[Random] Car and Driver tests the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank
Mon, 28 May 2001 13:12:56 -0400
Car and Driver
M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank
In which our man attains a sense of personal empowerment that Deepak
Chopra just wouldn't understand.
By Tony Assenza
The M1A1 Abrams main battle tank is the final vehicular response in
U.S. foreign policy initiatives. When shuttle diplomacy fails and the
world's buttheads tax our patience beyond the point of mere talk, the
Abrams is what we send to indicate that Kofi Annan is out of the loop
and now we mean business. When one of these 65-ton beasts shows up in
the carport of the presidential palace, the choice is give up or get
In the food chain of terrain-gobbling tracked vehicles, the Abrams,
which is built in Lima, Ohio, is the top predator, the numero uno
tank. It can flatten a hundred Ford Expeditions without breaking
stride and reduce enemy armor to a grimy blob in the dirt in less
time than it takes you to say, "Okay, I quit." It's the ultimate
off-road vehicle. And frankly, we can't resist the opportunity to
test the ultimate anything. Especially if there's a 120mm cannon
attached to it.
Whatever Modena is to the Ferrari and Abingdon is to worshippers of
the sacred octagon, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in
California's Mojave Desert is that thing to tank people. Arranging a
visit to Fort Irwin for a test drive and some big-gun plinking
required hardly any haggling, begging, or even a permission slip from
the Secretary of Defense. I expected a lot of bureaucracy, forms in
triplicate, and a background check for known Assenza subversives.
What I got from Maj. Barry Johnson, the public affairs officer, was,
"No problem. When would you like to come?" The whole process was as
complicated as ordering a Happy Meal.
The host unit for my two days at Fort Irwin, just north of Barstow,
was the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR). It's also known as the
Blackhorse Regiment, a name that dates to the days when they still
rode horses and there were a lot fewer stars on our flag. The primary
mission of the 11th these days is to act as the OPFOR (opposing
force) for visiting armor units from all over the country--for that
matter, all over the planet. At the tank firing range, Staff Sergeant
Harris, a Gulf War vet, tank commander, and master gunner, was
assigned to be my instructor. He took part in Stormin' Norman's Hail
Mary play in the huge sweep deep into the Iraqi end zone, and spent
22 straight hours on the move looking for uniformed Iraqis to
pan-fry. We spent a few familiarization hours crawling over and
through one of the half-dozen tanks that had completed gunnery
qualification. The first thing that struck me about the Abrams was
not how massive it is, but actually how compact it is for all the
hardware it carries.
Lesson No. 1 about the Abrams is that there's no graceful way of
getting in. You need to be young and limber, which is probably why
45-year-old guys aren't heavily recruited by the Army.
Lesson No. 2 is that leading-edge American tank technology has
created an amazing array of equipment on which you can bang your
head, shine your elbows, and scuff your shins. Dropping down into the
gunner's station is like crawling inside an industrial-size clothes
dryer that someone has already partly filled with the contents of a
steel mill. With practice, of course, you learn all the Twyla Tharp
moves necessary to avoid all the stuff that can raise a bump or
remove dermal surfaces. But to the novice, it's like jumping into a
Sergeant Harris was a patient instructor. He said nothing to make me
feel like a dweeb as he watched me clang and bank-shot my way to the
Once inside, the tank is surprisingly comfortable. With the exception
of the crew seat bottoms, there isn't one soft or padded surface
anywhere in this machine. Automotive-style ergonomics are yet to make
an appearance in tank design. But then you realize that lots of soft
plastic and rich fabric is just that much more stuff that can catch
fire when the penetrators start flying.
There are four crew stations in an Abrams. The driver is way up
front, all by his lonesome. The gunner sits to the right of the main
gun on a seat the size of a barstool. The commander is directly
behind and above the gunner, with his feet practically on the
gunner's shoulders. The loader is located to the left of the gun.
When the tank is buttoned up, everyone views the world through vision
ports. The commander has a series of ports built into his hatch and
has almost 360-degree visibility. The driver can see for about 180
degrees. However, if you want to simulate the gunner's view through
his single port, tape a shoebox to your head and cut a hole about the
size of a tape cassette in the bottom. It's as panoramic as glaucoma.
