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Making the Best Tank Better

Category: Defence Industry

Abrams M1A2

Abrams Fares Well in Iraq, But U.S. Army Seeks Safety Upgrades.

Fighting in conditions far removed from the north European plains for which it was designed, the Abrams tank has proved its value in the war in Iraq, according to the U.S. Army’s chief of armor.

Not a single tanker has been killed by a conventional anti-tank weapon, Army Maj. Gen. Terry Tucker said. The few fatalities suffered aboard tanks have been caused by roadside bombs or small arms, he said.

Nonetheless, the Army is considering upgrades so the Abrams will prevail on battlefields for the next quarter century. Among changes under consideration for the near term are better protections for the tank’s commander and loader while they fire their machine guns, and a new anti-personnel round for the Abrams’ 120mm main gun. The long-term upgrades on Tucker’s mind include improved armor and a new main gun.

About 4,500 troops have served on tanks in Iraq. Of those, three soldiers have been killed inside their tanks by roadside bombs. An additional 10 to 15 crew members have been killed while riding with their heads out of the hatch, standing on the tanks, or, in one case, by an insurgent who climbed onto the tank and shot down into the crew compartment, Tucker said.

“I am unaware of any case where any tanker in Iraq has been killed inside of a tank by a penetration of a tank round or RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] or any other munition,” Tucker said. “It’s a pretty safe place to be.”

About 1,135 Abrams tanks have seen action in Iraq, Tucker said, some more than once. Of those, he said, “probably 70 percent have been hit or damaged in some way. In fact, it’s hard to find an Abrams tank out there that has fought in Iraq that has not been damaged.”

Eighty tanks have sustained damage that required them to be sent back to the United States for repairs, said Tucker, noting that the damage was “fairly minor” in some cases.

“If a seam or a weld was broken, that’s pretty delicate work, and we couldn’t do that in theater, so we’ve brought tanks back to the U.S. for welding repairs,” he said. “About 63 of those 80 tanks will go back to the fleet.”

Those figures mean that 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the tanks involved in the fight in Iraq might not return to action. “I’ll take those numbers any day,” Tucker said.

A Different Fight

Tucker acknowledged that the loss of even a few Abrams tanks has come as something of a reality check to the armor community. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which Tucker commanded a cavalry squadron, combat involved Abrams tanks engaging and destroying their Iraqi counterparts with overwhelming fire in the open desert.

“This fight’s different,” he said. “The enemy’s learned from that. And the technique that they’re using is massed fire against one tank: 14, 18, 20 RPGs — I’ve heard reports of tanks taking 50 RPG hits. It’s a new technique that they’re using, and in fact we’re having some significant damage on tanks that has to be repaired before we put them back in the fight.”

Tucker cited an Abrams with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) that took part in the first “thunder run” into Baghdad as an example. The tank was struck by 14 to 18 rocket-propelled grenades, one of which knocked out the hydraulics system so the crew had to operate the turret in manual mode. Nevertheless, the tank completed the first thunder run and then went on the second, its crew still fighting with the tank in manual mode.

“That crew refused to get off of it, because that tank couldn’t be killed,” he said.

Early Problems

Not every Abrams was quite as resilient. Tucker estimated that the number of tanks that had to be temporarily abandoned or pulled out of the fight immediately due to combat damage was “at least 17 and probably in the 20s.”

However, no tanks have been abandoned in Iraq, he said. Even when U.S. forces needed to scuttle a damaged tank to prevent sensitive equipment from falling into enemy hands, and destroyed it with fire from another tank or called in an Air Force strike with Maverick missiles, U.S. troops retrieved the carcass and brought it back to the United States.

“That tank is designed with the ammunition separated from the crew compartment, and if the ammunition is ignited in the storage compartment, the tank is designed for the back of the turret to blow out, so the fire and the explosion goes outward, as opposed to inward, so you don’t injure or kill the crew,” Tucker said.

The general estimated that Iraqi insurgents have used a dozen different types of RPGs against the Abrams. “My concern is that in the future we’ll see more of the newer types, which are more powerful and have more capability,” he said.

But contrary to rumor, he said, there is no indication that any exotic anti-tank rounds — including foreign-made missiles such as the Milan, new versions of the RPG, or new tank main gun rounds — have been used against the Abrams in Iraq, the general said.

Meanwhile, the officials the Army pays to plot the future of the Abrams are not resting on their laurels, according to Tucker.

“We still think of the Abrams tank as the king of the fight, and I’m here to tell you that it is, but I’m also here to tell you that the Abrams tank is 25 years old,” he said.

“We’ve improved it a lot over the years ... but it’s still a 1980 tank, and we have more work to do to keep the Abrams tank king of the battlefield for the next 25 years, because 25 years from now, when the American Army goes to fight, it will go to fight in Abrams tanks.”

In the near term, the Army has studied how the Abrams has fared in Iraq and come up with a series of improvements that it refers to collectively as the tank urban survivability kit (TUSK).

But these capabilities are not funded in the Army budget, said Maj. Chad Young, assistant product manager for M1, M1A1 and TUSK. The service has not yet finalized how much it would cost to put TUSK on each tank, Young said.

A program that is funded and will be fielded to tank units in Iraq “probably this summer,” according to Tucker, is an anti-personnel canister round for the Abrams’ 120mm main gun. Tucker refers to it as “a big shotgun round.”

Meanwhile, looking further into the future, “the Abrams tank needs to become more lethal ... [and] more survivable than it is now,” Tucker said. “It’s fairly easy to make it more lethal and more survivable,” he continued. “The challenge is going to be to do that while we try to make it lighter and more mobile.”

Studying New Armor

To solve the mobility problem, the Army is examining new types of composite armor and electrified armor that have the potential to be lighter yet provide more protection than the composite armor package currently equipping the Abrams, according to Tucker.

In 2008, the Army will begin to field its next-generation family of combat vehicles, the Future Combat Systems. That won’t mean the end for the Abrams, which is scheduled to serve until at least 2040. In fact, the first FCS-equipped unit of action probably will include one FCS battalion and one battalion of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, Tucker said.

The challenge for the Army’s doctrinal community will be to figure out how the Abrams and the FCS family of vehicles will operate together, according to Tucker.

One issue that remains unsettled is what type of gun the FCS mounted combat system should have. “There’s lots of debate,” he said. “Is it 105 [mm]? Is it 120 [mm]? Is it electromagnetic? Is it a death ray? What’s that gun going to be? We’re not quite sure yet, but ... we probably ought to put the same gun on the Abrams that we’re going to have on the FCS. That would make sense.”

Having different main guns on the two systems would entail an unnecessary logistical burden, he added. “I can see some day that the gun in the Abrams tank will be more lethal than it is now, and half the size, half the weight,” Tucker said.

SEAN D. NAYLOR
22.03.2005

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