Key point: Laser weapons to defend against missiles and drones are the future of warfare. So it is no surprise that the Pentagon wants to explore arming tanks with them.
The U.S. Army is on an intensive quest for an array of new technologies with which to design and build new armored fighting vehicles, particularly a replacement for the long-serving Bradley. However much it might yearn for a new tank, the Army lacks the critical technologies that would justify the time and expense pursuing such an objective. Moreover, it doesn’t need to make the effort. The Army’s current main battle tank, the Abrams, is the tank of the future.
(This first appeared in June 2019.)
The Army is just beginning to receive the first of the latest Abrams upgrade, the System Enhancement Package Version 3 (SEPv3), with additional upgrades in development. Instead of searching for the elusive Holy Grail of ultralight armor or laser weapons, technologies that would justify building a brand new tank, the Army would be best served by aggressively pursuing a major redesign and improvement program for the Abrams, an M1A3.
The leadership of the U.S. Army is taken with the idea of transforming how and with what the Army fights. They particularly want new armored fighting vehicles. And not just another family of metal boxes with a turret and cannon. Technology enthusiasts, including many in the Army’s new Futures Command, wax eloquently about the potential for hover tanks that shoot laser beams and are autonomously guided by artificial intelligence housed in quantum computers.
Brigadier Gen. Ross Coffman, the leader of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team (CFT) responsible for the Bradley replacement and a future tank, is determined to think outside the box regarding what a future tank might look like and the capabilities it might incorporate. According to General Coffman, it might not be a tank. The CFT has been thinking about “everything from a ray gun to a Star Wars-like four-legged creature that shoots lasers. But the reality is that everything is on the table. We have to get away from these paradigms that we created that decisive lethality must come from a tank.”
The major problem with this vision is that some in the Army wants to make a decision about a new tank in 2023. Fortunately, cooler heads, including that on the shoulders of the Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, understand that it makes no sense to pursue a clean sheet design for a new main battle tank until the requisite technologies are available. In particular, this means discovering a new material from which to fashion vehicle armor. As General Milley recently noted, “The real sort of holy grail of technologies that I’m trying to find on this thing is material, is the armor itself…. If we can discover a material that is significantly lighter in weight that gives you the same armor protection, that would be a real significant breakthrough. There’s a lot of research and development going into it.”
Indeed, there has been progress in the field of materials that equal or exceed the ballistic protection of advanced steel but weigh less. There is promise in sophisticated ceramics, but the costs are still too high. University researchers have developed a composite metal foam that is less than half the weight of the amount of rolled homogeneous steel armor needed to achieve an equal level of protection. Unfortunately, the foam is only suitable for stopping small arms.
For the next few decades at least, the solution to the Army’s problem of ensuring decisive lethality in its main battle tank is to continue the process of upgrading what is still the best tank in the world, the Abrams. Since it was first fielded in 1980, the Abrams tank has undergone near-continuous upgrades and improvements. On average, there has been a new improvement package every seven years. Today, there is almost nothing in the most advanced Abrams’ variants that was part of the original vehicle. The current upgrade, the M1A2 SEPv3, will improve the vehicle’s lethality, survivability, responsiveness, power generation, sustainability, and maintainability.
The Army should begin a program to develop a new version of the Abrams, the A3. This program should have two goals. First and foremost, reduce the weight of the Abrams tanks. With all the new capabilities that have been added, the tank now weighs just shy of 80 tons. The most straightforward way of making the Abrams lighter is to develop an auto-loader turret. This would reduce the crew size by one and free up space, allowing the turret to be made lighter while still leaving room for an advanced weapon system or other capabilities. The Army should initiate auto-loader turret R&D funding in Fiscal Year 2021 as the pacing development for an M1A3 upgrade.
Second, make the Abrams as much a sensor platform as a shooter. The Abrams A3 version should be the platform for advanced sensors and electronic systems. The Army was already planning to introduce a third-generation forward-looking infrared sensor on a future SEP upgrade. To this could be added an advanced active protection system based on a fully formulated requirement. The Abrams already possesses or will soon receive additional sensors that, when fully integrated, will allow the crew to have a sophisticated tactical operating picture. The Army should look at ways of inserting autonomy into the A3 variant to reduce crew workload and improve performance.
As the poet Robert Browning once said, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. This saying should apply, in general, to the development of a future tank. But there needs to be common sense in the modernization process. Until a revolution in materials is realized, the Army needs to exploit the potential resident in the Abrams.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.
(This article originally appeared earlier in 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.)