Armor: M1 Versus T-90 In North Africa


August 25, 2016: In early July the North African nation of Morocco received the first of 200 refurbished American M1A1SA tanks that had been ordered in 2012. That order was in response to a 2007 Algerian announcement that it would spend $7.5 billion to replace a lot of Cold War era weapons and equipment. Algeria and Morocco are neighbors who have long been rivals and that often led to threats of war but it never went far. The fear of war remains, thus the arms race. Despite these tensions Morocco and Algeria cooperate on counter-terrorism issues. That means sharing information and coordinating some security operations along the border. During the Cold War Morocco was pro-Western and Algeria pro-Russian. Those preferences continue.

The M1A1SA is a special model of the M1 that was developed based on 2003-2008 U.S. experience in Iraq. American armored vehicles took a real beating in Iraq, even if they were never hit by enemy fire. The heat, the sand, and the constant work wore these vehicles down. There problems were gradually fixed. But the U.S. Army also developed an inexpensive (under a million dollars per tank) "reset" process that refurbished and upgraded war weary M-1 tanks to M-1A1SA models. What the crews particularly liked about these SA (Situational Awareness) models was the many new sensors that gave the crew a better sense of what was going on outside, when all the tank hatches were shut (the vehicle was "buttoned up.")

The new equipment included upgraded Blue Force Tracker (BFT) gear, which reliably shows the crew where all friendly (BFT equipped) vehicles are at all times, on a map display. Then there is the new and improved thermal sights that provide better images at longer ranges (exact range is secret, but said to be over two kilometers). The 12.7mm/.50 caliber machine-gun topside gets a thermal sight. There is now a phone box mounted on the side, for the infantry to use to talk to the crew. The gunner has a GPS powered "Far Target Locate" function, which enables him to accurately locate and hit targets up to 8,000 meters away. The driver has better night vision gear, and a rear view thermal camera, making it a lot easier to back up at night, or in any weather. The commander now has periscopes and cameras which enable him to see what is going on anywhere outside the tank. This is particularly useful if the tank is taking lots of small arms fire in an urban setting, and you still have to look out for enemy troops trying to sneak up with bombs or RPGs, in the hope of getting a lucky shot. Iraq ordered the SA version when they decided to rebuild the tank force with American vehicles.

Neighboring Algeria is getting 300 new Russian T-90 tanks. Currently, the most modern tank Russia has is the T-90, which entered service in the early 1990s. This tank is a highly evolved T-72. Originally, the T-90 was created as a fallback design. The T-80 was supposed to be the successor to the T-72. But like the T-62 and T-64 before it, the T-80 didn't quite work out as planned. So the T-72, with a much improved turret and all manner of gadgets, was trotted out as the T-90. Weighing 47 tons the T-90 is still the same dimensions as the T-72. Same package, better contents. And with well-trained crews it could be deadly. To survive a T-72 not only needs to accessorize but requires a skilled crew. Most nations using T-72s don't like to invest in crew training. But that's what makes the most difference in combat. Currently most nations understand that well trained tank crews make more of a difference than any additional gadgets. India is the largest user of T-90s and is satisfied with its hot-weather performance.

The stock T-72 is a 41 ton vehicle that is 7.4 meters (23 feet) long, 3.6 meters (11 feet) wide, and 2.45 meters (7.5 feet) high. In contrast, an American M-1 is 62 tons, 10 meters (32 feet) long, 3.7 meters (12 feet) wide, and 2.6 meters (eight feet) high. The extra weight is mostly armor and from the front the M-1 is still very difficult to kill.




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