Video Above: The Army Research Laboratory is now engineering new rocket, missile and artillery rounds

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Operating air and ground drones in the line of enemy fire, sending large robotic vehicles to clear tank ditches and breach obstacles and using long-range, high-fidelity sensors to maneuver and target enemies in more dispersed formations .. are all newer tactical mission possibilities now envisioned for the up-armored Abrams main battle tank.

While an armored ability to bring massive fire power, unparalleled survivability and mechanized assault missions still very much characterizes the operational scope of Army tanks, there are some interesting ways in which technology, networking and unmanned systems are expanding its potential combat applications and therefore multiplying or enhancing its warfare impact.

Should there be a major force-on-force engagement with a technically advanced rival force, the Abrams appears to be the only major platform capable of the kind of massive, fire-power driven engagement any kind of combined-arms assault or counterattack might require. Yet, its combat utility is rapidly expanding due to upgrades and technologies expected to impact the tactical equation. Today and tomorrow's Abrams, as evidenced by the now arriving M1A2 SEPv3 variant, is a much more capable and different tank than the platform has been in recent years. It has improved armor protections, a new generation of computing and command and control, modernized thermal, upgraded infrared targeting sensors enabling longer range, more widely scoped target identification and vastly expanded on-board electrical power through integrated mobile auxiliary power units.

What much of this amounts to is that an Abrams tank is increasingly enabled to take on a much wider mission scope, in part to accommodate the kinds of changing threat environments it would likely face in an anticipated future engagement. What this means, among many things, is that the Abrams v3 and v4 are being engineered to perform both traditional tank combat operations as well as an entirely new sphere of needed warfare tactics. These tactical dynamics explain why the Army continues to refine new concepts of traditional Combined Army Maneuver tailored to a new generation of threats.

The v3 also operates with new dimensions of GPS connectivity, moving map displays, threat-based intelligence data, force tracking systems and an upgraded engine and transmission. The on-board computing and electronics are also intended to add the technical infrastructure for yet a new series of upgrades for the platform with the now emerging and underway v4 variant. This will bring 3rd-Gen Forward Looking Infrared sensors, a new generation of ammunition data links and an entirely new varied, adjustable and much more capable Multi-Purpose Round ammunition …. able to fire high-explosive anti-tank rounds, multi-purpose rounds and canister rounds intended to expand dispersed fragmentation for anti-personnel lethality.

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Among many things, some of the new dimensions pertain to the ongoing massive, strategic and tactical expansion of unmanned systems, multi-domain air-ground connectivity and much better networked, and therefore dispersed, warfare maneuver formations. It is precisely with these tactics in mind that Abrams weapons developers and future war planners continue to architect and integrate a new generation of technical capabilities. Newer v3 and v4 tanks will be able to operate, and possibly even dispatch, air and ground drones to carry ammunition, test enemy defenses, counter enemy obstacles and countermeasures and surveil forward, high-risk areas under enemy fire.

This increased secure networking technology, coupled with the advent of a new fleet of increasingly autonomous and semi-autonomous drones and robots, provides much of the inspiration for why the Army is engineering a new class of lighter-weight vehicles.

Yet there is still consensus that the kind of heavily-armored ability to attack, fire upon and close with a major enemy is something for which, at least for the moment, there is not an equivalent to the now much more capable upgraded Abrams tank. It might look close to earlier generations of the proven survivability of the Abrams on the outside, but the new modern and innovative tank has capabilities that will literally blow the enemy of the battlefield, while greatly reducing the need for a convey of trucks and personnel to support the fight.

This may be one reason why the Army recently awarded a new contract to General Dynamics Land Systems to deliver a large number of upgraded Abrams tanks. This Army buy, marks the first large tank acquisition in decades, raises some interesting questions when it comes to what combat will look like in the future. The upgraded Abrams MBT, as the only land warfare platform capable of dominating our adversary’s most lethal threats, must integrate with the much anticipated high-speed, AI-driven, multi-domain combat environment of the future. The Army is already working with major industry weapons developers to concurrently engineer a new generation of faster-lighter weight vehicles that are intended to fight alongside the Abrams MBT. Abrams upgrades are in part designed to bring a new sphere of mission possibilities not typically associated with the main battle tank.

Real time sensors might warn the crew of constrained urban routes, enemy locations, and suspect bridges. That is when the upgraded Abram’s new generation of mapping, sensing and connectivity with overhead surveillance drones -- and even growing real-time networking with forward-operating, sensor-enabled dismounted infantry -- kicks in. These technologies can help tank crews identify an optimal avenue of approach. For example, should a bridge or enemy threat expose the Abrams crew to risk, advanced networking, geolocation data and mapping might quickly calculate alternative routes. As tracked vehicles, increasingly likely to operate in concert with unmanned systems, Abrams tanks can transit over fields, rocky areas and uneven terrain, making it more likely it dodge suspect areas.

Abram’s upgraded weapons and target identification systems are now much longer range and engineered with much higher resolution, enabling the tanks to provide fire support to infantry from expanded vantage points. For example, there are many roads, off road terrain or tough-to-transit areas that an Abrams equipped with added access to navigational detail and intelligence data will be able to find and access more quickly.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.