TechAmerican tanks: The mad max modifications of Ukraine's M1A1 Abrams

American tanks: The mad max modifications of Ukraine's M1A1 Abrams

Tank M1A1 Abrams with additional armour.
Tank M1A1 Abrams with additional armour.
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Przemysław Juraszek

15 June 2024 11:02

The M1A1 Abrams tanks do not excite Ukrainian tankers, and American designs, similar to the Leopard 2, are locally modified in various ways. The effect of these modifications closely resembles creations from the Mad Max universe. We explain whether this brings any advantages.

Based on the acquired experiences from using the M1A1 Abrams tanks, Ukrainians are making modifications. Similar to the case with Leopard 2 tanks, the base involves Kontakt-1 reactive armour blocks and grids serving the role of bar armour. The following picture shows a modified M1A1 Abrams tank, which additionally received a rubber skirt covering the lower front armour plate.

M1A1 Abrams in Mad Max style - pros and cons of this type of solution

The M1A1 Abrams tanks are characterized by very good armour, but in the context of the battlefield for which they were designed. This refers to fighting enemy tanks or protection against anti-tank guided missiles.

Therefore, the frontal armour is very durable, but the sides, or particularly the top, are much thinner. The M1A1 Abrams was not designed for conditions where, for example, an FPV drone with a shaped charge warhead can strike the upper front armour plate or the rear of the turret at an almost vertical angle. A hit in this area can injure or kill the driver, which has happened. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the protection of these areas with Kontakt-1 reactive armour blocks.

These types of blocks, through the use of a shock wave and a hail of fragments from their casing during an explosion, can significantly or completely nullify the penetration capabilities of PG-7VL grenades (50cm of steel armour) widely used on drones. Another method of protection is the use of metal grids spaced about 50cm from the armour to cause the premature detonation of the shaped charge warhead.

Furthermore, prioritizing crew survivability has resulted in such a design of the ammunition storage. It is fully isolated from the crew and has thin covers that, in the event of ammunition ignition, redirect the energy of the explosion outside. This makes such areas particularly vulnerable to FPV drone attacks, and attempting to block them might only worsen the situation.

It is worth noting that these types of improvisations are ineffective against modern anti-tank weapons. In the case of kinetic penetrators like APFSDS-T fired from other tank guns, they do not matter at all, and for anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), tandem shaped charges have become the norm, allowing them to deal with such armour.

Simply put, the first smaller warhead creates a gap in such cover, allowing the second, larger shaped charge to detonate under optimal conditions. On the other hand, the drawback of improvised solutions is the significant increase in weight of an already approximately 70-ton tank.

This results in deteriorated mobility due to a worse power-to-weight ratio and additional weight causing faster wear of suspension components. This might be one of the reasons for the high failure rate of Abrams tanks, which Ukrainian crews complain about.

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