Will the powerful US Abrams tank be an ‘obsolete’ weapon of war?

Will the powerful US Abrams tank be an ‘obsolete’ weapon of war?
Will the powerful US Abrams tank be an ‘obsolete’ weapon of war?

Drone combat in Ukraine that is transforming modern warfare has begun to take a deadly toll on one of the most potent symbols of American military power — the tank — and threatens to rewrite how it will be used in future conflicts.

In recent months, Russian forces have destroyed 5 of the 31 American-made M1 Abrams tanks that the US Department of Defense sent to Ukraine in the fall, a senior US official said. At least three others have suffered moderate damage since the tanks were sent to the front earlier this year, said Col. Markus Reisner, an Austrian military trainer who tracks how weapons are used — and lost — in Ukraine.

This is a very small fraction of the 796 of Ukraine’s main battle tanks that have been destroyed, captured or abandoned since the war began in February 2022, reports Oryx, a military analysis site. The vast majority of those are Soviet, Russian or Ukrainian-made tanks; only about 140 of those eliminated in battle were handed over to Ukraine by NATO states. And Russia has lost more than 2,900 tanks, Oryx reports, although Ukraine claims the figure is more than 7,000.

German Leopard tanks have also been attacked, and at least 30 have been destroyed, Oryx says. But the Abrams is widely considered one of the most powerful in the world. The fact that it is easier to eliminate it with explosive drones than some officials and experts had initially assumed shows “yet another way the conflict in Ukraine is reshaping the very nature of modern warfare,” said Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst. at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Tanks are not impenetrable and are most vulnerable where their heavy armor is thinnest: on top, the rear engine block and the space between the hull and turret. For years, they were attacked primarily with landmines, improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank guided missiles such as shoulder-fired systems. These were widely used early in the war because they could hit tanks from above and hit them up to 90 percent of the time.

The drones used now are even more precise. Known as first-person view drones, or FPVs, they have a camera that transmits images in real time to their controller, who can direct them to attack tanks at their most vulnerable points. In several cases, FPVs have been sent to “finish off” tanks that had been damaged by mines or anti-tank missiles so that they could not be recovered from the battlefield and repaired, Reisner said.

Depending on their size and sophistication, drones can cost as little as $500—a paltry investment to take down a $10 million Abrams tank. And some of them may carry ammunition to increase the impact of their explosion, Reisner said.

Reisner has collected videos of tanks in Ukraine being chased by drones or drones entering through their open turrets.

“Welcome to the 21st century; actually, it’s amazing,” she said.

“At this stage, the most effective means used to defeat FPVs is electronic warfare and various types of passive protection,” including additional armor, said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Reisner said FPVs were a key part of what some analysts believed would send warfare underground in the future, with remotely controlled weapons fighting on the surface. However, he added that FPVs have not made the Abrams and other advanced tanks obsolete in Ukraine.

“If you want to take over land, you need a tank,” he said.

 
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