Academic journal article Military Review

The M1 Abrams: Today and Tomorrow

Academic journal article Military Review

The M1 Abrams: Today and Tomorrow

Article excerpt

The main battle tank of the U.S. Army is under pressure due to critical scrutiny from numerous fronts questioning its relevance to the modern security environment. The M1 Abrams played a key role briefly in Operation Iraqi Freedom and rarely in Operation Enduring Freedom. Moreover, due to an apparent perception within NATO that heavy U.S. armor was no longer needed, the Army redeployed the last of the Abrams based in Europe to the United States in 2013. (1) Elsewhere, the relevance of heavy armor is being challenged. Anti-armor weapon technology has advanced considerably, to the point that even nonstate actors such as Hezbollah have seen some success against advanced main battle tanks (i.e., Israeli Merkavas in 2006). (2) Finally, the downward trajectories of both the overall U.S. military budget and the Army force structure threaten the Abrams force. The cumulative effect of these pressures will make tank force structure and tank modernization efforts prime candidates for budget reductions.

This article is not an argument against all such reductions, but it does propose that contemplated reductions should be weighed carefully against realistic requirements and associated risks, and that options for maintaining a capable armor force be thoroughly explored based on the viability of extending and revitalizing the remaining Abrams. (3)

Over the decades since the Abrams was first fielded, several technologies have been advancing that should be examined as potential enhancements to extend the useful life of the Abrams. Specifically, technologies for engines and small precision munitions have advanced greatly since the fielding of the first M1 in 1980. Given today's strategic and fiscal environments, most would consider development of a new-generation main battle tank beyond reach, with any such initiative destined to suffer the same fate as the ambitious Future Combat System (FCS), which was cancelled in 2009 because it was deemed too expensive. That is why pursuing the more modest option of upgrading existing Abrams with new engine and precision munitions technologies deserves close scrutiny. These technologies could offer enhancements to the Abrams that would extend its useful lifespan well into the future to meet a variety of foreseeable challenges within manageable fiscal resources. Moreover, these technologies may offer tactical synergies when combined with each other and the existing capabilities resident on the Abrams to meet unforeseen requirements. Simulation and experimentation could play a key role in modeling and exploring the tactical implications of such improvements.

Therefore, this article focuses on the Abrams' tactical utility as justification for pursuing such upgrades. Technological maturity or engineering feasibility are not investigated in depth other than to identify technological trends that appear to match up with desirable enhancements to the Abrams. While technology and engineering questions are certainly critical to the fielding of new equipment, a better understanding of tactical utility must precede such discussions. No sense in perfecting the useless.

Enduring Need for the Main Battle Tank

There are two key questions: "Do we still need a main battle tank?" If so, "Will the Abrams serve the purpose in the future?"

Before considering these, it is useful to observe that transitions between classes of weapons usually are gradual rather than abrupt, and with good reason. Even as it becomes apparent that some new technology has a brighter future than an existing one, it often takes some time before the tipping point of obsolescence is reached for older technologies. Very often the overlap of time enables the older technology to serve well beyond that point in some revised role. For example, battleships served as key fire support platforms for U.S. amphibious operations in World War II and later conflicts long after they had ceased to be the preeminent naval warfare system. …

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