The Abrams Tank Next Generation

A Lighter and More Compact Tank

U.S. Army Abrams M1A1 tank

With plans to roll out a fourth-generation Abrams tank, the U.S. Army hopes to keep the armored vehicle on the frontlines through the year 2050.

Improving on a Strong Design

Now in the design phase, the U.S. Army plans to have prototypes built of the next generation Abrams tank – known as the M1A3 – by 2014. If the design and development phases proceed smoothly, new Abrams tanks will be deployed in combat by 2017.

Army officials have said they plan to keep the upcoming fourth generation Abrams tank in service until 2050.  

The M1A3 Abrams will be outfitted with a number of enhancements over previous versions of the tank. To make the next version lighter and more mobile, the Army plans to replace the M256 smoothbore gun with a lighter 120 millimeter cannon; add road wheels and an improved suspension system; install a more durable track; use lighter armor; and insert precision armaments capable of hitting targets from 12 kilometers. Preliminary plans also call for the addition of an infrared camera and laser detector.

These upgrades will enhance the Abrams strong design features and make the tank more effective in armored ground warfare and urban environments where it will be deployed. The U.S. Army had announced plans to retire the Abrams tank and replace it with the XM1202 Mounted Combat System, a more compact and lightweight tank.

But the U.S. Department of Defense canceled the program in April 2009 during a round of budget cuts.

Evolution Over 30 Years

The first Abrams tank – called the M1 – entered service in 1980. It is named after General Creighton Abrams, who served as Commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972.

Two other generations of the Abrams tank have been brought into military service over the past 30 years – the M1A1 and the M1A2.

The Abrams tank was used by the U.S. Army in Europe during the late 1980s. The tank was first deployed  in combat during the 1991 Gulf War. Nearly 2,000 M1A1 versions of the tank were stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm. The Abrams proved superior in combat to the Soviet-built tanks used by the Iraqi military in that war.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the Abrams tank was upgraded to the M1A2 model and deployed to Bosnia and throughout the Middle East. The tank has been effective due to its firing accuracy, strong armored shell, and durability in harsh desert environments. The current version of the tank is equipped with weapons that include the M256 smoothbore gun, a 50 caliber M2HB machine gun; 7.62 millimeter M240 machine gun; and smoke grenade launchers. The tank also uses gas turbine engines. 

Calls for Improvements

Despite its achievements, the Abrams has been criticized for its size and weight. At almost 70 tons, the tank has proven difficult to transport by air into foreign combat zones. It is incapable of crossing most bridges. The U.S. Army hopes to rectify these problems with the new M1A3 version of the Abrams, which is planned to be lighter and more maneuverable than previous generations.

The U.S. Army has also said that it wants to upgrade the Abrams internal computer system. Estimates have determined that if the current computer cabling in the tank were replaced with state-of-the-art fiber-optic cables, the weight of the tank could be reduced by almost two tons.