US soldiers fighting on an Abrams tank named Red Ace during the 1991 Gulf war had to be meticulous about keeping the desert sand out of its gas turbine engine.
With a lot of air being pushed through the engine, “there were big concerns about it ingesting sand and not working”, said John Nagl, a US Army War College professor who led Red Ace’s platoon and later served in a tank battalion task force in the Iraq war that started in 2003.
The platoon “spent a whole lot of time literally banging our air filters”, he added.
Nagl’s experience is not unique. For decades, armoured units of the US Army have lamented the long logistical tail needed to maintain the Abrams’ warfighting capability in combat zones. It was those concerns that prompted the counterintuitive briefings by the Pentagon last month, in which senior US defence officials repeatedly maligned the Abrams after requests from Berlin and Kyiv that the tank be sent to Ukraine.
Despite these concerns, the US will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, the equivalent of one Ukrainian tank battalion, after Kyiv succeeded in its campaign to convince allies to provide western-made tanks. Ukraine will get roughly twice as many European-made tanks, primarily the German Leopard 2, which are viewed by military experts as the best match for the defending army.
The intense maintenance and logistics needed to keep the Abrams battle-ready make it less ideal for foreign armies such as Ukraine’s, which simply needs weapons that work well. But it is also a symptom of an American defence procurement system that, critics argue, repeatedly overcomplicates its big military platforms, loading them up with pet technologies that drive up costs and make them difficult to maintain.
“There’s a bias in the Pentagon to buy the most exquisite defence [systems]” but other countries “just need whatever can get the job done,” said Josh Kirshner, a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies, a strategic advisory firm.
Sometimes countries such as Ukraine, which needs what is useful on the battlefield now, “don’t want the Cadillac of defence items, they just need ‘good enough’ gear”. Military experts say the Leopard and the Abrams achieve roughly equivalent results.
The Pentagon continues to be plagued by weapons systems that run well over budget because of demands for overly complex technologies. When the US Navy began a new programme to build a fleet of Zumwalt-class destroyers in 1998, it forecasted buying 32 ships at a cost of just over $1bn each. But Navy procurement officials added so many unproven technologies to their wishlist that, two decades later, the US ended up with only three — each costing $7.5bn. The third finally put to sea last year.
The complexity-driven overruns have been repeatedly flagged by the US Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, which recently chastised the Pentagon for “weapon systems that have historically had no rival in superiority, but which routinely take much longer to field, cost more to buy, and provide less capability than initially intended”.
“Our acquisition system is so Neanderthal, that we actually have created a rapid acquisition system to get around our own acquisition system,” said Dov Zakheim, a former under-secretary of defence under President George W Bush.
Nagl stressed that the M1 Abrams “is a terrific tank, but it is an American tank and the American way of war demands all the logistics in the world”.
The key difference between the Abrams and the Leopard is the engine. The Abrams has a turbine engine, akin to that of a jet, while the Leopard has a traditional diesel engine, the go-to power source for tanks globally that functions more like that of a truck. They require completely different types of machinery and crews have to be trained to be mechanics on specific gadgets.
Ukrainian soldiers are perfectly capable of learning how to operate and maintain an Abrams — after all, Ukraine has been manning one of the world’s largest tank fleets for decades. But time is of the essence and the turbine engine’s complexity will warrant longer training than on the Leopard — with so much experience on diesel engine tanks, the Ukrainians have a higher baseline of knowledge going into Leopard preparations.
“Knowing how to repair a Volkswagen Beetle doesn’t necessarily tell you how to repair an F1 racing car,” said Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.
A gas turbine engine “will obtain very high acceleration in exchange for very high fuel consumption” but has “very finicky behaviour”, Biddle added.
Aside from needing meticulous maintenance, the Abrams requires a steady supply of a greater number of spare parts. Its supply network is in the US, much farther away than Leopard parts in Europe. Another supply factor is fuel — the Abrams, which needs its 500-gallon tank refilled every day, uses jet fuel, which is much harder to come by than more ubiquitous diesel fuel.
Leopards are immediately available in Europe, while the US will have to manufacture new Abrams for Ukraine. General Dynamics, which makes the Abrams in Lima, Ohio, produces about a dozen of the tanks per month and would need to be told whether to prioritise the vehicles for Ukraine over other orders.
The supply complications would put the Ukrainian army at greater risk than if they use mostly Leopards, Kirshner of Beacon Global said.
“Ukraine doesn’t want to be in a situation like Russia was earlier in the war, when Ukrainian drones and manned aircraft were quite successful in bombing Russia’s logistics,” Kirshner added. “We all saw the videos of long lines of Russian tanks and supply being decimated.”
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a centre-right think-tank, said those concerns were “exaggerated,” arguing that while there were high-profile procurement failures at the Pentagon, many weapons systems worked as advertised.
“Common criticism [of] Pentagon weapons is that they’re too complicated and consequently it costs too much and they have low rates of readiness,” Thompson added. “It’s a stereotype that is true some of the time but often is overstated.”
The Abrams and the Leopard, along with the UK’s Challenger tank, have the same Cold War roots. Designed with potential Soviet incursions over the intra-German border in mind, the tanks’ differences stemmed from subtle diversions in the US and German armies’ approaches to armoured combat, according to Andrew Metrick, a defence programme fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think-tank.
The Pentagon tends to see a problem and wants to address it with the best possible engineering solution, Metrick said. When someone wants to buy an iPhone, “the shiny halo model with all the cool specs is really appealing. There’s definitely some aspects to that in the US military procurement system.”
But for other countries that cannot rely on the massive US logistics system when they order Abrams tanks, “why are you trying to introduce more logistics complexity . . . into a conflict when you don’t necessarily have to?” Metrick added.