The President was Jimmy Carter, Dallas was the number show on TV and a gallon of gasoline averaged $1.19. The year was 1980 and the first M1 Abrams battle tanks were delivered to the U.S. Army. Named for the late General Creighton W. Abrams, former Army Chief of Staff and commander of the 37th Armored Battalion, the tank was the backbone of the armored forces of the United States military.
While it is now considered among the best tanks in the world today, the U.S. military had lagged behind with its tank efforts throughout much of the Cold War. While the United States had considered the M60 as an interim main battle tank, as it proved itself in combat against Soviet-supplied T54/55s and T62s during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, it was clear that it would be no match for the latest Soviet tanks including the T-64.
An effort to close the gap with the Soviets began with the MBT-70 American-West German joint project to develop a new main battle tank in the 1960s. However, the program ended in failure when West Germany pulled out from the project due to costs and differences in requirements. As a result the U.S. Congress then directed the U.S. Army to begin a new tank – but under strict cost and time limitations.
Despite such parameters came the U.S. military's third-generation (post-World War II) main battle tank, which was designed by Chrysler Defense, now General Dynamics Land Systems.
The M1 Abrams was designed to provide more mobile firepower for armored formations and to take on and destroy any armored fighting vehicle that came at it, while at the same time ensuring the protection of its crew in nearly any conceivable combat situation or environment. The M1 Abrams was also more than capable to engage the enemy in any weather condition, day or night.
As originally designed the M1 was 32.04 feet in length and 12 feet wide, had a top speed of 45mph and weighed 60 tons. Its armament was a 105 mm L/52 M68A1 rifled gun. In 1985 the tank was upgraded to the M1A1 version, which was slightly longer, weighed 67.6 tons and offered the 120 mm L/44 M256A1 smoothbore gun along with other enhancements that included an improved suspension, increased armor protection, and even a nuclear-chemical-biological protection system. This added weight did reduce the top speed to 41.5mph, but the tanks still proved superior to anything that rolled at it.
Despite being in service with the U.S. military for a decade, the Abrams was untested in combat until the Persian Gulf War in 1991. A total of 1,848 M1A1s were deployed to Saudi Arabia to take part in the liberation of Kuwait. Despite concerns as to how the tanks would handle the sand, as well as concerns over months with little maintenance, the Abrams proved superior to the Soviet-era T-55, T-62 and even T-72 tanks that were used by the Iraqi military. During the war, only 18 Abrams tanks were taken out of service due to battle damage and only nine were permanent losses. Not a single Abrams crewman was lost in the conflict.
The Abrams tank was updated again in the 1990s as the M1A2, which included the addition of a commander's independent thermal viewer, improved weapon station and embedded diagnostics as well as improved fire control system.
With its current updates, even at 40 years, the Abrams is a battle-tested tank that is among the very best in the world.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including "A Gallery of Military Headdress," which is available on Amazon.com.