Here's How the U.S. Army Is Upgrading the Abrams Tank for Its Fifth Decade in Service

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The U.S. Army is preparing the M1A2 Abrams, its long-serving main battle tank, to be able to fight through the 2020s with a some upgrades. The latest version of the tank, now designated M1A2C, could well be the last upgrade for the Abrams until a replacement vehicle is fielded sometime in the next decade. As relations with Russia deteriorate, the Abrams is once again America’s most powerful weapon in a ground conflict in Europe.

In 1980, the Army unveiled a new tank that was a clean break from previous tanks. Totally unlike the previous generation M60 main battle tank, the M1 Abrams featured sleek, angular features, top secret Chobham armor imported from the UK that mixed ceramic and steel plates for superior protection, a powerful and quiet gas turbine engine, new crew survival features, and a fire control system that allowed up to 90 percent accuracy at ranges of 2,000 meters.

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An early model M1 Abrams with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment during NATO exercise Reforger ‘83, Laubach, West Germany.
Photo: Getty

Since then, the Abrams has received a steady stream of upgrades meant to keep it ahead of the competition. In 1986, the tank received a larger, more powerful 120-millimeter German-engineered main gun, and in 1988 a layer of depleted uranium—2.4 times denser than steel—was added to the armor to increase protection. These Cold War-era upgrades were meant to insure the Abrams could outshoot the latest Soviet tanks if World War III broke out.

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The end of the Cold War ended any possibility of a superpower tank-versus-tank slugfest, but the M1’s upgrades gave it a valuable edge in 1991, when Abrams tanks crushed the Iraqi Army in Kuwait. The tanks then served in Afghanistan and Iraq, where, initial invasion of Iraq aside, they were deployed against lightly-armed guerrilla fighters.

The next set of upgrades was driven by the need to operate against guerrillas and included remote-controlled .50 caliber machine guns (since popping up out of the turret to fire the machine gun yourself mostly just meant the soldier doing so would end up dead by a sniper), explosive reactive armor meant to dissipate the shaped charge of a rocket propelled grenade (which first proved deadly in the 1973 Yom Kippur War). and a telephone to the tank crew to communicate with nearby infantry.

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A M1A1 Abrams tank fitted with gun shields for the tank commander and loader, as well as boxes of reactive armor, for urban fighting. Iraq, 2011.
Image: Capt. Alex Hunter (DVIDS)

The winding down of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with deteriorating relations between NATO and Russia, means Army thinks the next round of upgrades should be oriented again towards big power, full-on mechanized warfare.

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round of upgrades to the Abrams tank. Russian ground forces have been involved in the occupation, of Crimea and Russia still maintains a large ground force on its western frontier thanks to its invasion and ongoing occupation of eastern Ukraine. As a result, this latest round of upgrades once again optimizes the Abrams to fight enemy tanks, back from the focus on asymmetrical warfare.

The new Abrams tank is the M1A2C, formerly known under development as the M1A2 SEPv3. It now has a system known as Ammunition DataLink, that allows the tank crew to set a distance for a tank shell to explode, ensuring it detonates inside a building instead of sailing right through it. By making sure the shell goes where its supposed to go it lessens the likelihood the shell will fly on, possibly inflicting casualties on civilians.

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The -C model also features even better infrared sights, a low slung, remotely-operated .50 caliber machine gun for the tank commander, and an auxiliary power unit (APU). The APU allows a tank to power communications and sensors, monitoring the battlefield, without running its powerful 1,500 horsepower gas turbine engine, notorious for burning gallons per mile—and getting hot enough to barbecue steaks off its exhaust louvers. And while that’s a neat party trick, it also presents a pretty juicy target for any enemy infrared sensors and heat-seeking missiles launched in its way.

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One of the most important -C upgrades is a new active protection system meant to defeat enemy anti-tank weapons. A photo of an M1 Abrams purportedly taken at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona began circulating earlier this week on social media. The photo is rumored to be the finalized version of the M1A2C, though its authenticity couldn’t be independently confirmed.

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The photo shows what appears to be a M1A2SEP series tank with the low-profile version of the CROWS machine gun turret. The SEP tanks are hard to differentiate, but the low profile CROWS turret makes it at least a v3. The big upgrade in this photo is the presence of the Israeli-made Trophy active protection system (APS), bolted to the side of the turret and painted green. Given that the tank features the latest Abrams upgrades and the Trophy APS, this is almost certainly an M1A2C.

Active or “hard kill” protection systems were originally developed by Israel and consist of a ring of sensors—typically radar—circling the tank capable of detecting and tracking incoming anti-tank projectiles. (“Soft kill” weapons, by contrast, usually involve interfering with a missile’s guidance system or luring them off-target.) Once the incoming projectile, such as an RPG or anti-tank missile is within range, the targeted tank launches a projectile of its own to shoot it down.

Rafael promotional video, with commentary on the Army’s testing of the M1 Abrams with the Trophy active protection system.

Active protection is a boon to tanks because it destroys incoming rockets and missiles before they actually reach the tank. Such systems provide 360 degree protection, especially useful to protect a tank’s vulnerable flanks and rear. Trophy weighs just 1,807 pounds—about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle, but spare change to a tank that weighs nearly 70 tons fueled up and ready for war.

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The Army has been experimenting with Trophy on the Abrams for a few years now. In 2017, Colonel Glenn Dean, a project manager at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, told Military.com that he “tried to kill the Abrams tank 48 times and failed.” In 2018 the Army announced plans to purchase 261 Trophy sets, enough to outfit three armored brigades. The Army will likely send a M1A2C-equipped brigade to Europe as soon as possible.

The T-14 Armata tank, Red Square 2015.
Photo: Alexander Aksakov (Getty)
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What do the Abrams’ potential adversaries look like? If the Army sticks to the cliche about never getting involved in a land war in Asia, it can strike the Chinese Army’s ZTZ-99A tank off the list.

The main armored foe could be Russia with its T-72B3 and T-90 series tanks, both of which are potent but less capable than a reasonably new M1 Abrams. Russia’s next generation T-14 Armata tank, unveiled in 2015, would give the M1 a run for its money but is behind schedule: Moscow originally claimed the Russian Ground Forces would have 2,300 T-14s in service by 2020. Development issues and budgetary realities mean the RGF will get only 12 T-14s by the end of this year, forcing it to continue relying on the less capable T-72B3 and T-90. The Abrams should remain on top. For now.

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The Army plans to announce the M1’s long-awaited replacement in 2023, with production beginning in 2025. The new vehicle may not be available in large numbers right immediately so in the meantime, upgrading older M1A2s to the -C (and later -D) variant will be an easy and risk-free way of keeping America’s tanks refreshed with the latest technology. The M1 will almost certainly serve for 50 years, in a career spanning multiple wars and two centuries.

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About the author

Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and security writer based in San Francisco, California.