Thousands of U.S. and allied armored vehicles swept into Kuwait and southern Iraq 30 years ago for the final decisive battle of the Persian Gulf War.
During 100 hours of sometimes fierce fighting, which included the largest tank battles since World War II, wave after wave of M-1 Abrams and other tanks steamrolled through several Iraqi army divisions, effectively ending Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s brutal occupation of the Gulf emirate.
The antiquated Soviet-era tanks used by Iraq were no match for the powerful and technologically advanced Abrams. The Army said “friendly fire” incidents accounted for seven of the nine U.S. tanks lost during the fighting and the remaining two were destroyed intentionally to avoid capture.
But the battlefield balance of power has changed radically over the ensuing three decades. With the U.S. military now preparing to contend with more powerful and sophisticated rivals such as China and Russia, keeping the Abrams moving and its crew safe is becoming more of a challenge.
Recent conflicts, notably Azerbaijan’s dominant victory over Armenia in a seven-week border war this fall, have dramatically underscored a new vulnerability. Tanks and classic armored vehicles are now exposed to more accurate long-range artillery and widely available drone technology that can pinpoint targets.
The U.S. Army is trying to even the odds. It has turned to defense giant Lockheed Martin to help keep tanks, along with Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles, more secure from new threats.
Lockheed Martin began working with the Army in 2014 to develop its Modular Active Protection System (MAPS). Under a recently announced three-year deal, the company is ready to test the system, which includes a framework of sensors and countermeasures that the Pentagon hopes will defeat any rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles.
“The MAPS base kit has proven itself in multiple live-fire demonstrations,” said David Rohall, program manager for advanced ground vehicle systems at Lockheed Martin. “We’re ready to support integration and testing on a variety of Army combat vehicles, the final step before the Army makes a formal decision on fielding this capability.”
Tanks and infantry have engaged in an arms race ever since they first clashed on the battlefield more than a century ago. But in recent years, the well-trained and well-equipped infantry soldier has grabbed the advantage with weapons such as the Javelin missile, which can kill tanks by attacking them from above, where their armor is thinnest.
There are two ways to protect a tank on a battlefield: Slap on additional layers of heavy armor, which adds weight to the vehicle and may hinder maneuverability, or adopt some kind of active protection system. The Army has searched for a solution for years, but their efforts were lost during Pentagon budget cuts.
The U.S. is not alone. Many militaries around the world have failed to properly invest in defensive systems that could help keep tanks from becoming sitting ducks on battlefields, said Jack Watling, a research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.
“If you’re going to spend your money today, it’s providing those layers of protections to make sure you can deploy those systems,” Mr. Watling said. “It’s not the tank; it’s the air defense system — the things that go around it.”
Under the testing deal, Lockheed Martin is to deliver five production-ready MAPS base kits, with an option for up to 20, and support the Army while it tests the system on its fleet of armored combat vehicles. The company also will help develop better protection against an underbelly blast, such as from an improvised explosive device, officials said.
“The open and scalable MAPS base kit is designed to grow with current combat vehicles and support future vehicle protection system capabilities,” company officials said.
During past testing, the MAPS system was able to ward off 15 out of 15 missiles fired at it by jamming the signals and causing the missiles to fly off target.
The Marine Corps scrapped its three tank battalions this year after the Corps commandant, Gen. David Berger, said the M-1 Abrams tank didn’t have a role in missions of the future as a lean, amphibious-focused striking unit. After that, finding a viable mission for the tank became the Army’s problem.
Russia, the focus of the U.S. Army’s push toward military operations in Eastern Europe, has its own active protective system, known as Arena. It can stop anti-tank grenades and missiles from destroying main battle tanks. The U.S. has more than 6,000 tanks in its arsenal, twice as many as fast-growing China, with about 3,500, but half as many as Russia, with nearly 13,000.
Tanks may have become more vulnerable to attack, but military leaders say they will remain major players on the battlefield. They would be needed to counter Russia if it pushes into one of its neighbors in Eastern Europe or North Korea if it invades South Korea.
Even with extra protection such as from MAPS, infantry commanders will be working on new tactics to knock out tanks, such as overwhelming a target with attacks from multiple anti-tank teams.
“A multidirectional attack could also force the vehicle to expose the rear of the system to one of the anti-tank teams, enabling their missile to bypass the protection,” Army Capt. Vincent Delaney wrote for West Point’s Modern War Institute website.
⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.
• Mike Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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