The British Centurion main battle tank was first accepted into service in 1945, just too late to see action in the Second World War. It became legendary for its ability to be upgraded to match more modern, technologically advanced combat environments. Some much-modified Centurions are still in service today; South Africa's Olifant ('Elephant') tanks, and Israel's Nagmachon and Nakpadon armored personnel carriers and Puma armored engineering vehicle. That means the Centurion family has been in unbroken military service for more than 70 years - an amazing accomplishment, in a field where technology has advanced so rapidly. Only the Russian T-34 and T-54/55 tanks can make a similar claim.
However, the USA's M1 Abrams tank is looking as if it may end up with just as long a service life as the fabled Centurion. Originally entering service in 1980, it too has been modified and upgraded through several versions and generations to keep pace with developments. The current version, the M1A2 SEP Version 2 (shown below), has a fully digital fire control system and numerous enhancements, keeping it in the forefront of technology.
The US Army is now looking further into the future, to the demands that will face main battle tanks in the 2020's and beyond. New developments such as Russia's T-14 Armata tank, and associated vehicles based on that platform, will bring new technology to the battlefield, and offer new challenges to their opponents.
An M1A3 update to the M1 Abrams family was planned, but appears to have fallen by the wayside in the face of budget pressures over the past several years. Unfortunately, that means the current M1A2's won't be adequate to cope with potential threats over the next couple of decades; so a fresh upgrade is being planned, this time the M1A2 SEP Version 4.
The SEP v4 variant, slated to being testing in 2021, will include new laser rangefinder technology, color cameras, integrated on-board networks, new slip-rings, advanced meteorological sensors, ammunition data links, laser warning receivers and a far more lethal, multi-purpose 120mm tank round, Maj. Gen. David Bassett, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
While Army officials explain that many of the details of the next-gen systems for the future tanks are not available for security reasons, Basset did explain that the lethality upgrade, referred to as an Engineering Change Proposal, or ECP, is centered around the integration of a higher-tech 3rd generation FLIR – Forward Looking Infrared imaging sensor.
The advanced FLIR uses higher resolution and digital imaging along with an increased ability to detect enemy signatures at farther ranges through various obscurants such as rain, dust or fog, Bassett said.
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The emerging M1A2 SEP v4 will also be configured with a new slip-ring leading to the turret and on-board ethernet switch to reduce the number of needed “boxes” by networking sensors to one another in a single vehicle. Also, some of the current electronics, called Line Replaceable Units, will be replaced with new Line Replaceable Modules including a commander’s display unit, driver’s control panel, gunner’s control panel, turret control unit and a common high-resolution display, information from General Dynamics Land Systems states.
The M1A2 SEP v4 will carry [an] Advanced Multi-Purpose 120mm ammunition round able to combine a variety of different rounds into a single tank round.
The AMP round will replace four tank rounds now in use.
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“Rather than having to carry different rounds, you can communicate with the round before firing it,” Bassett explained.
There's more at the link.
I'm sure those upgrades will cost millions per vehicle; but the basic chassis, suspension and engine of the M1 Abrams family have proved reliable and survivable in combat in many parts of the world. They're worth retaining rather than 'reinventing the wheel' by trying to design something better (unlike, for example, Russian main battle tanks, which have performed very poorly against the M1 family in combat, and hence are worth replacing by an entirely new - and very expensive - Armata family of tanks and armored vehicles).
I'll be watching this upgrade with interest. If it proves a success, it'll probably be in service until 2050 or beyond, giving the M1 Abrams family of tanks a service life rivaling that of the legendary Centurion. The M1 may even be the last manned US main battle tank. Given the rate at which unmanned vehicles are developing, it may be that future tanks won't need crews at all.