Weapon Systems

In extreme hot or cold, M1 Abrams tanks deliver superior results


The unrivaled battle tank, of which over 10,000 have been built, has been serving the US and its allies for more than four decades.

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An M1 Abrams tank is shown firing in a graphic. [Regina Ali/US Department of Defense]
An M1 Abrams tank is shown firing in a graphic. [Regina Ali/US Department of Defense]

A modernized US Army tank is still going strong around the world, more than 40 years after its debut.

The M1 Abrams tank entered service in 1980, when most of today's tank crew members were not yet born.

After years of updates and improvements, the latest version is the M1A2C. Production of it began in 2020.

First tested in combat in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Abrams tank has excelled in war. Approximately 10,400 have been built over the past 43 years, and now a number of countries, including Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Poland and Iraq have export versions.

A US Army M1A2 Abrams tank maneuvers during Exercise Anakonda23 in Nowa Deba, Poland, May 14. [US Army Sgt. 1st Class Theresa Gualdarama/US National Guard]
A US Army M1A2 Abrams tank maneuvers during Exercise Anakonda23 in Nowa Deba, Poland, May 14. [US Army Sgt. 1st Class Theresa Gualdarama/US National Guard]

Ukraine received the first of 31 Abrams main battle tanks (MBTs) from the United States in late September.

Three variants of the Abrams tank exist: the original M1, M1A1 and M1A2.

They differ somewhat in armament. The M1's primary weapon is a 105mm cannon, while its two successors rely on the M256 120mm smoothbore cannon.

The US Army issues 120mm ammunition in five unique cartridges to defeat one or more specific threat targets, according to an Army website.

They include the fifth generation Kinetic Energy (KE) cartridge for anti-armor, three High-Explosive (HE) cartridges for light armor, obstacles and bunker, and a canister cartridge for light targets and personnel.

The latest Abrams model, the M1A2, is built to destroy all known adversary tanks.

Turbine engine: the trump card

The Abrams has many technological advantages, but the key is its turbine engine.

Usually, only jets have turbine engines, but the Abrams is the rare land vehicle with one, making it sound like a jet when the driver is starting it.

The tank's speed and acceleration are, as a result, exceptional.

It can go from a standstill to 20 mph (32km/hour) in seven seconds and reach 42 mph (67.6km/hour) on the road and 25 mph (40.2 km/hour) cross-country, if it is equipped with a governor.

Its road range is 265 miles (426km) and cross-country range 93 to 124 miles (180 to 200km). The fuel tank holds 504.4 gallons (1,909.4 liters).

The turbine engine has two advantages over conventional diesel engines.

First, it is lighter than diesel-only counterparts that provide the same power. Second, it can burn multiple fuels -- primarily diesel but also kerosene or gasoline if need be.

That versatility lets the Abrams operate in extreme hot or cold for prolonged periods, while regular diesel-powered tanks would have to halt.

Multiple forms of armor and protection

The Abrams is prepared to withstand various forms of attack from enemy forces. Its designers foresaw that many dangers existed, not just conventional munitions.

The Abrams therefore has more thorough crew protection than any other tank does.

It includes systems to ward off nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) agents, including Chemical Agent Resistant Coating paint and an overpressure system that protects the crew from gas agents.

Its camouflage, in addition, protects the tank against multiple threats: visual, infrared, thermal infrared and broadband radar detection.

In addition to having such an array of protections, the Abrams relies on composite armor -- sometimes known as Chobham armor -- that weighs much less than all-metal systems.

The layered materials include metals, plastics, ceramics and even air. Sloped armor on the turrets protects the crew by wicking away the force of an explosion.

Inside the tank, the crew receives considerable protection from the consequences of an ammunition explosion.

Ammunition is stored in the turret. If an enemy hit causes it to explode, the blow-out panels direct the force of the blast outside and away from the crew.

Safety from fires and urban warfare

Other forms of protection for the crew include the Halon Fire Fighting System, which automatically extinguishes fires and is supposed to activate within two milliseconds of a flash or fire breaking out inside the tank.

The Tank Urban Survival Kit (TUSK), which can be outfitted on the Abrams in the field, also serves the crew in urban combat.

The kit has a "slant armor" transparent armor gun shield with thermal sights, a tank commander remote weapon turret and an exterior phone for dismounted communications. TUSK offers protection against short-range hits at any angle.

Some Abrams tanks also have the Israeli Trophy system to thwart rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles.

The active protection system utilizes a small number of explosively formed projectiles to destroy incoming threats before they hit the vehicle, and its radar maximizes the crew's ability to identify enemy locations.

The US Army has done its bit to protect tanks from missiles too. It developed the "soft kill" protective system, which can block guidance systems for semi-active control line of sight (SACLOS) wire- and radio-guided missiles and infrared homing missiles.

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