U.S. M1 Abrams tanks fire during NATO’s Saber Strike military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, 2016. Portal
- Ukraine has received its first shipment of US-provided M1A1 Abrams tanks.
- Despite being an older model, the Abrams has a proven ability to pulverize Soviet-built tanks.
- Two former US Army officers told Insider the tank had strong protection and weaponry, but was not without its challenges.
The American-made M1 Abrams tank is finally in Ukraine, and while it has its limitations, it’s more than just another piece of Western weaponry. It’s tough, battle-hardened armor built for a very specific purpose: killing Russian tanks.
According to two former U.S. Army officers with direct experience on the Abrams, it may well be the best tank Ukraine has received so far in the war, and it has a proven track record of defeating Soviet armor while maintaining its four-man tank Protect crew.
“It can do other things, but it’s built to destroy tanks,” Robert Greenway, a Hudson Institute expert who was assigned to the Abrams for a time in the Army, told Insider.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed on Monday the arrival of the tank, delivered in time to support Kiev’s counteroffensive, which is entering its fourth month and showing promising progress against Russian defenses in the south.
U.S. officials told The New York Times that the shipment included two trains worth of Abrams and that the rest of the 31 tanks promised by the Biden administration earlier this year would be delivered in the coming months. But even that first delivery could make a difference.
The M1A1 Abrams was used extensively in the Gulf War in the early 1990s and proved to be a formidable weapon, capable of defeating Iraq’s Soviet-era tanks – T-72s, which are in some ways similar to those used by the Russian army started three decades later. The US Army now has the M1A2, but that doesn’t mean the M1A1 can’t do the job.
“It’s an infinitely superior system,” said Greenway, who became a Special Forces officer after a few years in armor. “The A1 may be old in the sense that it has been in our inventory for some time, but it is far superior to anything the Russians have.”
U.S. Marine Corps M1A1 Abrams tanks with 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, fire during a live-fire range as part of Exercise Arrow 2019 at the Pohjankangas Training Area near Niinisalo, Finland, May 13, 2019. US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Scott Jenkins
Ukraine has been awaiting the arrival of this US battle tank for some time. President Joe Biden first offered to send the Abrams in January, saying Kiev “needs to be able to counter Russia’s evolving tactics and strategies on the battlefield at very short notice.”
In March, the White House announced that the US would speed up delivery by sending M1A1s instead of the newer A2s. The latter would have taken “over a year or so” to get to Ukraine, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General said. Gen. Pat Ryder said at the time.
The promise to deliver US-made Abrams tanks to Ukraine followed plans by Britain, Germany and other European partners to supply Ukraine with Challenger and Leopard tanks.
“Not in the same league”
According to Gian Gentile, deputy director of RAND’s Arroyo Center, there are “mostly minimal” but not insignificant differences between the Abrams and the Leopards and Challengers, but the capability gap between the Abrams and the Russian tanks is considered significant.
“Even the Russian T90M is inferior to any of these three Western tanks,” said Gentile, also a retired U.S. Army officer with years of experience on the Abrams. “The Russian tanks are lighter and therefore more vulnerable, and their optics and fire control systems are not in the same league as an Abrams, Leo or Challenger.”
View of American M1A1 Abrams tanks crossing the desert during the Gulf War in Iraq in 1991. Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
The M1 Abrams is a cutting-edge weapon designed to give the United States an advantage over the Soviet Union in land warfare.
A 1974 military assessment of the
“Therefore,” it continued, “the United States, no matter the cost, must be able to field a tank capable of dominating and defeating the enormous threat inherent in the armor of our potential adversaries .”
The tank’s powerful gas turbine engine, sometimes compared to a jet engine, can propel the 60-ton M1A1 to speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. Its main gun fires precisely while driving. Its heavy armor protects it from anti-tank weapons and tank projectiles. And there is an emphasis on crew survivability.
For example, ammunition is stored behind the turret and separated from the crew by fire doors in protected ammunition racks. In Soviet-design tanks, on the other hand, the ammunition is stored openly in the turret, which creates a weak point known as the “jack-in-the-box” effect: a direct hit can trigger the ammunition inside, killing the crew and catapulting them the huge gun turret.
In addition, the tanks made in the USA are significantly more heavily armored than the Russian tanks. During the First Gulf War, U.S. Army research found that enemy fire bounced off the tanks, which could take multiple hits and still cause damage.
