The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

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The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

Written by Brian Betts exclusively for SouthFront

The M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank (MBT) gained a vaunted status in the American arsenal after its performance in the Gulf War. With over 2,162 enemy tanks destroyed, in exchange for 23 Abrams damaged or destroyed, the reputation is well-earned. Upgrade packages, including depleted uranium armor, have a high degree of effectiveness against explosive and penetrator warheads alike. When videos of burning M1 Abrams in Saudi Arabia and Yemen began to appear online, it is no wonder Americans were surprised.

Entering service in 1980, the M1 didn’t see combat until the Gulf War of 1991. Contemporary versions of the MBT are armed with a 120 mm L/44 M256A1 smoothbore gun. With room for 42 rounds and an isolation area to protect against ammo fires, or “cook-offs,” the M1 is a marriage of lethality and survivability.

Specifications

The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

Click to see the full-size map

Weight: 54 tons

M1A1: 57 tons

M1A2: 62 tons

Length Gun forward: 9.77 meters

Hull length: 7.93 meters

Width: 3.66 meters

Height: 2.44 meters

Crew: 4 (commander, gunner, loader, driver)

The following images of destroyed M1 tanks have been taken from war footage in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

A Tosun Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) seconds away from impact with a Saudi M1 Abrams. The resulting ammunition fire completely consumes the vehicle. The Tosun is an Iranian copy of the Russian 9M113 Konkurs ATGM.

The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

In the Jizan region of Saudi Arabia, near the Yemen border, Houthi rebels film the destruction of a disabled Saudi M1.

The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

Another M1 smolders in Jizan. Stricken by a powerful improvised explosive device (IED), the M1 in this footage betrays a trend repeated in other videos: Saudi M1 tanks seem to be deployed with little-to-no infantry presence. After the well-documented, hard lessons wrought from the SAA employment of lone T-72s, it is baffling to think that Saudi commanders would freely commit the same errors. Unaccompanied armor is easy prey to ATGM teams due to the lowered risk of reprisal. Infantry working in conjunction with armor is crucial to spot and engage threats, even if it is after the initial missile attack.

The M1 Abrams Spends its Autumn Years in the Arab Winter

The inevitable end for an M1 captured by Houthi rebels. Unlike ISIS and US-backed criminal gangs in Syria, the Houthi suffer from a lack of trained vehicle crews. Unable to use or repair the damaged equipment, the tribesmen render captured tanks unrecoverable by Saudi forces.

A Waning Need

Evidence, such as the images above, indicate that the M1A2 in Saudi hands is little more than a static target for Houthi rebels armed with Konkurs-type missiles. The Saudis possessed 440 of the M1A2 and M1A2S “Systems Enhancement Package” (SEP) at the onset of hostilities with Yemen, and while it isn’t clear exactly how many they’ve lost, estimates in January, 2016 placed total Saudi vehicle losses at 136.

The relatively high numbers of tanks lost to Houthi rebel ATGM and IED attacks is a sobering revelation that the M1, for all of its success in American hands, is merely a tool. The M1’s lethality is wholly dependent upon the deftness of the crews that wield it. When used improperly, its mechanical advantage evaporates. In the Gulf War, the M1 triumphed due to its longer effective range, advanced fire control system and night fighting capability. In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Houthi rebels armed with forty-year-old ATGMs continue to reap a high number of modern U.S.-provided tanks in close combat. The M1 was not designed to face ATGM threats on its flanks, which appears to be a regular reality in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Prior to the Arab Winter, the U.S. Army itself had expressed a distinct disinterest in further modifications and refurbishments of the obsolete M1 in its current paradigm:

“We don’t need the tanks. Our tank fleet is two and a half years old on average now. We’re in good shape and these are additional tanks that we don’t need.” – General Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff.

At the time, with more than 2,300 M1’s deployed abroad and 3,000 tanks sitting idle in warehouses, the Army was not keen to request the acquisition of additional M1 tanks. Rather than waste $3 billion dollars on additional M1 output, the Army wanted to focus on a new redesign of the M1, which would allow them to counter future threats. As the T-90 is to the T-72, the new tank in question would be to the M1. Logic and reason are small barriers, however, when compared to the penetrating power of campaign funding and lobbyist dollars.

In 2014, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) released a letter highlighting his enthusiastic support for ongoing M1 refurbishment and upgrade projects in the Midwest. While stunning in its brazen admission of an artificial, jobs-driven support agenda for the M1, Senator Portman’s letter has its roots in the Army’s tank redesign project, which would have halted work at Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania plants. When one such halt was proposed in 2011, a counter bill was introduced to guarantee work on the M1 through 2013. No fewer than 137 of the 173 signers received contributions from General Dynamics. There was hardly any partisan bias, with more than $2 million in payments since 2001 being split evenly across the 137 signers; Republican members received 51 percent of the contributions from General Dynamics, while Democrats settled for 49 percent.

It is a shame that, during a time when American politicians pontificate about peace, they should simultaneously spend wantonly on unnecessary weapons.

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  • Nexusfast123

    Just a big dumb target with modern missiles. Counter missile technology can easily be defeated.

    • Nexusfast123

      Tanks need infantry and spotters to survive. This is in terms of suppressing missile teans. Also useful to have air cover as air lanched anti tank munniciations are pretty lethal. Its obvious the Saudis have limited skills.

