Since the summer of 2014, one of America’s most prized battlefield weapons, the M1 Abrams tank, has been used by those it was meant to fight. Captured M1 tanks have fought with ISIS and have recently been used by Iranian-backed Shia militias to put down a Kurdish movement for independence.
After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the new Iraqi government installed by the Americans agreed to buy 140 re-manufactured M1A1s to Iraq, with the last of those tanks delivered in late 2011.
The M1s were supposed to be a major component of the Iraqi army’s recapitalization, and a leading element to begin enforcing Iraq’s newly found sovereignty following the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 under the Obama administration. The reality, however, was that even three years after the U.S. military left Iraq, that nation’s armed forces were in no way prepared for the onslaught of ISIS in the summer of 2014.
ISIS was able to obtain large caches of abandoned Iraqi equipment during the fall of large Iraqi cities such as Ramadi and Mosul, including M1 tanks. One report suggested that ISIS captured over 2,000 Humvees during the fall of Mosul, many of which were turned into car bombs, or VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) in military-speak.
While the exact number of Iraqi M1s that ISIS got their hands on has never been fully acknowledged, the count is believed to be at least 40. It is unclear how many of those captured Iraqi tanks were taken into combat by ISIS as the Abrams is a complicated piece of machinery to operate and maintain, not to mention that it’s enormously thirsty for fuel. The 1,500-horsepower engine can push the M1 to speeds approaching 40 mph, but the tank only gets a little over half a mile per gallon of fuel used. That is not to say ISIS could not have operated the tank. American crews run around with manuals present within the vehicle, so it can only be assumed that instruction manuals in Arabic were carried by the Iraqi crews.
“We captured the American tanks and other military vehicles from IS, who, in turn, seized them from what was left by the Iraqi army. Now, they are under our control, and we are seeking more,” a spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Shia-militias who obtained at least one of the M1 tanks told The New Arab.
The US government initially was hesitant to confirm that a number of M1s had been captured, despite video and images of Shia-militias, and previously ISIS, appearing.
Eventually the U.S. State Department admitted to The New Arab that “not all US-provided defense articles are under the control of the intended recipient ministry/unit. We are concerned that a small number of M1A1 tanks may be in the possession of forces other than the Ministry of Defense and Iraqi.”
Which is an understatement, if we’ve ever heard one.
When ISIS initially rolled through large swaths of Iraq, much of the Iraqi military crumbled and fled, abandoning large amounts of weapons and ammunition that would be perfect to help ISIS and its reign of terror. As many as six M1s were captured by ISIS back in 2015, which then put into use on the battlefield to push deeper into Iraqi territory.
In an ironic twist, some of these American-made tanks soon became the target of American air strikes.
Despite Iraqi claims that most of the captured (or abandoned) M1 tanks have been currently accounted for, the idea of foreign forces using one of America’s most dominant weapons system against its own interests poses a number of questions about who to arm, and the worry of having to eventually face its weapons one day on the battlefield.
Just last month, the U.S. government finally acknowledged that at least nine M1 Abrams tanks had also fallen into the hands of Iranian-backed militias. The report from the Office of the Inspector General confirmed what had been widely circulated information from as far back as 2015 that the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, had become the new owners of the Abrams. The report was written in typical bureaucratic speak:
This quarter, the DoS (Department of State) acknowledged that some U.S.-provided military equipment was in the hands of non-authorized end-users.
The Iranian-backed Shia group obtained the M1s one of two ways: The first was that M1s were taken by the PMF from ISIS, who originally captured the American-made tanks, as fleeing Iraqi forces abandoned their equipment during the ISIS capture of the Ramadi, which is about 60 miles west of Baghdad. Videos published by the pro-Shia militias show the captured M1s being transported and flying the flag of the Hezbollah Brigade, which is a designated terror group by the American government and has been fighting and killing American soldiers in Iraq since at least 2007.
