According to the Army’s Chief of Staff, Mark Milley, the Army needs “breakthrough” technologies, rather than incremental advancements in its tank program.  While the venerable M1A2 Abrams has proven itself in combat time and time again, the forty-year-old platform is beginning to show signs of age, and “incremental” tech upgrades only promise to weigh the war-horse down, rather than improve its combat effectiveness.

According to Miley, incremental technological upgrades to America’s tanks would include a more powerful 140-mm main gun, a more efficient turbine or diesel engine, and upgraded or additional armor, but would otherwise remain the same platform we’ve seen in use for decades.  The problem, he surmises, is that such advancements would also dramatically increase the weight of the vehicle, resulting in a slower, less nimble tank.

The Abrams entered service at an already healthy 58 tons, with a large 105-millimeter main gun.  Today, the latest American tanks weigh in at 70 tons, and are armed with a 120-millimeter gun.  Russia’s new flagship tank, the T-14 Armata, is expected to boast a much larger 152-millimeter main gun system that will come standard with the latest in Russian armor penetration technology.

The T-14 Armata tank in the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade.

The problem with simply upgrading our existing tanks with bigger guns, and especially more armor, is that the result is a bloated war machine that may not be able to compete with the newest advancements offered by competitor states like Russia.  At the very least, America’s armored battle supremacy could easily be called into question if we attempt to field a heavier Abrams against the likes of the T-14.

Conversely, “breakthrough technologies,” as Milley put it, could offer a smaller yet more powerful tank platform, resulting in a vehicle that is faster, more maneuverable, and easier to transport to conflict regions.  Rail guns, like those long in development by the U.S. Navy in hopes of one day deploying them as the main guns on destroyers and cruisers, could offer a tank with a smaller, lighter weapon system with better range and destructive power than even the Russian’s 152-millimeter cannon.  By designing a new tank to function with a smaller crew, or completely autonomously, America could reduce weight, cost, and the risk to American service members in an armored conflict of the future.

The current M1A2 Abrams tank requires a crew of 4: commander/machine gunner, gunner, loader, and driver

The technology may already exist to produce a tank that is capable of shrugging off kinetic energy weapons, shaped charge rounds, and even anti-tank missiles.  By incorporating the latest in combat tech, the Army hopes this latest effort to find a suitable replacement for the Abrams will bear better fruit than two previous failed endeavors to do the same.

The Army spent upwards of $18 billion between 1999 and 2008 on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which was hoped to serve as an entire family of variants suited to different combat operations.  Ultimately, the program was canceled before fielding a single combat ready vehicle into theater.  Another program, the Ground Combat Vehicle, was also scrapped in 2014, once again, without bearing a single deployable asset.  Other military efforts to embrace “breakthrough” technology rather than incremental advancements can be seen on the new USS Gerald R. Ford, where never before seen systems like the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) led to delays and the program going significantly over budget.

The EMALS system did, however, successfully launch an F/A-18 Super Hornet for the first time last Friday, only six days after the vessel was commissioned.  Issues with the system had previously been blamed as one of the primary reasons the new model of carrier was delayed by more than a year.