December 5, 2014 by James Dunnigan – Strategy Page
The American M1 Abrams tank suffered its first heavy losses in Iraq during 2014. Nearly a third of the 140 M1s Iraq had received between 2010 and 2012 have been destroyed or heavily damaged. Most of the M1 damage was done to M1s captured by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and then attacked by American aircraft. But over a third of the M1s were destroyed or damaged by ISIL fighters. The Iraqi troops using the M1s did not, as they were taught by the Americans, use their M1s in conjunction with infantry. This allowed ISIL fighters to get close enough to M1s during combat to place explosives and disable or destroy some of these M1s. A few were destroyed by Russian Kornet ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). The Kornet E is a Russian laser guided missile with a range of 5,000 meters. The launcher has a thermal sight for use at night or in fog. The missile's warhead can penetrate enough modern tank armor to render the side armor of the Israeli Merkava or U.S. M1 tanks vulnerable. The missile weighs 8.2 kg (18 pounds) and the launcher 19 kg (42 pounds). The system was introduced in 1994 and has been sold to Syria (who apparently passed them on to Hezbollah and Hamas). ISIL captured some Kornets in Syria.
Iraq had some in 2003 and four M1s were disabled, but not destroyed, by Kornets. In 2006 several Israeli Merkavas were destroyed by Kornet. By 2014 Israel had adopted anti-ATGM systems for their Merkavas which defeated over a dozen Kornet attacks.
Before 2014 no M1s had been destroyed by enemy action, but that was in large part because they were used by well-trained crews and commanders. Moreover nearly all the American M1s that had been in combat had better armor. This impressed Iraq. Back in 2008 Iraq ordered 140 M1A1-SA Abrams tanks, along with over a hundred support vehicles (for maintenance and transportation, like 35 tank transporters). The request includes training and technical support, for a total contract cost of over $2 billion. The tanks began arriving in 2010 and all were delivered by 2012.
Iraq received newly built tanks, largely equipped to the "SA" (Situational Awareness") standard the U.S. Army developed in 2006. The M1A1-SA includes the latest thermal (FLIR, or heat sensing) sights, a special engine air filter system developed to deal with the abundant sand and dust in Iraq, the telephone on the rear fender, which allows accompanying infantry to communicate with the crew, and numerous small improvements.
There are several items that American M1s have the Iraqi SA tanks did not get. The Iraqi M1A1s had no depleted uranium armor, no ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor), and no additional protection against anti-tank missiles. Also missing was Blue Force Tracker (a U.S. satellite tracking system that shows the location of all American vehicles and aircraft in the vicinity).
Despite the removal of some features, the Iraqis are glad to have their M1s. Since 2003 Iraqis have been very impressed by the U.S. military. Although the U.S. initially advised the Iraqis to expand upon their use of Russian equipment (which they had been using for over three decades and is cheaper than Western stuff), the Iraqis insisted on adopting U.S. gear and tactics. Thus Iraqi troops wear similar (to American) uniforms and use many identical weapons and items of equipment. Iraqi soldiers, especially the younger ones, imitate American moves to the point that, in the field, U.S. troops sometimes had to look closely to determine if the G.I. down the street is American or Iraqi. What Iraq did not emulate was careful selection and training of officers. Too many Iraqi officers were corrupt or poorly trained and inexperienced political appointees. This greatly reduced the effectiveness of American weapons and equipment Iraqis so admired.
American advisors pointed all this out to other Arab users of the M1 and it had some impact. Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia already operate over 1,600 of M1 tanks, and Egypt has built hundreds of them (mainly using components imported from the U.S. but with some locally made parts as well). All the other Arab users have at least some of the latest model (M1A2 SEP).
The Arab users of the M1 have been very happy with their American tanks. This satisfaction increased when they saw how the M1 performed in Iraq after 2003. While most Arabs deplored U.S. operations there, Arab tank officers and M1 crewmen were quietly pleased that their tanks appeared invulnerable and able to assist the infantry in any kind of fight. Iraqi army officers have spoken to fellow Arab officers who have used the M1 and were told this was the way to go. But what many Arab officers ignored were American admonitions that crew quality and leadership were the key to success. For a number of cultural reasons the Arab nations do not emphasize lots of training for troops or officers. Having seen what that did in Iraq, even with lots of those splendid American weapons, has led many Arabs to question the traditional way of doing things.