During the 1991 Gulf War, American soldiers fighting on an Abrams tank named the Red Ace had to be careful to keep desert sand out of its gas turbine engine.
John Nagel, a professor at the US Army War College who led a platoon of Red Aces and later served in a tank battalion task force, said that with too much air pushed through the engine, “sand ingestion and not working” There were great concerns about”. Iraq war which started in 2003.
The platoon “spent a lot of time literally banging up our air filters”, he said.
Nagel’s experience is not unique. For decades, armored units of the US military have lamented the long logistics tail required to maintain the combat capability of the Abrams in combat zones. It was those concerns that prompted a counter-briefing by the Pentagon last month, in which senior US defense officials repeatedly discredited the Abrams after requests from Berlin and Kyiv that the tanks be sent to Ukraine.
Despite these concerns, the US will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, the equivalent of a Ukrainian tank battalion, after Kiev is successful in its campaign to persuade the Allies to provide Western-built tanks. Ukraine will receive roughly twice as many European-made tanks, mainly the German Leopard 2, which is seen by military experts as the best match for the defending army.
The intense maintenance and logistics required to keep the Abrams combat-ready makes it less ideal for foreign militaries such as Ukraine, which only need well-functioning weapons. But it is also a symptom of a US defense procurement system that, critics argue, repeatedly complicates its massive military platforms, loading them with pet technologies that drive up costs and make them difficult to maintain. Are.
“There’s a Bias in the Pentagon to Buy the Best Defense [systems]But other countries “just need whatever they can get working,” said Josh Kirshner, managing director of strategic advisory firm Beacon Global Strategies.
Sometimes countries like Ukraine, which need something useful on the battlefield right now, “don’t want the Cadillac of defense goods, they just need ‘good enough’ gear”. Military experts say that the Leopard and Abrams achieve approximately equal results.
The Pentagon is plagued with weapons systems that run well over budget due to the demands of highly complex technologies. When the US Navy began a new program to build a Zumwalt-class destroyer fleet in 1998, it projected the purchase of 32 ships at a cost of $1bn each. But Navy procurement officials included so many unproven technologies on their wish lists that two decades later, America ended up with only three—each costing $7.5 billion. The third finally put to sea last year.
The US Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, recently chastised the Pentagon for “historically no rivals in superiority, but who routinely take longer to field, cost more has been repeatedly flagged for complexity-driven overruns to buy, and for providing less capacity than initially intended”.
“Our acquisition system is Neanderthal, in that we actually created a quick acquisition system to get our own acquisition system,” said Dov Zakhim, former undersecretary of defense under President George W. Bush.
Nagel insisted that the M1 Abrams “is a terrible tank, but it is an American tank and the American way of war demands all the logistics in the world”.
The main difference between the Abrams and the Leopard is the engine. The Abrams has a turbine engine similar to a jet, while the Leopard has a conventional diesel engine, the power source for tanks globally that acts more like a truck. They require completely different types of machinery and the crew are trained to be mechanics on specific gadgets.
Ukrainian soldiers are fully capable of learning how to operate and maintain Abrams—after all, Ukraine has had one of the world’s largest tank fleets for decades. But time is of the essence and the complexity of the turbine engine will render training longer than for the Leopard – with so much experience on diesel engine tanks, the Ukrainians have a high baseline of knowledge going into preparation for the Leopard.
“Knowing how to repair a Volkswagen Beetle is not necessarily the same as knowing how to repair an F1 racing car,” said Stephen Biddle, assistant senior fellow for defense policy at the think-tank Council on Foreign Relations.
A gas turbine engine “will achieve very high acceleration in exchange for very high fuel consumption” but is “very finely behaved”, Biddle said.
In addition to requiring careful maintenance, the Abrams required a constant supply of spare parts over and over. Its supply network is in the US, a far cry from Leopard’s parts in Europe. Another supply factor is fuel—the Abrams, which needs to refill its 500-gallon tanks every day, uses jet fuel, which is much harder to find than the more ubiquitous diesel fuel.
Leopards are immediately available to Europe, while the US must build new Abrams for Ukraine. General Dynamics, which makes the Abrams in Lima, Ohio, produces about a dozen tanks per month and will need to be told whether to prioritize the vehicles for Ukraine over other orders.
Beacon Global’s Kirshner said supply complications would put the Ukrainian military at greater risk if they used mostly Leopards.
Kirshner said, “Ukraine does not want to be in a situation like Russia was in the first war, when Ukrainian drones and manned aircraft were quite successful in bombing Russian logistics.” “We’ve all seen videos of long lines of Russian tanks and supplies being destroyed.”
Lorraine Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a center-right think-tank, said these concerns were “exaggerated”, arguing that while the Pentagon had high-profile procurement failures, many weapons systems worked as advertised.
“General Criticism [of] Pentagon weapons are that they are too complex and consequently cost too much and have a low readiness rate,” Thompson said. “It’s a stereotype that is sometimes true but often exaggerated.”
The Abrams and the Leopard have common Cold War roots with Britain’s Challenger tank. According to Andrew Metric, a defense program fellow at the Center for a New American, the differential protection of tanks stemmed from a subtle divergence in the approaches to armored warfare of the US and German armies, taking into account possible Soviet invasions along the inter-German border. think tank.
Metric said the Pentagon sees a problem and seeks to address it with the best possible engineering solution. When someone is looking to buy an iPhone, the “shiny Halo model with all the nice specifications is really attractive. The US military procurement system certainly has some aspects of it.
But for other countries that cannot rely on the massive American logistics system when they order Abrams tanks, “why are you trying to introduce more logistical complexity . . . into a conflict when you need No? Metric added.