Heavy Armor Here to Stay? Abrams Tank May Live Until 2040 and Beyond

Kris Osborn

Video Above: The Army Research Laboratory is now engineering new rocket, missile and artillery rounds

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) It destroyed Iraqi T-72 tanks in the Gulf War in now famous tank battles, using highly accurate, long-range thermal sensors able to destroy targets without being seen itself. It patrolled the streets in Iraq in 2003. It is a major mechanized attack platform with massive amounts of fire-power and an “intimidating” presence when used as a psychological deterrent. It was built in the 1980s as part of the Army’s famous Big 5.....the U.S. Army’s classic Abrams Main Battle Tank.

Why won’t it go away? Why isn’t a 1980s platform obsolete? Why hasn’t the Army built a new heavily armored next-gen large main battle tank? With future war expected to be long range, fast, networked, expeditionary, disaggregated and driven by robots, is there still a place for heavy armor?

The answers to these questions are as interesting as they are strategically and tactically significant. Today’s M1A2 SEP v3 and emerging v4 variant Abrams is, quite simply and directly, not the same tank as it used to be.

The platform is almost entirely different than it was in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and even more different in recent years. The reasons why are clear….new armor composites, sensors, ammunition, firepower, robotics, active protection, computing and on-board electrical power, among things.

The most recent Abrams are equipped with new, much-higher fidelity, longer range Forward Looking Infrared Sensors able to find and transmit target information from increasingly longer stand-off ranges, a key development given that future war is expected to be much more disaggregated and driven by more dispersed maneuvering. Longer range weapons, air-ground integration, unmanned systems and much greater networking are expected to make concentrated groups of armored forces much more vulnerable to enemy attack. Therefore, having an ability to find and destroy targets without being detected during forward attack operations is naturally quite significant.

Of equal if not greater significance, sensor upgrades are quickly being improved exponentially through the use of newer applications of computer processing power and AI-enabled algorithms. Today’s Abrams has completely different computing systems than it did at its inception and previously separated pools of sensor data can now be aggregated, organized and transmitted much more quickly and efficiently than was ever the case before. This technology continues to accelerate at lightning speed, meaning that the time commanders would typically need to find and attack different, potentially dispersed enemy targets, continues to be shortened. What used to take minutes, can now take seconds in certain circumstances. Such a technical ability to integrate EO-IR sensors with thermal sensors and fire control systems enables Abrams tanks to, for instance, find and destroy multiple enemy targets in rapid succession.

The Abrams has also, over the years, been made much for survivable against newer forms of enemy attack; the platform has gotten new add-on armor configurations to defend against IEDs, as the Abrams was the most survivable armored vehicle able to conduct counter-IED “road-clearing” missions to ensure safe passage for more vulnerable vehicles in Iraq. Years ago, the Abrams was given what was called a TUSK, Tactical Urban Survival Kit, a series of surrounding armored plates to protect .50-cal gunners emerging from the turret for medium-caliber machine gun attack. While an Abrams is basically impervious to small arms fire, gunners exiting to fire a .50-cal or small arms weapons would of course immediately become vulnerable to enemy fire.

The Abrams has also been given the Trophy Active Protection System, a well known and successfully tested integrated system using sensors to find at track approaching attack munitions such as RPGs or even Anti-Tank Guided Missiles. Once approaching enemy fire was found and located, data was sent through a computer-empowered fire control system which then shot out an interceptor designed to hit, explode and stop the incoming munition. The Abrams can use reactive armor as well to stop RPG attacks, and the platform is of course built to withstand heavy amounts of incoming fire and sustain functionality.

Lethality

It may have the same basic external configuration, weight and 120mm cannon, but today’s Abrams tank is, simply put, far more lethal than ever before due to the addition of sensors, ammunition, armor, EW and new weapons.

The battle tested platform has over the years, continued to incorporate cutting-edge innovations. For example, the Army is now testing and preparing a new Advanced. Multi-Purpose Round 120mm ammunition shell which offers attacks an immediate and efficient choice about which kind of explosive they may wish to use for a specific scenario. The AMP round is being prepared for a far-superior M1A2 SEP v4 Abrams tank variant for the 2020s and beyond — designed to be more lethal, faster, lighter weight, better protected, equipped with new sensors and armed with upgraded, more effective weapons, service officials said.

The AMP round, according to Northrop Grumman and Army developers, will replace four tank rounds now in use by consolidating various possible blast effects into a single round, using variable “fuse” adjustments and an advanced Ammunition Data Link. The first two rounds being consolidated into the AMP 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.

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 M1A2 SEP v3, the new Abrams brings a new high resolution display for gunner and commander stations and new electronic Line Replaceable Units. It also features a driver’s control panel and a turret control unit.This M1A2 SEP v3 effort also initiates the integration of upgraded ammunition data links and electronic warfare weapons 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 V4, to fully emerge by the mid-20202, will include new sensors, color cameras, laser rangefinder technology, ammunition data links and meteorological sensors Meteorological sensors help weapons sights and fire control account for weather conditions when it comes to firing rounds at enemy targets. 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.

Heavy Armor

Alongside the weapons and technology-related reasons why the Abrams is still so relevant to modern war, there is another clear reason why the tank is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. The need for heavy armor.

This raises an interesting question, particularly given that the Army’s Next-Generation Combat Vehicle program is focused on building lighter weight, AI-enabled more expeditionary armored platforms with vehicles such as its Mobile Protected Firepower light tank and new Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle infantry carrier. Unlike an Abrams which is simply too heavy for air transport, these new vehicles can deploy through the air and therefore operate with an ability to hit warfare much faster should combat quickly break out.

The strategy here is of course to engineer armored combat vehicles that are more deployable and able to better support advancing infantry by crossing bridges or reaching places otherwise inaccessible to a 70-ton Abram. The thinking is to leverage advanced, long-range AI-enabled targeting sensors, lightweight armored composites, active protection systems, improved precision ammunition and, perhaps most of all, manned-unmanned teaming so that forward operating robotic vehicles can absorb the most combat risks and face enemy fire.

This approach, however, stands in a delicate balance with current Army thinking that there will likely continue to be a need for heavily armored vehicles such as the Abrams, for many years to come. Why? There simply might not be enough technical breakthroughs with efforts to build lightweight composites as survivable as heavy armor in the immediate future, Army weapons developers have explained. So while newer, lighter, faster vehicles may be less likely to be “hit” given its speed, technical defenses and use of unmanned systems, something like an Abrams is likely to still be necessary for certain high-impact areas involving massive, force-on-force armored warfare amid incoming enemy fire. What the Abrams may lack in speed, mobility and fuel efficiency may be more than compensated for by its fire power and heavy protective armor. After all, an Abrams can, in many instances, survive an incoming hit from an RPG or even anti-tank missile in some circumstances, and it is just not yet clear if there are yet lightweight armor materials able to do this. However, many weapons developers also recognize there is only so much a legacy platform can be upgraded before a new one is needed to meet modern threats, despite the continued prominence and superiority of the Abrams.

These questions form the basis of ongoing discussion, as they pertain to the pace of technological progress and the promise of emerging innovations. The Army’s Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin talked about this with The National Interest more than a year ago, explaining that there would be a need for a new type of “tank” platform in the future but there is not yet consensus regarding what it should look like.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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.


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