A tank gunner checks an M1A1 Abrams tank. Service leaders said the Army can upgrade all 2,384 tanks it needs by the end of this year. But the plan does not account for nearly 400 tanks in the National Guard. (Sgt. Ken Scar / Army)
The Army’s tank strategy misses the mark — and places some soldiers at unnecessary risk, according to a top tank officer in the National Guard.
At issue is the upgrade of existing tanks to the M1A2 System Enhancement Package. Service leaders in congressional testimony said the Army can refurbish all 2,384 tanks it needs by the end of this year.
But the plan does not account for nearly 400 tanks in the National Guard, said Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, adjutant general of Pennsylvania and commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard. This not only places those crews in the less capable tank, it also jeopardizes the nation’s power projection. Defense cuts will likely require the reserve component to cover a greater portion of the armored force.
“How can the Army not equip these units with the same tank as the rest of the force?” he said. “It is imperative that we avoid the tiered readiness of the past and avoid deploying forces to combat with whatever equipment they have on hand rather than the best available. We need to be equipped as the active component is because we’re going to fight side by side with them.”
Craig’s concern is echoed by the National Guard Association of the United States and an increasing number of lawmakers.
Not looking for a fairer fight
The Guard has seven armored BCTs plus three armored battalions. Two brigades — the 116th Cavalry Heavy Brigade Combat Team in Idaho and the 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team in Mississippi — are equipped with the M1A2 SEP. The rest roll with the M1A1 Abrams Integrated Management Situational Awareness, or AIM/SA, which Craig calls “second best.”
“Can the AIM/SA tank fight and survive in today’s battlefield? Absolutely,” Craig said. “Is it as good as a SEP tank? No. It is absolutely not as good, which really bothers me because you’re talking to someone who will possibly have to send his soldiers into combat with the less-than-best equipment.”
The disparity is evident in Army schools. There, guardsmen are trained only on the M1A2 SEP, a tank few will operate.
The Army’s stated goal is to put no soldier in a fair fight. But hundreds of M1A1 AIM/SAs have been sold to such countries as Egypt and Iraq. Saudi Arabia has bought the M1A2 SEP and is poised to purchase hundreds more. And what North Korea lacks in capability, it makes up in bulk. And that is why the upgraded Abrams is such a game-changer.
The SEP is set apart by its advanced thermal sights and Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer, which allows the commander to designate multiple targets. Because speed and accuracy are dominant in a tank-on-tank engagement, the upgrade gives tank crews far greater lethality and survivability. SEP tanks more than double the crew’s defensive capabilities and improves offensive capabilities by half, according to Army data. The all-digital tank can acquire targets 45 percent faster, hand off targets 50 percent faster and hit targets on the move 80 percent better than an M1A1.
That’s why SEP upgrades are NGAUS’ top combat vehicle priority for fiscal 2014. It has called on Congress to fund the upgrade of one armored BCT, which is 58 tanks, every year until a pure fleet is accomplished.
The need is not lost on law-makers.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno wants to suspend tank upgrades for three years and use the money elsewhere. The president’s budget reflected that wish. But lawmakers argue that restarting the Lima, Ohio, production line would be far more costly, and have authorized almost half a billion dollars over two years to build more tanks.
The House Armed Services Committee also added $168 million to its 2014 defense bill to upgrade 24 Guard tanks.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and 121 of his colleagues, in a May 22 letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, said they were “deeply concerned to learn that the Army has once again failed to fund production of the M1A2 SEP (Abrams) tank. This decision neglects the Army’s responsibility to modernize the National Guard units. ... We cannot afford to send our troops to combat with the second best tank available. The National Guard should be afforded the same protections and capabilities as their active duty counterpart.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Aug. 1 warned the nation and lawmakers that the Army could lose 110,000 soldiers — nearly one in four on active duty — as well as new gear and weaponry if sequestration continues. Opinions on where the Army would make the cuts vary. But four primary think tanks — the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Center for Strategic and International Studies, American Enterprise Institute and Center for a New American Security — agreed that six active-duty armored BCTs would be cut.
Craig said a better plan would be to transfer two brigades and three battalions to the Guard.
Armor costs rank second only to aviation. But armored brigades in the reserve component are a lot cheaper — about one-third of the cost.
“Now, we don’t get as many tank miles to drive that the active component has, so we are not as ready, and that is a concern,” Craig said.
“That’s why you can’t take all the heavy armored units out of the active component and put them in the reserve component. It just doesn’t make sense for the nation,” he said.
His plan would add a third maneuver battalion to each of the Guard’s seven brigades and bump up the reserve component to nine armored BCTs.
“That would be a significant force at a significant savings to the nation,” he said.