The enemy was expecting the attack by American armored vehicles for hours. In the distance behind the low hills, they could hear the gas engines of the tanks as they moved to their positions. They had time to prepare a frontal defense, and get their troops into their foxholes and fighting positions with anti-tank guns and guided missiles. The commander of the enemy force checked his watch, it would be dark soon and then the Americans would attack aided by the thermal optic sights that let them see and fight in the dark. He had a countermeasure ready, flares. Dozens of them would be launched as the American tanks approached, he hoped to blind them with light and rob them of this advantage.
Suddenly artillery shells and rockets began to fall around his position, was the attack starting early or was this just an attempt to soften them up before darkness fell? The commander ducked back into his command bunker to avoid the whizzing shrapnel flying everywhere. The look of worry on the faces of his staff was unmistakable. The Americans had very accurate artillery and rockets, but they had taken care to dig this command post into a side of a small hill which made a direct hit on it very difficult.
As he lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it, the radio came to life, the listening post on his left flank reported it was under attack, the only message they were able to get off before contact was lost was, “Many tanks are coming, we couldn’t hear them until they were right on top of us!”
The noise from the barrage was terrible, but how could the now overrun listening post not hear dozens of tanks coming right at them? All that noisy demonstration by the Americans in front of him was a ruse, to conceal the movement of several dozen tanks to his left flank which they were now overrunning. He did not expect an attack by armor on that flank, it had a river on its border and the bridges across would collapse under the weight of the big American tanks, how could they have gotten across it? He stubbed out his cigarette on the wall of his bunker, grabbed his carbine, and stepped outside to get a view of his now crumbling left flank. He could see and hear the impact of 120mm tank rounds and 30mm cannon rounds on his flank’s positions even now.
“How did they get around us without us detecting them?” he thought.
Last week, General Dynamics introduced a technology demonstrator they are calling the Abrams X which represents a generational leap over the most advanced upgrade to the Abrams so far, the M2A1 SEP4.
The Sep4 model is a beast of a tank, that has swollen up some 10 tons in weight over the original M1A model in the late seventies. Yes, the tank has been around that long folks at more than 73 and a half tons. by contrast the most modern Russian tank, the T-90 is 45 tons(with its turret still attached). That extra weight with add-on components puts strain on its engine and transmission, reducing its overland speed while also reducing its range.
The Abrams has proven themselves in combat to be more than a match for any tank currently in existence, with the ability to not only kill at distances of more than 2 miles but with enough armored toughness to roll in and blast you to Mars at close range as well.
The trade-off of course is all that weight means there are many bridges it cannot cross, special planes and landing craft have to be constructed to carry them and they burn lots of fuel with an optimum range of 300 miles at low speeds, much less when rolling at its top speed of 45 mph. The portly Abrams is also too heavy to be transported by trailer safely and exceeds the capacity of the M88 recovery vehicle to pull it out of a ditch if it gets stuck. Finally, the Abrams strains even the ability of mobile bridging equipment to cross rivers. These things all combine to seriously limit the mobility of what a tank like the Abrams is really all about, mobility.
The new Abrams X aims to change all that.
The new version would tip the scales at just 45 tons. putting it well within the limits of traversing bridges and being carried by planes and landing craft. The Abrams X is smaller in nearly every dimension and modern developments in ceramics and reactive armor probably reflect the weight savings over having nearly 6 inches of rolled homogenous armor.
It also reduced the number of crew members from 4 to 3, eliminating the loader position with an automatic loader system. Unlike Russian tanks where the crew sits on top of the ammunition, the Abrams X will probably feed ammunition from an armored box separated from the crew compartment in the turret.
The gun will likely be an improved version of the Rhinemetall 120mm smoothbore cannon currently in use so that tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition being replaced with a new gun don’t add itself to the tab of bringing this tank into the army. The cannon used in the demonstrator was the XM360 which is more than 2,000 pounds lighter than the current M256 cannon.
There are two standout advances here that need to be mentioned. The new Abram X is a hybrid vehicle capable of driving for a limited distance using battery power alone. This is a very significant advance for two reasons.
