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Meet the US Army’s M1 Abrams Tank: It Was Built for a War with Russia

M1 Abrams Military
M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

All of America’s enemies like Russia and China understand the power of the M1 Abrams: The M1A1/2 Abrams main battle tank has served as the core of the Army’s armored force for decades. Over the years the Army has undertaken consistent efforts to upgrade and modernize its inventory of Abrams tanks to ensure that they remain at the forefront of the world’s armored forces, including through the introduction of a series of system enhancement packages (SEPs). The M1A2 SEPv3 – also known as the M1A2C – is the result of the Army’s most recent effort to outfit its main battle tanks with the most up-to-date enhancements available to it.

The M1 Abrams: Like Fine Wine, It Keeps Getting Better?

The M1A1/2 Abrams main battle tank is manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (GLDS). The original M1 Abrams entered into production in 1978 and was first delivered to the United States Army in 1980, while production of the M1A1 Abrams began in 1985. It was built during the height of the Cold War to take on Russia and its allies.

A total of 3,273 M1 Abrams tanks were produced for the Army, and a total of 4,796 M1A1 tanks were produced for the Army (along with 221 for the United States Marine Corps). In 1986, production began on the M1A2, and between 1996 and 2001 roughly 600 M1 tanks were upgraded to the M1A2 configuration.

The M1 is powered by a Honeywell AGT 1500 gas turbine engine, while its Allison X-1100-3B transmission provides it with four forward and two reverse gears. The M1A2, meanwhile, is powered by a Honeywell LV100-5 gas turbine engine that is both lighter and smaller than the older engine while offering rapid acceleration, and also runs quieter and produces no visible exhaust.

M1A1/2 Abrams main battle tanks are equipped with the 120mm M256 smoothbore gun, capable of firing a variety of munitions including the M8300 HEAT-MP-T and M829 APFSDS-T rounds.

A variety of small arms – including a 7.62mm M240 machine gun mounted coaxially on the right side of the main cannon and a 12.7mm Browning M2 Machine gun for the tank commander – are also available.

The tanks are also outfitted with a digital fire control computer and a number of sights and imaging equipment such as a thermal imaging system and a Northrop Grumman Laser Systems eyesafe laser rangefinder.

The Upgrades

Over the years, the Army has made use of a number of upgrade packages for the M1A1/2 Abrams. In 2001, GDLS was contracted to outfit 240 M1A2 tanks with a system enhancement package (SEP) by 2004. This upgrade included an improved command and control architecture, a new commander’s independent thermal viewer with a second-generation thermal imager, a display for viewing color terrain maps, a second-generation thermal imaging gunner’s sight, and a driver’s integrated display and thermal management sight.

By 2008, the Army had begun to upgrade its remaining M1A1s and its M1A2 SEPs to the M1A2 SEPv2 configuration which, among other things, included the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station – Low Profile, an ammunition data link to fire improved rounds, and improved battery capacity for longer silent watch. Most notably, however, the M1A2 SEPv2 included integration of the Trophy Active Protection System (APS).

M1A2 SEPv3

In 2015, the Army awarded GLDS the contract to begin production of the M1A2 SEPv3, with the initial production vehicle delivered to the Army in 2017. GLDS was also awarded contracts for the upgrading of older M1A1 main battle tanks to the M1A2 SEPv3 configuration.

The M1A2 SEPv3 addresses space, weight, and power issues that had become apparent during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and offers significantly improved power generation and distribution. The package also incorporates better communications and networking capabilities and offers crews improved displays and interfaces that will improve their situational awareness.

Also on offer with the package are lethality and survivability enhancements. The M1A2 SEPv3 includes new means of defeating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and an upgraded armor package, while a new ammunition data link will support new types of ammunition that are either currently fielded or that will become available in the future.

The new package also provides sustainment and maintenance improvements such as the Vehicle Health Management System (VHMS) and New Line Replaceable Modules (LRMs), while a new under-armor Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) will help to reduce fuel consumption and wear and tear on the engine.

Last year, soldiers with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division became the first to make use of the M1A2 SEPv3, with the first brigade of upgraded main battle tanks entering service.

A further upgraded variant, the M1A2 SEPv4, is also in development.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.