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M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank in Action

Although fielded in 1980, the Abrams remained untested for over 10 years. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, there were concerns that the Abrams would fall victim to the sand and long months of continuous operation without the luxury of peacetime maintenance facilities. There were also doubts about the combat survivability of the extensive turret electronics. Immediately following President Bush's decision to commit US forces to the Gulf region in defense of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, American armored units began the difficult process of relocating to the threatened area.

Due to the shear size and weight of the Abrams, the C-5 Galaxy, the largest cargo aircraft in the US Air Force inventory, was only able to handle one tank at a time. This meant that nearly all of the Abrams tanks deployed in the Gulf War were shipped by cargo ship. Although slow in coming, the arrival of the Abrams was much welcomed by Allied forces, as it is capable of defeating any tank in the Iraqi inventory.

The Iraqi Army had a considerable array of tanks, mostly purchased from the former Soviet Union. Chief among these were about 500 T-72's. These modern Soviet tanks were armed with an excellent 125mm smoothbore weapon and had many of the same advanced features found on the Abrams. Despite it's advanced design, the T-72 proved to be inferior to the M1A1's deployed during the Gulf War, and compared more closely with the older M60A3 tanks used there by the US Marine Corps. In addition, Iraq had a number of earlier Soviet models: perhaps as many as 1,600 T-62 and about 700 T-54, both of which were developed in the 1960's. These tanks were widely regarded as clearly inferior to the Abrams, but were expected to be highly reliable mechanically. The Gulf War provided military tacticians with an opportunity to evaluate developments in tank design that had not been available since World War II.

In his book "Desert Victory - The War for Kuwait", author Norman Friedman writes that "The U.S. Army in Saudi Arabia probably had about 1,900 M1A1 tanks. Its ability to fire reliably when moving at speed over rough ground (because of the stabilized gun mount) gave it a capability that proved valuable in the Gulf. The Abrams tank also has. vision devices that proved effective not only at night, but also in the dust and smoke of Kuwaiti daytime. On average, an Abrams outranged an Iraqi tank by about 1,000 meters." The actual numbers of Abrams M1 and M1A1 tanks deployed to the Gulf War (according to official DOD sources) are as follows: A total of 1,848 M1A1 and M1A1 "Heavy Armor" (or HA) tanks were deployed between the US Army and Marine Corp (who fielded 16 M1A1's and 60 M1A1(HA) tanks).

As the Gulf War shifted pace from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm, and the preparatory bombardment lifted, U.S. Abrams tanks spearheaded the attack on Iraqi fortifications and engaged enemy tanks whenever and wherever possible. Just as they had done in the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Army used it's tanks as fixed anti-tank and artillery pieces, digging them into the ground to reduce target signature. However, this also prevented their quick movement and Allied air power smashed nearly 50% of Iraq's tank threat before Allied armor had moved across the border. After that the Abrams tanks quickly destroyed a number of Iraqi tanks that did manage to go mobile.

The Abrams' thermal sights were unhampered by the clouds of thick black smoke over the battlefield that were the result of burning Kuwaiti oil wells. In fact many Gunners relied on their "night" sights in full daylight. Such was not the case with the sights in the Iraqi tanks, which were being hit from units they could not even see. Concerns about the M1A1's range were eliminated by a massive resupply operation that will be studied for years as a model of tactical efficiency.

During the Gulf War only 18 Abrams tanks were taken out of service due to battle damage: nine were permanent losses, and another nine suffered repairable damage, mostly from mines. Not a single Abrams crewman was lost in the conflict. There were few reports of mechanical failure. US armor commanders maintained an unprecedented 90% operational readiness for their Abrams Main Battle Tanks.

The contrast between Mogadishu in 1993 and Baghdad in 2003 highlighted the game-changing role tanks can play in an urban envi- ronment. Lack of even a modest U.S. armor presence in Somalia hobbled mission efforts, requiring United Nations armor (Pakistani forces) be called upon to mount a rescue effort of surrounded Army Rangers and other special operations forces in October 1993. In stark contrast, the rapid seizure of Baghdad and quick defeat of organized Iraqi forces at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 were largely the result of Iraqi inability to effectively counter highly mobile heavy armor in an urban environment.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, in one case, a brigade came within an hour of running out of fuel.16 Additionally, U.S. forces had to be diverted from the drive on Baghdad to isolate and clear urban areas used by Iraqi irregulars as bases from which to interdict U.S. supply convoys. In Baghdad, several ammunition and fuel trucks were lost while running a gauntlet of enemy fire to reach isolated armored units holding key intersections — units that were in dire need of resupply.

The "Thunder Runs" of the war in Iraq seemed to come from nowhere. One day the fighting was far to the south, and seemingly the next, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division were liberating Baghdad. The Thunder Runs were the audacious answer to charges that American forces were stuck in a quagmire in Iraq. The first Thunder Run was a battalion-sized raid up from the south, through downtown Baghdad to link up with the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade at the international airport. The Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles of the battalion moved into Baghdad April 5 and encountered a "pretty dense gauntlet of fire". The battalion successfully completed the raid. They went through downtown Baghdad and out the western side, linking up with the 1st Brigade. On April 6, the brigade was ordered to conduct a second Thunder Run into Baghdad.

From the fall of 2003 through the spring of 2004, the Abrams proved its worth in supporting raids and cordon-and-search operations in and around the city in operations con- ducted by Task Force One Panther. The Abrams was adept at securing key terrain, providing overwatch with its sensors, and intimidating the insurgents with its imposing physical presence. The Abrams would also later play a decisive role in Operation Phantom Fury, the assault into Fallujah in November 2004. A Presidential Unit Citation issued for operations in Fallujah described “the overwhelming combat power, speed, and shock effect of the incredibly lethal mechanized infantry and armor units … .”

A US Marine Corps Abrams-equipped armor company that deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 completed its tour having suffered only one wounded in action, despite experiencing 19 improvised explosive device strikes.

The United States supplied 140 refurbished M1A1 Abrams tanks to Iraq between 2010 and 2012. By mid-2014, 28 Iraqi Army Abrams had been damaged in fighting with militants, five of them suffering full armor penetration when hit by anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Other types of armored vehicle in service with the Iraqi Army appeared to have suffered higher attrition rates than the Abrams.

The Iranian Fars news agency reproted 02 February 2016 that "Yemeni forces annihilated five Abrams tanks and 6 Bradley armored vehicles during the raids on Saudi positions in the Southern part of the Kingdom." In August 2016 the US State Department and Pentagon approved a $1.2 billion sale of 153 Abrams tanks to Saudi Arabia. Of these, 20 tanks were are “battle damage replacements” for Saudi tanks lost in combat.

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