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Vulnerability of M1A1 Abrams MBTs: Five Delivered to Ukraine Taken Out in Two Months

Since their deployment on the Ukrainian front, the M1A1 Abrams tanks have shown significant vulnerabilities to drone attacks, raising questions about the durability of what is considered one of the most advanced armored vehicles in the world. According to a senior American official, five of the 31 Abrams tanks sent by the Pentagon to Ukraine have been destroyed and at least three others have suffered moderate damage over the past two months, as reported by the New York Times on April 20, 2024. 
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The 47th Mechanised Brigade of the Ukrainian Land Forces reportedly lost its 2nd M1A1 main battle tank after hitting an anti-tank mine during fighting to defend the town of Berdychi in the Donetsk region in March 2024 (Picture source: X Channel @sentdefender )

These losses highlight an increasing susceptibility to explosive drones, a phenomenon that could redefine the future use of these armored vehicles in conflicts. Additionally, the relatively low cost of these drones, estimated at $500 each, starkly contrasts with the cost of an Abrams tank, valued at $10 million.

These tanks, equipped with fuel-intensive Honeywell AGT1500 turbines, were not immediately put on the front line by the 47th Mechanized Brigade due to concerns about insufficient protection against remotely operated munitions. It was necessary to equip them with explosive reactive armor before deploying them to Avdiivka, in the Donbass. Their deployment soon revealed weaknesses: one tank was destroyed in February by a Russian-operated munition, and according to recent reports, four others have been destroyed and three damaged since February. Sources of this information include senior American officials and Colonel Markus Reisner, who analyzes the war in Ukraine on YouTube. Concurrently, the Oryx site reports two destroyed tanks and two others abandoned after damage.

The M1A1 Abrams is a main battle tank developed by the United States and noted for its effective integration of firepower, protection, and mobility. It is armed with a 120 mm main cannon and supplemented with a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, a 7.62 mm machine gun on the top turret, and a 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun. The tank is armored with advanced composite material, which includes depleted uranium layers known as Chobham armor, providing robust defense against anti-tank rounds.

In service across multiple countries such as Australia, Egypt, Iraq, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and recently Ukraine, the M1A1 Abrams has proven its utility and appeal in the international defense market. The tank weighs 62 tons and can achieve a maximum speed of 68 km/h, facilitated by its powertrain and structural design.

Additionally, the M1A1 Abrams is fitted with various systems to enhance its operational effectiveness and crew safety. These include a sophisticated fire control system, a laser rangefinder, night vision, and thermal imaging capabilities. It also features an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection system, environmental control for heating, and an automatic fire suppression system. Such equipment enables the Abrams to function in diverse environments and conditions, ensuring operability both during the day and at night, and resilience to NBC threats.

The tank is operated by a crew of four: the commander, gunner, loader, and driver, each essential to its operations and maintenance. The M1A1 Abrams measures 9.83 meters in length, 3.65 meters in width, and stands 2.89 meters tall, with an operational range of 426 km.

Overall, the war in Ukraine has seen the destruction of 796 of Ukraine's main battle tanks since it began in February 2022, according to data from Oryx, a military analysis site. Most of these are Soviet-era, Russian, or Ukrainian-made tanks, and about 140 had been supplied by NATO member states. The data also indicate that Russia has lost more than 2,900 tanks, although Ukraine estimates this number to be over 7,000. German Leopard tanks deployed in Ukraine have also been targeted, with at least 30 destructions reported by Oryx. Nevertheless, attention focuses on the Abrams tanks, which suffer effective attacks from explosive drones, a tactic that has surprised some experts and officials who had underestimated this threat.

Drones, especially those equipped with first-person view (FPV) cameras that transmit real-time images to their operators, have proven to be particularly effective tank killers. They have demonstrated their ability to hit Abrams tanks at their least protected points, such as the engine block and the turret base. Can Kasapoglu of the Hudson Institute highlighted in the New York Times that this vulnerability of the Abrams to drones "shows another way in which the conflict in Ukraine is reshaping the very nature of modern warfare" The relatively low cost of these drones, estimated at $500 each, contrasts sharply with the cost of an Abrams tank, valued at $10 million.

In response to these new threats, defense strategies are evolving. FPVs can be neutralized by jammers that disrupt their connection with the pilot, and other techniques such as using fishing nets to capture them have been observed on the battlefields in Ukraine. However, repeated use may be necessary to destroy a tank, despite an accuracy rate of less than 50%.

This situation reveals not only the limitations of traditional combat technologies but also raises questions about the future effectiveness of tanks in modern wars, marked by the rise of new tactics and technologies that are inexpensive yet effective. While tanks remain an essential weapon for seizing territory, a future where warfare is increasingly conducted at a distance, with remotely controlled weapon systems clashing while troops direct them from underground bunkers, is envisaged. This new paradigm suggests that, although tanks remain relevant, their role and use must adapt to the changing realities of modern warfare.

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 The M1A1 Abrams is a main battle tank developed by the United States and noted for its effective integration of firepower, protection, and mobility (Picture Source: Graphic News)

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