Ukraine has received its first batch of US-provided M1A1 Abrams tanks.
Although an older model, the Abrams has a proven ability to pulverize Soviet-built tanks.
Two former US Army officers told Insider the tank boasted strong weaponry but had its challenges.
The American-made M1 Abrams tank is at last in Ukraine, and while it has its limitations, it's more than just another piece of Western weaponry. It's heavy-duty, combat-proven armor that was built with a very specific mission in mind: killing Russian tanks.
It could be the top tank Ukraine has received so far in the war, two former US Army officers with direct experience on the Abrams said, and it boasts a demonstrated track record for defeating Soviet-made armor while protecting its crew of four.
"It can do other things, but it's built to kill tanks," Robert Greenway, a Hudson Institute expert who was assigned to the Abrams for a time in the Army, told Insider.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday the tanks had arrived — in time to aid Kyiv's counteroffensive, which is entering its fourth month and seeing promising progress against Russian defenses in the south.
US officials told The New York Times the delivery was two platoons worth of Abrams and that the remainder of the 31 tanks promised by the Biden administration earlier this year would be provided in the coming months. But even this initial delivery could begin to make a difference, though it remains to be seen if the kind of fighting in Ukraine will allow the Abrams to do what it does best.
The M1A1 Abrams saw heavy use in the Gulf War in the early 1990s and proved to be a formidable asset capable of defeating Iraq's Soviet-era tanks — T-72s similar in certain respects to those the Russian army uses three decades later. The US Army has the M1A2 now, but that doesn't mean the M1A1 can't get the job done.
"It's an infinitely superior system," said Greenway, who, after a few years in armor, became a Special Forces officer. "The A1 may be old in the sense that it's been in our inventory for quite some time, but it's far superior to anything that the Russians have."
Ukraine has been anticipating the arrival of this US main battle tank for some time. President Joe Biden first offered in January to send the Abrams, saying Kyiv needed "to be able to counter Russia's evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term."
In March, the White House disclosed the US was expediting the delivery by sending M1A1s instead of the newer A2s. The latter would've taken "over a year or so" to get to Ukraine, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said at the time.
The promise to deliver American-made Abrams tanks to Ukraine followed plans from the UK, Germany, and other European partners to provide Ukraine with Challenger and Leopard tanks.
'Not in the same league'
Gian Gentile, the associate director of RAND's Arroyo Center, said there were "mostly minimal" but not insignificant differences between the Abrams and the Leopards and Challengers, but the capability gap between the Abrams and Russian tanks was considered substantial.
"Even the Russian T90M is inferior to any of these three Western tanks," said Gentile, who is also a retired US Army officer with years of experience on the Abrams. "The Russian tanks are lighter and therefore more vulnerable, and their optics and fire control systems are not in the same league of an Abrams, or Leo or Challenger for that matter."
The M1 Abrams is a marquee weapon that was designed to give the US the edge over the Soviet Union in land warfare.
A 1974 military evaluation of the XM1 program that eventually gave birth to the M1 Abrams said that "military planners both western and Soviet still consider the tank the key weapon in ground combat."
"Therefore," it continued, "no matter what the cost, the U.S. must be able to field a tank capable of dominating and defeating the enormous threat inherent in the armor of our potential adversaries."
The tank's powerful gas-turbine engine, which is sometimes compared to a jet engine, can get the 60-ton M1A1 up to 45 miles an hour. Its main gun fires accurately on the move. Its heavy armor gives it protection against antitank weapons and tank rounds. And there's an emphasis on crew survivability.
Ammunition, for instance, is stored behind the turret and separated from the crew by blast doors in protected ammo racks. Soviet-designed tanks, on the other hand, store exposed ammunition in the turret, leading to a vulnerability known as the "jack-in-the-box" effect: A direct hit can set off the ammunition inside, killing the crew and catapulting the massive gun turret.
The American-made tanks are also much more heavily armored than Russian tanks. During the Gulf War, US Army assessments noted multiple examples of enemy fire bouncing off the tanks, which were able to take multiple hits while still dealing damage.
