What Makes the M1 Abrams So Critical to the Russia-Ukraine War?


The M1 Abrams tank is among the most powerful ground weapons in the U.S. arsenal, able to close in on enemy tanks, troop positions and other targets, blast them with its cannon and machine guns, and then speed away. 

The tank’s heavy armor protects the vehicle and its four-person crew from small-arms fire, shell fragments and even some direct hits. It can ford waters up to 4 feet deep.

“The fundamental mission of the tank platoon is to close with and destroy the enemy,” reads the first sentence of a 2019 training document for Army and Marine Corps tank commanders.

The Biden administration could announce as soon as Wednesday that it will send dozens of Abrams tanks to Ukraine to help Kyiv’s forces retake territory from the Russians. 

M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank

Turret 7.62 mm machine gun

12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun

Max speed:

Firing range:

Weight:

In service:

Origin:

41.6 mph

2.49 miles

57.2 tons

1986

U.S.

Max speed:

Firing range:

Weight:

In service:

Origin:

41.6 mph

2.49 miles

57.2 tons

1986

U.S.

Turret 7.62 mm machine gun

12.7 mm anti-aircraft

machine gun

Max speed:

Firing range:

Weight:

In service:

Origin:

41.6 mph

2.49 miles

57.2 tons

1986

U.S.

Turret 7.62 mm machine gun

12.7 mm anti-aircraft

machine gun

Named for Gen.

Creighton Abrams,

a World War II tank commander, the first Abrams entered service with the U.S. Army in 1980. Intended initially to fight the Soviets in Germany’s strategic Fulda Gap, the Abrams has been updated several times with a larger cannon and improvements to its armor, transmission and drivetrain. Over the years, the Pentagon has purchased more than 7,000 of the tanks in various configurations, according to the Congressional Research Service, a research arm of the Library of Congress.

The Abrams first saw action in the Gulf War, where it won wide praise from commanders, crews and maintenance workers for its killing power and toughness in the face of enemy fire, and speed, according to a 1992 report by the Government Accountability Office.

The tanks helped the U.S. military overpower Iraqi forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and supported raids and other operations in Fallujah and elsewhere. The tanks also served in Afghanistan, where a Marine Corps armored company deployed in 2011 and suffered only a single wounded in action during its tour, despite taking 19 IED strikes, according to an article in the Army journal Military Review.

But throughout its service, soldiers and war planners have been concerned about the tank’s huge fuel consumption and limited range, and the long logistics and maintenance train that follows the Abrams into combat. Those, among other factors, made the Pentagon reluctant to send Ukraine tanks.

A battalion of 58 tanks requires dozens of support vehicles and hundreds of soldiers to keep it running—a formula known in military circles as the tooth-to-tail ratio. Those could include armored ambulances, command vehicles, maintenance trucks, and trucks to tow disabled tanks. The trucks have to haul fuel, ammunition, lubricants, engine oil, hydraulic fluid and extremely heavy spare parts.

“Everything that’s associated with the tank is heavy,” said

Dan Grazier,

a former Marine Corps tank officer. 

Even with all that, a tank battalion can only operate for two or three days in the field without resupply from a logistics battalion, said Mr. Grazier, who is now a researcher at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan think tank.

“If we gave the Ukrainians tanks and we didn’t give them everything they need to support them logistically, then we would hardly be doing them any favors,” he said. “There’s a whole lot that needs to drag behind a tank to keep it moving.”

Germany announced Wednesday that it would send a small number of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. The U.S. is also expected to provide Abrams M1 tanks as part of a diplomatic understanding between the two countries, U.S. officials said. Photo: Ronny Hartmann/AFP

Write to Daniel Nasaw at daniel.nasaw@wsj.com

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