The M1A2 Abrams: The Last Main Battle Tank?

by Stanley C. Crist*

(the article was written in 1994) 

With its superb integration of firepower, mobility, and armor protection the M1A2 Abrams is very nearly the ultimate incarnation of the main battletank (MBT). Although more advanced design concepts have been published in recent years, it will likely prove quite difficult to produce an MBT sufficiently superior (to the M1A2) to justify the cost, so why not look for a better idea?

The Missile Option

When Egyptian Saggers surprised Israeli tankers in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, there were many who proclaimed, “The tank is dead!” A quarter-century later, tank advocates point to the continued use of the MBT as proof that the best antitank weapon is still another gun-armed tank. Yet it may be that the missile proponents were not wrong in their pronouncement — just premature.

Missiles that are guided to the targetby a human operator (e.g., TOW, Dragon, Sagger) can be neutralized by distracting or killing the gunner. This would be analogous to World War II dive bombers being fired on by a battleship’s antiaircraft guns; disrupt the pilot’s concentration and the bomb impacts harmlessly into the sea.

But an electronic brain does not — as far as we know — feel fear or get distracted by nearby shellbursts. It also has immensely faster reaction times than a human. These factors make electronic guidance far superior to human control for guided missiles.

The self-guided missile has eclipsed the large-caliber gun in naval surface warfare. It is about to do so in the realm of land combat. The tank cannon has a maximum effective range of about 3000 meters, and precise aim is required to make a hit. The self-guided missile, however, can — like Longbow Hellfire — be effective to more than 8000 meters, and the electronic brain continually corrects the flight path as necessary.

Although Longbow Hellfire was designed for the AH-64D Apache helicopter, there is no obvious reason it couldn’t be fired from an armored vehicle. Indeed, at least one nation is apparently developing a similar system. According to the August/December 1993 issue of  ASIAN MILITARY REVIEW, India has developed the NAG, a fire-and-forget antitank missile with a range of six kilometers. It was planned that the NAG would be the armament for a tracked combat vehicle. With ground surveillance radar (GSR) incorporated into its fire control system, such a combat vehicle could engage targets through fog and smoke screens that block thermal sights. U.S. tank crewmen have never had to face a weapon system with such capabilities.

In the United States, the self-guided Javelin missile system began being issued to the troops in mid-1996. Although it was designed as a manportable, antiarmor missile for infantry use, there is a growing awareness that Javelin has enormous potential as a vehiclemounted weapon. For example, the U.S. Marine Corps is investigating how Javelin can be incorporated into the new advanced amphibious assault vehicle (AAAV). Another idea would have single or multiple Javelin launchers installed on the M113A3 armored personnel carrier, thereby vastly increasing the combat capability of the venerable APC.

Because Javelin’s 2000-meter maximum range is less than optimal for vehicle employment, the follow-on to TOW (FOTT) program is underway. FOTT will also use fire-and-forget technologies, but it will probably have a maximum range of 4000-5000 meters.


The Army’s modernization plan, as made public in September 1996, calls for continued upgrades to the Abrams fleet, while conducting research on a future combat system (FCS). The FCS is expected to enter production around 2015, replacing the M1-series tanks. Since the next generation armored fighting vehicle is no longer referred to as an MBT, can it be inferred that the future combat system need not be a tank as we know it today?

If self-guided missiles are chosen for the primary armament of the FCS, a number of advantages present themselves. For one, it ought to be possible to eliminate the turret assembly; this would greatly simplify construction, with a corresponding decrease in production cost and vehicle weight. As currently configured, an MBT needs a turret to enable 360-degree target engagement without changing hull direction. At a traverse rate of, say, 40 degrees per second, it would take over four seconds to reverse the direction of the gun tube. For the FCS, if vertical launch is feasible, “traverse” could be done electronically and instantaneously, without any actual movement of the launch tubes; for horizontal launch, some form of physical traverse mechanism might be necessary, though.

The Abrams’ maximum rate of fire is about six rounds per minute; if a single M1A2 were to engage a half dozen enemy tanks, the Abrams would be subject to return fire for nearly a full minute, since each opponent would have to be dealt with sequentially. On the other hand, a properly-designed, missilearmed FCS could lock onto all six enemy vehicles simultaneously and salvo fire one missile at each target in perhaps less time than the M1A2 crew would take to achieve its first kill. This would give an FCS-equipped force a great advantage when fighting outnumbered.

Ideally, the FCS would use a multipurpose missile that can be employed not only against armored vehicles, but the entire array of ground and aerial targets encountered on the battlefield. As on modern naval vessels, it would probably be wise to include a small- or medium-caliber gun for close range and low priority targets, but this would depend on the capabilities of the missile system.

