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The 31 M-1 Abrams tanks the United States has pledged to Ukraine will be high-end A2 variants rather than older M-1A1s, Paul McLeary, Lara Seligman and Lee Hudson reported for Politico.
The 70-ton M-1A2, versions of which are the U.S. Army’s main tank, features several major improvements over older Abrams, including better armor, fire-control and communications.
But one particular enhancement stands out. The M-1A2 was, in the early 1990s, the first tank to introduce what’s called a “commander’s independent thermal viewer.”
A CITV is a set of swiveling optics, mounted on top of a tank’s turret, that complements the vehicle’s main optics. With a CITV, a four-person tank crew has two separate ways of looking around while the crew is buttoned up inside the armored turret.
“The commander’s independent thermal viewer gives him a 360-degree, all-weather, day-night, target-surveillance system that allows the commander and gunner to act as a ‘hunter-killer’ team,” Wes Glasgow, David Latson and Christopher Cardine wrote in a 1996 issue of Armor, the U.S. Army’s official journal for tankers.
“The commander searches for targets while the gunner engages a completely separate target,” Glasgow, Latson and Cardine explained. “When the gunner fires the weapon, the commander can then ‘hand-off’ a new target to the gunner with the push of a button. This capability greatly enhances the potential lethality of the system and measurably improves the engagement speed of the tank, getting multiple, accurate rounds down-range.”
“This is often the most critical factor in tank survivability on the battlefield,” Glasgow, Latson and Cardine added.
It’s not the traditional way of doing things. On older tanks, the commander and gunner—each gazing through linked optics—see the same thing at the same time. That limits the pace at which a crew can acquire and engage targets.
Faster target-acquisition arguably was the driving requirement as the U.S. Army and General Dynamics developed the M-1A2 starting in the late 1980s. The new tank’s CITV works so well that other tank-makers have rushed to copy it. Today the latest French Leclercs, Russian T-90Ms and other new tank models also feature CITVs.
Right now only one Ukrainian tank type has a true CITV—the locally-made T-84, fewer than 10 of which are in service. When M-1A2s start showing up, Ukraine’s battle-hardened tankers finally will have world-class equipment that leverages, rather than constrains, their hard-won experience.
But it might take a while. All U.S. Army M-1s have a secret armor mix that includes a super-hard uranium mesh. The United States as a matter of policy never exports that armor. To provide Ukraine with 31 Abrams, General Dynamics either must remove the uranium from surplus U.S. Army M-1s, or build fresh M-1s—and omit the mesh.
Either option could take months. It’s for that reason that most observers expect Ukraine’s ex-British Challenger 2 tanks, as well as used Leopard 2s—from Germany, Poland, Norway, Spain and other countries—to arrive first.