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U.S. Armor Developments: Abrams, the Game-changer

Part 3 of U.S armor developments

“The Task Force guidance was a back-to-basics philosophy in tank design – no gold plating, no sophisticated, futuristic technology that had not been proven,” said Dr. Robert S. Cameron, Armor Branch historian at the Army Armor Center at Fort Benning, Ga. “So all components were limited to technology already fielded or in an extremely advanced state of development. The only revolutionary thing in Abrams was the armor. The Brits had developed a secret composite armor technology, which they gave to us, and we enhanced and put on the Abrams, giving it a ‘slab’ look.”

An elevated view of an M1E1 Abrams tank system moving through the Empire Range Complex to test its effectiveness during the dry season of a tropical climate. DoD photo

An elevated view of an M1E1 Abrams tank system moving through the Empire Range Complex to test its effectiveness during the dry season of a tropical climate. DoD photo

The new MBT’s configuration also was revolutionary. For example, the interior was compartmentalized – a hit in one part of vehicle would not wipe out the vehicle or crew. Each compartment also had its own automated fire suppression system. In the turret, all ammunition was stored behind an armored door, so if there was an explosion, all force was vented outside the vehicle.

“Today almost every new vehicle we produce will have ceramic armor of some type on it somewhere, ranging from all over the vehicle in different thicknesses to just spots where major protection is needed. We’re even putting them on the crew areas of most trucks now.”

“Bottom line for Abrams: Better fire control and optics, an analog computer that did a lot of the computation associated with firing the main gun, a laser rangefinder that made it more accurate, thermal sights enabling the crew to see and engage targets at night and in other low visibility conditions, extremely good mobility,” Cameron said.

Operation Desert Storm

M1A1 Abrams tanks race across the desert on their way to engage the Iraqis. U.S. Department of Defense photo

Fielding began in 1980 and, in its first NATO exercise, it gained high marks for its quiet gas turbine engine, easy gunner operation and second-to-none ability to fire on the move. Those factors combined to earn it the nickname “Whispering Death” as it moved swiftly and quietly about battlefield, firing as it went.

The 1980s also saw an increased use of ceramics in armor. It was first used as seat armor for the Cobra helicopter in the mid-Sixties, but had been very expensive. In subsequent decades, there were substantial reductions in cost even as performance increased significantly.

“Today almost every new vehicle we produce will have ceramic armor of some type on it somewhere, ranging from all over the vehicle in different thicknesses to just spots where major protection is needed. We’re even putting them on the crew areas of most trucks now,” Templeton says. “We’re also using composites – a polymer composite and various combinations of composites and ceramics.

An M-1A1 Abrams main battle tank lays a smoke screen during maneuvers during Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo

An M-1A1 Abrams main battle tank lays a smoke screen during maneuvers during Operation Desert Storm. DoD photo

“The other area that has changed the materials in armor is the emergence of reactive armor – explosive reactive armor, using a bench sheet of explosive between two sheets of metal as the primary defeat mechanism against RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and other shaped charges, like anti-tank guided missiles.”

“The drive to Baghdad, through urban environments against lots of adversaries, probably would not have happened if we had only been using Humvees, even though engagement ranges sometimes were down to 50 meters.”

Despite achieving a number of major improvements while staying within the strict limitations imposed by Congress, critics continued to question Abrams’ value right up to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. During Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, the Abrams performed as promised, although a lot of lessons learned from that short-lived war led to upgrades and improvements throughout the following decade.

With multiple weapons systems on the battlefield that could engage and destroy targets beyond effective IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) range, one of the most important of those dealt with fratricide. That was further affected by the accelerated operations tempo and required speed in decision-making. The solution involved harnessing the ongoing explosion in computer technology to create the M1A2, the Army’s first digital tank, and its follow-on upgrade as the M1A2 SEP (System Enhancement Program).

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...