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The Successor to the M-1 Abrams is the M-1?

July 21, 2009

Since we are discussing weapons replacements this week, it does seem to be a pattern that the older weapons aren’t going away anytime soon. The F-15s and F-16s have been on the frontlines of America’s wars for 3 decades now and likely will be around for another 10 years or more. So it is with the M-1 Abrams tank, developed in the 1970s and purchased enmasse in the 1980s. It still continues to serve American troops as its top armored vehicle, and likely still has no peer anywhere in the world. After the failure of the over-ambitious Future Combat System it appears the many thousands we still have will soldier on. Here’s Strategypage on this subject, as they call the M-1 “The B-52 Of Armored Vehicles“:

The U.S. Army is having a really hard time figuring out what it’s next tank will be like, and that’s turned into a major problem. Recently, the Department of Defense forced the army to cancel its $150 billion FCS (Future Combat System) because it was too expensive, too vague and not very convincing. FCS included a replacement for all current armored vehicles. Now the army is pleading for a chunk of the lost FCS billions so that it can get to work on replacements for M-1 tank and the M-2 (IFV) Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The big problem is that the army really doesn’t have a design for either of these replacement vehicles. The even bigger problem is that armored vehicle design has hit something of a plateau. There’s really no exciting new, game-changing, concepts to justify a new tank or IFV.

We think the title of the Strategypage post is revealing since it does seem that weapons platforms, meaning traditional planes, tanks, and large warships have reached the limits of their development. Almost all nations are having difficulties replacing old Cold War stocks, including Britain, and Russia, and I’m sure corruption and waste plays  a major part, as former Navy Secretary John Lehman details in a recent article. Still, the problem is so wide spread that we can only conclude such industrial age arms have reached the end of their life cycle, though not necessarily the end of their lives in this new Information Age.

We would recommend then that old weapons be kept in production, or replaced by basic off the shelf ones like wheeled vehicles. There is no need to build new super-light or super-heavy tanks but you could enhance the internal capabilities of the ones you have, as we have done with the aforementioned B-52 with new electronics, new sensors, new engines, and especially new armaments as they are created and deployed. It is now too costly and time consuming to fund new-design jets, ships, and tanks, which take decades to produce and are often obsolete when they do enter service. Yet, as we see with our older tanks, planes, and ships they are still useful after decades of service.

This would call for a new production run of Abrams, replacing old tank with new-build versions. Only minor alterations should be accepted to keep costs down, which would also save billions of dollars on expensive R & D, and likely a generation of wasted time and effort. But it could be all this would be a moot point, if the modern tank is too much at risk on the modern battlefield. A case might be made for this from the 2006 Lebanon Campaign between Israel and Hezbollah, where arguably the world’s most heavily protected tank was roughly handled by anti-tank weapons and tactics utilized by the terrorist group. The Israeli armor made a spectacular comeback in the more recent Gaza campaign:

Gaza showed the IDF believes heavy forces have a big role to play in urbanized hybrid wars. The IDF sent four brigades into Gaza, one was parachute infantry, the rest were heavy armor. Heavy armor provides an “intimidation factor,” as well as the ability to conduct protected fire and maneuver on a battlefield populated by enemy snipers, IEDs and RPG armed hunter-killer teams. Combat engineers paved the way for ground incursions with attack helicopters, aerial drones and jet bombers providing direct support. Importantly, tactical decision making was pushed down to commanders on the ground.

But:

The most significant realization among IDF leaders in the wake of Lebanon, Johnson said, was that hybrid wars cannot be decided with stand-off precision firepower. Putting troops on the ground, backed by close air support, is absolutely necessary. Interestingly, he said there isn’t a huge desire on the part of IDF officers to re-do Lebanon as they don’t want to taint the Gaza success.

We think the last sentence is revealing. If one of the worlds greatest armored forces are now fearful to put their heavy vehicles at risk before a peer adversary, where does this leave American armored planners seeking a replacement for their venerable Abrams?

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  9. January 28, 2012 3:22 pm

    “Gaza success”?????

    Are they nuts????

    If Gaza was a ‘success’ then Hamas and Hezbollah have no need for Isra-hell-i’s ‘failures’!!!!

    Some more ‘successes’ like Gaza and Isra-hell will be done!

  10. Distiller permalink
    July 22, 2009 1:09 am

    What about the problem active defence creates for infantry? On a cavalry tank, akin to the old cruiser tank, a light-ish vehicle like a CV90 roaming the country side like Rommel, yes – but in a tight urban spot with infantry (or non-combatants) all around? I’d prefer the old passive way. And in the end the best protection is still awareness and multi-angle fire coverage.

    I think there has to be a re-orientation for the tank, away from the direct fire tank-vs-tank focus, more back to the infantry tank. And I would keep the M1 for that job as it is, as a hedge. But how many? I don’t have a clue – 600, maybe 1000?