First, tanks are not stealthy at all. Stand next to the engine compartment of a city bus and you get some idea of how loud they are, they also emit exhaust fumes you can smell at some distance. Now imagine 100 Abrams tanks all running their engines at once and the fumes carried by the wind. You are likely to be able to hear and smell them coming before they are in range.
But an Abrams X running on electric drive would be relatively quiet on the move and could roll around the flank of an enemy or move across the terrain at night without much more noise than its tracks would make contacting the ground.
Secondly, by running on electric drive, the tank’s thermal signature goes way down as well. It would be hard to see in from the air at night and even harder to pick out when under the cover of trees. At night it would much more difficult to get an accurate sight picture on Abrams X using a thermal gun site as well. Generally, in a tank battle, the side spots the enemy and gets his shots off first will win the battle.
This electric drive system also allows all the tank systems to still function even with the gasoline engine turned off. This is pretty big too, it means the Abrams can act as a sort of sentry, giving off no noise or thermal signature while still being able to see and engage targets in day or night in any weather.
Because of this lighter weight and the electric drive hybrid system the Abrams X will use half the fuel of the existing Abrams M1A SEP4. This means easier resupply of armored formations on the move. A single fuel truck can now refuel twice as many tanks as with the existing Abrams. Since armies really fight and win on their logistical support, this is a major improvement. It also lowers the operational cost of operating the new X model and the savings can be used in part for more training of crews. The army will also have a lower training and crew cost with just 3 crewmembers over 4 in the existing tank.
The crew positions will be inside the hull of the tank rather than the turret itself and comprise a driver, gunner, and commander who will also remotely operate the 30mm cannon mounted on the turret. Generally, the turret is vulnerable to taking hits from above, this new configuration that puts the crew entirely in the hull will greatly increase crew survivability which is a real confidence builder to those manning these tanks in battle. It is also possible that any of the three crewmembers can operate the tank’s weapons and sensor systems in a pinch. On watch, this would mean two members of the crew could sleep while the third kept an eye out for threats.
For improved situational awareness the Abrams X tanks will all be networked together so that their positions on a digital map will all be visible to each tank commander as well. The AI Assist may even warn them if their sights are lined up on the known position of another friendly tank on the map.
Finally, the Abrams X will boast an AI-assisted targeting system to reduce the chances of fratricide on the battlefield where an excited gunner shoots at any target he sees. The thermal site is not crystal clear to the gunner, it can be obstructed by ground cover, smoke, fog and other clutter effects.
Tank gunnery is comprised of three stages, target acquisition, engagement, and assessment.
First, you acquire the target and identify it as hostile, then you engage the target with the tank’s weapons and finally, you assess whether to shoot at the target again or find a new target. The most complicated and dangerous phase is acquisition. Do you have a hostile target in your sights, or is it a friendly or allied vehicle? During the First Gulf War, RPGs being fired by Iraqi infantry at a US tank unit were mistaken for an attack by enemy tanks on their position at night. The Abrams gunners swept their sights and found tanks and APCs that seemed to be in the direction of the attacks and opened fire. As it turned out the tanks and APCs they engaged were friendlies, 5 Abrams tanks, and 5 Bradleys were destroyed killing 5 soldiers and wounding another 25.
An AI-assisted targeting system married to 3rd generation FLIR or Forward-Looking Infrared would have ID’d those tanks and APCs as friendlies and might have averted this loss of life, because it compensates for excitement and fatigue which erodes decision-making and crew efficiency.
This AI system probably scans the image and compares numerous ratios like track size, turret shape, armor slope and other dimensions of the target in the gunner’s sight to tell him for sure that he is targeting a T-72 or T-80 versus another Abrams that is in an unexpected place in the battlespace. Avoiding Blue on Blue casualties is something the army trains very hard on and can result in several seconds of hesitancy by tank crews as they make sure they are only targeting an enemy tank, truck, or fighting vehicle in a battle. This AI assist could shave off those seconds and this can mean the difference between life and death to the tank and crew and also prevent fratricide as well.
No word yet on whether this tank will make it into production, but it represents a giant leap in armored mobility for the army. It may come with a hefty price tag, but I think one of the lessons of the Ukraine war is that cheap plentiful tanks end up getting destroyed along with their crews and can be very hard to quickly replace.