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The Australian Army Really Really Likes The Abrams

June 29, 2021
The Australian Army’s M1A1 SA. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In late April the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced a “possible Foreign Military Sale” to Australia of surplus Abrams tanks and parts worth $1.685 billion. Breaking down the package reveals the Australian Army is adding 75 M1A2 SEPv3 to its existing fleet along with 29 Assault Breacher Vehicles, 18 Joint Assault Bridges, and 6 Hercules Combat Recovery Vehicles. These are all variants being assembled from existing M1A1 Abrams hulls kept in US Army storage and transferred to Australia.

The Australian Army has several dozen M1A1 SA tanks in service. When this new acquisition is fulfilled it will grow the tank fleet to 135, representing a substantial expansion of the army’s combat power. Of course, the DSCA insists the delivery of advanced MBTs and their support vehicles to Australia “will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”

The M1 Abrams is recognized as the most advanced and combat proven third-generation MBT in service today with the US Army fielding an estimated 2,300 M1A1/M1A2’s with 3,500 more M1A1’s in storage. Its late Cold War variant the M1A1 cemented its reputation in the Kuwaiti desert against Iraq’s inferior Chinese and Soviet tanks. However, by 2003 the M1A1 along with the enhanced M1A2 were becoming vulnerable against long-range anti-tank weapons and roadside bombs. According to the US Army, the M1A2 SEPv3 “rectified many of the space, weight and power issues identified during Operation Iraqi Freedom and will be the foundational variant for all future incremental upgrades.”

The US Army’s preferences that shaped the M1A2 SEPv3 span its internal power distribution for subsystems like a “Vehicle Health Management System” that monitors the tank’s performance and tools such as the ammunition data link and an auxiliary power unit. Since the Abrams’ combat record was earned in the Middle East the US Army made sure each M1A2 SEPv3 has counter-IED detection embedded in its crew systems. Anticipating the risk posed by the new generation of anti-tank missiles, all M1A2 SEPv3’s will have the Israeli-made Trophy APS to track and neutralize incoming projectiles. To better protect its occupants the turret hatches of the commander and gunner were redesigned for reducing exposure when these crew remembers aren’t buttoned up inside the tank. The familiar secondary armaments on the turret roof are gone as well–the single M2 Browning is now on a remote weapon station in front of the commander’s hatch.

The sophistication and technological edge of the Abrams means the US government exercises strict export policies for its allies. While the Abrams is scarce among NATO militaries, it’s much coveted in the Middle East where Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia are its only operators. Australia is the only M1A1 Abrams operator in the Asia-Pacific but Taiwan is scheduled to receive Abrams tanks from the mid to late 2020s. Further sales to East Asian allies are doubtful. The US Army is due several hundred M1A2 SEPv3’s by 2028 thanks to a $4.6 billion contract won by General Dynamics in late 2020 and the army is now working on the M1A2 SEPv4’s primary characteristics.

The Abrams isn’t without its flaws. Even the basic and nearly outdated M1A1 variant is known to have a problematic weight of 67 tons, leaving foreign operators reliant on US-made trailers, recovery vehicles (like the Hercules), and bridgelayers so the M1A1 isn’t defeated by geography. This explains why the Australian Army needs 24 Abrams hulls as bridgelayers and recovery vehicles. The Textron Lycoming AGT 1500 gas turbine engine is known for performance issues related to overheating and excess dust getting caught in its fans. Without purpose built repair and maintenance facilities in army bases foreign operators risk having their Abrams’ breaking down for want of upkeep.

Although famed for its secretive Chobham armor the weaknesses of the Abrams have surfaced from the 2000s onward. To its credit the turret and glacis are nearly impenetrable versus most high explosive projectiles. But the Iraqi and later Saudi Arabian armies lost multiple Abrams tanks against infantry tactics where insurgents surrounded and overran a position, leaving the Abrams tanks unable to fire their weapons at close range. The captured tanks were then eliminated by setting their ammunition magazines on fire. Direct hits on its flanks and engine compartment by shaped warheads are also guaranteed kills.

As proof of its revitalized alignment with the US the Australian Army is soon fielding the world’s heaviest and most advanced third-generation tank that’s going to operate alongside its 211 German-made Boxer APCs and a future IFV. This conceptualization of land warfare suggests the army intends to fight in overseas campaigns against a peer adversary. When taking Australia’s membership in the Quad Alliance into account, it’s clear who this adversary is.

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