The battle-tested Abrams tank is poised to remain in service for at least 25
more years, or until the Army is certain that it has an adequate replacement.
The tank will stay in the Army, “until we are convinced that the Future
Combat Systems is going to give us better lethality,” said Army Chief
of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker.
Abrams tanks will be upgraded not only so they can stay relevant for many more
years but also so they can be used as test platforms for FCS, Schoomaker told
National Defense following a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
The FCS network, which glues together 17 manned and unmanned systems, is scheduled
to become operational between 2008 and 2014. The tank replacement was pushed
to the latter stages of the program.
Some time between now and 2008, the Army will set up an experimental unit that
will include Abrams tanks specifically assigned to test FCS command-and-control
network and communications systems, according to Army plans.
The tanks that were sent into battle in Iraq, mainly to the 3rd and 4th Infantry
Divisions, have received a broader command-and-control capability, said Schoomaker.
“In those formations, they can control UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles];
they can connect with joint fires; they can pull down intelligence from [the]
national, division and corps level,” he said.
The spiral development and implementation of FCS technology is going to benefit
the tank fleet, said Col. Dennis Szydloski, the Training and Doctrine Command’s
systems manager for Abrams at Fort Knox, Ky. “It is going to give us the
opportunity to profit from new technologies,” Szydloski told National
“Anything that is relatively mature for an FCS manned vehicle we would
consider to either improve capability or address shortcomings in the Abrams.”
Of high interest is the active protection system, which is expected to be included
on the Stryker light armored vehicle, as well as on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle,
Another goal is to have better 360-degree vision capability for the remote
weapon station on the tank. That would allow a soldier to fire the machine gun
from inside the vehicle, instead of from the turret where he would be vulnerable,
“In order for the tank to stay relevant, it is going to have to be integrated
into the FCS network,” Szydloski said. “We see tanks working with
FCS in the future,” he added.
Under the Army’s new modularity concept, tank brigades will be restructured
into units of action, said Maj. Ben Harris, the assistant Abrams systems manager
at Fort Knox.
“The unit of action, instead of having three battalions, is going to
have two task forces, and they are going to have two companies of Bradley [fighting
vehicles] and two companies of tanks each,” he said. “In the future,
the unit of action will have 58 tanks. This is how much used to be in an old
tank battalion, before we decided to go to 44 when we came out with” the
M1A2 system enhancement package of the mid-1990s.
Currently, a mechanized brigade has two infantry battalions and one tank battalion,
while an armor brigade has two armor battalions and an infantry battalion, he
explained. In addition, a mechanized brigade has 44 tanks, while an armor brigade
has 88 tanks, he explained.
By the end of the decade, the Army is supposed to have two Abrams tank configurations—the
upgraded M1A2 system enhancement package (SEP) and the M1A1. A good number of
the M1A1 tanks will have been rebuilt as part of the Abrams integrated management
program, and some will still be the older variant, said Szydloski.
The Abrams tank is no stranger to extensive makeovers. More than a decade ago,
the initial analog M1A1s transitioned to a digital version, the M1A2. However,
by the mid 1990s, additional requirements placed a burden on the original M1A2
electronics. More memory, faster processing and better displays were needed
to support the Army’s emerging command-and-control system, Force XXI Battle
Command, Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2), and the integration of a second generation
forward-looking infrared (FLIR).
The M1A2 SEP was developed to address these new requirements.
The second generation FLIR on the SEP refines target acquisition and identification.
The SEP has an improved power management system that protects the electronics
from voltage spikes. FBCB2 required incorporation of a color flat panel video
display to support viewing a color digital terrain map with icons. The SEP also
has a thermal management system that cools the tank’s interior.
Under the continuous electronics enhancement program, six SEP electronics boxes
were redesigned. In addition, a block upgrade to the second generation FLIR
is included in the SEP/CEEP configuration. To that end, a production contract
has been awarded to General Dynamics Land Systems, the Abrams’ prime contractor,
to build 129 SEP/CEEP tanks that will replace the remaining M1A2s in the field.
One change in store for the M1A2 SEP, based on lessons learned from Operation
Iraqi Freedom, will be a new auxiliary power supply, Szydloski said. That basically
means adding batteries to a voltage regulator on the SEP, he explained.
“The regulator now is older technology, and by tweaking that we can get
more out of the batteries,” he said. By using batteries, the tankers can
run the vehicle’s electronics without turning on the engine.
“To get a near-term capability, we are going to go with some additional
batteries in a space that was already available [on the tank],” he said.
“They will go on the 3rd Cavalry SEPs first, but we expect [the capability]
to be applied on all SEPs eventually.”
The SEP will also receive improved electronics components, gunner and commander
displays, Szydloski said. “It will be a newer generation technology.”
The Army has funds through 2007 to finish outfitting the M1A2 SEP tanks, said
Harris, who noted that it is possible that funding could be stretched out for
a few more years. In the fiscal year 2005 defense appropriations bill, the SEP
program received $292 million.
