Abrams heavy tank proves its mettle in Iraq campaign

But some express concern about combat in Baghdad

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As it prowls the street corners and riverbanks of central Baghdad, the M1A1 Abrams battle tank has already completed its first mission - to astound and intimidate a mismatched enemy.

But the truest test of the formidable weapon comes next, as the 67-ton beast patrols a cramped urban streetscape in which it was not designed to fight.

Some military officials warned against bringing the heavy and cumbersome tank into Baghdad, fearing that it would collapse bridges and chew through the city's crumbling roadways. The Army is already building a smaller, lighter armored vehicle called Stryker, whose usefulness could prove ever more apparent as the Abrams colossus rumbles through an aging and deteriorating city.

"There's certainly a reason that the Army has gone into West Baghdad, a part of town noted for its wide boulevards, and not into eastern Baghdad, which is basically a vast, festering shantytown," said John Pike, a defense analyst for the Northern Virginia think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "There's certainly a trafficability issue with a vehicle that large.

"I think the Abrams tank has proven its usefulness," Pike said. "But a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking the Abrams is obsolete, given the Army's emphasis lately on lighter wheeled vehicles."

The U.S. military's largest and most powerful land vehicle has won victories in Iraq before. During the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the Abrams tank pounded hundreds of armored vehicles with its 120 mm cannon, which outranged its adversaries, on average, by more than half a mile. Of the 1,848 Abrams tanks then sent to Iraq, only 18 were disabled or destroyed - all by land mines, operational mishaps or friendly fire.

The M1 Abrams tank was conceived in the early 1970s, and most Army and Marine Corps units are now equipped with an upgraded M1A1 version first built in 1985, with a bigger main gun and more durable armor plating. The Army's 4th Infantry Division has a newer M1A2 version, with updated electronics, but those tanks are only now arriving in Kuwait.

Today, the Abrams tank is fighting the kind of war scarcely contemplated when the vehicle was designed with the open spaces and hardened roadways of Central Europe in mind. American generals fretted openly in 1991 about driving their mammoth killers into Baghdad, where they feared bridges and roads would crumble beneath the weight and the 12-foot-wide tank would become trapped in the narrow streets.

"Everybody was nervous as a cat," Maj. Gen. B.B. Bell told U.S. News & World Report several years after the war. "Had we been forced to go to Baghdad, many of the bridges and causeways would not have been able to handle our tanks."

Even if the roads don't crumble, the Abrams tank is not ideal for block-by-block fighting in a city like Baghdad, analysts say. Its 1,500-horsepower gas turbine engine emits enough heat to cook a nearby infantry soldier, and its main gun fires with enough force to cause a concussion. The Abrams tank is also a challenge for military logistics. It burns a gallon of fuel for each half-mile it travels, and needs a steady drink from tanker trucks following behind.

"Once we can get it wherever you want it to get, it creates mayhem. They're very happy with it," said Army Secretary Thomas E. White, in a speech late last year. "But it takes awhile to ship it there, and it eats a lot of fuel."

While regarded as one of the strongest armored vehicles in the world, with a skin made out of a classified mixture of steel, titanium and depleted uranium, the Abrams tank has its weaknesses. Parts of it, particularly the top and the rear, are less fortified, a concession to the added weight of additional plating. And like any tank, the tracks can be vulnerable to mines or well-placed explosives.

The war in Iraq has written several new chapters in the history of the Abrams tank - its first close-quarters fight, for one, and the first Abrams crew member killed by enemy fire.

Perhaps no incident pierced the tank's aura of invincibility more than television images broadcast Sunday, showing Iraqi fighters dancing atop the blackened shell of an Abrams tank on the highway between Baghdad and Karbala. Iraqi officials took a group of Western journalists to view the charred carcass, and a Special Republican Guard soldier told them: "We destroyed it with an anti-tank rocket," according to several news agencies.

The U.S. Central Command says the tank was merely disabled, and that American forces rescued the crew and then destroyed the vehicle from the air to keep it out of Iraqi hands. A jagged hole on top of the main turret and a 6-foot crater in the ground nearby seemed to support the American account, according to reports.

Still, it was the first irrefutable evidence of an Abrams tank destroyed in combat. And it followed similar stories filed by journalists in Iraq recounting how other Abrams tanks were disabled or destroyed, sometimes by Iraqi ground fighters with handheld weapons.

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