M1 tanks may be too classified to be sent to Ukraine, here's why

The process of exporting these vehicles is complicated.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An M1 tank in action
An M1 tank in action

MSS/Wikimedia Commons 

The WarZone reported on Wednesday that the U.S. government is now preparing to send dozens of M1 Abrams tanks to the Ukrainian military. But this new delivery comes with its own fair share of issues as their complex electronic components and especially their gas turbine propulsion systems could make them troublesome to operate and maintain. 

Why are M1s complicated to export to Ukraine?

No one yet knows what specific variant of the Abrams that Ukraine's military is set to receive. Still, some models contain depleted uranium ensuring they are not readily exportable even to major allies. 

According to U.S. president Joe Biden, 31 M1 tanks will be sent to the Ukrainian armed forces that will be acquired through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI). The exact delivery schedule remains up in the air. However U.S. officials have confirmed the export and delivery process will take months, not mere weeks. 

Also unclear is whether the M1s for Ukraine will be entirely new production tanks or if they will be refurbished versions. A lot will depend on the vehicles’ armor package but the development of this aspect of the tanks remains highly classified.

The original version of this armor was engineered under a top-secret Special Access Program (SAP) nicknamed Green Grape. In 1988,  a now-declassified operational security guide stated the following on the "special armor" for the Abrams:

"If [the] Special Armor, including skirts and gunshields, is breached and the interior is exposed, a properly cleared (Secret) responsible individual will immediately cover the exposed area from view and initiate action to repair the breach by welding or will evacuate the exposed armor to a maintenance facility were repairs can be made."

Years later, the security around M1 tanks remains as tight as ever. This means limits will be put around how fast the U.S. government can supply any Abrams to Ukraine. Even if the M1s for Ukraine are refurbished versions taken out of obscurity from storage and rebuilt, they are still likely to have armor packages that will need significant alterations to be safe and operational. 

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Looking for the right expertise

As such, the Army is currently investigating hiring General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) to complete its tank changes. Hiring this firm was no easy task as three other candidates were rejected for a variety of reasons including having no “experience with the removal and installation of Abrams turret armor” and having no “access to the proper secure facilities to perform the work on depleted uranium armor."

In addition to requiring high expertise, changing the armors on M1 tanks is also expensive. The Army has estimated that the total cost of converting the tanks’ turrets would be nearly $6 million.

All this points towards the possibility that the delivery of M1 tanks to Ukrainian forces may not go as smoothly as planned. If the source of the tanks is from U.S. stocks many issues will need to be resolved before the tanks can be transferred. The question now becomes can the vehicles be delivered in time to make a difference in the attacks planned by Russia in the coming few months?

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