Earlier this week, the U.S. Army announced it was no longer pursuing the System Enhancement Package v4 (SEPv4) for the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. Instead, it will undertake a more comprehensive overhaul and modernization program to produce the M1A3
. In general, this change marks a shift from adding systems to the current design to redesigning the tank with additional upgrades and protections baked in.
The M1 Abrams family of tanks has remained a mainstay of the Army’s armored corps for more than four decades.
The highly formidable main battle tank (MBT) has undergone several facelifts in its years in service in order to maintain its edge over near-peer competitors.
The Abrams recently made headlines when the White House agreed to provide 31 M1A1 variants to aid Kyiv’s defensive efforts against Russian forces. This fall, the Abrams tanks- in addition to Britain’s Challengers and Germany’s Leopards, are expected to enhance Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive.
Tank Design Challenges
The primary challenge with tank design has always been weight. A bigger gun adds weight. More armor adds weight. Virtually any system to improve lethality and survivability adds weight to the tank. While some of this can be offset by bigger, more powerful engines, the increase in fuel consumption and maintenance cost cannot be escaped. This is the issue the Army is attempting to confront by scrapping the SEPv4 modification.
While this mod is not overly ambitious in and of itself, the fact that it is the fourth in a series has signed its death warrant.
Previous modifications, most notably the SEPv3 added explosive reactive armor (ERA) and a Trophy active protection system to the tank.
Both pieces of equipment are essential for survivability and greatly increase the tank’s ability to withstand hits from modern anti-tank rounds; however with every added system the Abrams has become heavier and more logistically intensive.
Army leaders have pointed to the war in Ukraine as a major factor in this decision.
Tank losses have been high on both sides of that conflict and leadership has noted that “the war in Ukraine has highlighted a critical need for integrated protections for Soldiers, built from within instead of adding on.”
Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean also stated “the Abrams Tank can no longer grow its capabilities without adding weight, and we need to reduce its logistical footprint,” as systems are continuously added without a comprehensive overhaul, that stresses maintenance and supply chains which may already be tenuous during a conflict.
While the Army has been light on the specifics of the M1E3, it claims it “will include the best features of the M1A2 SEPv4 and will comply with the latest modular open systems architecture standards, allowing quicker technology upgrades and requiring fewer resources.”
Presumably, this means it will have some or all of the survivability features of the SEPv4 to include ERA, a Trophy system, and directional smoke grenade launchers.
As this development takes place, the Army will continue some low-rate production of the SEPv3 to bridge the gap to the M1E3 which is expected to be operational by the early 2030s.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.