The next-generation M1 Abrams tank takes shape

The British Centurion main battle tank was first accepted into service in 1945, just too late to see action in the Second World War.  It became legendary for its ability to be upgraded to match more modern, technologically advanced combat environments.  Some much-modified Centurions are still in service today;  South Africa’s Olifant (‘Elephant’) tanks, and Israel’s Nagmachon and Nakpadon armored personnel carriers and Puma armored engineering vehicle.  That means the Centurion family has been in unbroken military service for more than 70 years – an amazing accomplishment, in a field where technology has advanced so rapidly.  Only the Russian T-34 and T-54/55 tanks can make a similar claim.

However, the USA’s M1 Abrams tank is looking as if it may end up with just as long a service life as the fabled Centurion.  Originally entering service in 1980, it too has been modified and upgraded through several versions and generations to keep pace with developments.  The current version, the M1A2 SEP Version 2 (shown below), has a fully digital fire control system and numerous enhancements, keeping it in the forefront of technology.

The US Army is now looking further into the future, to the demands that will face main battle tanks in the 2020’s and beyond.  New developments such as Russia’s T-14 Armata tank, and associated vehicles based on that platform, will bring new technology to the battlefield, and offer new challenges to their opponents.

An M1A3 update to the M1 Abrams family was planned, but appears to have fallen by the wayside in the face of budget pressures over the past several years.  Unfortunately, that means the current M1A2’s won’t be adequate to cope with potential threats over the next couple of decades;  so a fresh upgrade is being planned, this time the M1A2 SEP Version 4.

The SEP v4 variant, slated to being testing in 2021, will include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated on-board networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links, laser warning receivers and a far more lethal, multi-purpose 120mm tank round, Maj. Gen. David Bassett, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

While Army officials explain that many of the details of the next-gen systems for the future tanks are not available for security reasons, Basset did explain that the lethality upgrade, referred to as an Engineering Change Proposal, or ECP, is centered around the integration of a higher-tech 3rd generation FLIR – Forward Looking Infrared imaging sensor.

The advanced FLIR uses higher resolution and digital imaging along with an increased ability to detect enemy signatures at farther ranges through various obscurants such as rain, dust or fog, Bassett said.

. . .

The emerging M1A2 SEP v4 will also be configured with a new slip-ring leading to the turret and on-board ethernet switch to reduce the number of needed “boxes” by networking sensors to one another in a single vehicle. Also, some of the current electronics, called Line Replaceable Units, will be replaced with new Line Replaceable Modules including a commander’s display unit, driver’s control panel, gunner’s control panel, turret control unit and a common high-resolution display, information from General Dynamics Land Systems states.

The M1A2 SEP v4 will carry [an] Advanced Multi-Purpose 120mm ammunition round able to combine a variety of different rounds into a single tank round.

The AMP round will replace four tank rounds now in use.

. . .

“Rather than having to carry different rounds, you can communicate with the round before firing it,” Bassett explained.

There’s more at the link.

I’m sure those upgrades will cost millions per vehicle;  but the basic chassis, suspension and engine of the M1 Abrams family have proved reliable and survivable in combat in many parts of the world.  They’re worth retaining rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’ by trying to design something better (unlike, for example, Russian main battle tanks, which have performed very poorly against the M1 family in combat, and hence are worth replacing by an entirely new – and very expensive – Armata family of tanks and armored vehicles).

I’ll be watching this upgrade with interest.  If it proves a success, it’ll probably be in service until 2050 or beyond, giving the M1 Abrams family of tanks a service life rivaling that of the legendary Centurion.  The M1 may even be the last manned US main battle tank.  Given the rate at which unmanned vehicles are developing, it may be that future tanks won’t need crews at all.



  1. Leading to that Hoary Brit Army Joke:

    Honorary Col. inspecting:

    So, Regimental Sargent Major, I understand you've been with the Unit a long time?

    No Sir, only since Centurion was a tank, not the rank.

  2. "a fully digital fire control system".

    No doubt, the engine monitoring – and starting – and driver controls also depend on digital "enhancements.

    So what happens during battle when an EMP spike (which can be caused by things not nuclear) fries the digital controls?

  3. Yeah, but both the Centurion and the M! Abrams are mere striplings compared to the granddaddy of all: The M2HB Ma Deuce, basically unchanged in almost 90 years of service. The pinnacle of John Moses Browning's genius, still going strong.


  4. And with increasing weight and size the Russians will just build more and heavier distance rail and down more obstacles nearer the destination.

    We are able to airlift fewer of them that we'd really like to, so ship (slow) and prepositioning (political games required not to mention upkeep) are increasingly necessary. I am aware our airlifters can haul some big stuff because I load planned the Army's Patriot missile batteries back out of Tabuk — inches to spare – and what fit nicely with spare room was too damned heavy for us to put more on, and vice versa.

    I can't help but wonder if senior leadership, who seem to be in the limelight this last decade or so for numbskull performance and behavior, are really responsible enough to pull off a whole package that is practical.

    By the way, if you ever want to see driving skill at its finest, go to Germany and watch a launcher being backed into it slot. Those guys are amazing. We pulled them straight on from the rear of the C-5s, so no challenge at all for them there and they were in the open at Tabuk. Can't help but wonder if the newer slots in Turkey were made a bit wider.

  5. Hey Peter, off topic but I just sent an email to your contact email addy.

    I came across some western books for sale, and if there is anything in the email that catches your eye, let me know and I'll pick it up if it's still there. Prices were flexible, with big hardbacks starting at $5, so I can't be positive about cost until you picked one.

    I'm in Houston, so postage shouldn't be much…..

    Just reply to the email for contact info.

    And after that you can delete this.

    If they are not something you need, just disregard!


  6. carl s…I was a 45E..M1 turret mechanic from 1986 to 1992, I happen to know first hand that the electronics in the abrams is hardened more than enough to handle any emp pulse it runs thru on the battlefield.
    I wish the military would do more with the basic hull/power train….like the AVLB…combat engeneer vehical..air defence platform..
    not all variants would need the gas turbine power plant, but it woud sure be nice.

  7. Doofus: See your Ma Duce and raise you a 1911. 105 years of service 🙂
    I guess the moral of the story is that the physics of trade-offs doesn't change as much as we might think. And dead is dead, so you only need so much.

    I'd replace the engine: the gas turbine is nice, but a total fuel hog. Modern diesels are much better than 30 years ago, and would nearly double the fuel efficiency for a trivial performance decrease and a much lower heat signature. We already have them on export models.

  8. The Diesel pack is offered, but not yet purchased by anyone. For a 14% improvement in "cost" per mile.

    The LV100-5 turbine that's likely to replace the AGT-1500 turbine uses 33% less fuel in operation and 50% less at idle. Coupled with an APU the fuel consumption issue, isn't.

    The condemnation of the AGT-1500 was never its road mileage. It's getting about the same mileage as a Leopard 2 when it's driving. The problem is the turbine uses about the same amount of fuel idling as driving, where a conventional diesel sips instead of gulps.

    An APU provides the power, for even less fuel than idling a diesel pack, for the long periods where you sit and wait.

  9. Looks like a lot of stuff stacked up on that turret that can pretty easily get shot to pieces and be useless in no time at all.

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