A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 7, 2023

Ukraine's US M1A1 Abrams Tanks Are At the Front - And Why That Matters

To be clear, the US M1A1 tanks are not a panacea. They are vulnerable to mines, drones and missiles. 

But they may be the tank that gives its crew the best chance of survival, saving not just their lives, but their training and experience. Which, compared to the Soviet-era tanks in which they've been fighting - and which are all the Russians have - is going to give them an advantage in the near and long term as this war continues and the Ukrainians are increasingly better equipped to fight a more numerous enemy. JL 

David Axe reports in Forbes:

Ukraine’s best tanks have arrived at the front line. The 31 M-1s the US donated to Ukraine’s war effort won’t alter the war’s dynamics. They’re not invulnerable to Russian mines, artillery, anti-tank missiles and explosives-laden drones. But if Ukraine’s experience with Western tanks is any indication, far fewer tankers will die while fighting in M-1s than in Soviet tanks. For a crew to survive the loss of its tank preserves its training and experience. That’s a boon to the whole army. An experience-free Russian tank corps eventually will face a highly experienced Ukrainian tank corps with crews that have bailed out of more than one damaged tank, increasing Ukraine's fighting power and morale.
A muddy revetment. A fatigues-clad arm and hand clutching a belt buckle bearing the insignia of the Ukrainian army’s tank corps. And the edges of the tracks, hull and turret of a tank wearing a woodland camouflage pattern.

This is the first published photo depicting an American-made M-1 tank in Ukrainian service.

We don’t know when the photo was taken or where, although the mud—the possible result of the coming wet winter—does seem to indicate it’s very recent.

Ukraine’s best tanks have arrived at or near the front line.

No, the 31 M-1s the United States so far has donated to Ukraine’s war effort—a single battalion’s worth—won’t fundamentally alter the war’s dynamics. No, they’re not invulnerable to Russian mines, artillery, anti-tank missiles and—most importantly—explosives-laden drones.

Yes, Ukraine will lose many of its M-1s once it sends them into action. Yes, some of the M-1 crews—each tank requires four people to drive it, aim and load its 120-millimeter smoothbore gun and command it—will die.

But if Ukraine’s previous experience with Western-made tanks is any indication, far fewer tankers will die while fighting in M-1s than would die if they rode into battle in the Soviet-style tanks that still comprise the majority of Ukraine’s tank force, and all of Russia’s tank force.

That’s because the M-1 and its NATO kin—the German Leopard 2 and British Challenger 2—are built for protection. Most importantly, they mostly stow their ammunition in specially-designed compartments.

On the Leopard 2, the one-piece main-gun ammo—propellant and projectile—is in two compartments. One in the hull and another in bustles attached to the turret. The hull stowage is vulnerable to well-aimed enemy fire that might trigger a secondary explosion, but the bustles should explode outward, away from the crew, when struck.

On the Challenger 2, the ammo is in separate parts: propellant and projectile. The explosive propellant is stowed in a water-filled bin inside the turret. The water should help to prevent the charges from cooking off.

Compare these tanks’ designs to the designs of the Soviet-style T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90. To keep the tanks small, Soviet engineers replaced the human loader with an automated loader that’s fed by a carousel underneath the turret. All that exposed ammunition, just sitting inside the turret along with the crew, tends to explode when struck.

It’s not for no reason that Russia’s 22-month wider war on Ukraine has produced memes about Russian tanks—hundreds of them—competing in “turret-tossing contests.” Direct hits on Soviet-designed tanks often send their turrets flying hundreds of feet into the air like rockets, with obvious effect on their crews.

Ukraine’s first consignments of Western tanks—71 Leopard 2s and 14 Challengers 2—already have saved a lot of lives. The Russians have knocked out one Challenger 2; the crew reportedly survived. They’ve knocked out a dozen or 13 Leopard 2s; most of their crews apparently survived, too.

Consider the most recent Leopard 2 loss, in eastern Ukraine in late October. When a lucky Russian infantryman wielding a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Ukrainian Leopard 2A6 on its thin side armor, damaging the engine and sparking a diesel fire that eventually fried the tank, it seems no ammunition cooked off. All four crew escaped.

For a crew to survive the loss of its tank isn’t just a relief to the crew. In surviving, the crew preserves its training and experience. That’s a boon to the whole army.

As difficult as it has been for Ukraine to source modern tanks, it’s even more difficult for the country to source trained tankers. Crews spend months abroad—in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and Poland—learning to operate their tanks.

Ukraine’s new M-1s likely will protect their crews even better than Ukraine’s Challenger 2s and Leopard 2s have done, further deepening the accumulating experience of the Ukrainian tank corps. “The provision of the [armored fighting vehicles] provide a boost in confidence and morale for Ukraine and will increase the fighting power of Ukrainian soldiers"— said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army general.

Contrast this with the escalating manpower crisis gripping the Russian tank corps. Russian tankers tend to die in their tanks. As the Kremlin reactivates thousands of old tanks and builds hundreds of new ones, it also must train up lots of new tankers: at least three per tank.

But it’s under the same pressure the Ukrainian military is in to generate fresh forces, fast. More than once, the Russians have deployed replacement tankers with barely any training at all. The Russian army’s 1st Tank Regiment suffered this cruel exigency in late 2022.

These green Russian tankers are no more likely to survive hits on their vehicles than were the tankers they replaced.

It’s a plan for an essentially experience-free Russian tank corps. One that eventually will face a highly experienced Ukrainian tank corps with crews that have bailed out of more than one damaged tank.

Tanks whose designs trade hardware for lives, like the M-1’s does.

The M-1 is unique in that it stores all of its single-piece ammo in a turret bustle with blow-out panels. Hit an M-1 in the ammo, and the secondary explosion vents out and up—and away from the turret’s interior. That makes the M-1 the most survivable tank in the world for its crew.


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