The armor, often bolstered by explosive reactive armor, comes at a price. The Abrams is exceptionally heavy compared with a Russian tank that weighs about 48 tons. "But all that weight does give a good deal of protection for the crew," Gentile said.
In the Gulf War, the M1A1 Abrams — which, again, was designed during the Cold War with Soviet armor in mind — quickly earned a reputation for both its defensive and offensive presence on the battlefield, and crews praised the reliability, giving positive reviews of the 120 mm L/44 M256 smoothbore main gun and fire-control system.
"The Abrams was built, A1 and A2 alike, knowing we had to kill many more Russian tanks. We were never going to produce as many tanks as the Russians. We were just going to produce one that was able to take out multiple Russian tanks and survive the process," Greenway said.
Testimonies from the Gulf War disclosed that by the end of that conflict, only nine M1A1s were lost — none the result of enemy action. Two were intentionally sabotaged to prevent enemy capture, and the other seven were damaged by friendly fire, a problem that arose because the tanks could acquire targets at great distances, making it difficult for armor crews adapting to that capability in combat to distinguish between friend and foe.
Used properly, though, that extended reach is as critical as the Abrams' other capabilities. "There is nothing on really any other main battle tank, certainly not Russian main battle tanks, that presents a challenge for the Abrams as it is armed," Greenway said.
Another former Army armor officer previously told Insider that during the Gulf War, the Abrams quickly evaded enemy action while scanning for and attacking targets. And when it did attack, it devastated, with the bulk of the tank's killing power coming from depleted-uranium rounds, which both the US and UK have said they are sending to Ukraine.
Depleted-uranium penetrator rounds are highly effective at piercing enemy armor because the rod sharpens on impact. The metal fragments may also ignite, adding to the potential for a catastrophic kill, especially of a tank with exposed ammunition.
While the Abrams is an unquestionably tough and powerful main battle tank, it's not unstoppable. It's potentially vulnerable to some of the same threats that have knocked out some of Ukraine's new Leopards and Challengers in recent months, such as antitank mines, missiles, artillery, and drones.
'There are limits'
Not all areas of the tank are protected equally, and there's always a possibility that something will get through. Drones equipped with explosives, antitank rocket-propelled grenades, and antitank mines, sometimes stacked on top of one another for greater destructive potential, have been a pervasive and pernicious problem for the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
"It's designed to resist those," Greenway said of these particular threats, "but there are limits, and so, like all armored vehicles, mines can be, if not cleared, problematic. And the Abrams is no exception." But he added of the heavy armor on the Abrams that "as tanks go, it is as good a protection as can be provided."
The biggest challenge for the Ukrainians, though, will probably be the extensive logistics support it needs, particularly maintenance. The Abrams uses a gas-turbine engine, the Honeywell AGT1500, that guzzles much more fuel than a diesel engine and is difficult to maintain.
"The real risk is going to be maintaining operational readiness because it's such a complex system that requires significant logistics strain," Greenway said. "It is a challenge for us. It is definitely going to be a challenge for them."
In order to keep the Abrams running and in the fight, the US and Ukraine will have to maintain regular cooperation to provide additional parts and support for the tanks. Last week, Douglas R. Bush, the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology, said Ukraine was getting "a lot more spare parts" with the tanks.
"I think since we had a little more time for this one, we've built a much more fulsome sustainment structure to hand over to the Ukrainians and been able to do more training on sustaining the vehicle with the Ukrainians. It's a lot of stuff," Bush said, explaining the tank could be maintained by tele-maintenance but that this "is a whole 'nother level of difficulty" compared with US-provided armored vehicles such Bradleys.
But even with all of the potential difficulties, the M1 Abrams offers Ukraine a tremendous boost in capability, providing mobility, firepower, and a certain shock factor.
"The biggest challenge is going to be maintenance more than anything else. It's a very complicated system like all of our sophisticated weapons platforms, and it is maintenance intensive," Greenway said. "But if you take care of it, it is easily going to make a difference on the battlefield."
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