By Kris Osborn
Specifically engineered to keep pace with fast changing technology and counter major armored warfare threats for decades to come.
The Army is now building the next versions of the Abrams tank – an effort which advances on-board power, electronics, computing, sensors, weapons and protection to address the prospect of massive, mechanized, force-on-force great power land war in coming decades, officials with the Army’s Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems told Scout Warrior.
The first MIA2 SEP v3 tank, built by General Dynamics Land Systems, is slated to arrive as soon as this month – as part of a delivery of initial prototype vehicles, developers said.
“The Army's ultimate intent is to upgrade the entire fleet of M1A2 vehicles -- at this time, over 1,500 tanks,” Ashley Givens, spokeswoman for PEO GCS, told Scout Warrior.
The first v3 pilot vehicles will feature technological advancements in communications, reliability, sustainment and fuel efficiency and upgraded armor.
This current mobility and power upgrade, among other things, adds an auxiliary power unit for fuel efficiency and on-board electrical systems, improved armor materials, upgraded engines and transmission and a 28-volt upgraded drive system.
“The Abrams has been around since early 80s, and the original designers were forward thinking to build in the provisions for continual upgrade. Over the years, there have been significant improvements in sensor capabilities, power generation, mobility, lethality, survivability, armor and situational awareness,” Donald Kotchman, Vice President, Tracked Combat Vehicles, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
In addition to receiving a common high-resolution display for gunner and commander stations, some of the current electronics, called Line Replaceable Units, will be replaced with new Line Replaceable Modules including the commander’s display unit, driver’s control panel, gunner’s control panel, turret control unit and a common high-resolution display, developers from General Dynamics Land Systems say.
Facilitating continued upgrades, innovations and modernization efforts for the Abrams in years to come is the principle rationale upon which the Line Replacement Modules is based. It encompasses the much-discussed “open architecture” approach wherein computing standards, electronics, hardware and software systems can efficiency be integrated with new technologies as they emerge.
Kotchman added that moving to Line Replaceable Modules vastly improves computing capacity, power distribution and fire-control technology for the Abrams.
“The principle difference between the Line Replaceable Unit and Module is modularity. Currently to initiate a repair or an upgrade of a LRU, you must remove the entire unit from the tank, take it to a test bench and make the changes. Under the Line Replaceable Module concept, internal diagnostics isolates and determines failure at the card level. The card has been constructed such that you can remove it and replace it without damaging it,” Kotchman said. “Similarly, when new capability is introduced or increased computing power is required, changes can be made at the card level rather than redesigning the entire unit.”
This M1A2 SEP v3 effort also initiates the integration of upgraded ammunition data links and electronic warfare devices such as the Counter Remote Controlled Improvised Explosive Device – Electronic Warfare – CREW. An increased AMPs alternator is also part of this upgrade, along with Ethernet cables designed to better network vehicle sensors together.
The Abrams is also expected to get an advanced force-tracking system which uses GPS technology to rapidly update digital moving map displays with icons showing friendly and enemy force positions.
The system, called Joint Battle Command Platform, uses an extremely fast Blue Force Tracker 2 Satcom network able to reduce latency and massively shorten refresh time. Having rapid force-position updates in a fast-moving combat circumstance, quite naturally, could bring decisive advantages in both mechanized and counterinsurgency warfare.
The GDLS development deal also advances a commensurate effort to design and construct and even more advanced M1A2 SEP v4 Abrams tank variant for the 2020s and beyond. The v4 is designed to be more lethal, better protected, equipped with new sensors and armed with upgraded, more effective weapons, service officials said.
“The current M1A2 SEPv3 production will transition to the v4 configuration in 2023. The v4 upgrade is currently scheduled to begin production in 2023 with fielding in 2025,” Givens said.
The Army-GDLS deal is also the first contract is for SEPv4 upgrades, which include the Commander’s Primary Sight, an improved Gunner’s Primary Sight and enhancements to sensors, lethality and survivability.
“General Dynamics Land Systems will deliver seven prototype M1A2 SEPv4 tanks to the Army. The contract has an initial value of $311 million,” a company statement said.
Advanced networking technology with next-generation sights, sensors, targeting systems and digital networking technology -- are all key elements of an ongoing upgrade to position the platform to successfully engage in combat against rapidly emerging threats, such as the prospect of confronting a Russian T-14 Armata or Chinese 3rd generation Type 99 tank.
