The World’s Best Tank Has the World’s Longest Designation
A taxonomy of armored vehicles, volume four—the tricked-out M-1
Originally published on Aug. 12, 2014.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq is over. The Afghanistan war is winding down. Today America faces “emerging threats in an increasingly sophisticated technological environment,” according to Gen. John Campbell, the Army vice chief of staff.
For the U.S. ground combat branches that means a renewed emphasis on fast-moving armored warfare. The Army and Marines are dusting off heavy vehicles that played a minor role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this series, we spotlight some of the more obscure, weird and lamented armored behemoths. The battle wagons of a new era of warfare. The focus of this volume — the Army’s latest M-1 tank … with all the bells and whistles.
The U.S. military’s practices for naming its weaponry are pretty silly at times. Officials just can’t seem to agree how to describe a drone, for example—or when top-to-bottom upgrades warrant a new name for an old piece of gear.
Hence the surprising obscurity of America’s most advanced tank. The first M-1 Abrams entered service with the Army in 1980. The latest version of the M-1 is nothing like its 34-year-old progenitor—it essentially is a brand-new tank … and arguably the best in the world.
But the Army still calls it an M-1, and just tacks a bunch of extra letters on the end of the designation to specify a wide range of important enhancements to the basic tank. Thus the world’s most fearsome fighting vehicle is an M-1A2SEPv2. Which is confusing and makes it seem like it, too, is three decades old.
As if that weren’t enough, the latest model of the main M-1A2SEPv2 also has additions the Army calls TUSK and CROWS, which themselves both are in their second iterations.
So the planet’s most modern tank is an M-1A2SEPv2 with TUSK 2 and CROWS 2. Oh—and the M-1A2SEPv2/CROWS 2/TUSK 2 might also get brand-new cannon ammunition that will further distance the new vehicle from the original M-1.
Maybe the Army should just come up with a new designation to describe what is, in reality, a new tank.
The 1980-vintage M-1 packed a 105-millimeter gun. The Army bought 3,300 of them from General Dynamics. In 1984 the Army added thicker armor to a batch of new M-1s and called these 900 tanks M-1IPs. The U.S. military no longer uses these early M-1s.
A major upgrade in 1986 added a new 120-millimeter gun. This is the M-1A1. The Army and Marines bought 5,200 copies through 1992. Roughly a thousand M-1A1s still are in service with the Marines and Army National Guard, with another 3,000 in storage in case Godzilla attacks.
There are bewildering number of subvariants of the M-1A1, each boasting incremental improvements in drive-train, armor and electronics. The latest upgrade, the M-1A1SA—which, confusingly, the Army enhanced as part of a program it calls the M-1A1AIMv2—has a factory-fresh engine, digital electronics and a top-secret armor blend that includes a thin layer of uranium.
The M-1A2 appeared in 1992. It’s pretty much a new tank, with better armor than the basic M-1A1 plus a new internal layout and fresh sensors that together allow the gunner and the commander independently to search for targets, making the new vehicle a much more efficient killer.
General Dynamics built from scratch fewer than 80 M-1A2s at the government’s main tank factory in Lima, Ohio. The company also stripped 600 older M-1s and transformed them into M-1A2s.
But the world’s tank race never ends. Russia and China both are fielding new fighting vehicles. To stay ahead, the Army kept improving the M-1A2 and buying extra copies.
Starting in 2001, the M-1A2 System Enhancement Package effort, or M-1A2SEPv1, upgraded all the M-1A2s with still better sensors and armor, faster computers and new color displays.
In 2007, the Army began buying M-1A2SEPv2 models for around $6 million apiece. This latest tank is compatible with the the Army’s battlefield communications network, which lets every vehicle track every other friendly vehicle on a video game-style computerized map.
The new M-1 also has the second generation of the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, a top-mounted machine gun that the crew controls from inside the turret. In a sensible throw-back to World War II, the M-1A2SEPv2 also includes a simple telephone on its rear hull, so that infantry easily can talk to the tank crew during a firefight.
The phone is part of the Tank Urban Survivability Kit, also currently in its second version. The M-1ASEPv2 also has the computer code necessary to fire two new types of cannon ammunition that the Army still is testing—and which could enable the M-1 to destroy the new and tougher tanks Russia and China are building.
Voila—the M-1A2SEPv2 with CROWS 2, TUSK 2 and new ammo. Today the Army has around 580 SEPv1s and another 580 SEPv2s. The Army was willing to suspend additional M-1 upgrades for a few years in order to save money, but Congress insisted on keeping the lights on at the Lima tank plant.
Several years running, legislators have added tens of millions of dollars to Army budgets to produce more new M-1s than the generals say they want. In any event, the Army is planning yet another version of the M-1 for the near future.
Officials haven’t decided whether to call it the M-1A2SEPv3 or the M-1A3.
M-1A3 is shorter. Just sayin’.