Armor, often reinforced by explosive reactive armor, comes at a price. The Abrams is exceptionally heavy compared to a Russian tank at around 48 tons. “But all that weight provides good protection for the crew,” Gentile said.
During the Gulf War, two American soldiers stand in the turret of an M1A1 Abrams tank as oil wells burn in the distance near the border with Iraq, Kuwait, March 20, 1991. Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
In the Gulf War, the M1A1 Abrams – which in turn was developed during the Cold War with Soviet armor in mind – quickly gained a reputation for both its defensive and offensive presence on the battlefield, and crews praised its reliability and gave positive reviews of the 120th mm L/44 M256 smoothbore main gun and the fire control system.
“The Abrams was built, A1 and A2 alike, knowing that we had many more Russian tanks to destroy. We would never produce as many tanks as the Russians. “We just wanted to produce one that could take out multiple Russian tanks and survive the process,” Greenway said.
Testimony from the Gulf War indicated that only nine M1A1s were lost by the end of that conflict – none of which were the result of enemy action. Two were deliberately sabotaged to avoid capture by the enemy and the other seven were damaged by friendly fire. This problem arose because the tanks could reach targets from long distances, making it difficult for tank crews who became accustomed to this ability in combat to distinguish between friend and enemy.
However, when used correctly, this increased range, like Abrams’ other abilities, is critical. “There is no other battle tank, certainly not a Russian battle tank, that poses a challenge to the Abrams because it is armed,” Greenway said.
Another former Army weapons officer previously told Insider that during the Gulf War, the Abrams quickly dodged enemy attacks while searching for and attacking targets. And when it did attack, it had a devastating impact, as most of the tank’s killing power came from depleted uranium shells, which both the US and Britain said they planned to send to Ukraine.
Depleted uranium penetrator rounds are extremely effective at penetrating enemy armor because the bar becomes sharper upon impact. The metal fragments can also ignite, increasing the risk of a catastrophic kill, especially in a tank with exposed ammunition.
U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division fire an M1A1 Abrams tank main gun while conducting live fire training during Exercise Native Fury 20 in the United Arab Emirates, March 19, 2020. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brendan Mullin
While the Abrams is undoubtedly a tough and powerful battle tank, it is not unstoppable. It may be vulnerable to some of the same threats that have knocked out some of Ukraine’s new Leopards and Challengers in recent months, such as anti-tank mines, missiles, artillery and drones.
“There are Limits”
Not all areas of the tank are equally protected and there is always a chance that something will get through. Drones armed with explosives, sometimes anti-tank grenades and anti-tank mines, sometimes stacked on top of each other to increase their destructive potential, were a pervasive and devastating problem for the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“It is designed to withstand these,” Greenway said of these particular threats, “but there are limits and so mines, like all armored vehicles, can be problematic if not cleared. And the Abrams is no exception.” However, he explained, the Abrams’ heavy armor is “the best protection that can be offered to tanks.”
U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks needed to train Ukraine’s armed forces arrive by rail in Grafenwoehr, Germany, May 14, 2023. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Tylon Chapman
However, the biggest challenge for the Ukrainians will likely be the extensive logistical support they require, particularly maintenance. The Abrams uses a gas turbine engine, the Honeywell AGT1500, which uses much more fuel than a diesel engine and is difficult to maintain.
“The real risk is maintaining operational readiness because it is such a complex system that requires significant logistical effort,” Greenway said. “It is a challenge for us. It will definitely be a challenge for them.”
To keep the Abrams running and in the fight, the U.S. and Ukraine must regularly work together to provide additional parts and support for the tanks. Last week, Douglas R. Bush, U.S. assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said that Ukraine would get “a lot more spare parts” with the tanks.
“I think because we had a little more time for this project, we built a much more comprehensive maintenance structure that we can hand over to the Ukrainians and were able to do more training with the Ukrainians on how to maintain the vehicle. “That’s a lot of stuff,” Bush said, explaining that the tank could be serviced remotely, but that was “a whole different level of difficulty” compared to U.S.-provided armored vehicles like the Bradleys.
But despite all the potential difficulties, the M1 Abrams offers Ukraine a huge boost in performance, offering mobility, firepower and some shock factor.
“The biggest challenge will be maintenance. It is a very complicated system like all of our advanced weapons platforms and is maintenance intensive,” Greenway said. “But if you take care of it, it will easily make a difference on the battlefield.”
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