TANK WARFARE: Russia Builds Platform to Rival the Abrams
Illustration: Scott Rekdal
The Abrams has for decades been considered the world’s premier tank. However, experts say that the T-14 Armata, a next-generation platform that the Russians are developing, could challenge some aspects of the Abrams’ supremacy.
The U.S. tank of today looks much like the same one that was developed in the 1970s, but it has undergone upgrades that continue to make it a formidable presence on the battlefield, according to a report titled, “The Army Modernization Imperative: A New Big Five for the 21st Century,” which was released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“The current version of the Abrams tank — the M1A2 System Enhancement Program v2 Abrams — is a behemoth of a machine. Featuring steel-encased depleted uranium armor, the Abrams has been described as nearly indestructible,” wrote authors Rhys McCormick and Andrew Hunter.
At the same time, Russia is investing in the T-14 Armata which is being touted as a next-generation battle tank with advanced weapons, protective systems and an unmanned turret. Moscow plans to build 100 platforms by 2020, said Yury Borisov, the country’s deputy defense minister, according to a report by the TASS news agency. The tank is currently undergoing operational testing.
The Abrams — which weighs in at more than 71 tons and can drive at speeds topping 42 mph thanks to a powerful turbine engine — is superior to any tank that Russia currently deploys, including the T-72B, T-80 and T-90, the CSIS report said.
However, there are certain design characteristics of both the Abrams and Russia’s tanks that could shrink that gap, it said.
While the United States’ battle tank relies on heavy armor for protection, the Russian fleet is made up of smaller, lighter platforms that use countermeasures such as active protection systems to shoot down anti-tank guided missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Russian active protection systems are effective “against most current-generation direct-attack anti-tank guided missiles, offsetting some of the differences in the lack of armor, but struggle against the FMG-148 Javelin in top-attack mode,” the report said.
A robust APS that is baked in from the start is likely to be a key component of the T-14 Armata, said David Johnson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
With “the T-14 … you’re not trying to bolt on active protection,” Johnson said. “You’ve integrated it into the vehicle when you were designing it.”
While the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center is testing active protection systems, those would have to be integrated onto the Abrams. “The question here is how effective will it be when it’s bolted on,” he said.
Hunter, of CSIS, said the importance of fielding a capable active protection system could not be understated. “That’s a glaring urgent need that has to be met as soon as possible,” he said in an interview.
The T-14 will have a number of other improvements including an unmanned turret, which will provide better protection for occupants, Johnson said. That will also permit the crew size to be reduced from four to three soldiers, allowing for a lighter system that will likely weigh substantially less than the Abrams, he noted.
“Three tanks worth of extra people give you the ability to field another tank in a manpower sense,” he said. It also means that the Armata will be able to traverse roads the Abrams can’t, he said.
The CSIS report notes that the heaviness of the U.S. tank is a major limiting factor. “The Abrams’ large weight makes simply moving the tank a logistical nightmare,” the report said. Given European road weight restrictions, the platform is too heavy for U.S. heavy equipment transports in Europe and must instead be moved using German and British heavy equipment transports, it added.
Johnson said the system’s weight is due to the Army continually adding passive armor and underbelly kits for urban environments.
That could pose a major problem during a land operation.
According to a report by RAND Corp., “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” the Russian army has the ability to reach the capitals of Estonia and Latvia within 60 hours.
The CSIS report said: “While the Abrams might be qualitatively superior to the Russians’ tanks, that advantage matters little if they are not present for the actual fight. … Russia would be able to more freely move its armor formations throughout Europe, overwhelming American defenders.”
Hunter said Russia is known for its “smash and grab” operations, where it uses its fleet’s maneuverability and agility to quickly invade an area.
“They don’t really need a large force to do that,” he said. “That presents real challenges for the U.S.”
However, the Russians may not be able to afford to purchase many Armatas, Hunter noted.
“Their budget situation remains pretty bleak,” he said. “It’s kind of an open question of how much of their force they’re really going to be able to modernize due to the fact that they themselves have budget constraints.”
