In 1972, the Army convened an MBT Task Force at Fort Knox to generate requirements for a new main battle tank. Comprised of engineers, active duty military and veterans, the MBTTF looked at tank engagements from WWII through Vietnam. However, much of what they pulled from those experiences was made obsolete by the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, which proved a shock to what they thought they knew about tank warfare.
“The Arab states invaded Israel with large masses of relatively new Soviet equipment. Their attack began with no warning and they came close to inflicting a crushing defeat on Israel. They also introduced the Soviet-made Sagger anti-tank guided missile, which could be operated by an individual from a portable controller, increasing battlefield lethality overnight. The initial Israeli response was tank heavy counterattacks, which led to heavy losses, most due to Saggers,” Cameron said.
“For us, the big issue was a possibility the next war, with the Soviets, would be come-as-you-are, with no long time to organize and deploy forces overseas. For armor, there were a lot of concerns about the M60, which was our primary battle tank and first line of armored defense, because the M60 suffered a lot of casualties in Yom Kippur. So the Task Force was keenly interested in what happened in that war, which was the largest series of tank engagements since World War II. The Army invested a lot of energy in gathering data on tactics and results, which then were fed directly into the ongoing development of what became the M1A1 Abrams design.”
One almost immediate change was a new priority for crew survivability and comfort. U.S. tanks were large, to accommodate the majority of America’s physically large male population, which meant larger turrets and interior space. By contrast, Soviet tanks were much more cramped, with crew comforts few and far between. For the U.S. and NATO, a certain level of comfort was required so crews would not fatigue as quickly and could sustain days of continuous conflict. The Soviets were more interested in a quick breakthrough – application of mass at a decisive point – so crew comfort was not a high priority.
“As Abrams emerged into more specific concepts, Congress questioned the wisdom of a new tank design. In the late 1960s, there had been a lot of concern about the Sheridan; the Army put a significant amount of money into building those and got a platform that was never ideal. And the MBT70 added to that. So in the 1970s, Congress was skeptical about the Army’s ability to design a new tank,” Cameron said.
Editor’s note: This article was first printed in The Year in Defense: Review Edition in an abridged version as “Armor: Three Decades of Advances.” It is now appearing online in its original form, in four parts.