Too ‘fat’ to fight?: Ironically the M1 Abrams tank has become more logistically complicated as it has become better armed and better protected, resulting in a platform that some would argue is of dubious combat effectiveness.
There is an argument to be made that the United Sates’s main battle tank, the venerable M1 Abrams, is the best-protected, most effective, and certainly one of the most combat-tested tanks in the world.
It combines a powerful mix of nearly-impenetrable armor protection and powerful 120mm ammunition on one tank platform. But despite its notable capabilities, the M1 Abrams has a serious problem that might not be easily solved anytime soon.
The M1 Abrams was designed in the late 1970s as a moderately-sized main battle tank at just over 61 tons. Since its introduction into service, the M1 has been upgraded a number of times: both the Army and Marine Corps switched out its original 105mm main gun with a larger and more powerful 120mm smoothbore gun, and its armor protection package has also been steadily upgraded.
In American service, many M1 Abrams feature layers of depleted uranium armor protection. Thanks to its high density (1.67 times denser than lead), depleted uranium plating offers excellent protection and has been incorporated into the tanks hull glacis and turret front. However, this durable armor protection comes at a high cost: weight.
Since its introduction, the Abrams has just gotten heavier and heavier. The Cold War-era M1 has since given way to a behemoth that weighs nearly 75 tons. The newest Abrams variant has essentially reached the upgrade limit in terms of how much more weight it can support. In particular, it has become a logistical headache and may be too heavy to be combat effective.
At the 70+ ton weight point, American Abrams tanks are not easily transportable or recoverable. Simple tactical maneuvers such as crossing bridges and driving down roads is a challenge, in particular in theaters like eastern Europe, as infrastructure in there can have a lower weight limit than in the United States or Western Europe. Ironically the Abrams has become more logistically complicated as it has become better armed and better protected, resulting in a combat-questionable platform.
The tank’s current weight problem isn’t going away anytime soon either. The Army is experimenting with Israel’s Trophy active protection system, and it may become a permanent fixture on American armor.
The downside? It is estimated to weigh 2.5 tons.
Decisive Lethality Platform
In any case, a successor to the M1 Abrams may be just around the corner.
The U.S. Army’s Next-generation combat vehicle program aims to replace a number of armor platforms that are approaching the end of their service lives, including the M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle and M1 Abrams, with newer platforms that have more advanced capabilities, with optionally-manned combat vehicles as one possibility.
Though the Decisive Lethality Platform program is still in its early stages, one area that would be ripe for upgrade is automation. Not only could the M1-replacement benefit from having one less crewmember — a loader — in favor of an automatic loader, but other systems such as a kind of driver-autopilot could be integrated as well and allow the tank to drive by itself in conjunction with other tanks or fighting vehicles.
Whatever form the Decisive Lethality Platform tank replacement tanks, it will likely be lighter, and faster than the heavy M1 Abrams. Don’t expect to see it anytime soon though, early prototypes aren’t expected until at least 2023, if not later.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.