Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which tank is the baddest of them all? This is a question that will touch off a major debate, particularly when one compares two tanks head-to-head. The latest such matchup is the 50-ton T-95, which is in development in Russia, versus the M1A2 Abrams, the front-line tank of the United States Army.
The T-95 is a new design. It will apparently carry a 152mm gun/missile launcher in a new turret designed to lower the silhouette even more than the current low slung T-72 series of tanks. The main gun will carry more of a punch than the 125mm gun used on current Russian tanks. This is a result of lessons learned from Desert Storm, when 125mm armor-piercing rounds bounced off M1A1 Abrams tanks, even when fired from as close as 400 meters. The other major advance will include systems designed to decoy anti-tank missiles (like the Hellfire, Javelin, and TOW). The goal is to jam the sighting systems and to confuse the aim. This also is intended to work against the sighting system for tank guns. Tanks often spend time fighting each other, and their sights work much like the sights used to target and guide anti-tank missiles. The real question is whether the T-95 will see production beyond a few prototypes. Its main competitor, the T-80UM2 “Black Eagle,” has the advantage of being cheaper and an upgrade of the T-80, which is currently in service. The T-95 will need time to have all the kinks worked out of its design. Much of that has already been done with the basic design of the T-80, and the “Black Eagle” will not need as much time to be ready for deployment. The T-95 has improved crew survivability over the T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks that the Russians currently use, but that is really not saying much, given the fact that the T-72 and its successors provided practically nothing in that area.
That said, the Americans have not stood pat with the M1A1. The 69-ton M1A2 is nearing ten years old. Its major changes are not in terms of the weapons (it maintains the same weapons as the M1A1: a 120mm main gun, a 12.7mm gun for the commander, and two 7.62mm machine guns – one coaxial with the main gun, the other mounted on the loader’s hatch), but instead, the M1A2 is designed to exchange information with other vehicles faster through IVIS (Inter-Vehicle Information System). IVIS would allow a tank crew to find out what other tank crews are seeing, and to tell those other crews what they see, but troops have reportedly found it to be inconvenient. As a result, crews of the M1A2 will have a clearer picture of the battlefield than their opponents in other tanks when IVIS is used. That pays dividends. Having a good gun is nice, but you have to know where to point it. The American crews will know faster than their opponents due to IVIS. That means they are more likely to get in the first shot. The fire-control system remains perhaps the best in the world. When an Abrams fires at a target, it is probably going to hit the target. The results will usually be fatal to its target.
The technical specifications do not tell the whole story. The real difference is made in crew quality – and American tank crews have the decided edge over their counterparts in other countries. This is due to two factors: Combat experience in two wars since 1990, and much better training, most notably at the National Training Center. The former is arguably the best teacher in the world. It brutally shows what was done right and wrong, and grading is not on a curve. The latter is the toughest training regime in the world – often American combat veterans have compared fighting in Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom to the NTC, with the caveat that the Iraqis weren’t as good as the OPFOR (the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment). Training at home bases (American tank crews fire about 100 rounds per year, in addition to demonstrations and NTC rotations) and the constant use of simulators add to the American edge in training.
The T-95, should it enter service, might have a better gun and could exceed the M1A2's 429-kilometer range (Russian tanks usually have a range of 550-650 kilometers when equipped with extra fuel tanks), but the M1A2 is superior in most other aspects by which a tank is judged, particularly in fire control, crew survivability, the IVIS system (when used), and since it is already in service. It might cost $4.3 million per tank when compared to the $1.8 million Pakistan paid for each of the 320 T-80UDs Pakistan bought from the Ukraine, but the U.S. Army, in battles like 73 Easting (where the M1A1HA-equipped Eagle Troop of the 2nd ACR under H.R. McMaster, with other units, defeated elements of the Tawakalna Division) during Desert Storm, has proven that the M1 series of tanks can win when badly outnumbered. The M1A2 still rules the battlefield, and will for the foreseeable future.