America's M60 Patton Tank: Can It Still Fight the World's Best (At Over 50 Years Old)?
For comparison, the Israeli Sabra II upgrade also boasts a 120 millimeter gun of comparable performance paired with a new targeting computer, as well as a superior 1 thousand horsepower engine which increases speed to 34 miles per hour. Unlike the SLEP, the Sabra also has beefed up armor, giving the turret an angular shape. This includes the addition of explosive-reactive armor—that is, bricks of explosive that prematurely detonate incoming missiles and shells –as well as appliqué armor plates.
A similar Mag’ach 7C tank fitted with appliqué armor reportedly survived eighteen hits from Hezbollah AT-3 Sagger missiles without being penetrated. However, the Sagger dates back to the 1960s and current missiles have far greater penetrating power.
How Useful Are Those Upgrades?
The more powerful engines will help the Patton keep up with other mechanized units on the battlefield. However, even with the upgrade, the M60’s power-to-weight ratio isn’t stellar.
With the 120-millimeter gun and new fire control system, the M60 can both hit and destroy the majority of tanks in use today at medium to long range. M60 operators will likely lack the advanced M829E3 and E4 depleted uranium rounds designed to circumvent the most sophisticated reactive armor systems, but few operational tanks benefit from them so far. So, the M60 SLEP could be a decent tank hunter.
However, the majority of tanks on the battlefield these days aren’t fighting other tanks. They’re exchanging fire with insurgent infantry—increasing numbers of whom are packing modern long-range anti-tank guided missiles like the Kornet, as well as more widespread short-range rocket propelled grenades. The best of these weapons have proven effective even against modern tanks such as the M1 and Merkava.
The Patton is considerably more vulnerable than the M1 or Merkava—and even the older T-72! The Patton’s old-fashioned cast steel frontal armor is rated equivalent to 253 millimeters Rolled Hardened Armor, the standard measure of tank armor effectiveness. Modern tanks use composite armor which is drastically more effective for the same weight, especially against shaped charge warheads. A modern M1A2 is rated equivalent to around 800 millimeters verses tanks shells and 1300 verses shaped charges.
By contrast, 90s-era 120 millimeter sabot shells could pierce the equivalent of around 700 RHA, and the AT-17 Kornet anti-tank missile can penetrate 1300 millimeters.
The Patton is also easier to hit because of its tall profile, and more likely to burst into flames when penetrated because the main gun ammunition is not stowed separately, as it is in the Abrams.
The M60 SLEP doesn’t feature improved armor. The upgraded Sabra does—and we know already how the up-armored Pattons have fared against anti-tank guided missiles thanks to Turkey.
On April 21 of this year, a Turkish M60T in Bashiqueh, Iraq, was struck by an ISIS tandem-charge Kornet anti-tank missile, damaging the vehicle but not harming the crew. However, the tank appears to have been put out of operation.
In August this year, Turkish M60A3 and M60T poured over the border in support of allied rebels as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, first chasing ISIS out of the town of Jarablus without a fight and then attacking Kurdish militias. Kurdish fighters knocked out several M60s with long-range missiles, inflicting the first Turkish casualties in the intervention.
Turkish M60T Sabra tanks eventually redirected their firepower against ISIS-held towns—and unfortunately, were subject to a series of successful attacks by Kornet missiles. In the videos below, two of the three Pattons destroyed burst into flames.
In the second incident, only one of the crew survived. By now it is believed at least eleven Turkish Pattons have been destroyed in Syria.
The situation is even worse in Yemen, where Pattons are operated both by Army units supporting Houthi rebels as well as Saudi Arabia. More than 22 destroyed Patton’s have been recorded in the conflict.
Keep in mind that even the up-armored Sabras are taking losses, and the SLEP upgrade doesn’t feature survivability improvements besides the removal of the turret hydraulics. The Patton’s armor protection would prove even more inadequate against the armor-piercing sabot rounds of tank guns, which are harder to protect against.
Raytheon is offering an update to the Patton that makes it a killer (of tanks), but not a survivor. However, the trend in modern warfare strongly favors keeping one’s own soldiers alive. Even Russia’s new T-14 tank, with its unmanned turret and sophisticated defensive systems, reflects this priority.
The Patton may reliably soldier on and contribute its heavy firepower to the battlefield—but in an era where minimizing casualties and denying propaganda victories to the other side is important, its dated armor protection will remain a liability.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.