Most of the time, the gunner is looking through the GPS-LOS targeting
system. That's Gunner's Primary Sight-Line of Sight, which uses
sophisticated optical and thermal imaging, and the gun points where
that gunner is looking. This is why you see tanks in battle traveling
in staggered formations with the guns pointed in every direction. The
idea is to quarter the compass so nothing sneaks up and thwangs them.
With the sun setting and my initial orientation coming to a close, we
headed to the Distinguished Visitors' Quarters (DVQ). The DVQ is
comparable to a budget motel. It was neat and comfortable, there was
cable TV complete with an all-Fort-Irwin-all-the-time channel, and I
didn't see any $600 toilet seats.
At 7:30 the next morning, Sergeant Harris met me at the tank
simulators looking fresher than I did, even though he'd slept just
five hours. The simulators are housed in structures that look like
shipping containers, and they're powered by generators that are
themselves roughly the size of the tank. They supply juice for the
wall-to-wall computers and for the Arctic-strength climate-control
system. The computers need to be kept within a narrow temperature and
humidity range, roughly the climate you find in your fridge's salad
crisper. The simulator replicates the stations occupied by the gunner
and commander, but you walk up to it, rather than dropping down. The
gunner's basic job is to scan the world ahead through the GPS-LOS
system, spot targets, and shoot them with the main gun. There's a
switch that magnifies the view three times and 10 times. The gun is
aimed and fired by means of control paddles that would feel familiar
to any nine-year-old with a Nintendo. The manufacturer's label on the
paddles said Cadillac-Gage, which made me wonder if they were
available with wood-grain and a landau option.
Paddle operation is utterly simple. You scan the landscape by
traversing and elevating the gun with the paddles until you find a
target. This is done in 3X, which has a wider field of view than 10X.
Once you acquire a target, you switch to 10X magnification. This
makes the target bigger and, consequently, easier to aim at and kill.
You center the reticle on the target and press the laser button and
the magic happens. The fire-control computer calculates things like
wind speed and direction, lead angle measurement, the bend of the gun
measured by the muzzle reference system, and data from the pendulum
static cant sensor in the center of the turret, and then it makes
automatic adjustments to the gun barrel. The calculations take less
than the proverbial blink of a dirty thought, and you're presented
with the calculated range in the sight. You squeeze the triggers, the
gun fires, and if you did it right--it's hard to do it wrong--the
target cooks off like a sparkler. In combat conditions, the firing
system has an 85-percent first-shot kill probability.
Computer tank fighting like this really isn't much different from a
video game. Except, of course, that this one costs as much as a
skyscraper in downtown Tokyo, and if you break it, Senate committees
get together and mutter your name in disparaging tones. Nonetheless,
computers are ultimately cheaper than buying a lot of $4.3 million
practice tanks for the recruits to play with.
Sergeant Harris ran me through three scenarios that got progressively
more difficult. In the first one, I killed everything in sight
because my computer opponents were apparently simulating the
reactions of overweight businessmen after a three-martini lunch.
Piece of cake. In the second scenario, the targets weren't so inert.
Some of them actually moved to evade my storm of simulated steel. To
hit the movers, you laser and track by keeping the reticle on them.
The fire-control computer does the rest. Some of my braver cyber
opponents had the nerve to shoot back. I got most of them. The
quicker ones slipped away behind hills and farmhouses. I was starting
In the third scenario, multiple targets, including tank-killing
helicopters, started popping up and lobbing ordnance at me. And there
were unexpected infantry charges. These were simulated by red dots
apparently armed with antitank weapons. I had to hose them down with
the 7.62mm coaxial machine gun before they killed me. The problem of
staying alive became acute by the middle of scenario three. While I
was busy with an enemy tank, a tank-killing helicopter popped over a
ridge and killed me. By the end of this session, I was drenched, and
I'd died so many times I thought I was Shirley MacLaine.
Sergeant Harris was supportive. "You did better than a lot of our
recruits," he said. He was kind not to remind me that to qualify for
tank duty his recruits have five more levels to survive, each tougher
than the last. The next time you hear some TV military expert flap
his gums about low-stress video-game wars and push-button battles, I
can offer a very wet Banana Republic shirt in rebuttal. And that was
just the simulator. The next step was the real deal. We went back to
the firing range. I suited up in Nomex, gloves, balaclava, and helmet
with built-in headphones, and Twyla Tharp'd my way into the gunner's
station. My concern at this point was to try very hard not to look
like Michael Dukakis in his famous tank-commander photo op.
