Everything to Know About the Next-Generation M1 Abrams Tank

The Latest Version Is Lighter Than Its Predecessors

U.S. Army Abrams M1A1 tank
••• NSU ROTC/Flickr

The U.S. Army first deployed its next-generation M1A3 Abrams tank in combat in 2017. Army officials said they plan to keep the latest iteration of the long-serving tank in service until 2050.

Here's everything you need to know about the backbone of the U.S. Army armored cavalry.

Evolution of the M1 Abrams Tank

The first M1 Abrams tank entered service in 1980. It is named after Gen. 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 Army used the Abrams tank in Europe during the late 1980s, and deployed it in combat for the first time in 1991 during the 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 the Iraqi military used in that war.

After the Gulf War, the Army upgraded the Abrams tank to the M1A2 model and deployed it to Bosnia and throughout the Middle East. The tank is effective due to its firing accuracy, strong armored shell, and durability in harsh desert environments. The M1A2 version uses gas turbine engines, and is equipped with weapons such as the M256 smoothbore gun, 50-caliber M2HB machine gun, 7.62-millimeter M240 machine gun, and smoke grenade launchers.

Despite all of its achievements, the Abrams has been criticized for its size and weight. With the M1A2 at almost 70 tons, the tank suffers in the mobility department. The Army also has trouble transporting it by air into foreign combat zones, and the heavy machinery is nearly incapable of crossing most bridges.

The Army sought to rectify these problems with the new M1A3 version of the Abrams, which is lighter and more maneuverable than previous generations.

New Features of the M1A3 Abrams Tank

Congress allocated funding for further upgrades to the Abrams tank in 2014, directing roughly $120 million for investment. The new M1A3 Abrams is outfitted with a number of enhancements over previous versions, such as replacing the M256 smoothbore gun with a lighter 120-millimeter cannon, and road wheels with an improved suspension system.

The Army also installed a more durable track, used lighter armor, improved idle mode efficiency, and inserted precision armaments capable of hitting targets from 12 kilometers. Additionally, the tank is outfitted with infrared cameras and laser detectors.

These upgrades enhanced the Abrams tank’s design features and make the tank more effective in armored ground warfare and urban environments. The 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 Department of Defense canceled the program in April 2009 during a round of budget cuts.

Replacing the M1 Abrams

The Army reportedly is working on a concept to replace the M1 Abrams tank entirely down the road. The concern is that the M1 can only be upgraded so much, and that an entirely new design may be necessary for future conflicts.

The Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC), is working on the development of design concepts for a high-tech tank that could attack targets from longer distances and engage drones with lasers, for example. It likely wouldn't be fielded until the 2030s at the earliest.