Watching a 65-ton rolling battleship waltz around can be strangely enchanting. The Russians, in particular, take their tank ballets very seriously. But America is getting in on the act, showing off their souped up M1A2SEPv2 Abrams main battle tanks to Baltic NATO allies as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
The grooving was filmed during a welcoming ceremony in Estonia, with the country's military brass checking out what America’s best rolling fortresses could do. It's all part of the U.S.' push to beef up its readiness and enhancing interoperability with its NATO allies throughout Europe. The Army’s Task Force 2-7 Infantry “Cottonbalers” have been at the tip of this spear, deploying to Poland, Latvia, and Estonia simultaneously while carrying out flash drills with local forces.
The M1A2SEPV2 is the latest configuration of the Abrams main battle tank. In addition to the major sensor and mission systems upgrades initiated by the M1A2 program, the SEPv2 added enhanced user interfaces shown on full color displays, a new computer operating system, and a much more powerful onboard computer system. Upgraded side and frontal third-generation steel-encased depleted uranium armor was also added, as well as a tougher transmission.
Next generation thermal sights are installed as well, one of which is an additional Commander's Independent Thermal Viewer (CITV). This added sight allows for "hunter-killer" operations and better situational awareness for the tank's crew. Also, an auxiliary power unit was installed so that crews could run the tank's electrical systems for long periods of time without starting its thirsty and loud gas-turbine engine.
A new cooling system was added as part of the M1A2SEPv2 program, so the added thermal loads from all the Abram's new electronics could be mitigated. Finally, a simple feature – but one that was in huge demand during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – is a external telephone intercom system so that troops operating alongside the tank can talk to the crew inside.
One of the most most visible upgrades for the M1A2SEPv2 is the addition of the CROWS II (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station) atop the Abrams's turret. This system, and its progenitors, CROWS and RAVEN, allow for the crew to fight the tank in 'buttoned up' conditions, even for close quarters battles. This keeps the soldiers from exposing themselves to shrapnel and sniper fire while using machine guns. It also adds another high-mounted thermal site for surveillance.
CROWS II consists of a high definition thermal camera, a laser rangefinder, and a daylight video camera system, all slaved to a crew-served weapon – in this case a .50 caliber M2 machine gun. Smaller caliber guns and grenade launchers can also be carried in the .50 cal's place. The system provides precise, fast panning and elevation, and the fire control system gives ballistic corrections to the CROWS operator. The operator sits within the tank and uses a joystick to control the CROWS turret with its imagery displayed on a flat panel screen.
A new version of the CROWS turret, dubbed CROWS III will bring even better optics and user interface, as well less than lethal capabilities to the CROWS system. Options include a laser dazzler that temporarily blinds people it's pointed at, an LRAD acoustics active area denial device, and extremely bright spot lights that can be ran in a disorienting strobe mode. Also, more cameras will be added for a panoramic staring video feed without the need to rotate the turret at all. Similar, albeit much more complex capabilities, are used on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It will also have an infrared laser pointer so that tank crews can identify objects at night, and it can even be outfitted with an add-on FGM-148 Javelin missile launcher. This gives any vehicle with a CROWS III setup standoff attack capability against heavily armored vehicles and fortified positions.
One tanker told me that the M1A2SEPv2 derivative of the Abrams is the tank he dreamed of having in Iraq, and when the TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit) package is added, it would have been a much more effective weapon during his two deployments. TUSK is a add-on option for Abrams tanks that sees reactive armor "bricks" added to the Abram's sides, along with more armor on the tank's belly and slatted armor in the rear. This all amounts to better survivability against High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds often used in Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPGs) launchers. CROWS was originally part of the TUSK package, but it is now becoming standard outfit for all M1A2SEPV2s.
Just over a year ago, many defense analysts were saying the tank was dead. Now, a year of geopolitical change later, and both the US and Russia seem very keen on showing off their latest and greatest in rolling fortresses.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com