The second, and more concerning, way was that the Iraqi forces simply handed the M1s over to the militias to help them fight achieve their objectives, one of which involved using the American made tanks to attack American-armed Kurdish fighters in October 2017. At least one M1 was destroyed during the fight, but more were involved. The lethality and power of the M1 was not lost on the Kurdish Pesmerga fighters according Ben Alexander, an American volunteering to fight with the Kurds, who was speaking with the Military Times:
You can’t take out an Abrams with anything they have over here. The peshmerga don’t make IEDs [improvised explosive device] or VBIEDs [vehicle borne IEDs], so they’re shit out of luck for Abrams.
A recent report indicates that seven of the nine M1s have been reclaimed by they Iraqi military, but the Pentagon is still not happy with the situation.
As a result, General Dynamics, who built and maintained the M1s that Iraq bought, suspended that service earlier this year as a result of Iraq’s “sharing” of the M1s with the Shia militia. The tank loaners violated the purchase contract and once the contractors left for Christmas trips home, they never returned to Iraq. Subsequently, the availability and battle readiness of the Iraqi M1s has dropped considerably.
During the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the first Abrams was reported destroyed, and not by Iraqi forces, but through American air power. An Abrams that had been damaged by enemy action had to be abandoned, and with the Americans uninterested in the tank falling into enemy hands, the tank was hit by at least one bomb from an American fighter aircraft.
The M1 Abrams main battle tank has been around for some time now, with the original version of the tank first reaching American armor units in 1980. In the nearly 40 years since then, the M1 has been bestowed with an aura of near invincibility on the battlefield. Proven in combat during Desert Storm at places like 73 Easting and in Operation Iraqi Freedom on the famous Thunder Runs to capture Baghdad, the Abrams tanks appeared better than advertised, able to survive even the most arduous of combat conditions.
As ISIS began its sweep across Iraq, Iraqi armor forces took a beating with 28 M1A1 Abrams being damaged during the initial fighting in 2014. At least five of the Abrams had their armor penetrated by shaped-charge weapons, which force hot jets of metal straight into the tanks themselves, and were total losses. (While the details of the damaged and destroyed tanks have not been fully provided, it is worth noting that the 140 M1s sold to the Iraqis did not come equipped with depleted uranium armor that increases protection over the tank’s front, nor were they fitted with explosive reactive armor that could help defeat a large portion of anti-tank weapons ISIS had available to them in the fighting’s early days.)
This lack of advanced protection has led to the Iraqi M1s being more vulnerable to anti-tank guided missiles. The greatest dangers tanks face today is most likely not from an enemy tank, but from a concealed, small unit employing an anti-tank weapon. The ubiquitous RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade, has been a staple of the insurgent arsenal for decades due to is inexpensive nature, effective results and ability to be used with little or no training. Anti-tank missiles such as the American TOW (tube launched, optically-tracked, wireless-guided) and the Russian 9M133 Kornet have rapidly proliferated across today’s battlefield of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Ukraine, proving even the most modern armor can be penetrated by these weapons.
With American support, the Iraqi army began the slow push back against ISIS, and the M1 tanks that survived played an important part for the Iraqi army. One tank, nicknamed ‘the Beast’ was bringing the pain to ISIS insurgents in the Iraqi city of Hīt, even featured in a tweet from CENTCOM showing the tank destroying a car packed with explosives that was charging towards the Iraqi positions.
The threat to ISIS from the M1 was unmistakable. From destroying sniper’s nests to detonating VBIEDs prematurely, the tanks were a frequent target of ISIS, including air attacks from drones. In early 2017, an ISIS drone video shows an attack on an unsuspecting Iraqi M1, impacting the top of the tank and killing the exposed tank commander who was standing in his cupola.
The M1 Abrams tank was designed to charge across the German landscape to clog the Fulda Gap against the swarming hordes of Soviet and Warsaw Pact armor, but it found its success in the deserts of the Middle East. And with that success came the idea that the tank was impossible to destroy, much the same way the word stealth has taken on the meaning of being invisible to radar. Neither is true, especially when it may be facing itself on the battlefield in the hands of the enemy.