The SEP v4 variant, slated to being testing in 2021, will include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated on-board networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links, laser warning receivers and a far more lethal, multi-purpose 120mm tank round, Army developers told Scout Warrior.
While Army officials explain that many of the details of the next-gen systems for the future tanks are not available for security reasons, Army developers did explain that the lethality upgrade, referred to as an Engineering Change Proposal, or ECP, is centered around the integration of a higher-tech 3rd generation FLIR – Forward Looking Infrared imaging sensor.
The advanced FLIR uses higher resolution and digital imaging along with an increased ability to detect enemy signatures at farther ranges through various obscurants such as rain, dust or fog, Army official said.
Improved FLIR technologies help tank crews better recognize light and heat signatures emerging from targets such as enemy sensors, electronic signals or enemy vehicles. This enhancement provides an additional asset to a tank commander’s independent thermal viewer.
Rear view sensors and laser detection systems are part of these v4 upgrades as well. Also, newly configured meteorological sensors will better enable Abrams tanks to anticipate and adapt to changing weather or combat conditions more quickly, Army officials said.
“Meteorological sensors are being integrated into the fire control system. It provides information into fire control algorithms that help increase the accuracy and precision of your weapon system,” Givens added.
The emerging M1A2 SEP v4 will also be configured with a new slip-ring leading to the turret and on-board ethernet switch to reduce the number of needed “boxes” by networking sensors to one another in a single vehicle.
Advanced Multi-Purpose Round
The M1A2 SEP v4 will carry Advanced Multi-Purpose 120mm ammunition round able to combine a variety of different rounds into a single tank round.
The AMP round will replace four tank rounds now in use. The first two are the M830, High Explosive Anti-Tank, or HEAT, round and the M830A1, Multi-Purpose Anti -Tank, or MPAT, round.
The latter round was introduced in 1993 to engage and defeat enemy helicopters, specifically the Russian Hind helicopter, Army developers explained. The MPAT round has a two-position fuse, ground and air, that must be manually set, an Army statement said.
The M1028 Canister round is the third tank round being replaced. The Canister round was first introduced in 2005 by the Army to engage and defeat dismounted Infantry, specifically to defeat close-in human-wave assaults. Canister rounds disperse a wide-range of scattering small projectiles to increase anti-personnel lethality and, for example, destroy groups of individual enemy fighters.
The M908, Obstacle Reduction round, is the fourth that the AMP round will replace; it was designed to assist in destroying large obstacles positioned on roads by the enemy to block advancing mounted forces, Army statements report.
AMP also provides two additional capabilities: defeat of enemy dismounts, especially enemy anti-tank guided missile, or ATMG, teams at a distance, and breaching walls in support of dismounted Infantry operations
A new ammunition data link will help tank crews determine which round is best suited for a particular given attack.
Overall, these lethality and mobility upgrades represent the best effort by the Army to maximize effectiveness and lethality of its current Abrams tank platform. The idea is to leverage the best possible modernization upgrades able to integrate into the existing vehicle. Early conceptual discussion and planning is already underway to build models for a new future tank platform to emerge by the 2030s – stay with Scout Warrior for an upcoming report on this effort.
Active Protection Systems
As part of this broad effort to accelerate Abrams technological advancement into future decades, the Army is fast-tracking an emerging technology for Abrams tanks designed to give combat vehicles an opportunity to identify, track and destroy approaching enemy rocket-propelled grenades in a matter of milliseconds, service officials said.
“We are always looking for ways to enhance the protection provided on our combat vehicles and we recognize Active Protection Systems as one of our highest priorities towards this end,” Givens said.
Active Protection Systems, or APS, is a technology which uses sensors and radar, computer processing, fire control technology and interceptors to find, target and knock down or intercept incoming enemy fire such as RPGs and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, or ATGMs.
Systems of this kind have been in development for many years, however the rapid technological progress of enemy tank rounds, missiles and RPGs is leading the Army to more rapidly test and develop APS for its fleet of Abrams tanks.
The Army is looking at a range of domestically produced and allied international solutions from companies participating in the Army's Modular Active Protection Systems (MAPS) program, an Army official told Scout Warrior.