Back to the Future

No doubt most MBT proponents will object to the idea that a missile-armed future combat system can make obsolete the gun-armed main battle tank. Perhaps they would find it worthwhile to ponder the words of Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight in his introduction to the 1917 book, The United States Navy— From the Revolution to Date:

“And through all its changes the backbone of the fleet has continued to be the fighting ship of large and steadily increasing size, with powers of offense and defense evenly balanced upon the whole — recognizing the menace of secondary enemies and guarding against them as best it may, but seeing its real opponent in the battleships and dreadnoughts of the enemy. The dreadnought of today has succeeded, through gradual, not revolutionary, development, to the line-of-battle ship of two centuries ago. It may be

that this type is soon to become obsolete, but the evidence that this is so appeals far more strongly to the popular imagination than to the seasoned judgment of students of naval warfare.”
Substitute “battle tank” and “land warfare” for the terms “battleship” and “naval warfare,” and the paragraph would read almost as if it were printed in a current issue of ARMOR. Admiral Knight’s words should stand as a note of caution to those who think the MBT is here to stay. Just as the self-guided missile has displaced the gun in naval warfare, so is it sure to do in ground combat. The question is, will the Armor community follow Javelin and Longbow Hellfire on the path to the future, or will it stay on the same dead end street that doomed the battleship to oblivion?

Disturbing parallels to land warfare?

Lethality, range, and accuracy of the Harpoon antiship missile has enabled modern cruisers and destroyers to become the Navy’s primary surface combatants, a role that used to belong to the heavily-armored, direct-fire, big-gun battleships. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

As in naval warfare, aerial combat is now dominated by guided missiles; guns have been relegated to the status of backup weapons. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Hellfire, seen here being fired from an M113, can hit targets as far away as 8000 meters—almost three times as far as the Abrams! If adapted to the Longbow Hellfire system, ground forces would have a heretofore unknown combat capability. (Photo: Rockwell International)

The shape of things to come? A missile-armed Future Combat System might resemble the Bradley-LOSAT (Line Of Site Anti-Tank) prototype shown here. A very low silhouette is made possible by a turretless configuration. (Photo: Loral Vought Systems)


*Stanley Crist is a former tank commander, having served with the 3d Battalion, 185th Armor.


Experience of Battle - Six Day War, 1967

The 1967 Six Day War saw the Israelis mount of massive pre-emptive strike against their Arabs neighbors. Spearheading the offensive was the Israeli Armored Corps of 1000 Centurion, M-48 and up-gunned Sherman tanks. In a series of audacious armored thrusts, the Israelis carved into the 1500 Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian tanks arrayed around their borders.

The first Israeli strike was aimed at Egyptian forces in the Gaza strip and Sinai desert. This attack by Lieutenant Colonel Natke Nir’s Centurion battalion on the Sinai front provides something of the flavor of the battle. The unit was part of Major General Ariel Sharon’s division which was charged with seizing the key Abu Ageila crossroads and neutralizing Egyptian reserves. An official Israeli Defense Force history of the war details the battle:

“Nir never hesitated at the dreadful odds he faced. Positioning his reconnaissance troop in the lead, he headed his Centurions across the international border into the barren desert. They soon encountered an Egyptian patrol, which fired sporadically – and inaccurately – on the Israeli column before fleeing northwards. Nir’s tanks rolled on towards the blocking position. This locality, defended by a two company force, was flanked by impassable sand dunes, and its forward approaches were protected by a dense minefield.
 “Splitting his battalion into three companies, the commanding officer ordered one group of tanks into the minefield from the right and another from the left, leaving the third to support the attack, as the battalion’s support vehicles had not reached yet the area. However the combination of mines and increasingly dense artillery fire rapidly immobilized many of the Centurions, as well as preventing any attempt at repair work. Nir pulled the remaining mobile tanks out of the minefield and reconnoitered with his late arriving support vehicles behind the sand dunes, all the while planning a new ‘set –piece’ approach. Using a helicopter, he had a look from above and found a way around the enemy position.

“Nir now moved one company in a wide outflanking drive, bringing them around to the rear; a second company would do its best to engage the position from the right, while the rest of the battalion with air support would mount a frontal attack. Place his 2-in-C in charge of the outflanking company, Nir directed the main attack himself. The air support, arriving right on schedule, rained napalm and rocket fire on the main Egyptian defensive position. Next, the tanks charged in, firing guns and coaxials. Finally, Nir’s armored infantry swept into the frontal defense. The tanks swiftly pushed through the blocking position, wiping out the nearby tank encampment before it had a chance to fire, and leaving the infantry to mop up while Nir reorganized his Centurions for an immediate move onwards, into the Abu Ageila fortifications themselves.
“Near the main road, the tanks encountered heavy fire from well-emplaced Egyptian armor. Ordering counter fire, Nir soon overwhelmed Egyptian tanks and pressed his forces on in what was now near total darkness. Once more Nir split his troops into three: one task force would block the El Arish axis, while a second held of the eventual approach of the Egyptian 4th Armored Division along the Suez road. Nir himself commanded the main mission, smashing the stronghold of Abu Ageila.

