America’s M1 Abrams Tank Is Now 40 Years Old: Still the Best on the Planet?

America’s M1 Abrams Tank Is Now 40 Years Old: Still the Best on the Planet?

Kyle Mizokami

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A revolutionary tank that has become a staple of American military power.

Key point: While not perfect, it packs a real punch.

The M1 Abrams main battle tank has been the mainstay of the U.S. Army’s armor branch for now four decades. Heavily armored, powered by a gas turbine engine and equipped with a powerful 120-millimeter gun, the M1 has proven an adaptable tank capable of fighting from the rolling hills of southern Germany to the deserts of Iraq. And yet the tank appeared to be a failure at first, caught in a tug-of-war of competing, varied interests that threatened to sink the project completely.

In the late 1960s, the U.S. Army began the search for a new main battle tank. The M48/M60 series of tanks had reached a design dead end, and the Army desired a clean-sheet design to incorporate new technologies, including a gun-fired antitank missile. The Pentagon initially tried to cooperate with West Germany on a new tank, MBT-70, but the project was sunk by technical problems and cost overruns.

In the wake of MBT-70 the Army tried again to develop a new tank, a design that was eventually known as the XM-1 and later the M-1. The new tank would incorporate major advances in firepower, protection and mobility, but committing to an ultimate design would involve heated battles—and compromises—between all three.

The heart of any tank’s offensive firepower is the main gun. The Army had previously wanted to arm MBT-70 with a 152-millimeter tank gun capable of firing both shells and the Shillelagh gun-launched antitank missile. Unfortunately, reliability problems doomed the Shillelagh and the Army went back to conventional tank guns.

The Soviet Union’s primary tank was the T-62, armed with the U-5TS 115-millimeter gun, while the U.S. Army’s M60 tank was armed with the M68 105-millimeter gun. Although the Soviet gun was technically bigger this did not particularly bother the U.S. Army, which preferred to stick with the 105 for the XM-1. The Army’s argument was that the 105’s armor penetration qualities were still good enough and that the tank could store plenty of ammunition—fifty-five rounds of all types—inside the hull and turret. In a list of performance characteristics listed by the Army by priority, main gun killing power actually came third, behind armor protection and surveillance and target acquisition.

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