  • John

    No wonder why negotiations have started.

  • MeMadMax

    Whatever dude. The export version of the M1 has less armour than the US version. Just like russian export tanks such as the T-72…

    The author intentionally left out that detail to spin something that doesn’t exist…
    Don’t get me wrong thou, I hate the Saudi’s, but lets stick to the facts mmmk?

    • If you want to say that Saudi Arabia’s M1s work bad because they have a lack of armor. It’s questionable. However, SF is a ground for dialogue. If you want to answer in an article or in a wide comment, it’s highly appreciated.

      • MeMadMax

        No, i’m saying that any M1(or export version of any countries’ tanks for that matter) is severely handicapped by the lack of armor, degraded electronics, handicapped aiming systems, lack of battlefield command electronics, gps, etc etc to the point that you cannot simply fold them all together and call them the same.

        The export versions of tanks performance just cannot be compared to the intended version of the parent country. A M1 from the US army is not the same as one in the saudi/iraqi army. It just can’t be compared…

        • Catfish

          If I remember right the iraqi insurgents killed/ disabled several us versions of the abrams too. You do have a point about the export versions possibly being a bit easier to kill. I don’t know the specific differences between the us military and export versions. The saudis have some of the best export version types from what little info i’ve found on it.

          • MeMadMax

            I have a leg-up in this debate as my uncle was a M1 mechanic during the first gulf war and my brother was a M1 driver(they sent him to afghan without his tank however), according to them and the info freely available on the internet it goes like this: ALL export versions of the M1, no matter what version, lack the ceramic “Voodoo” armor that makes the M1 so special, but the Saudi version still gets the depleted uranium part, all others are regular steel. The ceramic armor is what makes the M1 impregnable even to its own shells. A documented case of this was when a M1 became disabled on the side of a road and another M1 came along to destroy the first one but was unable to penetrate its armor. They ended up tossing grenades into it and abandoning it.
            Also, ALL export versions of M1’s have a downgraded sighting system. It’s also a system that may or may not be tied to a ballistic computer(as in the iraqi version). Saudi versions have some TUSK features included but its not quite a full package, they have customized it somewhat.

          • milomonkey

            wrong , read the many report on how US Army’s most modern M1 tanks routinely penetrated by insurgent’s RPG from the side armour..

            no tank in the world have full thick armour on every side .. majority of the armour are located on the front hull and turret ..

            and even a superbly armored tank like M1 or Merkava easily got destroyed if they entered an anti tank ambush performed by trained antitank gunners..

            witness the destruction of Israeli superb Merkava IV armoured force in the lebanon 2006 war , where the hezbollah ATGM commandoes use ancient Saggers, RPGs , Metis/Kornet to overwhelm IDF tank formation..

            witness the destruction of american made vehicles (tank , apc, mraps) in the hand of hothies soldiers..

            it is the men who manned these steel beast that counts , not the beast itself..

            read Gen Franks the corps commander on iraqi army after Desert Storm.. He said American tankers can switch tanks with iraqi tankers, and they would still win the war.. it is the US training that give them the win , not just the hardware

          • Kustom Art

            That’s some nice fairytail about an M1 couldn’t shoot through another M1
            Or just I know a guy who knows a guy who know aguy who said….

          • MeMadMax

            Google is your friend if you like….

        • Yes, a M1 in the hands of the US army and a M1 in the hands of the Saudi forces are 2 different M1s

    • Brian B.

      Hi Max,

      This is Brian, the author. Thanks for the comment.

      http://www.defense-aerospace.com/articles-view/release/3/71875/saudi-arabia-to-rebuild,-upgrade-m1a2-tank-fleet-for-$2.9-bn.html

      The export M1A1 and Saudi M1A1S does feature a lack of depleted uranium armor, yes. The M1A2S, which the Saudi’s have converted at least 315 of their tanks to, does include all the modern amenities, fire control and comms. The engineers in the contracting company I worked for claimed that many of the tanks also included depleted uranium armor–as some were recycled in “almost new” condition from our bases in the Gulf. The M1A2S upgrades were supposed to be on-par with the M1A2 SEP v2.

      The reason why I didn’t delve into this is because it didn’t significantly contribute, or refute, the main message of the article: The M1A2 in any configuration is not something the U.S. military asked for. That’s what this article is about. Spin is always there my friend, but let’s not say this ‘doesn’t exist.’ The technology gap is minimal at this point. The M1A2S being destroyed in Saudi Arabia is due to poor training and cadre. I mentioned that in my article as well. I wonder if folks might be feeling like I’m dragging the good name of the M1 through the mud, but really, it is anything but.

      The thousands of existing M1 tanks will be in service until 2050 with the U.S. Army either way, but as someone who both opposes government waste and arming terrorists, I take issue with the notion that refurbishing the ones that break with money that could be used to fund more advanced programs is wise. Especially if we turn around and sell said refurbs to people who are not at all our allies.

    • export version of M1A2 in saudi hands got massacred by houthies using export version of russian ATGMS or iranian ATGM clones.. so if both are exports then it should wash out

  • Tom Johnson

    A T-72,T-80or even a T-90 in the hands of a highly trained crew is still a pile of Russian designed crap.