“As Nir’s task force rolled towards the intersection it encountered a column of Egyptian forces. Firing point-black, the Centurions turned the enemy column into a pyrotechnic display of exploding trucks and armor personnel carriers (APCs). The battalion commander led his group through an Egyptian encampment, firing at anything that moved and creating havoc in their wake. Finally, the Centurions plowed through confused enemy forces to reach the Abu Ageila position itself. In a fierce battle which ensued, Nir was seriously wounded in both legs by an Egyptian shell. Nevertheless, refusing evacuation, he retained command until reinforcements arrived to assist his heavy engaged force”.

Source: Anon, Israel’s Armor in Action, pp 53-55.


China vs Taiwan - 1967

After Action Report Battle Group Modern Rules

Description battle Sino-Taiwanese conflict of 1967

The battlefield in Taiwan 
The scenario was an encounter and after the initiative roll the Chinese opted to play first and the Taiwanese would have the choice of the side they entered.


China Paras
1x BHQ
2x Para companies
Lots of transport planes for them (Il-14)

1x BHQ
1x Recce Company
1x Mech infantry company
1x Mobile AA platoon
1x Art Battery

After the OBJ were placed on the map the general started to issue orders to their troops.
The Chinese would para drop the 2 companies far apart (on the 2 OBJ) having the BHQ as a link (after all a Chinese para company is quite Large) and after taking the 2 OBJ the paras would take defensive positions.
The Taiwanese would take the one OBJ close to their table edge and then they would advance in force to take one of the other OBJ.
The Taiwanese Recce Company
The game started with the Taiwanese Recce company entering first (in all encounter battles the recce forces come in first) and moving at flat out speed for the OBJ.
Elements of the 1st Chinese Para Company

In the next turn the first company of Paras started dropping all the paras landed apart from some Hv Weapons (82mm RCL) that were on one II-14 that was hit by Taiwanese AA and crashed before entering the table. The paras were quick to take the OBJ
The second companies of paras landed without a problem like they were on drills (no losses at all).
The Taiwanese Recce Company at Dongshan

As both Chinese paras had landed and gotten ready the Taiwanese were at Dongshan village. Their mission was to make a reconnaissance of the village of Dong about 1-1,5 km from Dongshan. The recce company was followed by the Mech infantry about 2 km behind them. The Mech infantry was ordered to hold Dongshan as the recce company would move forward.
The positions of the 2nd Chinese Para Company near to Dong village
As the Chinese had set up defensive position along the road to Dong and in the second OBJ the Taiwanese were still trying to get information as to where the Chinese had landed.
As the Taiwanese recce company exited Dongshan the Chinese foot started to spot the vehicles of the Taiwanese (M3 halftracks and tanks). The Chinese ordered the small mortars the 2 companies had to open fire on the Taiwanese (60mm Mortars). 
The Taiwanese Recce moving towards to the 2nd Paras Company

The Taiwanese were moving of road (thus slowly), the Mech infantry was dismounting in Dongshan.
The Taiwanese under heavy fire
The Chinese having spotted the rece company plotted the mortar fire with accuracy. The Taiwanese were completely surprised, 2 Tanks burst into flames (needed a 20 on a D20 for that) the infantry in the open top M3 started jumping from the APCs and the company commander ordered a retreat to Dongshan. The commander of the Mech infantry in Dongshan seeing the rece company in full retreat orderd his mortars to fire a small smoke screen to cover the retreat.
Traffic jam into the Dongshan 
As the 2 Taiwanese companies started to amass in the village of Dongshan panic started spreading amongst the men. It had taken the Chinese only a few mortar shells and the Taiwanese were in panic. The Taiwanese BHQ finally arrived in Dongshan and after assessing the situation the BHQ ordered a full retreat from Dongshan.
A Taiwanese Company retreating

In this battle we witnessed for the first time the breakdown in communications in an army. The Taiwanese had issued their orders but in no part of the battle did they change their original plan. The recce company after losing only 2 tanks (5 tanks and few M3 with troops) was forced to retreat (commander got scared he would lose them all).
The Chinese Paras even though the recce got to about 500m of them did not open fire thus did not reveal their position until the mortars opened up.