A recently published assessment has revealed that the combat-hardened M1 Abrams tanks of the US Army would not be able to “dominate” the battlefields into the 2040s, especially in the context of a potential confrontation with China.
The M1 Abrams is a third-generation American main battle tank designed for contemporary armored ground warfare and is currently one of the heaviest tanks in service.
The assessment conducted by the Army Science Board, a federally-sanctioned independent group of experts that advises the Secretary of the Army, said M1 Abrams tanks would “not be effective” or able to “dominate” in a high-end conflict, hinting at a potential war with arch-rival China.
The study was reportedly initiated sometime in 2019 and took four years to conclude. The group has been asking for an Abrams replacement effort to include a next-generation M1 derivative, lighter ‘tanks’ equipped with more outstanding caliber guns, hypersonic anti-tank missiles, and unmanned ground vehicles.
Approximately 2,500 M1 Abrams tanks are in service with the Army, while many more are in storage and may someday be repaired and put back into action. Three primary Abrams tank variants are used: the M1, M1A1, and M1A2. Each successive version has improved weaponry, protection, and electronics, building on the now-vintage M1 Abrams.
The assessment carried over a significant period noted that based on the group’s findings, the M1 Abrams could not dominate the 2040 battlefields as all the advantages of this MBT, including mobility, firepower, and protection, remained at risk. It emphasized that the M1A2 SEP V3&4 upgrades would bolster the tanks’ capability, but they would not establish dominance.
“Near transparency in all domains will significantly increase the lethality our forces will experience. China and Russia have studied our forces and doctrine and are fielding countermeasures. We will continue to have to fight outnumbered, exacerbated by a low MBT operational readiness rate and an aging fleet,” the report concludes.
Russia, for one, will indeed have a closer encounter with the Abrams soon as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced late last month that the first M1 Abrams tanks have arrived in Ukraine to support the country’s counteroffensive. However, he did not specify when they would be deployed.
The assessment notes that these conclusions are based on a variety of factors, including the importance of intelligence collected and lessons learned from Israel’s interventions in southern Lebanon in 2006 and the Gaza Strip in 2014, as well as the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine beginning in 2022, and developments within China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The study says the “Conflict in South Lebanon in 2006 exposed shortcomings that drove changes in the Israeli Defense Force, particularly armored vehicle protection.”
“The Israelis restored survivability overmatch with active protection (APS) against shaped charge ATGMs [anti-tank guided missiles] to retain the ability to close with and destroy the enemy through maneuver and fire with protection. In Operation Protective Edge [in Gaza in 2014], the IDF did not lose a single tank to ATGM fire, including in very close terrain.”
Has The M1 Abrams Run Its Course?
The Abrams Main Battle Tank is a full-tracked, low-profile, land-combat attack weapon that gives Soldiers superior firepower, unmatched survivability, and quick reflexes over their foes. The Army said it closes with the adversary and destroys them using mobility, firepower, and shock effect.
The M1 Abrams tank family lacks some of the flashy features built into tanks of the twenty-first century. But its rugged, reliable General Dynamics Land Systems engineering and consistent upgrades have kept it dominant in every conflict in which it saw action. However, that may not work in the future anymore.
The Army Science Board assessment says that it will become less likely for traditionally constructed modern main battle tanks (MBT) to exert a stout presence in the future. This includes the most recent iterations of the M1 Abrams, which are pretty heavy, significantly affecting their mobility, and still rely heavily on passive and reactive armor rather than active defenses.
With a full combat load, the latest M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 3 (SEPv3) variant of the Army weighs between 76 and 78 tons, 20 tons more than the original M1 that entered service in the 1980s.
According to the Army Science Board, these problems would be made worse by the difficulties of deploying and supporting conventional heavy armored troops over very long distances during any future big confrontation in the Pacific region. The most recent analysis highlights persistent worries regarding the inadequacy of sealift capability and the restrictions on deploying heavy armor by air.
A lighter 55- to 60-ton M1-derived tank with a sophisticated 130mm main gun, a smaller crew, a hybrid-electric propulsion system, and an emphasis on active rather than passive defenses are the recommendations for the choice with the lowest risk. The group also developed a concept idea and a rendering that depicts a tank with an ATGM and a machine gun mounted on top of its main turret.
The US Army recognizes the limitations of the Abrams. It notified last month that it was abandoning the plans to upgrade the tank to improve the mobility and survivability of the Abrams main battle tank on the battlefield.
The service said it would discontinue its M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 4 program and instead build the M1E3 Abrams with a focus on the difficulties the tank will likely encounter on battlefields into the 2040s. The M1E3 Abrams’ development would incorporate the best elements of the M1A2 SEPv4 and adhere to the latest modular open systems architectural standards, allowing for rapid technological advancements and needing fewer resources.
The service has reported that a reduced sustainment footprint and enhanced operational and tactical mobility will make armored brigade combat teams more effective and maneuverable in wars worldwide.
Although the service was supposed to receive the M1A2 SEPv4 version earlier this year, it will not go into production as planned. The US Army is also invested in upgrading the tank’s capability to all new levels. For instance, Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo told Defense News in a Sept. 6 interview.
“It’s threat-based; it’s everything that we’re seeing right now, even recently in Ukraine, in terms of a native active protection system, lighter weight, more survivability, and reduced logistical burdens for the Army.”
This is where the M1E3 Abrams comes into the picture. Although the specifications and plans of the next-generation tank may not completely match the description provided by the study, it does indicate that the US Army is aware of the future battlefield needs and is learning several lessons from the Ukraine war that it is bound to use in the development of a new tank.
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