Three Ways To Make the M1 Abrams the Tank of the Future

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The U.S. Army is on its third quest in twenty years to modernize its armored vehicle fleets. The current effort, driven by Futures Command’s Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) Cross-Functional Team (CFT), is largely focused on the replacement for the Optionally-Manned Fighting Vehicle, a replacement for the venerable Bradley, and on the development of a family of robotic vehicles.

The Army appears fixated on fielding transformational capabilities. At the same time, it must be sure that the other armored fighting vehicle fleets can be effective in future high-end fights. The way it is doing this is through a series of planned upgrades.

A good example of this approach was the Stryker wheeled armored vehicle, initially fielded as an interim solution while the Army pursued the ill-fated Future Combat System. Now approaching twenty years of service, the Stryker has undergone repeated upgrades. The most notable of these has been the replacement of the flat bottom with a double V-Hull (DVH) to better survive improvised explosive devices. Another upgrade, the Dragoon, adds a new turret equipped with a highly lethal 30-mm cannon. Also being developed is the Army’s Interim Maneuver Short Range Air Defense system (IM-SHORAD), a Stryker vehicle with advanced sensors and a reconfigurable weapons platform that will carry Stringer and Hellfire missiles, a cannon and a machine gun.

The Army is also pursuing upgrades for several other critical vehicle fleets. The Paladin M109 self-propelled howitzer was first deployed in 1962. Since then, it has undergone repeated upgrades to the current A7 configuration, which modernizes the vehicle’s chassis, engine and electrical systems. The Paladin is the basic vehicle for the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, which will be able to fire projectiles at up to twice the range of the current Paladin.

The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) is the replacement for the obsolescent M113s. While technically a new procurement and not an upgrade, the AMPV is based on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle chassis. The AMPV provides greater functionality and survivability compared to the M113 along with compatibility with both the Bradley and Paladin M109A7.

Perhaps the perfect example of the ability of the U.S. defense industry to ensure the relevance of major platforms and weapons systems for decades after they were first introduced through smart upgrades is the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. Since it was first deployed in 1980, the Abrams has undergone continuous modification and upgrades in response to changes in threats, technology and tactics. As one well-respected defense technology reporter observed, the M1 Abrams remains the best tank in the world for one reason: upgrades.

The latest upgrade, called the M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 3 (SEPv3 or A2C), provides a host of improvements, including new computers, sensors, radios, and power management systems. It installs a new Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) that allows the Abrams to keep its sophisticated systems running while the engine is off. Survivability measures include an improved Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS), a Counter Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare package, and reinforced armor.

The SEPv3/A2C will add an improved Ammunition Data Link for the fire control system and new rounds for the 120mm main gun, including one designed to defeat the explosive reactive armor on the latest Russian tanks. Finally, at least four brigades of M1A2Cs will be equipped with the TROPHY Active Protection System, capable of defeating rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles.

The Army is already planning its next Abrams upgrade, the SEPv4 or M1A2D. This version will build on the A2C improvements with more advanced sensors, including one that will provide meteorological data to the fire control system, a laser range finder, a new slip-ring for the turret and an ethernet switch to connect all the tank’s sensors. These improvements will significantly enhance the Abrams’ lethality.

But the future of the M1 Abrams need not end there. What might an SEPv5/A2E variant look like? At least three improvements come to mind. One is an automatic loader. The second is a fully automated turret. The third is a new engine.  

The idea of using an automatic loader or autoloader has been debated within the Army for more than two decades. There are a number of tanks equipped with autoloaders, including the French Leclerc, Japanese Type 90 and Type 10, and Korean K2 Black Panther. An autoloader would allow the Abrams’ crew size to be reduced from 4 to 3. An autoloader might require a redesign of the Abrams’ turret if the decision was made to also replace the current carousel ammunition storage system with one that stores shells in a bustle at the back of the turret.

The Army could also go one step farther and fully automate the turret on the Abrams. The newest Russian main battle tank, the T-14 Armata, has a fully automated turret. An unmanned turret would allow for a significant overall weight reduction and an even smaller crew.

The U.S. military has had a lot of positive experiences employing unmanned turrets or remotely operated weapons stations. CROWS has been deployed on thousands of vehicles, ranging from the M-1A2C Abrams tanks to Humvees. CROWS allows the vehicle’s crew to engage hostile forces from inside the vehicle’s hull. The Stryker Dragoon and IM-SHORAD likewise employ automated, unmanned turrets.

A third major upgrade that could significantly improve the M1’s performance and sustainability is a new engine. The Abrams turbine engine is temperamental and a gas guzzler. Replacing the current engine with a diesel power pack would simplify maintenance, reduce fuel consumption and save money. For that matter, virtually all the world’s main battle tanks have diesel engines. The Army has been working on a lightweight, high-efficiency diesel engine for its armored fighting vehicles.

As defense budgets become tighter, the Army needs to consider saving resources by upgrading platforms whenever possible. The NGCV CFT took a look at what technological breakthroughs would be required to field a new main battle tank and decided it was too tough a problem. Moreover, it is not necessary. There still are plenty of options for improving the M1 Abrams. All that is required is vision.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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