The United States has pledged to Ukraine an initial 31 M-1 Abrams tanks, the U.S. Defense Department announced on Wednesday.
The 70-ton tanks with their 120-millimeter guns, sophisticated optics, tough armor mix and high-horsepower turbine engines will be among the most sophisticated tanks on the Ukraine battlefield.
They also will be a huge pain for Ukrainian crews, maintainers and logisticians.
“The M-1 is a complex weapon system that is challenging to maintain, as we’ve talked about,” U.S. Air Force brigadier general Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters. “That was true yesterday; it’s true today; it will be true in the future.”
When General Dynamics and the U.S. Army designed the M-1 back in the 1970s, they made a few critical decisions that, five decades later, will have serious repercussions in Ukraine.
They gave the four-person Abrams a jet turbine engine rather than a diesel engine like almost all other armored vehicles have. The 1,500-horsepower Honeywell AGT1500 turbine can burn practically any fuel—the U.S. Army feeds it JP-8 aviation gas—and lends the M-1 high speed and excellent acceleration. An Abrams can speed along roads at 45 miles per hour or faster.
General Dynamics and the Army also folded depleted uranium—an extremely hard metal—into the M-1’s secret armor mix.
Going even further, the Abrams’ designers packed the tank’s distinctively angular turret with high-end optics and fire-controls, while also ensuring that the turret could spin at least as fast as contemporary tanks: a full 360 degrees in no more than nine seconds.
The result of these and other choices is a speedy, highly-protected tank that fires quickly and accurately. On the downside, the M-1 drinks fuel nearly twice as fast as a diesel-powered tank of similar size. The Abrams also is very difficult to maintain. And the depleted uranium in its armor mix complicates export.
In announcing the M-1 donation, the Pentagon didn’t specify which version of the tank it would send. The $400-million tank package includes 120-millimeter rounds, which indicates M-1A1s or M-1A2s with their smoothbore, 44-caliber main guns.
But the thousands of M-1A1a and A2s in active U.S. service, or in storage at American arsenals, include the uranium armor. The Pentagon as a matter of policy never has exported these tanks. Instead, when it sells M-1s—say, to Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Poland—it first commissions General Dynamics to build special versions of the tanks without the uranium armor component.
Unless the administration of Pres. Joe Biden can convince a foreign Abrams-user to give up some of its existing tanks, General Dynamics will need to prepare a new batch of uranium-free M-1s—and that could take many months, if not a year or more.
The delay could prove useful to the trainers who will school the Ukrainian army’s M-1 crews, as well as to the contractors the Pentagon will tap to establish maintenance facilities for Ukraine’s future Abrams fleet. “Any time that we’ve provided Ukraine with any type of system, we’ve provided the training and sustainment capabilities with that,” Ryder said.
Training is critical. The M-1—its turret and engine, in particular—is intolerant of crew error. “The M-1 requires the most turret training” of any modern Western tank, tweeted Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army general with extensive tank experience.
“Same [is] true for the engine,” Hertling added. “The pack ‘blows’ when drivers aren’t trained.” Yes, the Ukrainian army has experience with temperamental, turbine-powered T-80BV tanks. But the aging, ex-Soviet T-80BV isn’t in the same class as the M-1.
Field-repairs aren’t always possible with a tank as complex as the Abrams. “Some M-1 repairs require part-replacements,” Hertling tweeted. “Other replacements require pulling things.” A front-line battalion probably can’t fix an M-1 with broken optics. Instead, it must yank out entire subsystems and ship them to a depot while also ordering replacement subsystems.
That’s a lot of shipping. The Polish army is acquiring hundreds of M-1A2s, and there’s a good chance the Ukrainian army will send tanks and tank subsystems to Poland for major repairs. But “it’s a 500-mile supply line from Poland to the Donbas” in eastern Ukraine, Hertling pointed out.
All that is to say, the M-1 will give the Ukrainian army a powerful new capability. Eventually. And at great cost.
Everyone involved in the decision to send Abrams to Ukraine understands the complexities. “We … pushed hard on how to synchronize those donations and turn them into fully-operational capabilities,” said Lloyd Austin, the U.S. defense secretary. “And that means every step, from donation, to training, to maintenance and then to sustainment.”
The difficulties inherent in equipping the Ukrainian army with M-1s underscore the importance of a separate effort by European countries to provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks. The Leopard 2 has a diesel engine. Its armor isn’t such a closely-guarded secret. There are a dozen Leopard 2 depots across Europe.
While Ukraine waits for its first battalion of Abrams, it can move quickly to equip several battalions with Leopard 2s. “Leo 2s would mean less of a burden,” Hertling explained.