Operating air and ground drones in the line of enemy fire, sending large robotic vehicles to clear tank ditches and breach obstacles, and using long-range, high-fidelity sensors to maneuver and target enemies in more dispersed formations are all newer tactical mission possibilities envisioned for the heavily armored M1 Abrams main battle tank.
While an armored ability to bring massive firepower, unparalleled survivability, and mechanized assault missions still very much characterizes the operational scope of Army tanks, there are some interesting ways in which technology, networking, and unmanned systems are expanding the main battle tank’s potential combat applications and therefore multiplying or enhancing its warfare impact.
Should there be a major force-on-force engagement with a technically advanced rival, the Abrams appears to be the only major platform capable of the kind of massive, firepower-driven engagement any kind of combined-arms assault or counterattack might require. Yet, its combat utility is rapidly expanding due to upgrades and technologies expected to impact the tactical equation.
Today and tomorrow’s M1 Abrams, as evidenced by the now-arriving M1A2 SEPv3 and SEPv4 variants, are much more capable, they are different tanks than what has been seen from the platform in recent years. The newer variant Abrams has improved armor protection, a new generation of computing and command and control, modernized thermal, upgraded infrared targeting sensors enabling a more extended range, more widely scoped target identification, and vastly expanded onboard electrical power through integrated mobile auxiliary power units.
The v3 also operates with new dimensions of GPS connectivity, moving map displays, threat-based intelligence data, force tracking systems, and an upgraded engine and transmission. The onboard computing and electronics are also intended to add the technical infrastructure for yet a new series of upgrades for the platform with the now emerging and underway v4 variant. These improvements will bring 3rd-Gen Forward Looking Infrared sensors (3GEN FLIR), a new generation of ammunition data links, and an entirely new varied, adjustable, and much more capable Multi-Purpose Round ammunition. New armaments will be able to fire high-explosive anti-tank rounds, multi-purpose rounds, and canister rounds intended to expand dispersed fragmentation for anti-personnel lethality. What much of this amounts to is that an Abrams tank is increasingly able to take on a much wider mission scope, in part to accommodate the kinds of changing threat environments it would likely face in an anticipated future engagement. The Abrams v3 and v4 are being engineered to perform both traditional tank combat operations and an entirely new sphere of needed warfare tactics. These tactical dynamics explain why the Army continues to refine new concepts of traditional Combined Arms Maneuver tailored to a new generation of threats.
M1A2 SEPv4 Arriving
Among many things, some of the new dimensions pertain to the ongoing massive, strategic, and tactical expansion of unmanned systems, multi-domain air-ground connectivity, and much better networked, and therefore dispersed, warfare maneuver formations.
It is precisely with these tactics in mind that Abrams weapons developers and future war planners continue to architect and integrate a new generation of technical capabilities. Newer v3 and v4 tanks will be able to operate, and possibly even dispatch, air and ground drones to carry ammunition, test enemy defenses, counter enemy obstacles and countermeasures, and surveil forward, high-risk areas under enemy fire.
This increased secure networking technology, coupled with the advent of a new fleet of increasingly autonomous and semi-autonomous drones provides much of the inspiration for why the Army is engineering a new class of lighter-weight vehicles, yet there is still a consensus that the kind of heavily-armored ability to attack, fire upon, and close in on a major enemy is something for which, at least for the moment, there is not an equivalent to the now much more capable Abrams tank.
Heavy armor is essential in a conflict, when it comes to any future warfare engagement it seems war planners would have to account for the expected reality that armored vehicles will face various kinds of much more serious enemy fire and there does not at the moment appear to be anything comparable to the Abrams tank able to withstand, fight through, and potentially counter much of this. Longer-range, more explosive anti-tank missiles, RPGs, enemy tank rounds, and a new generation of aerial threats such as drone-fired missiles or even drone swarms, present new a new and much greater risk to land war formation. Combat dynamics increase the likelihood that armored vehicles will take new dimensions of incoming enemy fire.
The Army’s recent very large multi-billion v3 Abrams tank buy seems to indicate the service’s confidence in the platform as well as an awareness that there simply is not any kind of equivalent able to address these kinds of emerging threat dynamics, at least as of yet.
Abrams Tanks & Future War
The evolution of the Abrams raises questions when it comes to what combat will look like in future decades, such as how an upgraded Abrams can integrate with the much anticipated high-speed, AI-driven, multi-domain combat environment, which is expected to be much different than an Army land force might face at the moment. There is of course a massive emphasis placed on drone command and control, networking, long-range sensing, high-speed maneuver, and of course expeditionary combat and deployability. Perhaps this is why many are now raising questions about how the Abrams v3 is heavier than the variants it is replacing. Could this impact combat operations?
There are several pertinent factors to consider. One of them is simply that the Army is already working with major industry weapons developers to concurrently engineer a new generation of faster, lighter weight vehicles. Yet, they are likely intended to fortify or fight alongside an upgraded Abrams, which is designed to address, mitigate, or overcome some of its limitations.
There are some environments where an Abrams might have limitations with things, such as accessing close-quarter urban areas or crossing bridges, yet its new generation of mapping, sensing, and connectivity with overhead surveillance drones and even growing real-time networking with forward-operating, sensor-enabled infantry can help tank crews identify an optimal avenue of approach. Also, upgraded weapons and target identification are much longer-range and engineered with much higher resolution, enabling the tanks to provide fire support to infantry from expanded vantage points. For example, there are many roads, off-road terrain, or tough-to-transit areas an Abrams equipped with added access to navigational detail and intelligence data will be able to find and access more quickly.
Also, mechanized armored columns can maneuver with a movable bridge able to accommodate the weight of an Abrams, therefore enabling the ability to cross rivers, breaches, or some otherwise impassable areas. Overall, all of this seems to point to the fact that even at a heavy weight, the Army seems to be planning for a future warfare environment in which the Abrams tanks maintain a unique, designated, and unparalleled place in armored vehicle warfare.
Then of course there is the psychological deterrence factor, as a powerful-looking Abrams tank is well known, by its mere presence, to deter potential aggressors and stop attacks before they happen. After all, isn’t part of the thinking with heavy armor and massive amounts of firepower simply intended to stop a war from happening in the first place?
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.