Once you get used to the idea of being in a steel clothes dryer that
weighs 65 tons and is draped with depleted uranium armor and is awash
with 500 gallons of fuel, with high-pressure hydraulics snaking
throughout and crammed full of explosives, the Abrams was fairly
comfortable. Really. In fact, the ride out to our first firing
station was more comfortable than the ride to the range in Major
Johnson's Humvee, and with the intercom phones on, remarkably quiet.
The ride motions are a gentle back-and-forth rocking, and the ride
quality is amazingly well damped, almost cushiony. The springing
media are torsion bars, seven per side, a system that dates back to
tank designs of the 1930s. It took me all of 30 seconds to feel
completely at ease.
The first order of business was firing the coaxial 7.62mm machine gun
and the .50-caliber M2 commander's machine gun. The coaxial gun is
mounted alongside the main gun and lives a foot away from the
gunner's left ear. The gunner aims it through the same sight as that
of the main gun. Sergeant Harris had me throw the weapon selector
switch from main to coaxial, and I took aim on a berm about 100 yards
away. On his command, we both cut loose. Through the gun sight I saw
my tracers arc to the berm, kicking up satisfying sprays of dirt as
the rounds hit. I traversed left and right, hosing the berm to make
sure the Mojave Desert wouldn't suddenly jump up and attack us.
Then it was on to the main event--the main gun. Harris told me to
look for a retired and thoroughly shot-up Sheridan tank up on a hill.
With the naked eye it looked about the size of a muffin viewed across
a football field. Amazing how a desert can swallow something weighing
as much as a shopping mall. I found it in 3X, magnified it to 10X,
and lased it. The range readout was a shade more than 1200 yards.
The cannon rounds are stored in a magazine behind an armored sliding
door. To get the rounds, the loader presses a flapper-type lever with
his knee to activate the door. The loader grabbed a practice round
and heaved it into the breech, a hunk of machined steel the size of a
diesel V-8. I heard "Up!" in my headphones, indicating there was a
round in the chamber. Harris cleared me to shoot. I made sure the
reticle was square on my target and squeezed the triggers.
I've fired big guns before, stuff like .308s, .454 Casulls, and even
two memorable rounds out of a bone-crunching .600 Holland & Holland
Nitro Express, the famed elephant gun of English hunters. But none of
that prepared me for the almighty Richter-scale recoil of the tank's
German-built 120mm smooth-bore cannon. The 65-ton Abrams literally
rocked back on its torsion bars and shocks. And the view out the
GPS-LOS was a hurricane of dust. I suppose I should say that it was
scary, or disorienting, or at least sobering, as when they detonated
the first A-bomb in New Mexico and J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, "I
am become death, the destroyer of worlds." But what it really was was
empowering. The kind of empowering that people like New Ager Deepak
Chopra will never understand. And a lot more fun than I'd ever had
with pistols and rifles.
When the dust cleared, Staff Sergeant Harris announced a hit. Through
the sight I saw that the turret on the Sheridan was no longer
straight. My round had knocked it right out of the turret ring, and
it was sitting cockeyed. "Nice shot," I heard over the headphones.
Manhood redeemed. Hippopotamic ballerina moves getting into the
Major Johnson had generously arranged six rounds for me to shoot, and
by the sixth round I was hooked. But completely. I wanted six more,
and I was ready to write a check to cover the cost. I don't know what
heroin or biker meth feels like, but if it feels anything like
shooting a gun as big as a utility pole accurately enough to shear
the mustache off Saddam's face, I had a 120mm monkey on my back.
Although I'd like to credit my outstanding marksmanship for hitting
every target I shot at, the real credit goes to the targeting system.
It's one of the most sophisticated in the world, but it's also
utterly simple to operate. Witness my performance. I wouldn't go so
far as to say it's stupid-proof, but you'd have to be an
australopithecine to fail to grasp the fundamentals and successfully
put steel on target. Which makes me feel only a little better about
paying too much in taxes.
Speaking of steel, the Abrams has two basic bullets in its arsenal.
The primary tank killer is the APFSDS round, dubbed the "silver
bullet" in the Gulf War. I shot six of these, but they were practice
rounds, less powerful and cheaper, although just as accurate as the
combat rounds. The other is a HEAT round.
