First produced in 1980, the U.S. M1 Abrams is still the best main battle tank in the world. While the U.S. Army is working on a replacement for the venerable Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the Abrams will remain in service for decades to come. Moreover, a series of planned upgrades will ensure the Abrams will continue to dominate conventional battlefields the world over. The Abrams is also in demand by U.S. friends and allies. Private companies throughout the Midwest are playing a central role both in maintaining and modernizing the Abrams. For Michigan this translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues and thousands of well-paying, skilled manufacturing and engineering jobs.
After the end of the Cold War, many countries, including a number of NATO allies, made the mistake of getting rid of some or all of their main battle tanks. All but a few, notably the U.S., have not bothered to upgrade what tanks they had for the past twenty years.
With the return of great power competition, the tank has become a hot commodity again. Russia is trying to build a modern army and has begun deploying a brand new main battle tank, the T-14 Armata. China is reorganizing and re-equipping its military, making it more capable of operations beyond its borders. It is deploying indigenously-built main battle tanks. NATO countries, in particular, are scrambling to acquire additional tanks and upgrade the ones they possess.
The U.S. Army does not have to develop a new tank. Today’s version of the Abrams, designated the M1A2, is not your father’s main battle tank. Since it was introduced in 1980, the Abrams has undergone a series of improvements to keep it ahead of competitors. Over the three-plus decades the tank has been in service, the Army has upgraded or replaced almost everything on it but the original 1500 horsepower gas turbine engine.
New upgrades will ensure that the Abrams maintains its dominant position for decades to come. The Army is beginning to receive the latest version of the Abrams, once designated the System Enhancement Package Version 3 (SEPv3) but now called the M1A2C. The M1A2C has new computers, sensors, radios, power units and power management systems. The M1A2C program added an improved Ammunition Data Link for the fire control system and new rounds for the 120mm main gun, including one designed to defeat the explosive reactive armor on the latest Russian tanks. The U.S. Army also is equipping hundreds of its M1A2Cs with the Trophy active protection system which can defeat a variety of anti-tank missiles. A more advanced defense, the Modular Active Protection System, is currently in development.
U.S. friends and allies, needing to enhance their conventional military capabilities in response to the growing military challenges posed by Russia and China, have been looking to acquire modern main battle tanks. Unfortunately, most Western nations, including the United States, stopped building new tanks years ago. As a result, many countries looking for better tanks must compete for the dwindling supply of surplus platforms.
Fortunately for some of these countries, the United States still retains a significant inventory of M1s as well as a strong technical and industrial base to support their modernization. As part of a massive military procurement, the U.S. is planning to sell Taiwan a range of new platforms and weapons systems including an advanced version of the F-16 fighter, M-9 Reaper drones, shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and at least 100 M1A2s. Poland, which must replace its aging fleet of Soviet-era tanks, is another candidate for acquiring the M1.
The nation once came close to losing its ability to upgrade the Abrams. In 2013, the Obama administration sought to cancel the program to upgrade the Abrams to the M1A2 standard and shutter for four years the sole facility capable of supporting this program. Fortunately, under enormous criticism, the White House rescinded its decision.
But it was up to the Trump administration to breathe new life into the tank upgrade program and with it, help to revitalize high-end manufacturing in states such as Michigan. The Trump administration’s defense budgets provided billions in additional procurement dollars to support the acquisition of the latest version of the Abrams. Production of M1A2Cs increased from one per month to ten or more. Funding for Abrams upgrades allowed for the expansion in critical parts of the armored vehicle industrial base and the creation of thousands of new jobs. In addition to improving the readiness and combat effectiveness of the U.S. military, this initiative helped to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, particularly in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other parts of the Midwest.
This increase in funding for the M1A2C upgrade program has been particularly significant for Michigan. Just this past year, the program’s demand for steel, vehicle parts and components and electronic equipment translated into some $150 million dollars in business for around 150 Michigan companies. These private firms constitute an extremely important part of the M1 supply chain.
The M1 upgrade program also has created jobs in the state. Many of these are in high-end manufacturing, but others are in engineering services, quality control and testing, systems design and materials development. The skills developed working on the M1 program are clearly relevant to a range of commercial activities.
It is also important to recognize that this supply chain and its skilled workforce has a broader role in supporting and modernizing the U.S. military’s armored vehicle fleets, including the Stryker and Bradley armored fighting vehicles and the Paladin self-propelled artillery system. This same industrial base would support work on armored vehicles destined for friends and allies.
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