US Army publicists ride to defense of controversial M1 battle tank

The US Army has launched a spirited defense of its new M1 tank following press disclosure of a report casting grave doubts on the combat effectiveness of the 60-ton behemoth.

Last month this newspaper and the Wall Street Journal published articles that were based, to varying degrees, on the report drawn up by the Army's Armor and Engineer Board detailing the performance of three M1s at Fort Knox, Ky., in 1979 . It painted a disturbing picture of tanks bedeviled by design flaws and faulty construction.

The Office of the Army Chief of Public Affairs has responded to the revelations by issuing press kits which laud the Chrysler Corporation tank, and assert that "critics have leaped on shortcomings noted in testing to decry the M 1 tank program."

A single-page "information paper" in the kits, considered by Pentagon observers to be an unsual, though not unprecedented, response to unwelcome publicity, provides "general rejoiners" to what it calls "allegations" made by the two newspapers, even though many charges against the tanks were extracted directly from the Army's own report.

The Army responded to a total of 13 criticisms of the M1 in this fashion, disputing, among other things, a claim by a Pentagon armor analyst interviewed by the Monitor that the M1's main gun stabilization "simply doesn't work." Test results, the Army claims, "categorically refute this. . . . The M1 is noted for successful engagements at ranges of over a mile, while running at 20-30 m.p.h. cross-country."

The Army information paper includes a lenghty explanation of the M1's cost (put at various sums approaching $3 million) in an attempt to counter charges that the tank has suffered wild cost growth.

The Army concedes that if 7,058 M1s are built over the next 10 years, as is currently planned, the cost per tank will be $2.68 million. But it stresses that this sum cannot, in all fairness, be compared with the estimated cost of the tank in 1972, which was $507,790.

The 1972 figure, claims the Army, "was based on producing 3,312 tanks with a 105mm gun at a production rate of 30 tanks a month from a single assembly plant." In fact, the Army is to buy an additional 3,746 tanks besides introducing a 120mm gun and increasing the production rate from 30 to 90 tanks a month. These and other measures have boosted the cost of the tank, the Army stresses.

But more important, it adds that the $2.68 million figure known as the "acquisition unit cost" includes "numerous cost elements" (such as research and development and initial production facilities) not included in the 1972 estimate of $507,790, which is referred to as the "hardware unit cost."

The burden of the Army's case is that the Fort Knox report was designed "to identify areas where improvements could be made," adding that when the M1 test crews were asked for their opinions, "only negative comments were recorded."

The men of H Company had plenty to complain about, it seems -- although to read a broadsheet called "Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine" (SSAM) included in the press kit one would gather they were blissfully happy with the M1.

altogether the men of H company, 2nd Squadron, 6th Armored Cavalry lodged 57 complaints about the tank on July 10, 1979. But, according to the January 1980 edition of SSAM, they had next to nothing to complain about.

In an unattributed article which concludes that "the XM1 [now designated M1] itself is one of those rare pieces of machinery that comes along once every generation," the drivers are reported to have "gone ape over the semi-reclining bucket seat and the well-sprung suspension system."

SSAM editor Bill Bogie, in an article entitled "I ride the XM1" claims that "these GI tankers haven't a single discouraging word about the XM1. I had been warned about that beforehand, and all my digging couldn't uncover any criticism."

But he did note that the tank sounded "as if somebody had mated a jet fighter with a bulldozer," an observation that belies the Army's claim that the tank's turbine engine is quiet.

Despite the Army's confident assertions that the problems revealed by the Fort Knox tests have been corrected where "operational effectiveness, safety, and cost constraints permit, "the Chrysler M1 tank still has deficiencies to overcome.

For instance, Maj. Gen. Louis Wagner, commander of the Fort Knox Armor Center told the House Armed Services Committee March 18 that the tank had only achieved a 19 percent probability of traveling 4,000 miles without the replacement of a major engine, transmission, or final drive component. The Army demands a 50 percent probability.

The Pentagon armor analyst interviewed by the Monitor contends that the M1 is "obviously a turkey," expressing concern over its armor protection.

From the front, he says, the M1 is very well protected against tank rounds and missiles by virtue of its British-designed Chobham armor. But the Chobham armor does not cover the rear and flanks of the tank which, according to the analyst, are even more lightly armored than the M-60 that it replaces.

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