“We are not converting all the M1A2s into SEP,” Szydloski noted.
A few years from now, the 1st Cavalry Division, 4th Infantry Division and 3rd
Armored Cavalry Regiment will be the only ones to have the SEP, he said.
By fiscal year 2009, a good chunk of the remaining tanks will be converted
to M1A1 AIM tanks, while other M1A1 tanks will receive certain modifications,
according to Szydloski. The AIM is a completely rebuilt M1A1, Szydloski explained.
The 2005 defense appropriations bill allotted $116.9 million for M1A1 modifications.
Some of the modifications applied over the years to the AIM tank have been
a pulse jet air system for self-cleaning of the engine air filters; an external
auxiliary power unit for recharging batteries and silent watch; an eye-safe
laser rangefinder, making force-on-force training possible using the tank fire-control
system; an embedded diagnostics system; and a digital electronic-control unit
for the AGT1500 engine, which provides improved fuel economy.
But despite the extensive changes, the experience from Operation Iraqi Freedom
has prompted other significant modifications to the M1A1 tanks. Under the name
“M1A1 OIF tank,” these changes will be introduced on the AIM production
lines in late 2006, sources said.
As such, the AIM tanks will receive a second-generation forward-looking infrared
sensor, blue force tracking, an embedded diagnostics capability and the commander’s
independent thermal viewer, which already is installed on the M1A2 SEP.
Of the 115 AIM tanks that will be produced in 2006, 69 of them will have the
OIF upgrade, according to officials. The AIM program produces between 115 and
135 tanks a year depending on availability of funds, the service said.
As both the upgraded SEP and AIM configurations come off the production lines,
some safety modifications are being applied, said Szydloski.
“A number of those things are automatically integrated,” he said.
One of these is the drivers’ hatch interlock, which is the switch that
keeps the turret from moving when the driver opens his hatch, he said. It is
something that SEP already has. Minor design changes also are being made such
as those to the gunner seat, with a pin that can adjust the driver seat.
“Anything that is being built or retrofitted has all those improvements,”
he said. “We go to units in the field, based on priorities, and add those
modifications out in the field to the tanks that did not have them when they
The program management office for combat systems has initiated an effort to
conduct sessions with each unit deploying to Iraq. The configuration of their
tanks is evaluated to ensure that as many of the desirable modifications are
applied as possible, according to Army sources.
The focus is on the high-payoff modifications for the units deploying into
combat, he said. “None of those are show stoppers for deployment,”
Meanwhile, the sandy conditions, hot temperature, high mileage on the suspension
and tracks and heavy power use in Iraq have prompted extensive maintenance requirements,
But not all tanks undergo the same regime, Szydloski said. “You have
different tank configurations and different histories of use, either from home
stations or pre-positioned stocks. Not all the tanks are the same types and
[they do] not get the same disposition,” he said.
Battle-damaged tanks could go to a U.S. depot, return to a pre-positioned tank
stock, or be refitted and repaired in the theater. Some may return to home station,
he explained. Some tanks are left at home station, and others stay behind while
units deploy and get additional maintenance, he said.
Parallel with the necessary upgrades and maintenance, the Army is working on
improved ammunition for its Abrams tanks, said Szydloski. “We are on track
to field the A29A3 kinetic energy round,” he said. “It is not something
that we have to have in Iraq.”
The service also is developing an anti-personnel canister round, Harris said.
“There was an urgent requirement from Korea in 1999 for that round. It
took a long time to process the requirement.” More recently, “there
was a request from Europe for this round to support ops in Iraq, and it was
not ready for them,” he said.
Low-rate production was scheduled for the summer, but the round—which
would contain about 1,003 tungsten balls—is not expected to be operational
before 2007, he said.
A new training round also is on the list, Szydloski said. The round is supposed
to match the appearance and performance of the multi-purpose anti-tank round,
he said. Much of this new ammunition was in development well before the war
with Iraq, he explained. But the current ammunition used in the conflict proved
satisfactory, he said.
Another improvement to the tank not associated with the war in Iraq entails
engine revitalization. However, the tank will continue to be powered by its
current AGT1500 turbine engine, he said.
“We are working on a way to improve our rebuilt process, so that we have
an engine that is more durable and has a longer service life,” he said.
“We want to improve our rebuild process and have a single rebuilt standard,
[and a] tracking system of the power-pack.”
The Army is planning to place tags on each engine component to track its use
and maintenance to be able to refine the rebuilt program, he said. “We
need to know how much it had been used,” he said.
No new engines were produced after 1990, he said. Furthermore, the Army did
not refine the tracking process until now, because the service focused on developing
a new engine that would have been common between the tank and the Crusader,
which was canceled in 2002, he said.
“For the foreseeable future, it is going to be the AGT1500, and if we
rebuild it better, we are going to have a better engine,” he said.