Three Armies Still Upgrading Their Cold War-Vintage M-60 Tanks
Taiwan, Turkey and Thailand have different approaches to modernizing these vehicles
The M-60 “Patton” tank is one of the most iconic tanks of the Cold War. While it did not see use in the Vietnam War, it saw extensive use by Israel and Iran in the various hot wars of the 20th century, and comprised the vast bulk of the U.S. Army’s tank fleet facing down the Warsaw Pact throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was also used by U.S. Marines in Grenada and Operation Desert Storm.
While it was phased out of American service in the 2000s — and most other tank fleets by the 2010s — the M-60 continues to serve on in some countries, and are receiving advanced upgrade packages in an attempt to make them adequate for today’s battlefield.
Most of these packages are based on the M-60A3, the latest variant to see widespread service introduced in the 1980s. Some of the upgrade packages are based on the far older M-60A1 variant.
Above and at top — Taiwanese M-60A3s. Photos via Wikimedia
Taiwan’s M-60 upgrade is probably the most ambitious.
After failing to acquire M-1 Abrams tanks from the United States, Taiwan is now attempting to upgrade its fleet of 400 M-60A3 tanks, which are in use by the Taiwanese army and marines. In 2017, two M-60A3s were transferred to Taiwanese R&D institutes for evaluation. These evaluations of possible upgrades are expected to finish in 2019, with the upgrade being implemented in 2020.
The upgrade package is said to include new a fire control system, turret drive, sighting systems, NBC — nuclear, biological and chemical defenses — and environmental control systems, and an automatic loading system.
It’s not clear if the package includes a true autoloader or is a semi-automatic loading system with an assisted rammer.
The 105-millimeter M68 rifled gun is supposed to be replaced with a new 120-millimeter smoothbore, which would enable the tank to fire modern Western ammunition. Taiwan is also considering added APS, or Active Protection Systems, a wise decision considering the outdated nature of the M-60A3’s simple steel armor hulls. All upgrade components are to be taken from the commercial domestic market with the exception of the 120-millimeter gun.
Despite this, Raytheon is in talks with Taiwan for technology transfer of the M-60 upgrade or to provide some components for it. Taiwanese sources have stated that this M-60A3 upgrade package will be superior to the M-1A1 in some aspects.
This could be true, given that the upgrade package lists an improved commander sight as an option — the M-1A1 lacks an independent, stabilized, thermal commander sight, a feature only added in the M-1A2. Such sights are now common and probably included in the Taiwanese M-60A3 upgrade.
A Turkish M-60T in Israel. Natan Flayer photo via Wikimedia
The Turkish M-60T, which is based on the Israeli Sabra upgrade, is the most numerous of the three in actual service.
The Sabra started out as a further update to surpass the Magach 7 upgrade for Israeli M-60s by Israel Military Industries. The Israel Defense Forces were divesting from its M-60s fleet in the 2000s to focus solely on the Merkava line and did not end up adopting the Sabra. As these M-60s were not the M-60A3 — which includes stabilization — but rather the ancient M-60A1, the Sabra modernization was quite extensive.
In 2006 the Sabra Mk. II package was selected, with some changes, to be the basis of Turkey’s modernized M-60A1s.
Like the proposed Taiwanese modification, the Sabra is based around a 120-millimeter gun — which is a variant of the cannons fitted to Israeli Merkavas and is compatible with all NATO 120-millimeter ammunition.
The turret comes with a night thermal sight, day optical and T.V. sight, additional armor, two-axis stabilization, electrical drive and a laser rangefinder to replace the coincidence — whiz-wheel — rangefinder on the M-60A1. However, the M-60T is not equipped with an independent thermal commander sight, which limits its ability to maintain situational awareness and acquire follow-up targets during an engagement.
In the chassis, the American AVDS engine is replaced with a 1,000-horsepower German MTU881 diesel engine, along with an upgraded suspension and transmission.
The M-60T saw significant action as part of Turkey’s involvement in Syria. Additional upgrades are a result of combat experience. Turkey is acquiring additional ERA packages for the turret to counter more modern anti-tank guided missiles. An enhanced stabilization system is being procured to help the tank shoot on the move — Turkish sources say M-60Ts could not hit targets at range while on the move — and a commander independent stabilized sight is being procured.
These modernizations are being undertaken under the name “M-60T Firat.”
Some of the more obscure M-60 upgrade packages are those for the Royal Thai Army’s M-60A3s.
Notably, these feature applique side armor made out of a biodegradable, lightweight, eco-friendly material — wood. Upgraded Thai M-60A3s also have steel frames on their sides that can be filled with logs.
Presumably, this is to prevent light anti-tank weapons — such as the RPG-7 — from damaging the running gear or tracks. The effectiveness of this armor package is uncertain, as wood armor is not commonly used. Frames have also been seen attached to the turret of Thai M-60A3s.
The upgrade package also includes a new Israeli fire-control system, and a possible Israeli Blazer ERA package. From informational posters displayed during Thailand’s National Children’s Day in 2018, the FCS appears to offer analogous capability to the Sabra upgrade, featuring a laser rangefinder, T.V. day camera, thermals, stabilization and electric turret drive.
The Thai, Turkish and Taiwanese upgrade packages represent three different approaches to modernizing the M-60.
Taiwan is seeking to modernize the M-60 as a frontline main battle tank. Turkey is seeking a middle ground, keeping it useful as a second-rate jack-of-all-trades tank as Ankara develops the Altay MBT. Thailand is modernizing its M-60s primarily for use in counterinsurgency-type operations, while their VT-4s and Oplot-Ts are are for tank-versus-tank combat.
The steel armor of the M-60 remains a liability, but armed with a 120-millimeter cannon, the tank could pose a significant threat to other tanks with modern APFSDS — or armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot — rounds.
This article originally appeared at The National Interest.