The APFSDS stands for "armor piercing fin stabilized discarding
sabot," also known as a long rod penetrator to its friends. This
round contains no explosive. The part that hurts is shaped like a
long lawn dart with built-in fins. The precise length, width, and
weight of the rod is not available, but we do know it's made of
either tungsten or depleted uranium. Because it contains no
explosive, its killing power is entirely dependent on the kinetic
energy transfer as it encounters enemy steel plate at roughly 2900
feet per second. Basically, when the long rod hits armor, it bores
its way through and creates a fountain of molten metal inside the
target, which immediately begins to consume everything
inside--munitions, hydraulics, sack lunches, pictures of your dog,
etc. If it doesn't fully penetrate, the thwang it creates is powerful
enough to fragment and shatter the interior of the armor (a condition
known as spall), creating the effects of a hand grenade. It would be
hard to duck and dodge fast enough to avoid the little chunks of
steel rocketing around the interior. Think of a frog in a blender.
The HEAT round ("high-energy antitank") is what we think of as a
conventional explosive. Due to its cone design, it concentrates all
its explosive energy into an area the size of a quarter. On impact,
the high-velocity cone of flame burns its way through armor and does
to the squishy humans inside the hull what you would expect a welding
torch to do to a game hen.
How far do these APFSDS rounds travel before they lose the energy
required to penetrate enemy armor? Many people would like to know.
Even when offered a free subscription to C/D, no one at Fort Irwin
would say exactly. All they would admit to was "far enough." During
the Gulf War, the reach-out-and-touch-an-Iraqi range was far enough
so that the Iraqis in their Russian armor could not touch back.
The next order of business, the actual driving of the Abrams, was
almost anticlimactic. As was shooting the big gun, it's utter
simplicity. There is some getting used to the recumbent driving
position, but if you've ever spent time in a 65-ton Formula Ford,
well, then it's very familiar.
Steering and throttle are controlled by a motorcycle-style handlebar.
Twist the right wrist, and you go. Turn the handlebar through its
narrow range of travel, and you turn right and left. Braking is
accomplished by a large pedal under your right foot. Forward and
reverse are executed by moving a lever through a notched quadrant
mounted horizontally just above the handlebars. A panel for vital
functions is located to the right at about eye level. Basically, if
nothing flashes red, you're in good shape.
With Sergeant Harris in the commander's position and me in the
driver's hole, I took the Abrams out on the firing range. Harris
warned me to stay on the trails. I asked if that was because of
danger from unexploded ordnance or something cool like that. "It's
the desert tortoises," he said. "This is an endangered species
habitat." Apparently, if the U.S. Army squishes a tortoise, the U.S.
Department of Turtles can bring our nation's war readiness and tank
training to a grinding halt.
The throttle, connected to the 1500-horsepower gas-turbine engine, is
remarkably sensitive. With a little twist, you can move off at a
modest crawl without jerkiness. Crack it wide open, and it feels as
though you've been rear-ended by the Rocky Mountains. Even pushing 65
tons, the 3940 pound-feet of torque will cause the tank equivalent of
chirping your tires, gouging out chunks of desert.
As you might imagine, the turning radius is, uh, generous while on
the move (at a standstill, the Abrams can pivot in place). It's like
steering a boat. You have to plan your moves and turn in early to
compensate for drift. Sustained full throttle moves the Abrams along
at a speed-governed 42 mph. And even over rough desert terrain, the
ride is smooth enough to rate as comfortable. More cushy, in fact,
than that of any sport-ute I've ever driven over similar terrain. And
unlike an off-road truck, there's no banging and thudding of shocks,
control arms, and bump stops. All you hear through the headset are a
distant whine and the occasional rattle of steel treads.
Like firing the main gun, there's a tremendous sense of empowerment
connected with driving this rig. You don't care what's in front of
you, because you can probably squash it. I'd heard that in combat
crews have disabled the speed governors and cracked along at 60 mph.
No reliable source could confirm this. Many have said that's
impossible. So it's probably impossible. Or maybe not. What I can
verify is that standing on the brakes from top speed will practically
make the Abrams stand on its nose. Although we didn't do instrumented
testing, a rough estimate of the stopping distance from 45 mph is
zero feet. It feels like falling headfirst into a sinkhole. Tank time
ran out much too quickly. I was presented with a master gunner patch
by Sergeant Harris. I gave my hosts C/D T-shirts. I think I got the
better of the exchange.