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The M1 Abrams Tank: Too Fat to Fight a War?

M1 Abrams
M1A2 SEP Abrams TUSK demonstrating Mounted Soldier System, 2008.

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.

The Challenge

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.

Origins

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.

Postscript

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.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Phil Ha

    January 29, 2021 at 1:25 am

    It’s important to maintain a scientific perspective and avoid ‘subliminal,’ European tank nationalism (Leopard vs Abrams). The tank subject is multi faceted and this Article is, unfortunately, too thin to add anything salient.

  2. phaser

    May 5, 2021 at 4:27 pm

    Тhanks foг finally talking abⲟut > The M1 Abrams Tank:
    Too Fat to Fight a War? – 19FortyFive < Liked it!

  3. Hayward Maberley

    May 15, 2022 at 11:07 pm

    When the first batch of second hand Abrams battle tanks, arrived in Australia back in 2007, they immediately encountered problems, with no rail transport available to carry the tank to the Northern Territory. Deployment will be further hampered because, at 68 tonnes, the Abrams is too heavy to travel across road bridges in the Northern Territory. As the first 18 of the tanks were delivered to Port Melbourne, the operators of the Adelaide-to-Darwin railway said they lacked the equipment to carry them.

    Adelaide-based Freightlink said the tanks were too big.”Freightlink has participated in a rail study with the implication for new rolling stock to be acquired,” the company said.It did not say when or if it intended to acquire the required rolling stock and suggested it was waiting for contracts to be signed with the Defence Department before going ahead with the purchase. A total of 59 refurbished tanks were bought from the US for $500 million.

    Transporting them north by road is likely to be problematic. A senior Northern Territory shire engineer said road bridges in the Katherine Shire had a maximum capacity of 50 tonnes, 18 tonnes less than the weight of one Abrams tank. Road trains weighing up to 50 tonnes are able to use the bridges by disconnecting a trailer, he said.

    The tanks, described by federal LNP government Defence Minister Brendan Nelson as the best in the world, have a fuel economy as low as 200m a litre. While the US-made tank provides unmatched protection for its crew of four, experts claim its jet turbine engine is three times more expensive to run than the diesel engines in the army’s ageing Leopard 1s. A Defence spokesman said the Abrams’s 2200-litre fuel tanks ensured they had a similar range to the Leopards and that an additional eight refuelling trucks would be provided to the army’s 1st Armoured Regiment in Darwin.

    Critics also claim the Abrams’s high heat emission will constrict its ability to work with infantry in urban areas. But a Defence Department spokesman said the Australian Abrams had been designed to minimise their heat emission to a level comparable to diesel-powered tanks. How didi that come about as these are just preowned US tanks, not built specifically to any Australian specifications?

    Army mechanics will be kept busy if the US army experience is any guide. It allocates 25 per cent of its maintenance budget for ground combat systems to fixing Abrams gas turbine engines.

    But Dr Nelson said the Abrams still offers the best value. “These tanks are the most advanced and capable in the world. This capability w(ill be increasingly important as widespread proliferation of cheap, high-tech and lethal anti-armour, anti-personnel weapons could pose an increasing threat in any future conflict,” he said.

    But the Abrams tank was designed to charge across the cold wet North German Plain to counter attack Soviet tanks..not really very suitable for use in dry, dusty and hot outback Australia..

    The then Labor Federal Opposition defence spokesman Robert McClelland questioned the need for such a large tank.

    “The wisdom of the Abrams acquisition has to be questioned in the light of the limited use they are going to have in our region,” he said. “And specifically, in the light of the logistical issues they are going to present to the ADF simply within Australia.”

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