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The loss of the first Abrams

On 26 February, Russian forces west of Avdiivka destroyed the first M1A1 Abrams tank of the war.  Like the loss of the first Challenger 2 near Robotyne last September the event has provoked widespread commentary.  This article seeks to establish the facts and draw lessons.  Even after two years of war, no NATO army has seriously addressed the threat to its armoured fleets – not just tanks – from the revolution taking place on the frontlines of Ukraine from the proliferation of cheap drones.  Unless thought is given to this problem, every tank fleet faces the same fate as the M1A1 Abrams examined in this article.

What happened – the Ukrainian side of the story

On 17 February, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiivka following a four-and-a-half month battle.  This battle, incidentally, cost the Russians 224 tanks, according to the dedicated Oryx analyst who started counting the losses when the assaults started in October.

47 Separate Mechanised Brigade (47 OMBr) had been defending the flank north of Avdiivka. Following the withdrawal, the brigade fell back from the contested rail line and front line village of Stepove and took positions two kilometres west in Berdychi. Both settlements exist only in name as they have been wholly destroyed.

47 OMBr had previously distinguished itself in the Robotyne sector during the 2023 summer counter-offensive. Over this period the brigade was supported by Leopard 2A6s from a separate tank battalion as its organic tank battalion was delayed in Germany training on a batch of M1A1 Abrams.   The organic tank battalion was only finally taken under command on 23 February this year. Two days later the first YouTube video of an M1A1 Abrams appeared on the internet. The following day the loss occurred.

Location of the loss of the M1A1 Abrams in Berdychi Source: LostArmour

On 26 February, two Russian assault groups had broken through the defence line of neighbouring troops. A forward position was in danger of being surrounded.  In the words of 47 OMBrThanks to the actions of the crew of Abrams, Bradley, artillery strikes and drones of the 47th brigade, two Russian assault groups were destroyed, and our infantrymen withdrew.’ In this action, the Bradley killed eight helpless Russian infantryman dropped off by a BTR-82A with cannon fire.  The fleeing vehicle was then destroyed by an FPV drone.

The M1A1 Abrams was fitted with ECM but it did not work.  The Ukrainians speculate the reason was frequency changes on the command link of the Russian FPV drones.  Crews had attempted to fit protective ‘grills’ but without success due to ‘the features of the tank design’. This has generally been true of all the Western-supplied tanks, in comparison with Russian tanks that are now rarely observed without fitted ‘barbecues’ (the protective grills or screens).

What happened – the Russian side of the story

The Russian unit involved in the attack was the Recce-Strike Group from 15th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle1 commanded by an individual with call sign ‘Kolovrat’(‘Spinning Wheel’).  The drone pilot was an individual with call sign Rassvet (’Dawn’).  In his words, ‘We found the target and went around him from behind. It [the FPV drone] hit the rear part. The tank was stopped first.’  Attacking the turret rear has become the standard tactic of drone pilots on both sides.  The strike caused an exterior fire.  The crew baled and abandoned the tank.  A second drone was then launched.  The second strike caused an ammunition fire and the tank burned out (but did not detonate catastrophically in the manner of Russian tanks).

The state of the M1A1 Abrams after the first strike on the turret rear. Could the crew have attempted to put out the fire and save the tank? Source: Gazeta.ru

The FPV drone used in the attack

The M1A1 Abrams was a victim of a Piranha-10 FPV drone costing around 50,000 roubles ($500). (The Challenger 2 last year was hit in the engine compartment by a Lancet loitering munition; this also started a fire).

The Simbirsk Design Bureau (SKB) ‘Piranha’, based in Ulyanovsk, makes two variants of the Piranha – Piranha-7 (2.5kg warhead) and Piranha-10 (4.5kg warhead).  At first, SKB Piranha copied Chinese FPV drones. Today it manufactures purely indigenous designs.  Around 8,000 Piranhas have been produced and the firm claims it has a daily production rate of 100 drones.

The advantage of Piranha, according to SKB Piranha, is that ‘it is practically immune to existing electronic warfare systems.’ A company spokesman has explained: ‘The main advantage of our drones is that they operate at unique video frequencies…If the manufacturer uses standard video transmitters, then electronic warfare can very easily suppress the signal. The drone loses either control or the picture as soon as it begins to move away from the operator at a distance of 100–500 m. In our case, the picture will be stable, crystal clear, as if there was no influence of electronic warfare. We first tested these frequencies in the ERA technopolis of the Ministry of Defence, and we turned out to be the only manufacturer in Russia whose UAV did not crash.’

Piranha-10 and an M1A1 Abrams tanks Source: Izvestia

Lessons

Lesson 1: Tanks are needed – With around 3,500 tanks lost by both sides, the argument that the place of the tank on a modern battlefield is over seems compelling.  But unless someone can find another way to support the infantry, tanks remain necessary.  The alternative is re-visiting WWI, as the frontlines in Ukraine have become.  ‘Tank-pace warfare’ as Basil Liddell-Hart once described it, is still the only good idea.  It needs to be re-discovered, not abandoned.

Lesson 2: ECM is needed – Drone technology has become more sophisticated as the war has progressed. The days of Alibaba Express jammers, which were witnessed, have passed.  Manufacturers – SKB Piranha is an example – are making difficult-to-jam or jam-resistant drones.  Autonomous drones that prosecute the target even if jammed are being developed.  Firms are experimenting with AI.  Intelligence is key in this battle of measure and counter-measure.  The West has an advantage in this respect as Ukraine is providing a live battle-lab furnishing invaluable insights into Russian capabilities.  This should be exploited and fed into the development of ECM equipment.2

Lesson 3 – Screens are needed – ECM can fail or be overcome.  The threat of RPGs in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in additional protection measures with the fitting of screens. ‘Flying RPG warheads’ (drones) in Ukraine are provoking the same counter-measures.  These are increasingly effective for static equipment such as an artillery gun (which can be surrounded by nets and screens that catch the drones), but adding screens to vehicles – and in particular to a platform such as a tank with a revolving turret and long-barrelled main gun – is proving problematic.  This design challenge requires thought.

Lesson 4: Innovative Active Protection Systems (APS) are needed – Israeli and German firms currently dominate the APS market.  Viable systems have been developed but are not widely fielded, mostly due to budget constraints. These systems were developed to counter anti-tank rockets (RPGs), as well as HEAT munitions and anti-tank guided missiles. These munitions generally follow flat trajectories.  Current systems are not optimised to defeat FPV drones attacking from high angles.  Innovative (and economical) APS need to be developed to defeat the new threats.

Without ECM, screens and APS, NATO’s armoured fleets are potential iron mountains of junk in a future war.

Cover photo: Drone footage of the destroyed A1M1 in Ukraine. Source:LostArmour

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer forBritish Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1. 2 Combined Arms Army (2 CAA), Central Military District  (CVO)
  2. The UK MOD has recently started three EW projects: SOOTHSAYER, POYNTING and CRENIC.

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