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The US Army needs tanks to win a war in the Pacific, but it knows the Abrams isn't the right tank for the job

Michael Peck   

The US Army needs tanks to win a war in the Pacific, but it knows the Abrams isn't the right tank for the job
  • The US Army knows it needs tanks for effective combined-arms operations in Europe and Asia.
  • But it also knows rivals are building weapons that are potent against the aging Abrams tank.

Can one tank still be good enough to fight on two different battlefields? That's the dilemma the US Army faces as it grapples with designing a next-generation tank that can fight in both Europe and the Pacific.

Rivals in both theaters — chiefly Russia and China — have studied US armored vehicles and the way they're used and are fielding weapons to counter them. The Army's main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, now faces two main problems.

One is that it's an aging Cold War design. "The M1 Abrams will not dominate the 2040 battlefield," the Army Science Board, a scientific advisory body, said in a recent report on next-generation armored vehicles. "All of the M1's advantages in mobility, firepower and protection are at risk."

The other is that the 70-ton Abrams is designed to fight on the plains of Europe, not the jungles and remote islands of the Pacific. "Logistics and support, difficult in both theaters, are exacerbated by the Indo-Pacific's longer distances and less developed infrastructure, including ports and airfields," the report said.

The M1 was originally designed in the mid-1970s and is due for replacement as the US military adapts to an era in which weapons such as drones and smart artillery shells pose new threats to armored vehicles. But even as rivals upgrade their tanks and anti-tank weapons, it may be an immense challenge for US planners to agree on what a tank fit for global operations looks like.

Restricted terrain

Tanks have always been Western-centric. They were invented by Britain, were the leading edge of the Nazi blitzkrieg, and were manufactured in enormous quantities by Russia and America. Israel's Western-style army uses tanks proficiently, while armor is still one of the key weapons in the Russia-Ukraine War.

But in the Pacific wars of the 20th century, both on islands and in continental East Asia, tanks often played a secondary role in what were mostly infantry battles fought on rough, roadless terrain or on beaches and surf zones.

Japan did use a small number of armored vehicles against poorly armed Chinese troops in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945. British troops in 1942 were shocked when Japanese armor advanced through the "impenetrable" jungle on the Malay Peninsula. During the island-hopping campaign of 1942-1945, US Army tanks provided valuable fire support against entrenched Japanese defenders (and performed a similar role in the Korean and Vietnam wars.)

Today's US Army is fully aware of the value of tanks as part of a combined-arms team, even in a theater unfriendly to armor.

"Tank and armor capabilities in the Pacific is absolutely necessary for conducting operations in restricted terrain," Gen. Charles Flynn, the commander of US Army Pacific, told reporters in September. "And there is plenty of restricted terrain out here."

This doesn't mean "vehicles must be tailored for individual theaters," the Army Science Board said. But if the Army is serious about preparing for Pacific conflict, fifth-generation combat vehicles — the replacements for the Abrams as well as the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle — will have to be light enough to be easily transported and supplied by sea and air.

That description hardly applies to the Army's current armor force, which was designed to fight masses of Soviet tanks as they charged through the Fulda Gap between East and West Germany.

Even the best tank is useless if it can't reach the battlefield. The Army Science Board cited a Center for Army Analysis war game that "demonstrated armor's value in Taiwan's defense, but struggles with deployment and sustainment precluded US armor's arrival in sufficient numbers before China achieved a fait accompli."

End of the Abrams era

Regardless of America's pivot to the Pacific, the Abrams's days were numbered.

The Army Science Board found that the M1 was vulnerable to drones as well as top-attack anti-tank missiles, and its armor might be penetrated by the 125-mm guns on Russia's T-90 and China's Type 99 tanks. The report said that too many Abrams were sidelined by maintenance issues, but even if enough were available, "the M1 at 70 tons or greater is not tactically, operationally, or strategically mobile."

Retrofitting tanks with new technologies, such as robotics and automation, would be as useless as expecting that "new technology will maximally improve a 1980s commercial vehicle," the report argued. Bolting new tech onto an aging tank would also do little to counter advances in anti-tank guided missiles, such as China's Red Arrow 12.

Yet neither do Army experts believe that autonomous robot tanks will be a viable alternative by 2040. That means America's next-generation tank is set to be a manned vehicle that is lighter than the Abrams but with better protection against advanced threats.

The Army Science Board assessed various alternatives. A 60-ton tank with a 130-mm gun and a three-person crew? Not mobile enough. A 40-ton light tank with a heavy cannon? Not enough protection. The study did seem intrigued by a "robotic wingman" concept of a 30-ton vehicle armed with a hypervelocity missile that would accompany manned tanks.

The Army has spent two decades searching for next-generation armor, dating back to the Future Combat System debacle of the early 2000s. Current projects include the XM30 — a replacement for the Bradley that weighs in at 50-plus tons — and the 40-ton M10 Booker, which may or may not be deemed a light tank. Whether these vehicles will meet the requirements of both the Pacific and Europe remains to be seen.

Significantly, the report said the analytical capabilities, such as modeling and simulation, that guided the design process for the M1 were now "not in evidence" for the development of a next-generation tank.

Studies done during the M1's development "relied heavily on analysis to substantiate their findings and recommendations," the report said. "Little or no such capability exists today."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on X/Twitter and LinkedIn.

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