decreased, and the price ballooned to over 6 million dollars per unit.
In the 2001 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, no M-1 Abrams tanks of any variant were deployed, and this remained the case until 2010 when the first small batch of modernized Marine Corps M-1A1 tanks were deployed to increase the firepower of American units amidst the operations ongoing at the time. During this deployment, no significant results were achieved due to the unfavorable terrain.
The only semblance of a test the M-1A2 faced was in 2003 during the American led invasion of Iraq as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While performing respectably in the initial invasion, often acting as the forward-most deployed formation in large assaults such as the Battle of Baghdad; this was mostly due to the lack of training on the part of the Iraqi crews, and the vastly inferior armor fielded by the Iraqi military. By the time the initial invasion had ended, the Iraqi insurgency began to take a significant toll on the US Military. Rocket attacks on the top and side armor of the Abrams led to more than 530 Abrams tanks being shipped back to the United States for extensive repairs, or destroyed by their crew by December 2006.
Today, after undergoing numerous upgrades, the most numerously fielded model of the M-1 Abrams by the US Army is the M-1A2SEPV2. This has added a remotely operated machine gun for the commander, allowed the capability of installing an Urban Survival Kit with explosive reactive armor, and upgraded the Depleted Uranium armor. The newest in-service ammunition is currently the M829A3 Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot projectile, which is an extremely effective projectile even by the strictest standards; capable of defeating older generation Explosive Reactive Armor such as the Kontakt-5 found on many Russian tanks.
While possessing potent capabilities, the Abrams is fundamentally hindered by its original design as a counter to a potential large number of Soviet tank columns advancing along the plains of Europe during a major land war. Modern war is a far cry from the conflicts the Abrams was built for, so in the world of distant deployments, poor local infrastructure, and counter-insurgency the modern Abrams is unable to keep up with its competitors.
Logistically, the Abrams is an extreme burden on any supply chain, even one as well funded and mechanized as the United States’ is. The foremost issue present is the extraordinarily high weight, even for modern standards. Due to its 70+ ton combat load, it is extremely difficult to transport in large amounts to any theater of operations. When in theater, the Abrams is difficult to transport to any staging area on an operational scale, having to resort to dedicated transport vehicles (which only add to the logistical burden imposed on the US Military); and even upon arrival to its area of operations, it performs poorly in rough terrain and cannot sustain unsupported operations for a significant period of time due to its weight-imposed high fuel consumption.
When compared to less expensive and more numerous Russian tanks such as the T-72B3M, the M-1 shows itself to be not only unable to compete in terms of strategic and operational mobility, logistical sustainability, and ease of procurement, but is also demonstrably inferior in a strictly conventional setting.
Firstly, the size of the M-1 makes it a significantly larger target, and the thermal signature of the AGT-1500 engine that powers the Abrams is far more prominent than that of the T-72B3M. The result of this is, even with the slightly less capable optics on the T-72B3M, the Abrams stands a chance of being detected first. When detected, the more powerful 2A46M-5 cannon on the T-72B3M is able to penetrate and damage significantly more than the M-1’s 120mm L/44 cannon. Penetration statistics for the M829A3 projectile show that compared to the 3BM59 “Svinits 1” projectile used by the T-72B3M, the Svinits 1 has a significantly higher armor penetration as well as higher muzzle energy due to the longer barrel, and larger bore diameter. The approximately 830mm of rolled homogenous steel armor (RHA) penetration at 2km the Svinits 1 is capable of, is sufficient to penetrate nearly any part of the Abrams except for the depleted Uranium reinforced turret cheeks; whereas the approximately 700mm RHA penetration at 2km of the M829A3 will most likely fail to penetrate the Relikt ERA and composite hull/turret of the T-72B3M from the front. Both tanks can, however, penetrate each other’s sides at any range up to the maximum effective range of their respective cannons.
As a result of this fact, the T-72B3M is able to score penetrations at a longer range than the M-1A2 Abrams, due to its 9M-119M Refleks gun launched Anti-Tank Guided Missile. The 9M-119M is capable of penetrating approximately 900mm of RHA at any range, and has an effective range of over 5 kilometers. This is significantly farther than the maximum effective range of the M829A3, which is the longest-range Anti-Tank munition carried by the M-1A2SEPV2.
The prevalence and power of these Anti-Tank Guided Missiles are apparent in theaters such as the Saudi-Yemeni war, where numerous M-1A2S Abrams tanks have been knocked out by Houthi ambushes using portable Anti-Tank Guided Missiles. The mobility, flexibility, and affordability of these systems presents a significant danger to the Abrams, which in its M-1A2SEPv2 state is lacking any effective means of combating this threat, such as a hard-kill Active Protection System. Due to extreme complexity of integrating an Active Protection System on the Abrams, only the most recent model, which is fielded in extremely small numbers at the present, has any form of this system.
With future upgrades planned into the mid-2020s, and no replacement currently in development; the M-1 Abrams stands to remain the staple of the United States’ armored forces for the foreseeable future. However, it has fallen significantly behind it’s contemporaries in the very fields which it was designed to excel in, and can no longer live up to the reputation it once so proudly held.