The M1 Abrams, headed to Ukraine, is the main U.S. battle tank.

A person wearing camouflage walks in front of tanks.
M1 Abrams tanks at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.Credit…Christian Murcock/The Gazette, via Associated Press

President Biden announced that the United States will send M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv for use against Russian forces, which would meet a demand made by Ukraine since the earliest days of the war, when its Soviet-era tanks were outnumbered and outmatched by Moscow’s.

The M1 Abrams has been the United States’ main battle tank since its introduction in the 1980s.

It was named for Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, a former Army chief of staff and commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam.

The tank was a major upgrade for Army and Marine Corps armor units. It was capable of much higher driving speeds with its gas-turbine engine, and its ammunition was separated from crew members, giving them a better chance of survival if hit by enemy fire.

Three tanks sit in the dirt behind a flame.
American M1 Abrams tanks during a NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, in 2016.Credit…Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Its 120-millimeter gun, made just north of Albany, N.Y., can fire a variety of shells, from canister rounds that act like giant shotguns to antitank rounds that can blow straight through one side of an enemy tank and out the other with narrow dart-like penetrators.

The Abrams was also revolutionary in the U.S. military for another reason — armor that can defeat or reduce the effectiveness of antitank weapons essentially by getting them to explode just outside of the inner hull containing the tank’s crew members.

Russian tanks are generally smaller and slower, powered by diesel motors, and more susceptible to exploding when struck by an antitank weapon.

Tanks designed in the Soviet era, which Ukraine also uses, tend to carry ammunition for their main gun in an auto-loader just under their turrets. When one is hit in its turret, the ammunition — arranged radially like spokes on a wheel — tends to explode en masse, often blowing the turret off the tank and killing the soldiers inside.

Newer Russian tanks carry blocks of reactive armor to cover more vulnerable areas, though they cannot stop antitank guided weapons like the Javelin and NLAW provided by the United States and Britain. Those weapons fire downward onto the top of a tank, where it has the least amount of armor protection.

Several tanks sit in the sand. A black flag with a white skull and crossbones is in the foreground.
Marine Corps reservists working on their Abrams M1-A1 tank in the northern Kuwaiti desert near Iraq in 2003.Credit…Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse

They have been a fixture in the Middle East, beginning with their arrival in Saudi Arabia in 1990. Many Americans first saw the Abrams in video taken during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

The Abrams destroyed Iraqi tanks more than two miles away, though it was also responsible for several friendly-fire attacks that killed and wounded American troops.

They were deployed for urban battles in Iraq in 2003, and were used in Afghanistan in 2010.

They can be powerful symbols as well. President Donald J. Trump was desperate to have Abrams tanks in a parade of military hardware on July 4, 2019, but had to settle for two lighter-weight tank-like M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles parked on either side of the Lincoln Memorial.

New York Times – January 25, 2023

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