When Army officials voice concerns that legacy combat vehicles are nearing the end of their functional lives, that incremental upgrades are yielding diminishing returns, they are not talking about the M1 Abrams main battle tank.

The Army on Oct. 4 took delivery of the first six M1A2 system enhancement package version three (SEPv3) tanks, which feature communications, reliability, sustainment, fuel efficiency and armor enhancements.

The Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 is a great step forward in reliability, sustainability, protection, and onboard power -- positioning the Abrams tank and the Army's ABCTs for the future. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo )
The Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 is a great step forward in reliability, sustainability, protection, and onboard power — positioning the Abrams tank and the Army’s ABCTs for the future. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo )

Not only is the SEPv3 another in a long line of upgrades the tank has received since its introduction in 1980, it lays the ground work for future performance and lethality enhancements that will keep the tank relevant at least until a next-generation vehicle can replace it, according to officials with the Army’s Ground Combat Systems program office.

Asked if the tank was nearing the end of its ability to accept emerging technologies, Lt. Col. Justin Shell, product manager for Abrams, said “that’s not something that on the Abrams platform that we will see, I think.”

“Anything that could be brought in through Next Generation Combat Vehicle, we could adopt with the inception of SEPv3,” he said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual expo this week in Washington, D.C.

The Army let a $270 million contract to General Dynamics [GD] for 45 M1A2 SEPv3 variants in fiscal 2016 and received the first six upgraded tanks on Oct. 4. The service is authorized to make upgrades to 500 M1A2 SEPv2 tanks. The new configuration is halfway through its test regime and is proving to be the most reliable variant of the tank to date, Shell said. First unit equipped is scheduled for 2020.

The SEPv3 will replace the M1A2 SEPv2 which has been in production since 2005. In 2011, the Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems (PEO GCS) was directed by the Army to execute Engineering Change Proposals to restore lost capability and allow the capacity for the insertion of new technologies.

The M1A2 SEPv3 improvements include introduction of the joint tactical radio system and improved power generation and distribution with an increased margin to accept future technologies, counter remote-control improvised bomb electronic warfare capability, ammunition data link to program the M829A4 Advanced Kinetic Energy and Advanced Multi-Purpose rounds, an auxiliary power unit to power onboard systems without running the engine and armor upgrades.

With the SEPv3 as a foundation, the Army will move on to upgrading those tanks to SEPv4, which is the lethality corollary to the previous automotive enhancements. The key technology is a sight upgrade to third-generation forward-looking infrared, Shell said.

General Dynamics was awarded a $311 million contract in August for seven M1A2 SEPv4 prototypes with upgraded commander’s primary sight, formerly known as the commander’s independent thermal viewer, an improved gunner’s primary sight and enhancements to sensors, lethality and survivability.

“I am optimistic that we can do an awful lot in turret-ring-up changes, turret-ring-down changes, dramatic changes in those kinds of platforms leveraging mature technology that will be faster at lower risk than an entirely new program if that’s what the budget will support,” Bassett said.

Around 2030, the Army should be closing in on fielding the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle that could replace the tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, both or neither. It will focus on capturing leap-ahead technologies like advanced materials, integral active protection systems and autonomy – technologies that can’t readily be retrofitted onto an existing platform, said Maj. Gen. David Bassett, who leads PEO GCS.

“When you think about what we’re going to do with future vehicles, two things are going to change,” Bassett said. “One is the technology that is available to us. Although some technologies move quick, some don’t move very fast at all. We have to be balanced about what technological advances we expect to make.”

With a new vehicle, the Army also will be freed from the requirements on which the Abrams design was based. Abrams was designed with a crew of four, including a human loader. It must therefore have a certain level of blast protection and interior space whereas an unmanned or optionally manned tank could be considerably smaller and lighter, he said. An unmanned tank could not have a manned turret, for obvious reasons, he added.

“On the tank, we have made the assumption that it has a manned turret, it’s a fully manned vehicle and it’s got a manual loader, a soldier who is the loader,” Bassett said. “Going into a future vehicle, you can change some of those assumptions. That can be dramatically different in terms of size, weight and performance. … There are things that you can do in that next-gen vehicle that you really couldn’t do in your current vehicle either because of the physical confines of it or because you have committed to a set of requirements that you just can’t get around.”