The US military has fielded the Abrams tank for more than 40 years.
The next version may be the AbramsX, a lighter tank with an array of technological upgrades.
America's next main battle tank may be a lighter but more high-tech version of the M1 Abrams.
General Dynamics, which builds the Abrams, recently unveiled an updated version of the M1. In addition to being 20 tons lighter than the most recent version, the M1A3, the AbramsX features an unmanned turret and a hybrid-electric engine.
Though the media has dubbed the AbramsX a "next-generation tank," that's not exactly accurate. The AbramsX is really a technology demonstrator. It began as an internal General Dynamics research project to show how new technologies could be applied to a new tank or retrofitted onto existing tanks.
Rather than a next-gen armored vehicle, the AbramsX is more of an interim design to span the gap between the Cold War-era designs that still comprise the world's tank fleets and the true next-generation vehicles that will probably be fielded closer to 2050.
Nonetheless, the AbramsX is a working weapon. "It drives around, it fires, and it performs the functions of a tank," Tim Reese, director of US business development for General Dynamics Land Systems, told Insider. "It's not just a static display."
The diet M1
Tank design is a balance — and a tradeoff — between three factors: firepower, protection, and mobility. For the AbramsX, the biggest goal was addressing a growing problem with the M1, of which more than 10,000 have been built since 1979.
The Abrams has always been a hefty tank. Even the early M1A1s weighed about 60 tons — compared to Russia's 45-ton T-72 and China's 55-ton Type 99A — but the latest Abrams weighs closer to 80 tons due to upgrades like the Trophy Active Protection System designed to shoot down incoming anti-tank weapons.
However, "the M1A2 SEP v2 and v3 overall weight growth with full combat load and Trophy APS has introduced transportability and recovery challenges," the Pentagon's chief weapons inspector warned in a 2021 report.
Indeed, the latest Abrams is now so heavy that it can't be towed by Army recovery vehicles, which means damaged or broken-down tanks might have to be left behind on the battlefield.
Enter the AbramsX, which is the M1 on a diet. While closely resembling the older models, the new vehicle only weighs 60 tons. Reduced weight offers numerous advantages, including the ability to use bridges that would collapse under a heavier vehicle.
AbramsX also fits with the Army's new Multi-Domain Operations doctrine. After decades of focusing on counterinsurgency, the new approach envisions large-unit mechanized operations against near-peer foes such as Russia and China.
The AbramsX cut weight with a series of interrelated upgrades.
The turret is smaller, which means less heavy armor plating. "Reducing the weight on the Abrams, which was really our primary design goal, required reducing the weight of the armor in the turret," Reese said.
The turret can be smaller because it is unmanned, with the crew nestled inside the armored hull. Using automation — including an autoloader for the cannon — allows the crew to be reduced from four to three, who now sit side-by-side in in the hull while monitoring multi-panel displays.
Shrinking the turret "generated some weight savings right off the bat," Reese said.
The AbramsX replaces the M1's efficient but notoriously fuel-guzzling AGT 1500 gas-turbine engine with a hybrid-electric engine more reminiscent of a Toyota Prius than conventional tank power plants.
General Dynamics claims the new engine slashes fuel consumption by 50%, improves reliability and ease of maintenance, and allow the tank to operate its electronics — and even perform some limited movement — using quieter battery power.
The AbramsX retains a 120 mm cannon as its main armament but replaces the current gun with the lighter XM360 originally developed for the failed Future Combat System. It also has a Kongsberg RS6 remote-controlled weapon station with an XM914 30 mm cannon and a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun.
As befits a 21st-century tank design, the AbramsX has some cutting-edge features. It is armed with six Switchblade 300 loitering munitions, known as "kamikaze drones." It also has an artificial-intelligence program — called "Katalyst" — that can help the crew identify and prioritize targets, navigate, and predict future maintenance.
If this sounds familiar, Russia's T-14 Armata, unveiled in 2015, also had an unmanned turret, a crew of three in the hull, and onboard drones. However, Russia's army has bought few of them, in part due to manufacturing difficulties. Notably, despite Russia's huge tank losses in Ukraine, it has not deployed the Armata there.
"The difference between us and the Armata is that ours works," Reese said.
Now vs. later
As with any tank design, there are tradeoffs. One reason the AbramsX is lighter is simply because of less armor around the unmanned turret. General Dynamics says it is up to the US government to decide the level of protection.
"If you keep the armor protection at a very minimal level, that's how we achieve the 60 tons," Reese said. "If you dial the armor protection all the way back up to what it is on an M1 v3 today, the weight goes up above 60 tons."
To its credit, General Dynamics is not touting the AbramsX as what a next-generation tank should be but rather as a demonstration of what capabilities are available.
"It's showing the art of the possible with existing technology," said Mark Hu, manager of US business development for GDLS. "What you can get now vs. waiting for 'unobtainium' that may finally become available in 2050 or 2068."
Whether the US Army will invest in a new tank remains to be seen.
Images of burning Russian tanks in Ukraine has led to numerous predictions of the tank's obsolescence. Those predictions are far from true, though they raise questions about the tank's role in the future.
If the Army does want the AbramsX, it can have it quickly. "Essentially, all of the capabilities on AbramsX will be ready to build into a new main battle tank, or retrofitted into the current Abrams fleet, within 18 to 24 months," Reese said.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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