The U.S. Army is looking at a new vehicle to replace the M1 Abram main battle tank and warns it could look like practically anything. The service is studying a number of new options for the future and there’s only one key, non-negotiable requirement: Whatever the new vehicle is, it must be the most deadly thing on the battlefield.
The entered service in 1981 to counter the Soviet T-64 and T-72 main battle tanks. Armed with a 105-millimeter M68 gun, thermal imaging sights, Chobham composite matrix armor and a gas turbine engine, the M1 was a revolutionary tank and a clean break from a dynasty of tanks that stretched back to the closing days of World War II. Over the years, the Abrams has received upgrades including a bigger 120-millimeter M256 gun, new ammunition, depleted uranium armor, and digital networking systems.
Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, the head of Army vehicle modernization, says the service is looking at “everything from a ray gun to a Star Wars-like four-legged creature that shoots lasers.” The only key requirement is that it packs the firepower to be the most lethal thing on the battlefield.
The iron triangle that rules armored vehicle design is firepower, protection, and strategic and tactical mobility. The M1 Abrams, optimized to fight hordes of Soviet tanks, was a pretty good combination of all three features that didn’t skimp in any particular field—and had the pricetag to show for it. Other countries favor one quality over another as it suits their battlefield requirements. Israel’s Merkava tanks, for example, emphasize firepower and protection over mobility.
Unlike many ground forces, the U.S. Army must pretty much plan for any battlefield, on any continent, against all types of enemies. In the past thirty years, the Abrams tank has fought insurgents in cities and regular, mechanized armies and everyone in between, from the cities of Iraq to the mountain country of Afghanistan. Now, as Russia fields a new generation of armored vehicles to go along with an aggressive foreign policy, the future battlefield again shifts back to heavy mechanized adversaries.
The Army is faced with a number of tough decisions, each of which carries risk. Does it go with a lighter "tank," sacrificing armor for the ability to ferry them faster overseas, perhaps relying on an active protection system to provide protection? Does it equip the vehicle with a railgun or “ray guns" over traditional tank guns, risking technical problems and cost overruns? Should it add an automatic loader, cutting crew size but relying on automation to keep the main gun fed? What about shifting from traditional tank tracks to this four-legged design? Decisions, decisions.
The Army plans to have a plan in place by 2023 to replace the Abrams, and field the first vehicles by 2025.