Abrams: Defense Dept. / T-14: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via wiki
According to news reports, Russia had originally wanted to build 2,300 systems by 2020, but recently reduced it to 100 platforms.
At the same time, Russia could choose to sell the tank to nations that are not friendly toward the United States, Hunter said.
“The Russians … are big exporters,” he said. “Some of these systems that we worry about that the Russians are producing we may not see in a fight with Russia — if there were ever to be one — but we’re going to see it in a fight with someone.”
Customers could include North Korea, Iran and Syria, he added.
Johnson noted that the Russians are happy to sell equipment to nations that the United States shuns. He expected that they would sell a variant that is slightly less capable than the one they keep in their own inventory.
As Russia develops the Armata, the U.S. Army is taking its first steps toward fielding a new tank, said Gen. Mark Milley, the service’s chief of staff.
“We do need a new, ground armored platform for our mechanized infantry and our tanks,” he said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
While asked about the implications of the Armata — which is expected to enter service in 2020 — Milley did not address the threat it could pose or what it would mean for the United States and its NATO allies.
However, Russia overall represents a serious threat to the United States, Milley noted. The country has been making significant investment in the modernization of its conventional weapon systems over the past 15 years, he said.
Milley has a group “digging deep” into what a new U.S. tank might look like. The service is looking at a variety of new technologies that could be incorporated into such a system, including new armor, he said.
“The real sort of Holy Grail of technologies that I’m trying to find on this thing is material — is the armor itself,” he said. “If we can discover material, and there’s a lot of research and development going into it … that is significantly lighter in weight that gives you the same armor protection, that would be a real significant breakthrough.”
Advanced munitions are also on the list, he said.
“We’ve been using kinetic or powder-based munitions for five centuries and there are advances in non-powder kinetics,” he said. Lasers and railguns are two evolving weapon systems that could be incorporated, he said.
Robotics will also be key for any new vehicle the Army procures, Milley said. “We probably need to make sure it’s dual use so that the commander on the battle[field] at the time has the option of having that vehicle manned or unmanned. They can flip a switch and it can be a robot,” he said.
Milley noted that while the Abrams’ design is nearly 40 years old, many of its components have been upgraded.
“We have a good, solid tank today,” he said. “The M1 tank that you see today visually looks exactly like the tank from 1980 when I was a second lieutenant. [But] it is not exactly the same tank. The insides of that thing, … the firing mechanisms, the engine compartments, the armor, etc, that’s all been upgraded and modified over the years.”
While the Army is interested in exploring a new system, the fact of the matter is the service has limited funds to put toward research, Hunter said.
As a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, its research-and-development “budgets have been absolutely savaged and are down in some cases over 70 percent,” he said.
“There’s just not a lot of money in the Army’s budget right now to research anything. They’re doing some basic science and technology to try and create the opportunities in the future to do some interesting things with modernization, but right now there’s nothing that’s in the near term that’s even available to purchase. … That’s got to be corrected.”
Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said the Army would have to be cautious if it pursues fielding a new tank.
“I don’t see the payoff right now in trying to go and build a new tank,” he said. “In general, when people use ‘next-generation’ in the Pentagon I get a little bit uneasy because it tends to incentivize this kind of ‘leap-ahead’ thinking that we saw during the Rumsfeld transformation era.”
Often officials will rattle off a laundry list of expensive requirements, many of which are technologically infeasible, Scharre said.
The Army will have to ensure that any such endeavor doesn’t go the way of its failed Future Combat Systems program, which the service canceled after spending billions of dollars with little to show for it, he said.
The Army will also have to make compromises between maneuverability, lethality and survivability, he added. Having high levels of all these qualities “in a single vehicle is just not doable,” he said.
Hunter said that while the time to retire the Abrams will eventually come, that day has not yet arrived.
“There’s a tremendous amount that can be done with upgrades,” he said. “You can upgrade the engine, make it even more mobile. You can potentially look at developing new kinds of shells that would give it additional lethality coming off the cannon. … There’s a lot that can be done to today’s Abrams to make it even more effective.”