Here comes the SEPv4: This is not the tank to mess with. The M1A2 Abrams is so formidable that it can give a psychological boost to soldiers who see it for the first time. I witnessed this as a trainee during U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, then the home of the Armor branch. I once was marching and saw a force of Abrams tanks pass by with Apache attack helicopters flying overhead. What a morale boost. It was exciting to see these weapons systems in action. Later serving in South Korea near the DMZ, the lines of Abrams tanks heading up the hills to take battle positions during alerts made me proud to serve with them.
How Does the Abrams Keep Getting Better?
The Abrams has been a platform over the decades that has been improved on repeatedly. The latest version is the M1A2 SEPv4, and the Army will undoubtedly love to get their hands on the beast when it’s ready later this decade. SEP stands for System Enhancement Package. V4 means Version 4. The emphasis should be on “enhanced” as this suite of systems will make the M1A2 Abrams one of the most advanced tanks in the world. The SEPv4 will be as lethal as advertised.
General Dynamics Land Systems was chosen in 2021 to make the Version 4 additions and was awarded the overall initial contract for SEPv4 in 2017 for $311 million. On August 4 this year, the Army again chose General Dynamics to improve the tank’s sights for around $100 million. This won’t be ready until 2029. Other features should be pushed out by 2025.
Innovations Don’t Stop
Targeting and fire control were considered top areas to work on during the SEPv4 round of upgrades. The third-generation forward looking infrared sensors will also make long-range gunnery more accurate. A new laser range-finder and laser-pointer and color camera will be available on the commander’s sight. The SEPv4’s software will be upgradable to integrate new technologies as they become available such as artificial intelligence and autonomous controls.
The Advanced Multipurpose ammunition will improve the quality and effectiveness of rounds fired. Moreover, the 2021 contract for the latest software called for cyber security capabilities and crew training enhancements for the SEPv4.
Training Is Improved Too
“This software update provides the opportunity to increase virtual opportunistic training capability for Abrams tank crews while reducing dependency on the Advanced Gunnery Training System (AGTS) as the primary provider of synthetic training in Armored Brigade Combat Teams,” said Ashley John, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems, according to an interview with Inside Defense.
Is the Tank Still Needed?
During the war in Ukraine, there have been questions as to whether tanks are becoming obsolete considering the successful use of anti-tank guided missiles, drones, artillery, and multiple-launch rocket systems. With these Abrams upgrades, however, it appears the Army is not worried about the Abrams’ relevance.
The Key Is Combined Arms
One aspect of armored maneuver warfare that Russia has conducted poorly is its non-use of dismounted infantry that support tanks. Many successful Ukrainian attacks have come against Russian tanks that are isolated without infantry present or even tanks that are abandoned by crews. Russia is not taking advantage of the combined arms aspect of combat in which armies select a “slice” of different types of units – armor, mounted infantry, dismounted infantry, artillery, combat engineers, and other elements to take the fight to the enemy. All slices must be coordinated and work in concert with each other. This concept is something the Americans regularly drill into their armored brigade combat teams.
As for the Abrams SEPv4, it is amazing how this platform keeps on ticking after 40 years. The main improvements have been with lethality, targeting, survivability, and situational awareness. SEPv4 should not disappoint and continue to be the key piece of combined arms warfare.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.