According to Defense News, the US Army has canceled its planned upgrade of the Abrams Tank and is considering a different approach for the tank’s future. The Army is basically saying the tank is too heavy and too vulnerable to enemy weapons.
Heavy European tanks and armored vehicles have faced operational problems in Ukraine, often getting stuck in the mud or running out of fuel. In addition, European tanks have proven vulnerable to enemy fire. In many cases, Germany’s Leopard tank – a tank that was considered superior to the Abrams – has not performed well.
The Russians have already destroyed around 15 Leopards using a variety of weapons ranging from artillery to rockets launched by helicopters to drones such as the Lancet. Billed as the next great thing to help Ukraine win the war, Leopard has proven a failure.
Unfortunately what happened to Leopards could happen to Abrams tanks when they arrive in Ukraine.
Neither the Abrams nor the Leopard has active protection systems or reactive armor. In the case of those Leopards delivered to Kiev, the Ukrainian army hastily plastered on reactive armor taken off of damaged Russian tanks.
Leopard was not supposed to need reactive armor because its composite armor is supposed to deflect anti-tank weapons including penetrator cannon rounds fired by opposing tanks or tandem warhead weapons. But even with first-generation reactive armor that the Ukrainians added to Leopard, the Russians destroyed them fairly easily.
Tanks on today’s battlefield face a variety of threats that can destroy or disable them. These include mines, artillery and anti-tank weapons.
The Russians have used the Ka-52 attack helicopter to destroy tanks and armored vehicles such as the US M-2 Bradley and the German Marder infantry fighting vehicles. The Ka-52 is equipped with six 9K121 Vikhr anti-tank missiles and two S-8 unguided air-to-surface 80mm unguided rocket pods.
Operating in an environment where the Russians use electronic jamming, the Ka-52s have knocked out quite a few tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and heavily armored mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs). Among the victims have been tanks fitted with special roller fixtures to clear mines.
Few modern tanks are designed to be mine-resistant. In a sign of recognition of this deficiency, reportedly the new Israeli tank, Merkava V, has been designed to be able to deflect mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Merkava has also upgraded its active defenses to better deal with more modern anti-tank weapons including anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), anti-tank rockets, and high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds.
One of the reasons the US is supplying depleted uranium (DU) shells to Ukraine for the soon-to-arrive Abrams tanks is that DU APFDS shells are supposed to be able to penetrate any Russian tank.
Russian tactics are such that its tanks are rarely exposed to counter-tank fire, at least in the current Russian active defense approach against the Ukrainian counteroffensive. However, if Russia goes on the offensive, the situation may change and Russian tanks could be exposed to fire from Abrams tanks.
Whether or not the DU and Abram’s combination turns out to be effective, US tanks – like their Leopard counterpart – still lack active defenses.
Active defenses can protect a tank from many different threats and possibly allow reductions in traditional armor, which would offset the weight of the active defense system.
Active defense, for example, can block the enemy’s use of suicide drones like the Russian Lancet. Israel’s Trophy active defense system, for example, has 360-degree coverage and can protect the vulnerable topside of a tank from drones, rockets and mortars.
The Army has purchased 100 Trophy units from Israel, but the Army argues that the system is “too heavy” and it wants to explore other options (which is typical of how the Army thinks and acts). US tanks and infantry fighting vehicles do not have active protection systems.
Meanwhile, the Army is thinking about a “hybrid” tank that will use less fuel. A hybrid tank would require a huge lithium battery, even if the tank is run on electrical power only when it is idle (which can be many hours).
Lithium batteries are prone to explode, and putting such batteries in tanks is an invitation to battery explosions and fire. One of the greatest enemies to tank crews is fire.
The Army is also thinking about adding additional sensors and advanced artificial intelligence to the Abrams. This is the path the Israeli Merkava V has also taken and certainly improves that tank’s operations on the battlefield.
The next-generation European tank (coming from a consortium led by Germany) also will emphasize artificial intelligence and better sensors.
The war in Ukraine has opened the eyes of those who think about modern tank warfare and tank survivability. The fact that the US Army now recognizes that it needs to change direction is a sensible reaction to what has been revealed on the Ukraine battlefield.
Whether the Army’s decision to look for a different set of solutions will be successful, no one can say.
Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. This article was originally published on Weapons and Strategy, his Substack. Asia Times is republishing the article with permission.