While the U.S. Army, at Fort Lewis, Wash., is busy creating new,
more easily deployable brigades that will be equipped with light-armored
vehicles (LAVs), it also is modernizing the much-maligned, two decade-old,
70-ton Abrams tank.
The focus of the modernization effort is half a continent away,
at Fort Hood, Texas, home of the III Armored Corps—nucleus
of the Army’s heavy combat force. Known as “the Phantom
Corps” for its World War II tactic of hitting the enemy when
and where least expected, the III Corps prides itself on being ready
to deploy anywhere, anytime. Its units have deployed to such hot
spots as Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia and the Balkans.
In recent years, the corps’ ability to deploy quickly has
been called into question, primarily because of the size and weight
of the Abrams, which is the key weapon in its arsenal. Row after
row of them—painted desert camouflage—line the dusty
tarmac at Fort Hood. Located on 340 square miles of the rolling,
semiarid hill country north of Austin, Fort Hood is the only post
in the United States large enough to station and train two armored
The Abrams, manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS),
of Sterling Heights, Mich., has been the Army’s main battle
tank since it was first fielded in 1978. Altogether, nearly 9,000
of them have been produced in several configurations, from the original
M1 to the most recent M1A2. More than 5,000 are still in the Army’s
inventory, according to Lt. Gen. Paul J. Kern, military deputy assistant
secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.
The Abrams was designed to fight the heavy tank divisions of the
Soviet Union on the rolling plains of Central Europe. That never
happened, but suddenly in 1991, the Abrams was deployed in Operation
Desert Storm to defend Kuwait against invading Iraqi forces.
The result: According to one Pentagon report, Iraq lost 3,700 of
its 4,280 Soviet-made battle tanks, many of them in shootouts with
In one incident, a U.S. tank—mired in mud—was attacked
by three Iraqi T-72 tanks. Iraqi rounds hit the Abrams repeatedly,
but failed to damage it, according to the after-action report. The
Abrams returned fire, destroying all three, including one that was
completely hidden behind a sand berm.
Key to the Abrams’ advantage in such encounters, GDLS spokesman
Peter Keating explained, were two components:
Armored bulkheads of the Abrams separate the crew’s compartment
from the fuel tanks, Keating explained. The top panels of the tank
are designed to blow outwards in the event of a hit by enemy fire,
he said. “The number one thing that the Abrams was designed
to do was to protect the crew,” he said.
That is important, said Lt. Col. Robert L. Groller, program manager
for the Army’s M1A2 tank system, at Warren, Mich. “If
the crew knows that it can hit distant targets without getting hurt
themselves, they will have the confidence to keep fighting even
while under heavy fire.”
Despite its performance in battle, however, Desert Storm may have
been the high-water mark for the Abrams. It was, thus far, the last
major tank campaign fought by U.S. forces. That same year, the Soviet
Union dissolved, and the Cold War came to an end. Since then, most
military deployments have been rapid responses to distant crises,
in places such as Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans, where it is difficult
for U.S. heavy tanks to reach quickly.
“The close combat operational environment has expanded from
the open, rolling terrain of Europe to one [including] close, compartmented,
complex and urban terrain, worldwide, under a plethora of conditions,”
said the Army’s chief of armor, Lt. Gen. (P) B.B. Bell III,
who was nominated in July to become the next commanding general
of the III Corps. “We can expect [Abrams tanks] to accompany
infantry in woods, in defiles, in valleys, in cities or wherever
they are required,” he wrote in a recent newsletter.
Speed of Deployment
The problem is that the 70-ton Abrams is too big for rapid deployment.
It won’t fit on the C-130, the most common U.S. military air
transport. Even the heavy-lift C-17 can carry only one at a time.
The 1999 war over Kosovo ended before the Army could get its heavy
forces, including its tanks, into place.
To get into combat more quickly, the Army is organizing new Initial
Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs) at Fort Lewis. Last year, the service
decided to equip the IBCTs with LAVs. A team headed by GM GDLS—a
joint venture between General Motors Defense, of London, Ontario,
and GDLS was awarded a six-year, $4 billion contract to build 2,131
LAVs. The first IBCT is scheduled to be fully equipped by spring
of 2003, Maj. Gen. Joe Yakovac, program executive officer for ground
combat support systems, told a recent Pentagon briefing.
An LAV weighs less than one third as much as an Abrams and can
be transported on a C-130. Once on the ground, an LAV—a wheeled
vehicle—speeds along as fast as 62 miles per hour (mph), compared
to a maximum of 42 mph for the Abrams, which operates on tracks.
The LAV, however, is not intended to replace the Abrams, Army officials
said, noting that the LAV has lighter armor and firepower. The LAV-equipped
IBCTs will focus on small-scale contingencies, not heavy combat,
Brig. Gen. Paul Eaton, training and doctrine deputy commanding general
for transformation, told reporters. They also will be able to execute
peacekeeping operations, he said.
“The intent is to go in fast [and] establish overmatch—overwhelming
combat power—to contain the situation before it jumps out
of the box and creates a bigger problem,” Eaton said.
To conduct intensive, heavy combat in a major war, the Army is
developing a future combat system (FCS) that eventually will replace
the Abrams. As envisioned, the FCS will have at least as much firepower
as the Abrams and be much lighter and faster, but it is still in
the early stages of design. Army officials caution that it will
take until the end of the decade to begin fielding the FCS and perhaps
another 10 years after that to complete the job.
Thus, for the next 10 to 20 years and perhaps longer, the U.S.
military’s main battle tank will continue to be the Abrams.
To ensure that the aging platform goes the distance, the Army has
embarked upon a multi-billion dollar modernization program.
