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