    I think FCS tired to do that re-orientation, but was way stupidly optimistic about the timescale of technological development. And for some strange reasons based on the 1950’s format of the C-130, which doomed it from the start.

    But I really disagree about that armor has reached a plateau. Just look at the new Japanese tank, and at that new Korean tank. Very interesting stuff there, on the automotive side alone! I mean, even the old MBT70 was more advanced in many ways than what is fielded now. But nothing is cheap, and the idea of just forging together a handful of steel plates, placing an engine in it, and a gun on top is dead since the T-34. Future tanks will be even more expensive than the latest Leos and Abrams, so a fine overall force balance has to be found.

  11. July 22, 2009 12:34 am

    Tanks haven’t gone it alone since BEFORE WW2! Everyone thinks that these big beasts just rampage over the combat area but that’s a lie. It might have to do with the doctrine of shock action, but the reason why you have a class of vehicles called IFV’s is because the Tank needs to be screened against Infantry anti-tank teams. This isn’t a new lesson, if anything, the Israeli’s were early victims of modern anti-tank weapons in the Yom Kippur war. Egyptian Anti-tank teams mauled the Israeli’s early on. In the confined area where Northern Command was fighting it was again necessary. The only area on earth where Infantry is not a vital factor in armor success is in the flat desert…anywhere else its common military knowledge that infantry must be in support.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 21, 2009 7:55 pm

    Jim’s making a lot of sense! The old weapons had a great and history-making run. Now for the next revolution…

  13. jim permalink
    July 21, 2009 5:24 pm

    Sometimes weapons just run their course. And once the full state-space of the new tech has been explored there isn’t much left to do except wait for the next big tech breakthrough.

    What are the performance frontiers with tanks? Armor has hit a plateau. So has the main gun. Active armor (ie shoot down incoming rpgs) seems promising. Is there any push for a more powerful, or more accurate main gun?

    It seems plausible that within a decade or so we’ll be able to put one of these new 100 kw lasers on a tank. I’ve no idea if that has much military utility. Perhaps as part of an active armor system. Or maybe an anti-sniper system.

    It’s always frustrating to watch a tech-field stagnant. Rapid progress is much more exciting and in the case of mil-tech a bit frightening, since it has the potential to upset the established order.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 21, 2009 5:08 pm

    Solomon, you mentioned the Israeli refusing Stryker and I thought of this during the 2006 war. Wondering if the Strykers had been sent in against Hezbollah, which naturally needs infantry protection might have fared better against the terrorists, than a heavy tank which often think they can “go it along”. This has been a mistake in the handling of armor since WW 2 to Yom Kippur and the Israelis should have known better.

    So it is a mindset we need to get past, and I think we see in the other services and the fight over the USAF F-22.

  15. Defiant permalink
    July 21, 2009 4:16 pm

    with active protection systems heavy armor vehicles will take a large step forward, there are currently no weapons with a mechanism to defeat aps. There really is no need for a new hull as long as theres enough space to put the upgrades in/on. Tanks usually can take extra weight.
    A nice new Tank concept woul be something bmp-t alike, but wih more new tech, you could for example put the millenium gun together with a 120mm mortar system in a turret, a racking rader in between and a retractable ground radar where the ammmunition storage is located. you’d have a ciws system/ short range air defense and at the same time enough fire power for urban warfare (35mm ap has some good penetration) and nlos capability. If this would work you’d have a fine mbt assistant in symmetrical and good urban abilities for assymetrical warfare. You could probably add atgm and/or stinger as well.

  16. July 21, 2009 3:32 pm

    the Israeli’s Northern Command suffered from the fog of war. the Merkava 4’s that were damaged – were hit with multiple heavy anti-tank weapons and anti-tank mines or IED’s. the bells and whistles on a tank that make it effective also make it expensive. Chobham armor, thermal imagining devices, GPS navigation, communication devices etc…the Israeli government had no proposed end state. It was a war to force the repatriation of missing/kidnapped soldiers. The offensive had no other purpose.

    So to call the Merkava a failure because of poor policy and tactics is not fair. Additionally, from that experience the Israeli’s such down any idea of purchasing strikers and have moved on to placing Namera’s in all their Infantry units.

    http://www.israeli-weapons.com/weapons/vehicles/armored_personnel_carriers/namera/Namera.htm

  17. July 21, 2009 2:11 pm

    mike, I have posted myself http://amphibiousnecessity.blogspot.com/2009/07/curtesy.html on the topic of equipment purchase, you might be interested in it; although not focused on tanks specifically, I tried to lay out some ideas for good procurment practice.

    yours sincerly

    Alex

  18. Mrs. Davis permalink
    July 21, 2009 2:06 pm

    Interesting that two articles below was the story of a major advance in light machine guns that might ultimately find its way into the hands of every infantryman. Good to see attention being paid to the tools of the war we are actually in. At least by a small corner of the Army.

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