Since 1999, GDLS has installed system enhancement packages (SEP)
on 170 older Abrams at a cost of about $2 billion, said Groller.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command
awarded GDLS two contracts, totaling $883 million to deliver another
307 upgrades by 2004. By 2012, the Army plans to rebuild 1,174.
The work will be performed primarily at the GDLS plant in Lima,
Ohio, Groller said.
“They completely rebuild the tank, except for the hull,”
he explained. “The guts are entirely new.” The SEP package
The SEP upgrades are necessary for the older tanks to fit in with
the Army’s plans to install digital command and control systems
eventually in all of its combat units, Groller said.
By 2004, the III Corps is scheduled to become the first Army organization
of its size to be digitized, that is, fully equipped with state-of-the-art
computers, software and radios. One of its units—the 4th Infantry
Division, also based at Fort Hood—recently became the first
Soldiers from the 4th Division tried out the digital systems last
April at the two-week-long Division Capstone Exercise at the National
Training Center, at Fort Irwin, Calif. An armored brigade from the
division brought its Abrams tanks and other heavy equipment to the
exercise. III Corps commanders were pleased by the results.
“The brigade said they did some things that no other brigade
has ever done,” Col. Craig K. Madden, director of the III
Corps Digital Force Coordination Cell, told National Defense during
a tour of his facilities. “It operated at night more efficiently
than any other brigade that I’ve ever seen.”
During the exercise, the brigade operated over an area of 40 to
50 kilometers. “That’s twice the normal battle space
for a brigade,” Madden said. “Yet, the brigade was able
to cover the space, to deny enemy approaches in ways that could
have never have been done with the same size force without digital
The system “powers down information to the lowest level,”
said Fred Stein, liaison officer for the program executive office
of Command, Control and Communications Systems, which is based in
Fort Monmouth, N.J. “I used to look out of my turret constantly
to see where my people were. Now, I can see where I am and where
my friends are, right on the screen. If a bridge is blown up, it
shows up immediately on your map.”
With the digital equipment, Stein said, all elements of the force—from
the commander down to the individual vehicles—have access
to the same information. “The same pictures, the same graphics
are seen throughout the force,” he said.
The increased flow of information makes it possible for the crew
to make decisions faster, Stein said. “ You can’t run
as fast as the tank will go, unless you know where your buddies
are and what’s out there in front of you,” he said.
“If you know that, you can speed up and put the tank at the
right spot earlier. You can reduce the fog and friction of war.”
SEP-equipped tanks “fire a whole lot faster, easier and more
accurately” than older versions, said Jerry A. Smith, GDLS
site manager at Fort Hood. “Well-trained crews can hit targets
at 4,000 meters with the first round,” he said.
The 2nd Gen FLIR magnifies images by a power of five, compared
to a power of two with 1st Gen, Groller said. “They can see
what they’re shooting at,” Groller said. “That’s
how clear the picture is.”
Because the crews know where their buddies are, Smith said, “the
danger of fratricide is greatly reduced.” Also, he said, security
“In the past, Army units were constantly chattering on the
radio,” he explained. “It was easy for an enemy to listen
in. Now, there’s very little of that.”
The thermal-management system is an air-conditioning unit to keep
summer temperatures—which can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit
outside in desert climates—down to 90 degrees or lower inside
the tank, so computer systems can continue to function.
“Ninety degrees may not sound very cool,” said Groller,
“but it is compared to 135 degrees inside. The crews love
Eyes Glaze Over
Still, the digital equipment is a dramatic change for the crews,
said Madden. Most soldiers still use maps with overlays and grease
pencils. “When they see this stuff, their eyes glaze over,”
he said. “They go, ‘what the hell is this?’”
To help soldiers learn to use the digital package, GDLS provides
a 10-week training program at Fort Hood. Since 1996, 4,556 crewmen
have taken the training, according to Wallace G. Blair, the company’s
on-site operations training supervisor.
To provide additional classroom space, the corps is building a
28,000-square-foot digital training facility, said Lt. Col. Raymond
M. Bateman, chief of doctrine, training and leader development for
the corps. The $4 million structure is scheduled to be completed
next spring, he said.
In addition to upgrading the information technology in the Abrams,
the Army also is moving to replace its engine. The current engine—the
Honeywell AGT 1500 gas turbine—“is old and is more and
more expensive to use and maintain,” said Bell. The last new
engine was produced in 1992, he said. Every current Abrams engine
has been overhauled at least once.
Last year, the Army awarded a three-year, $196 million contract
to a team of Honeywell International Engines and Systems and General
Electric Aircraft Engines (GEAE) to develop another gas turbine,
the LV100-5, for the Abrams and the Crusader self-propelled howitzer.
During the three-year period of the contract, the team is to build
and test 24 of the LV100-5s.
Assuming the turbines perform as expected, the Honeywell-GE team
expects to produce 3,400 of them, including 2,700 for the Abrams
beginning in 2004 and 720 for the Crusader in 2005.
The LV100-5 has 43 percent fewer parts than the AGT-1500, which
will reduce operations and support costs by a factor of three, according
to Russ Sparks, vice president and general manager of military engine
programs at GEAE. It also is lighter and smaller, he said, with
rapid acceleration, quieter running and no visible exhaust.
With such improvements, the Abrams will continue to play a central
role in heavy combat and even in small-scale contingencies and peacekeeping
operations for years to come, Keating said. Once the tanks reached
the Balkans, for example, they proved their worth, Keating said.
“In Bosnia, whenever an Abrams tank rolled up, things just
calmed down,” he said.
Smith agreed. “A tank is an element of brute force,”
he said. “It gets your attention.” Added Groller:
“The Abrams provides a shock effect that the Army will continue
to need for another 25, maybe 30 years. Just imagine that you are
sitting in a foxhole and suddenly see a 70-ton behemoth coming at
you at 40 mph, firing 120-mm shells. That’s shock effect.”