Can M1A1 Abrams Tank match the Russian T-90 in Ukraine?

At the same time, the U.S. considers even the latest M1 A2 Abrams armour inadequate and has installed the Israeli company Rafael's TROPHY System for active defence.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

On January 25, 2023, President Joe Biden declared that the U.S. would give Ukraine 31 M1 Abrams tanks on January 25, 2023. That is the amount needed to outfit a complete tank battalion in Ukraine.

The M1A2 version of the Abrams battle tank was intended to be sent, but that would have required either the construction of brand-new vehicles or the modernisation of older vehicles before training Ukrainian personnel on the more sophisticated system. The M1-A2 is a more powerful tank thanks to a more modern computerised aiming system, but it also required additional training from Ukrainian soldiers to operate and maintain the equipment.

CNN reported on March 21 that, according to two U.S. officials, the United States would expedite the shipment of Abrams tanks to Ukraine by delivering older M1-A1 variants of the main battle tank instead of the more recent version. One of the officials stated that the new plan would allow the tanks to arrive as early as the fall of this year, shaving months off the earlier timeline that may have taken a year or longer.

Tank M1A1 “Abrams” is the first tank (starting with the M1A1 C and M1A1 HA) to use depleted uranium armour. Only the tower contained depleted uranium. The tank possesses a 120 mm smoothbore gun with 40 rounds of ammunition. The U.S. military conducted combat operations in Iraq with these older models of tanks.

It is often heard that the T-90, as it is now, can no longer be thought of as a modern combat vehicle. The Americans claim their M1A1 Abrams tank is the best in the world. They call it the “crown of creation” and say it can’t be stopped. Most say the Russian T-90 was out of date when it came out and was not even close to the American “wonder weapon.” But is it so?

The M1 Abrams tank was created mainly not to break past enemy lines but as an anti-tank weapon to stop or at least slow the waves of Soviet tanks heading for the English Channel. The tank was made in close cooperation with German tank makers, although it was made in a way that fit American needs. The primary armament on the tank, starting with the M1A1 version, is the 120 mm M-256 cannon, a significantly changed version of the German Rh-120 gun. The earliest of the tank used a type of armour called “Chobham,” which was made in the U.K. On further changes, armour made of the first and second generations of uranium ceramics was employed.

Politico reported in January that the United States planned to detach the Abrams tanks from their classified armour package containing depleted uranium before transferring them to Ukraine due to export laws.

The same Abrams being supplied to Ukraine as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq are the export model. The armour is similar to the older German Leopard 2A4 tanks that Poland and Norway had shipped to Ukraine. Older Abrams have a cannon and a thermal imaging camera.

Since the Ukrainian M1A1 Abrams’ armour is comparable to the Leopard 2A4 tank, it may not be the most effective. The frontal armour has a thickness of 480 millimetres, and the side armour has a thickness of 250 millimetres, allowing it to withstand anti-tank grenade launcher and artillery shell fire. Even the older Russian T-72s possess the same level of protection.

At the same time, the U.S. considers even the latest M1 A2 Abrams armour inadequate and has installed the Israeli company Rafael’s TROPHY System for active defence. TROPHY is installed on four Abrams MBT brigades of the U.S. Army. The same holds for the most recent German Leopard 2 A7 tanks. The German battle tank’s absence of standoff defence systems has been a shortcoming for years. IS fighters destroyed a Turkish Leopard tank in January 2017. In the same year, Kurds destroyed an Iraqi Abrams M1A1 tank.

While there is limited evidence regarding the performance of Abrams tanks in Iraq in 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom), a 2004 paper titled Lessons Learnt on the FAS website indicates that numerous tanks were destroyed due to “secondary effects” caused by the impact of enemy munitions. 

It should be emphasised that if an explosion of ammunition or a fire in the engine compartment is regarded as “secondary effects,” then a weapon that generates such results should be referred to as an “effective anti-tank weapon” employed with great skill in combat. And when a tank with a stalled engine remains in enemy territory, it was used exceedingly incompetently; otherwise, it would not have been difficult to fit a recovery vehicle. 

The Abrams tanks require extensive maintenance and operation. The U.S. will also provide Ukraine with the parts and tools needed to fix and maintain these tanks on the battlefield along with the tanks. During the Shock and Awe in Iraq, most of the Abrams tank (M1A1 and M1A2) losses occurred due to mechanical breakdowns and accidents. 

The operating cost of the M1A1 Abrams is also high as it is known to be a fuel guzzler, a resource which Ukraine can ill afford. 

Most likely, the Ukrainian M1A2s were downgraded to M1A1s because of fear that Russia would destroy them, causing customers to lose faith in the newer M1A2s. The U.S. can always find an excuse if M1A1 is lost.


  1. Please correct factual errors: “While there is limited evidence regarding the performance of Abrams tanks in Iraq in 2003 (Operation Desert Storm)…”

    Operation Desert Storm occurred in 1991 and featured the battle of 73 Easting, in which Abrams, as well as Bradley IFVs, were the victors in perhaps the most one-sided armor battle in history in which no Abrams were lost. The largest tank battle of the 1st Gulf War (i.e. Desert Storm) was Norfolk Battle in which over 500 Iraqi tanks were destroyed and 4 Abrams were destroyed, in part due to friendly fire.

    Please note that 2003 invasion was called Iraqi Freedom, now often called the Second Gulf War, and should not be confused with Desert Storm.


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