Ukraine is getting older US Abrams tanks, but Russia's Soviet-era tanks still won't be a match for them in battle

Marines in an M1A1 Main Battle Tank roll down a dirt road, kicking up dust behind them.
An M1A1 Abrams Tank at a training day in Exercise Africa Lion in April 13, 2012.Cpl Tyler L. Main/USMC/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
  • Ukraine will receive older M1A1 Abrams tanks, instead of newer Abrams.

  • These tanks have a record of defeating Soviet-era armor and will be an upgrade for Ukrainian forces.

  • One expert told Insider that the M1A1 is lethal and has firepower, range, and maneuverability.

Washington is fast-tracking the delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine, opting to send older M1A1 models instead of the newer M1A2s to get them there sooner. But the decision may still get Kyiv the firepower it needs, as the older tanks have a track record of defeating Soviet-era tanks like the ones Russia keeps sending into combat.

According to some early performance reports from the first Gulf War, America's M1A1 tanks were a formidable and invaluable asset on the battlefield. Crews praised their reliability, and they were particularly lethal against Iraq's Soviet-era tanks, such as the T-72s that Russia is currently employing in Ukraine.

"In a standoff between the two, I would not want to be in the T-72," Jeffrey Edmonds, a former US Army armor officer and a Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Insider. "I think that where the benefit comes from is the accuracy and power of the round."

Past testimonies from tank crews said the 120mm gun, turret, and firing computer were sophisticated, but Edmonds said much of the tank's combat power boiled down to highly-accurate kinetic energy sabot rounds equipped with depleted uranium shells.

"It's hard to say what contributes more to the lethality of the tank," Edmonds said, "but from my understanding, the bulk of the killing power comes from the round itself."

Performance reports make similar arguments, noting that the inclusion of the depleted uranium boosted a round's ability to penetrate heavy tank armor. The US has not yet said anything specific about providing these rounds, but the UK, which is also sending tanks, said this week that it would be supplying Ukraine with depleted uranium tank shells.

The M1A1 could also fire these shots at great distances, hitting targets beyond anticipated ranges, Edmonds said.

The M1A1 can survive hits and maneuver quickly

American soldiers operating an M1A1 Abrams tank as an oil wells burn in the distance,
US soldiers used M1A1 Abrams tanks during the Gulf War in March 20, 1991.Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

In the Gulf War, the M1A1 was very successful at moving around the battlefield. While it scanned for and attacked targets, evading enemy action quickly was crucial.

"The M1A1 was designed to very rapidly hit multiple targets at long range," Edmonds said. It proved agile in a variety of terrains, often setting the pace of movement and battle.

But the tank proved to be a defensive presence just as much as an offensive threat. Edmonds said that one of the best qualities of the A1 is its survivability, which comes from its armor and design, he added.  Gulf War assessments speak to this, too, noting examples of enemy fire bouncing off its armor and the A1 being able to take multiple hits while still dealing damage.

A lot of the American tank's strength comes from its design. The M1A1 has capable armor and lacks the critical weaknesses of some Soviet models, such as the T-72's vulnerable turret ammunition storage, which, if shot, can blow up the whole tank in a flaw known as the "jack-in-the-box" problem.

Instead, the A1 stores its ammunition behind the turret, separated from the crew by blast doors. If the ammunition storage is shot or destroyed, its blast will likely funnel up and out, away from the crew.

The M1A1's survivability was also demonstrated during the Gulf War. At the end of that conflict, only 9 tanks were lost. None were the result of enemy action though. Two were intentionally sabotaged to prevent enemy capture, and the other seven were damaged by friendly fire, an issue that arose because the tanks could acquire targets at greater distances that made it difficult for crews to distinguish between friends and foes.

Ukraine could use them effectively, but there are challenges

A M1A1 Abrams tank firing during NATO training exercise in an open field
A US Army M1A1 Abrams tank at a NATO group military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, in March 26, 2021.INTS KALNINS/REUTERS

The M1A1 is a very heavy hitter, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. During the Gulf War, tank crews complained about sand getting into the air filtration systems, as well as constant refueling, which the updated versions and the A2 improved upon. Reports also cited frustrations about supply chains for repairs and parts, which could also be a hindrance for Ukraine given it doesn't have those critical capabilities in place.

But beyond any strengths or weaknesses, any success Ukraine derives from the M1A1 will come from two factors: how they employ the tank for combined arms warfare and counteroffensive operations and whether or not Russia continues to make the same tactical errors on the battlefield.

"It's not just about the tanks," he added, "It's about whether or not the Ukrainians can actually navigate these tanks in concert with artillery."

It'll be an adjustment for Kyiv, whose troops have been on the defensive and largely operating old Soviet-era tanks that are being overworked, require constant maintenance, and sometimes won't even fire. Ukrainian tank operators will need to learn how to make use of the M1A1's capabilities and range in an environment covered with trees, trenches, and mud.

And, Edmond said that they'll need to make the most of the A1's ability to identify targets and pick off enemies quickly — a tactical approach that contrasts with some of Russia's failures in battle.

Russian tanks often stop and locate targets when being fired at or simply flee the engagement area. "The whole point of maneuver is the issue of movement and firepower," he said. "I don't see Russia doing that."

If Russia continues its blunders, its Soviet-era tanks will be vulnerable to the M1A1's speed and substantial firepower, helping Kyiv eventually blunt Russia's offensive efforts and secure the front lines. But that development won't come any time soon. Even though the US is speeding up its timeline to get Ukraine M1A1s, the tanks likely won't get to the battlefield for at least eight to ten months.

Read the original article on Business Insider