M-1 tank already in war -- of words

While publicly lavishing superlatives on its new XM-1 Abrams tank last year, the US Army knew privately that a host of problems threatened its combat effectiveness.

"American soldiers will get killed in this tank -- I mean unnecessarily killed," declares a Defense Department armor analyst who provided this newspaper with a copy of a restricted, though unclassified, report detailing the tank's many shortcomings.

According to the report, prepared by the Army's Armor and Engineer Board, testing of three XM-1s at Fort Knox, Ky., in 1979 not only revealed much faulty equipment but numerous design flaws as well.

Army tank officials are insistent that the XM-1's deficiences disclosed in the report have been substantially corrected in the past two years. But the critics of the Chrysler Corporation tank, designated the M-1 Abrams recently when its experimental status was revoked, remain many.

"It would be criminal to send somebody into combat in a tank like this," exclaims the Pentagon armor analyst. The analyst is acting as an adviser to the Washington-based Project on Military Procurement, an arm of the National Taxpayers Legal Fund, which is probing the troubled XM-1 prior to briefing Capitol Hill lawmakers on its problems next month.

"We're asking 'How much are you paying for it and does it work?'" declares Dina Rasor, director of the Project on Military Procurement. She says the organization was created "to see if the American taxpayer is gaining increased security for his defense dollar."

Its troubles apart, the cost of the XM-1 has soared --from $507,780 in 1972 to $2.681 million this year by the Army's own admission. By Dina Rasor's calculations, though, each tank will cost $2.88 million in 1981.

The Army attributes the M-1's cost increases to two factors: unexpectedly virulent inflation and the decision to buy more tanks after Israeli armor took a thrashing from antitank missiles during the 1973 October war, an event that suggested the need for larger quantities of the armored behemoths.

While the report of the Armor and Engineer Board claims that tank test crews had "high praises" for the XM-1, which is replacing the M-60, it does not shrink from enumerating the many criticisms they leveled at it.

In particular, the test crews found fault with the positions or "stations" allocated to the driver, loader, gunner, and tank commander.

Water seeping through a faulty hatch seal in the driver's station "over a period of time . . . resulted in foul odors," the report asserts, adding that the station lacks ventilation ducts, making it hot when the tank is operating with its hatches closed. Indeed, in this "buttoned-up mode" the driver cannot see the ground any closer than 27 feet, 4 inches from the front of the tank. "This dead space creates problems when traversing ditches and obstacles," the report declares.

The driver's plastic vision blocks, the report continues, "produce a fish-eye distortion, hampering depth perception," and adds scathingly that "the vision block wipers do not perform satisfactorily, frequently not even touching the vision block surface." Drivers seemed concerned that there was no escape hatch under the tank and complained that exhaust from the personnel heater tended to enter their compartment and choke them.

"The loader's position is unsafe and ineffective," the report states. "The ammunition door slams closed and could injure fingers." Occasionally, when the tank's 105-m.m. main gun is firing at zero or negative elevations, a spent casing will jam in the breech. "One loader . . . beat the round out . . . with his bare hands, receiving second-degree burns," the report discloses.

When standing in their open hatches, loaders discovered that they were compelled to place a foot on a frequency selector box in order to steady themselves. They also discovered that their hatches, when opened, interfered with the rearward field of fire of their machineguns, whose mounts were deemed "flimsy" and liable to "break loose."

The gunners seem to have been unimpressed with the stabilization provided for the tank's main gun, preferring that it should be an optional feature. "At present, the stabilization mode is always on when the turret power is on," the report notes. "The British have fielded it in their Centurion and Chieftain tanks," says the Pentagon analyst who asked not to be identified. "It doesn't work. It simply doesn't work." He adds that none of the Sherman tank crews that he has talked to ever used it in World War II.

Perhaps the most crucial indicator of a tank's effectiveness is the number of miles it can travel between breakdowns.

The Pentagon analyst claims that the Army acted dishonestly in assessing this aspect of the XM-1's performance. "What they found in 16,000 miles of testing was that they had 1,007 maintenance write-ups," he says. These are then assessed as to their seriousness by what is known as a "scoring conference," he explains:

"What they mean by assessing is throwing out the stuff they don't like. By the magic of this they reduced 1,007 maintenance actions to 171, which gives a mission reliability factor of 93.97 mean miles between failure [MMBF] --which just happens to be a hair above the requirement of 90." In fact, he claims that an inspection of the test director's scoring indicates an MMBF of only 34 miles.

Army tank officials steadfastly deny juggling the books, claiming that the tank has achieved 91 of a 101-mile mission reliability requirement and 319 miles of its required 320-mile combat mission reliability factor.

The Army demands that the M-1 have a 50 percent probability of traveling 4, 000 miles without the replacement of a major engine, transmission, or final drive component. During the Fort Knox tests three engines failed, along with the same number of transmissions, prompting the Armor and Engineer Board to declare in its report that the XM-1 had only demonstrated a 22 percent probability of going 4,000 miles without the failure of a major part of its power train.

The Army disagrees, asserting that it has attained a 30 percent reliability rate with only 40 percent of testing completed. Although conceding that the power train has experienced defective bearings, an Army official insists that it is not afflicted with "inherent" problems.

Faulty hydraulic pumps leak fluid into the crew compartment, fluid that tank officials concede is flammable. "It's a Molotov cocktail," says Dina Rasor. The Army disagrees, maintaining that the XM-1 employs a fire-resistant hydraulic fluid designed for Air Force use which is "a lot less flammable" than the earlier formula. The hydraulic system does more than leak, though. According to the report, it frequently malfunctions.

Identified in the report are scores of other problems with the XM-1, including "frequent binding" of the parking brake due to mud, dirt, and oil, and an electrical system with a "susceptibility to moisture and vibration."

Others have recognized that the XM-1 has problems. When still a staff assistant to Rep. Jack Edwards (R) of Alabama, Charles Murphy conducted a "detailed investigation" of the tank. In a report he submitted to the congressman last February he claimed there was a "persistent problem" with its fire-control system and maintained that its tracks were lasting an average of 850 miles as compared to the required 2,000 miles.

Murphy, now a staff assistant in the Pentagon, added that the XM-1 had only attained a 131-mile operational cruising range as against a requirement for 275 miles. Its fuel consumption -- which the Army puts at a quarter of a mile per gallon at 10 m.p.h. -- will require a two-fold increase in a tank battalion's fuel-carrying capacity, he declared. Nevertheless, he returned a positive verdict on the XM-1. "In the end, I feel certain that the Army will wind up with an excellent tank."

The tank's much-publicized dust problem with its turbine Lycoming AGT-1500C turbine engine has been solved, according to the report. But when operating in dusty conditions air filter servicing and air filter replacement is required every 75 to 100 miles, it discloses. Last year the General Accounting Office expressed "serious doubts" about the turbine engine, declaring that if its problems persisted, it should be replaced with a diesel.

The Army defends the XM-1 vigorously. Asserting that it is the "most tested piece of equipment the world has ever seen," a tank official claims that "there's nothing that hasn't been addressed" among the multitude of faults and flaws listed in the report.But he later corrects himself by saying that "fundamental" problems have been "tackled" or, at least, those that were "worth the money to correct."

One tank official suggests that the exercise of a little intelligence on the part of tank crews would correct some of the problems mentioned. But he admits the tank's track durability problem is likely to persist, there being no improved technology on the horizon.

"I wouldn't want to buy any other tank for the American Army," a Pentagon official told the Monitor. But as far as the Pentagon armor analyst is concerned, the XM-1 "is not usable in combat as is."

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