Upgrades continue amid questions about armor’s future

Wherever the Army's tanks wind up organizationally, the service is going ahead with planned upgrades now.

The Army won’t be sized for big-time wars anymore. American units are going to begin coming home from Europe. There’s a food fight in the works over what roles and missions, including heavy units, sluice down into the Guard and Reserves.

But all that stuff is tomorrow or beyond. Today, the Army is making hay while the sun shines — it’s going forward with its plan to continue improving its flaship M1 Abrams main battle tank.

On Friday, General Dynamics Land Systems announced it had received a $60 million contract to continue work upgrading the Army’s M1A1-variant Abrams tanks to the M1A2 Systems Enhancement Package (SEP) V2 configuration — the king of the jungle. Here’s how GD described them in its announcement:

The most technologically advanced digital tank, the M1A2 SEP V2 includes improved color displays, day and night thermal sights, commander remote operated weapon station (CROWS II), a Thermal Management System (TMS) and a tank-infantry phone.  The M1A2 SEP V2 maximizes the fighting ability of the tank on today’s battlefield while preparing the platform for tomorrow’s challenges. The original order was made under a multi-year contract awarded in February 2008, which authorized the upgrade of 435 M1A1 tanks that have been in the Army’s inventory for more than 20 years.  General Dynamics is continuing the conversion of the tanks in the Army’s active component to the M1A2 SEP V2 configuration.

The question about where those tanks will ultimately end up could become one of DoD’s central questions over the coming year. Everybody loves big, heavy, old-fashioned, rolling-thunder units, ripping up the mud with their treads and shooting the hell out of their targets downrange, but they could start to seem pretty expensive in the austerity Army. There’s a school of thought, broached at last year’s Association of the United States Army trade show and elsewhere, that the Army should move many or most of its active tank units into the Guard and Reserves.

In keeping with the new doctrine of “reversibility,” transferring heavy brigades to the reserve component is the best compromise under the circumstances, advocates might say. If the United States needs to go fight another major land war — which Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey seems to think is quite possible — it will be able to call up heavy units just in case. They won’t be ready as quickly as they might be today, but at least they’d be there. (Besides, what’re the odds of a big force-on-force armor engagement anytime soon in the 21st century?)

On the other hand, although “reversibility” is the new DoD-level buzzword, the Army-level buzzword has long been “balance.” Dialing back some active brigades to zero is exactly the kind of thing Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Dempsey, during his brief stint as chief, both warned about. The Army has got to be able to keep its ability to do everything, they argue — with a lower end strength, maybe, but at least in proportion to the rest of the service.

The answers aren’t at all clear, but with hundreds of billions in reduced budget growth hanging over its head, the Army may not have much longer before it must start deciding.