WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is scrapping its current upgrade plans for the Abrams main battle tank and pursuing a more significant modernization effort to increase its mobility and survivability on the battlefield, the service announced in a statement Wednesday.
The Army will end its M1A2 System Enhancement Package version 4 program, and instead develop the M1E3 Abrams focused on challenges the tank is likely to face on the battlefield of 2040 and beyond, the service said. The service was supposed to receive the M1A2 SEPv4 version this past spring.
The SEPv4 will not go into production as planned, Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo told Defense News in a Sept. 6 interview at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, Virginia. “We’re essentially going to invest those resources into the [research and] development on this new upgraded Abrams,” he said. “[I]t’s really threat-based, it’s everything that we’re seeing right now, even recently in Ukraine in terms of a native active protection system, lighter weight, more survivability, and of course reduced logistical burdens as well for the Army.”
The Abrams tank “can no longer grow its capabilities without adding weight, and we need to reduce its logistical footprint,” Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean, the Army’s program executive officer for ground combat systems, said in the statement. “The war in Ukraine has highlighted a critical need for integrated protections for soldiers, built from within instead of adding on.”
The M1E3 Abrams will “include the best features” of the M1A2 SEPv4 and will be compliant with modular open-systems architecture standards, according to the statement, which will allow for faster and more efficient technology upgrades. “This will enable the Army and its commercial partners to design a more survivable, lighter tank that will be more effective on the battlefield at initial fielding and more easy to upgrade in the future.”
“We appreciate that future battlefields pose new challenges to the tank as we study recent and ongoing conflicts,” said Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, director of the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team. “We must optimize the Abrams’ mobility and survivability to allow the tank to continue to close with and destroy the enemy as the apex predator on future battlefields.”
Norman, who took over the team last fall, spent seven months prior to his current job in Poland with the 1st Infantry Division. He told Defense News last year that the division worked with Poles, Lithuanians and other European partners on the eastern flank to observe happenings in Ukraine.
Weight is a major inhibitor of mobility, Norman said last fall. “We are consistently looking at ways to drive down the main battle tank’s weight to increase our operational mobility and ensure we can present multiple dilemmas to the adversary by being unpredictable in where we can go and how we can get there.”
General Dynamic Land Systems, which manufactures the Abrams tank, brought what it called AbramsX to the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in October 2022. AbramsX is a technology demonstrator with reduced weight and the same range as the current tank with 50% less fuel consumption, the American firm told Defense News ahead of the show.
The AbramsX has a hybrid power pack that enables a silent watch capability and “some silent mobility,” which means it can run certain systems on the vehicle without running loud engines.
The tank also has an embedded artificial intelligence capability that enables “lethality, survivability, mobility and manned/unmanned teaming,” GDLS said.
The Army did not detail what the new version might include, but GDLS is using AbramsX to define what is possible in terms of weight reduction, improved survivability and a more efficient logistics tail.
The Army awarded GDLS a contract in August 2017 to develop the SEPv4 version of the tank with a plan then to make a production decision in fiscal 2023, followed by fielding to the first brigade in fiscal 2025.
The keystone technology of the SEPv4 version consisted of a third-generation forward-looking infrared camera and a full-sight upgrade including improved target discrimination.
“I think the investment in subsystem technologies in the v4 will actually carry over into the upgraded ECP [Engineering Change Proposal] program for Abrams,” Camarillo said. “However, the plan is to have robust competition at the subsystem level for a lot of what the new ECP will call for, so we’re going to look for best-of-breed tech in a lot of different areas,” such as active protection systems and lighter weight materials.
For instance, the Army has kitted out the tank with Trophy active protection systems as an interim solution to increase survivability. The Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems develops the Trophy. But since the system is not integrated into the design of the vehicle, it adds significant weight, sacrificing mobility.
The Army plans to produce the M1A2 SEPv3 at a reduced rate until it can transition the M1E3 into production.
The M1E3 is expected to reach initial operational capability in the early 2030s, the Army said. “As longer-range threats increase in both lethality and survivability, the M1E3 Abrams will be able to defeat those threats,” the statement said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.