Weighing in at nearly 80-tons, the current iteration of the M1 Abrams main battle tank is bristling with after-market gear that make it the most lethal tank in the world but add more weight than support vehicles can handle.

Adding more armor, sensors and heavier weapons onto the Abrams has not bogged down the Abrams itself, but the heavy tank is too cumbersome for tow vehicles to lug and for bridging equipment to support. Continuously upgrading Abrams has caused a ripple of secondary upgrade requirements through the Army’s combat support vehicle fleet,  according to Lt. Gen. John Murray, deputy chief of staff and Army G-8. 

Murray told the House Armed Services (HASC) Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces that the tanks now exceeds the safe towing capacity of the Heavy Equipment Transporter – a member of the family of heavy tactical vehicles that consists of a large truck and trailer designed to haul the M1 Abrams. Currently the HETS cannot legally haul tanks in Europe, where they have been stationed as part of the European Reassurance initiative.

As an immediate fix to that problem, the Army in its fiscal 2018 budget submission requested $37.4 million to buy of 20 new HETS that are able to transport the M1A2 Abrams in Europe. A secondary effort will upgrade the current HETS trucks to accommodate heavier tanks, Murray said.

U.S. Soldiers, assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, secure their Battalion headquarters in a M1 Abrams Tank, during Decisive Action Rotation 17-04 at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., Feb 19, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. JD Sacharok, Operations Group, National Training Center)
U.S. Soldiers, assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, secure their Battalion headquarters in a M1 Abrams Tank, during Decisive Action Rotation 17-04 at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., Feb 19, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. JD Sacharok, Operations Group, National Training Center)

“We are working several different paths,” he said in late-May testimony to the HASC subcommittee. “There is a problem in Europe that we are going to take care of quickly. Then we have the Super HET to account for the weight of the tank.”

The Army is in the process of outfitting its tanks with second and third-generation weapon and sensor kits called system enhancement packages in an effort to keep the 1980s-vintage tanks on par with current allied and enemy technology.

The currently fielded and combat laden M1A2 SEPv2 exceeds the payload rating of the currently fielded HETS, and axle-weight standards in Europe are unable to be met by the current system, the Army’s budget documents say. Therefore, the M1A2 is unable to be transported legally in the USAREUR AOR.

The tank’s weight also is beyond the ability of the M88A Heavy Equipment Recovery Combat Utility Lift and Evacuation System, commonly called the HERCULES, to tow it. The HERCULES recovers tanks mired to different depths, removes M1 Abrams turrets and power packs, and uprights overturned heavy combat vehicles and is specifically designed to perform single vehicle recovery (SVR) of a 70-ton Abrams tank.

To counter that, the Army has launched the the Improved M88A2 (M88A2E1) to enable SVR of the heaviest tracked combat vehicle currently in the Army inventory. The Army’s fiscal 2018 budget request includes $5 million to study what work is needed to bring the HERCULES up to snuff, but initial analysis suggests track, suspension, transmission, hydraulics and powertrain upgrades all are necessary, according to Army budget documents.  

“The Abrams SEPv2 CURRENTLY exceeds the 70T ORD requirement and the M88A2 is unable to safely perform SVR of MBT in all conditions. SEPv3 further exacerbates the problem,” the Army’s fiscal 2018 budget documentation said. “The goal of the assessments will be to provide confidence to Army Leadership that a M88A2E1 solution is affordable, achievable, and technologically feasible with manageable risk.”

The $5 million budgeted in fiscal 2018 is a miniscule amount to plan the work that will come in following years when the budget jumps to $100 million by fiscal 2020.

The most up-to-date versions of Abrams also are too heavy to quickly cross the Army’s current deployable bridging systems like the M60 vehicle-launched bridge, Murray said. In terrain carved by multiple rivers that tanks will likely encounter in Eastern Europe, that presents another issue for the tank’s mobility, Murray said.

“We can cross it right now, but only at caution crossing, which is basically walking speed,” he said. “We’re basically working on the strength of the pins to try to save the bridges we’ve got.”

Upgrades to the Abrams are not insignificant or unwarranted, according to senior Army officials. Murray earlier this year testified that the tank is on the verge of losing its technological superiority to newer, foreign-built designs. Maj. Gen. David Bassett, who as program executive officer for ground combat systems oversees management and modernization of the Army’s tank fleet, said later that Abrams still was the most lethal tank in the world. He conceded that the Army is scrambling to keep its technology and weapons relevant and that there is no technology – offensive or defensive – available to other nations that the U.S. Army is not pursuing.

Both Bassett and Murray have said publicly that the planned SEPv2 and v3 upgrade are necessary to maintain the Abrams’ combat prowess until the Army is cleared to develop and buy a clean-sheet replacement.

The service has set aside $248 million in its fiscal 2018 base budget and another $138 million overseas contingency operations funding for a total $ 387.5 million for the Abrams Tank Fleet Modification Program. Included upgrades are the integration of active protections systems, Blue Force Tracking, Mounted Family of Computer System (MFoCs) and powertrain improvements. Those along with Total Integrated Engine Revitalization and Transmission Enterprise will provide more reliability, durability, and a single standard for the vehicle’s power train, according to Army budget documents.

The PEO GCS and the Abrams program are set to launch a series of of engineering change proposals (ECPs) to address capability gaps on the tank fleet that are outlined in the 2018 budget request.

ECP 1A addresses interoperability on the network and system shortfalls in electrical power to enable integration survivability improvements and an electronics refresh to address obsolescence and significantly improve sustainability. Specifically the upgrades include an updated Handheld Manpack Small (HMS) communication system, a new 1000 amp generator, power management distribution system the integration kit for the Counter Radio-Controlled IED Electronic Warfare (CREW/Duke3), Next Generation Armor and Ammunition Data Link (ADL) to enable the system to fire a smart round currently in low-rate production.

ECP 1B – formerly ECP 2 – covers lethality improvements, primarily integration of a third-generation Forward Looking Infrared sensor and the integration of ammunition data link for the advanced multi-purpose round.

Those improvements are designed to sustain the Abrams tank’s combat superiority until the Army has sufficient funding and other resources to buy a next-generation combat vehicle. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Abrams simply will not be able to accept more retrofitted systems, weapons and armor, Murray said.

“We are now at the point where it’s going to be hard to upgrade our current combat systems,” Murray said. “To retain that parity, we have got to start looking at what comes next. … The problem comes in procurement. I can’t begin to buy a new vehicle until I finish upgrading the last vehicle and when you’ve got extended upgrade timelines, it becomes one ECP or one upgrade after another. So we’ve got to figure out how to shorten up that timeline so I can free up resources to go after procurement of the next-generation tank, air-defense system, infantry fighting vehicle. There’s lots of needs across the board.”