Abrams tank set for 'lethality' upgrade

(Washington, D.C.) Should a mechanized column of heavily armored Russian vehicles launch an aggressive, forward-leaning assault into Eastern Europe 10 years from now, complete with air and artillery support - - just what kinds of specific armored vehicles would best position a U.S./NATO response?

Such a scenario, however likely, incorporates some of the complexities now informing current Army thinking. How much can current platforms, such as the 1980s-era Abrams tank, be upgraded and maintained such that they can provide the requisite force, protection and firepower to meet such a contingency? -- Both now and 15 years from now? To what extent would the Army’s emerging fleet of Next-Generation Combat Vehicles be better equipped to respond?

The Army’s most pressing priority, senior leaders explain, is to be ready for war “now” -- “today” -- and in the immediate future.

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“One of our biggest challenges is to continue to upgrade our current platforms for anything we may go to war with today at the same time making sure we put the proper investments into our future abilities - so we are ready for the fight after next,” Maj. Gen. Brian Cummings, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, told Warrior Maven in an interview a few months ago.

The thinking is characterized by two intertwined, yet distinct trajectories; future planning is dominated by a need for lighter-weight, expeditionary armored vehicles protected by long-range sensors, advanced fires and Active Protection Systems; the Army has already integrated an APS system called Trophy onto its Abrams vehicles. In this mix of technologies, survivability rests upon the prospect of lightweight armor composites, APS, long-range fires, sensors and air defenses.

While promising, relevant and fundamental to modernization, these priorities do not seem to displace a corresponding need for heavy armor. In short, both are essential to the future, which means the Abrams tank -- is most-likely going nowhere soon. The Army’s behavior seems to reflect this dual-pronged approach, as the service is deeply invested in both future vehicles and substantial upgrades to the Abrams.

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When it comes to potential future warfare scenarios, it’s clear that lighter-weight, expeditionary firepower such as the Army’ Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle are entirely necessary to support advancing infantry. However, there may be state-on-state combat contingencies far too dangerous for maneuvering infantry to lead an assault. In this case, heavily protected armored vehicles, equipped with precision long-range fires and advanced sensors, might prove indispensable to the fight.

To put it succinctly, today’s Abrams is nothing like it was decades ago. In fact, one could safely say its sensors, firepower and current protection make it almost an entirely new vehicle is some respects. Along these lines, the Army is working on a new SEP v4 variant, slated to begin testing in 2021, specifically engineered as a “lethality” upgrade.

The new tank will include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated onboard networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links, laser warning receivers and a far more lethal, multi-purpose 120mm tank round, senior Army weapons developers have explained.

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The US Army’s Multi-Purpose 120mm tank round, to arm the v4, is now being engineered to integrate several different kinds of ammunition into a single, tailorable round -- to include High Explosive Anti -Tank rounds, Multi-Purpose Anti-Tank rounds and anti-personnel canister rounds, among others.

The SEPv4 upgrade is, among other things, centered around the integration of a higher-tech 3rd generation FLIR – Forward Looking Infrared imaging sensor.

The advanced FLIR uses higher resolution and digital imaging along with an increased ability to detect enemy signatures at farther ranges through various obscurants such as rain, dust or fog, Army developers explain. Improved FLIR technologies help tank crews better recognize light and heat signatures emerging from targets such as enemy sensors, electronic signals or enemy vehicles.

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Thermal targeting sights, as demonstrated during the now famous Gulf War tank battles including Abrams tanks against Russian-built T-72, can create range mismatches enabling tanks to destroy enemy tanks without themselves being seen.

Regarding a need for heavy armor, there is of course also the importance of countering the Russian T-14 Armata -- a new platform armed with now-in-development 3UBK21 Sprinter Missiles and long-range 9M119 Reflecks armor-piercing rounds, according to details provided in a 2018 report from Popular Mechanics’ Kyle Mizokami.

Furthermore, not only will the Abrams v4 improve range and lethality of the tanks main gun, but it will also bring long-range laser detection and rear-view sensors. Newly configured meteorological sensors will better enable Abrams tanks to anticipate and adapt to changing weather or combat conditions more quickly, Army officials explain.

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The emerging M1A2 SEP v4 will also be configured with a new slip-ring leading to the turret and onboard ethernet switch to reduce the number of needed “boxes” by networking sensors to one another in a single vehicle.

The Army is also engineering new AI-enabled Hostile Fire Detection sensors for its fleet Abrams tanks to identify, track and target incoming enemy small arms fire. This might enable forward maneuvering infantry and Armored Brigade Combat Teams to benefit from both heavy armored protection and ISR-like enemy- locating sensors. Such sensors, now being prototyped and experimented with, can include thermal sensors able to locate the "heat signature" coming from enemy small arms fire, acoustic sensors tracking the sound or even some kind of focal plane array, service engineers explain.

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Potential integration between HFD and Active Protection Systems is also part of the calculus, according to senior weapons developers. APS technology, now on Army Abrams tanks, uses sensors, fire control technology and interceptors to ID and knock out incoming RPGs and ATGMs, among other things. While APS, in concept and application, involves threats larger or more substantial than things like small arms fire, there is great combat utility in synching APS to HFD.

The advantages of this kind of interoperability are multi-faceted. Given that RPGs and ATGMs are often fired from the same location as enemy small arms fire, an ability to track one, the other, or both in real time greatly improves targeting possibilities. This kind of initiative is entirely consistent with ongoing Army efforts to work toward more capable, multi-function sensors. The idea is to have a merged or integrated smaller hardware footprint, coupled with advanced sensing technology, able to perform a wide range of tasks historically performed by multiple separate onboard systems.

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The overall current picture could well be summarized in one sentence - spoken by a senior Army combat vehicles developer last Fall:

"I have no requirements for a replacement tank."

-- Kris Osborn is a Senior Fellow at The Lexington Institute

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