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