The AbramsX is packed with features typical of modern military weapons. Powered by a hybrid electric diesel engine, it’s lighter and far more fuel efficient than the current gas-guzzling Abrams tanks. It can also operate with a smaller crew and has artificial intelligence systems to detect enemies, its creators said.
But the design faces a steep climb up the Pentagon halls, military experts said. Russia’s war in Ukraine demonstrated the promise and dangers of tank technology on a modern battlefield. Military strategists worry about how useful tanks could be in a possible war against China, the US military’s biggest rival. Military skeptics are also busy equipping lethal machines with artificial intelligence.
“It will be difficult for the tank community to get resources for a major upgrade,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Navy colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national security think tank.
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Shortly after the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense commissioned Abrams tanks to match Soviet firepower and technology. The M1 Abrams tank served as the primary battle tank for the US Army and, until recently, the Marine Corps.
The Abrams tank has undergone various changes over the past century, but several problems have plagued it: It’s costly and gas-guzzling, and it’s not as maneuverable on the battlefield as light armored vehicles like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, military experts said.
For the past few years, General Dynamics has tried to solve these problems, said Tim Reese, the company’s director of US business development. General Dynamics did not name a price for the AbramsX, which is still in the preliminary stages.
Reese said the tank weighs about 10 tons less than current models in service. Its hybrid-electric-diesel engine would be 50 percent more fuel efficient than the Abrams tanks the military now uses, which use more than a gallon of gas per mile traveled, Reese said.
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The design would also be slightly different. Instead of soldiers sitting in the turret on top of the tank, they would be in the hull. The creators said the tank could operate with a three-person team, one fewer than usual. The AbramsX has improved armor to protect it from bombs dropped by drones.
The tank’s software is another important upgrade. An onboard artificial intelligence system could be used to detect dangers at a distance. Reese envisioned a scenario where the software could alert soldiers that an enemy tank was a few miles away and be about 90 percent confident it was a threat. The tank can also communicate with unmanned aerial vehicles that could scout for dangers in advance.
In combat situations, Reese noted, the tank’s artificial intelligence could prioritize a target list when multiple enemies are present. But it couldn’t kill anyone automatically. “In the end, a human operator — the commander of the vehicle — makes a decision about whether to interfere and what to do with it,” he said.
Cancian said the AbramsX is a huge leap forward for the military’s tank program, but noted that it will face challenges if it gets approval from top Pentagon leaders discussing how useful tanks will be in America’s future will.
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The war in Ukraine has taught some lessons, he said. In the early days of the conflict, he said, the Ukrainians easily defeated the Russian tanks, a sign that the machine might not be very useful anymore. But as the war progressed, Kyiv officials have said tanks would be helpful and keep asking Western officials about them.
On the other hand, China is the United States’ main strategic rival, and a battle with Beijing would be largely fought with naval and air forces rather than tanks, Cancian said. “A lot of people look at that [tank] and say, ‘You know, that’s not going to help us at all with China,'” he said.
Bill Hartung, a weapons expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said it’s too early to tell if the AbramsX tank will be a technological marvel.
As the military has seen with other high-tech machines like the F-35 fighter jet, complex weapon systems can be a double-edged blessing: they are more difficult to maintain, prone to technical failures and more expensive than expected. “The army should proceed with caution,” he said.
Hartung also pointed out that equipping tanks with artificial intelligence comes with risks. (Experts have noted that bad data can lead to poor combat decisions.) Hartung said it’s too early to tell how these capabilities will perform in war, but he’s not hopeful.
“They make it sound like it’s going to be that silver bullet,” Hartung said. “But that’s so seldom the case.”